These are remarkable wines that are very hard to pigeonhole. On paper, they aren’t really my thing: we are looking at Bordeaux grape varieties, grown in Tuscany, and weighing in at 15.5 and 16% alcohol. And they cost a LOT of money. But they are compelling wines, even though the price tags are hefty indeed.
Andrea Franchetti first planted vines here in the Orica valley in 1992, at altitude. He takes miserly yields from his vines, and his emphasis is on Cabernet Franc and Merlot at the expense of Cabernet Sauvignon. I would love to put the boot into high alcohol Bordeaux variety wines like these, but I can’t, because they are really, really good.
Tenuta di Trinoro Palazzi 2010 IGT Toscana, Italy
100% Merlot, 15.5% alcohol, 18 hl/ha, 21 year old vines. Beautifully aromatic with fine, sweet cherry fruit, with a warm herb and wax edge, as well as some liqueur-like qualities. Ripe, smooth, elegant palate is warm and finely spiced with smooth liqueur-like red fruits. Such elegance despite the alcohol. 94/100 (£142 Corney & Barrow)
Tenuta di Trinoro 2010 IGT Toscana, Italy
16% alcohol. 60% Cabernet Franc, 35% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Verdot. This blend changes with vintage, and 2010 was quite cool, so it’s higher in Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Smooth, ripe, pure red cherry and plum nose. Very ripe. The palate is concentrated and mineral with pure, fine-grained, textured red fruits. Warm but fine and elegant. 96/100 (£162 Corney & Barrow)
On my recent travels to the Loire, I have been lucky enough to bump into Lionel Gosseaume, who is making some superb wines. This Touraine Sauvignon really delivers for the price. He’s one of those producers where you just buy anything he makes.
Lionel Gosseaume Domaine de Pierre Touraine Les Sauterelles 2012 Loire, France
Aromatic, fresh, grassy and lively with some herby notes. the palate has lovely weight and texture. Fine and expressive with some richness. 90/100 (£9.25 Lea & Sandeman)
Berry Bros & Rudd have been putting a lot of work into their Spanish and Italian lists of late, and the results are very encouraging. Here are two lovely Spanish wines, at different ends of the price spectrum. They both deliver.
Telmo Rodriguez Almuvedre 2012 Alicante, Spain
Beautifully aromatic with bright cherry fruit. Floral and fresh with a hint of pepper. Fresh, juicy palate with bright, supple fruit and a bit of spice. Fresh and delightful and an amazing value for money red. 90/100 (£8.95 Berry Bros & Rudd)
Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco 1991 Rioja, Spain
Full yellow colour. Amazing nose of toast, peach, citrus, salt and nuts. The palate is complex and tangy with lovely citrus and pear fruit. It’s fresh, nutty and tangy with a matchstick minerality. So complex and intense, with a long finish. 95/100 (£65 Berry Bros & Rudd)
The rise in screwcap use in Australia since 2000 has been remarkable. Now they are by far the majority closure, for fine wines as well as more commercial ones. But a Masters of Wine (MW) dissertation by Alison Eisermann-Ctercteko, which has been published in Australian trade publication Wine and Viticulture Journal, presents evidence that is claimed to show that screwcaps cause more damage to wine than cork.
Eisermann-Ctercteko surveyed 22 retail outlets, most in the Sydney area, and examined some 11 500 bottles. The level of damage, if any, was graded on a five-point scale. Wines sealed with damaged screwcaps were then analysed for free and total sulfur dioxide (SO2) and browning (absorbance at 420 nm). Loss of free SO2 and browning are both signs of oxidation.
The results of these studies were alarming. The overall physical damage level of the screwcapped wines was 26%. 8.2% of screwcapped wines were damaged enough for significant changes to be detected in both browning and free SO2 levels.
In addition, 7.2% of screwcaps were applied incorrectly, or there was a fault in the application, but most of these defects were merely cosmetic.
She also found that printed screwcaps were more likely to show damage than plain ones. The Stelvin Lux, with its internal plastic seal, showed very little damage, but this closure is more expensive.
‘Screwcap damage is a significant issue and shown to be surprisingly high in retail at a level of 8.2% of screwcapped bottles,’ says Eisermann-Ctercteko. ‘This is greater than the previous industry-wide problem of cork taint which led to the rapid change in closure type. This requires immediate resolution, as these levels are unacceptable.’
Screwcap supporters will argue that cork taint is more of a problem than the levels of oxidation seen in these wines because cork taint renders a bottle undrinkable. However, producers will be alarmed that 8% of their bottles are showing signs of oxidation because of the closure.
NOTE ADDED LATER: I have seen the original dissertation, and I disagree with the interpretation of the data. You can read my comments here
Since 1991, celebrated Australian producer Penfolds have been running a series of recorking clinics for owners of bottles of their wines that are over 15 years old. ‘We’ve recorked/certified over 120 000 bottles,’ says chief winemaker Peter Gago, who was hosting this London event, the first to be held here since 2008.
Peter Gago with a bottle of the 1962 Bin 60A
It’s quite simple. If you have an old Penfolds bottle (or, indeed, a cellar full), then make an appointment, and rock up, and one of the Penfolds winemakers (they have used teams of as many of 12, such is the demand in some locations) will assess your bottles, and, if necessary, recork and certify them.
‘We won’t touch the bottles in good condition,’ says Gago, who has devised a template that can be used as a guide for how to proceed. ‘Years ago we’d spend 20 minutes arguing with a client whether we will recork or not.’
If the fill is too low, they won’t recork; if it’s too high they won’t either, because the wine is likely to be in good condition. They will only ever recork the same bottle once, and the wine is topped up with the current release wine, which for Grange this year was the celebrated 2008 vintage. The extra wine added is never more than 15 ml, which is 2% of the bottle. Gago says that in triangular tasting tests, you can’t spot the difference with this little wine added. If the ullage is too low, then the wine is likely to be in bad condition and too much wine would be required for topping up, changing the nature of the bottle.
If the fill is the appropriate level, the wine is carefully opened, and a small portion tasted. If it is typical and in good condition, then topping up proceeds, followed by recorking and the addition of a new capsule. Rather than this being a green light for counterfeiters, records are kept of wines coming through the recorking clinic, with a special numbered label attached to the back of the bottle. This acts as an authentication step: the wine is more traceable now than it was previously, and if anything, the auction value is increased. As fakes become more of an issue on the secondary market, this sort of authentication will become more valued.
If the wine isn’t good enough, it gets a white dot. It is recorked with a plain cork, and not certified – the owner is advised to take it home and drink it soon. It might still be a decent drink; it just doesn’t meet the standards for authentication.
‘You almost need to get into a bit of therapy and counselling,’ says Gago. ‘The level is down, the chances aren’t looking too good. For example, the 1962 Bin 60A is A$4500; if they brought in a 1951 Grange, it’s over A$50 000 a bottle. You are looking at a car one minute, an old crusty bottle the next. So there’s a little bit of pressure, a bit of emotion.’
It’s really interesting to see the process in action. For Penfolds, this is an expensive commitment, but it is also extremely clever marketing, and a good way to engage with customers who are now spending a lot of money on these wines.
‘Now we are not giving the wines an extra 30–40 years’ life,’ says Gago. ‘What we are doing is we are arresting deterioration because of leakage and seepage and saturation of the cork. We are not resurrecting it and giving it something it never had in the first place.’
In total, 230 bottles were recorked at the London event, including a rare 1956 St Henri and a 1959 Grange. ‘We’ve been running these clinics around the world for over 20 years and the experience is as fresh as it was back in the beginning,’ says Gago. ‘It’s all about people, humanity, emotion and wine.’
Here’s a film of the event, with Peter Gago taking us through the process.
Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2014 (Octopus Books)
There are two leading pocket wine guides on the market, so I thought it would be interesting to compare the 2014 editions side by side.
The first is the original: Hugh Johnson’s, which is now in its 37th year and has sold a gazillion copies. The second is Oz Clarke’s, the young pretender to the phone (who is now a youthful 63), whose guide turns 22 this year.
Both Hugh and Oz are true legends, and I admire them both greatly. But neither guide fully acknowledges that they are actually written by a team of expert contributors. Yes, there’s a very small paragraph at the end of each book thanking them, but it would be much better if the extent of their role was made clear.
Both books are similar in size and weight (306 versus 309 grams), and consist of pithy entries covering grape varieties, regions and producers. But they are organized quite differently. The Oz guide is strictly alphabetical, while Hugh’s is arranged by country. I think Hugh’s approach makes more sense.
Both try to justify the annual purchase of the guide with a little filler material from Oz and Hugh. This jars a little with the rest of the content. For example, Hugh’s book finishes with an essay on Pinot Noir in full colour on a glossy insert which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the material. Oz gives us a breezy report card on the world of wine.
Hugh uses a four star rating for each producer, with a range allowed. Oz uses a three star rating, but it is slightly more complex: within each regional entry, producers are given a score; within each producer entry, individual wines are scored.
How reliable are these books? If you look down the list of contributors, then you’ll see that both are calling on experienced wine writers with good reputations. So, on the whole, they are going to be pretty reliable. To get a better idea of this, I took a closer look at three regions I have particular in depth knowledge of: New Zealand, Portugal and South Africa.
Overall, Hugh does Portugal a bit better than Oz. I found myself in pretty much full agreement with Hugh’s Portuguese content. The Oz coverage seemed a bit off the pace, with an unusual list of ratings for the Douro producers, for example.
New Zealand coverage in Hugh was a bit mean on the ratings. Just four producers got the full four stars (or a range going up to 4 stars): Stonyridge, Te Mata, Millton and Neudorf. In contrast, for South Africa, Hugh gives 23 four-star ratings to producers. There’s no mention of Kusuda, Rippon gets 2-3 stars, Pyramid Valley gets 2 stars, and both Bell Hill, Ata Rangi and Felton Road get 3 stars. This is an odd set of ratings.
Oz doesn’t like Pyramid Valley either: they get just one star, as does Seresin. The only Kiwi wineries to get 3 stars (remember, this is maximum rating for Oz) are Ata Rangi, Dry River, Neudorf and Felton Road: no complaints there, but there are other wineries that should also have received 3 stars. No one in Marlbrough gets top ratings, for example.
Hugh’s coverage of South Africa felt a bit behind the times. There’s a long list of four star wineries – 23 of them – which looks a bit like a list of top wineries 10 years ago. However, these top ratings are somewhat diluted by the wide ranges given in many cases. Lots of them are 1-4 or 2-4 star ratings, which isn’t all that much use to the reader. It would be far better simply to have a single rating for each winery.
Oz’ South African coverage is similarly unsatisfying, just because the ratings are consistently mean. I couldn’t find a single 3 star producer rating. The likes of Crystallum and La Vierge get just 1 star, as do The Foundry and Reyneke. That’s mean. Waterkloof doesn’t even get a star; nor does Catherine Marshall.
Of course, there will always be differences of opinion, even among skilled professionals. My chief gripe with these two guides is that (1) the contributors aren’t properly acknowledged; and (2) there’s a lack of consistency from country to country.
Would I recommend buying both or either of these guides? Yes: they are both packed with a lot of information, and you get a lot of expertise for your money. I am not overly convinced that the ratings are fully reliable (at least to my palate, for the countries we have discussed). Take your pick between Oz and Hugh, because there’s little to separate the two. In the end, I’d opt for Hugh’s because I find the country by country breakdown of the entries more logical.
On my recent trip to Canada, one of my favourite experiences (of many good ones) was visiting Norman Hardie in Prince Edward County. He’s making some brilliant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and so I was delighted to find out that The Wine Society are bringing in a couple of his wines. They’ve chosen very well: the Prince Edward County Pinot Noir 2011 and the Niagara Chardonnay 2011. These are serious wines, showing real elegance and finesse.
Norman Hardie Pinot Noir 2011 Prince Edward County, Canada
12.5% alcohol. Pale cherry red colour. So expressive, pure and supple with red cherry and herb fruit and complex, fine, spicy notes. Real precision and elegance with a subtle meatiness under the silky cherry fruit. So supple and pure, with haunting perfume and real finesse. 95/100
Norman Hardie Chardonnay 2011 Niagara Peninsula, Canada
12.5% alcohol. Lovely hint of mineral matchstick character on the nose. There’s lovely apple, pear and white peach fruitiness here with some citrus freshness, as well as a hint of almond. Beautiful focus and balance here: it’s very fresh, but has some richer notes, yet avoids being austere. Much more presence and focus than many Niagara Chardonnays. 94/100
So, here is my wine manifesto. The idea for putting together this document came to me while I was sitting in Bar t’at in Ilkley on Wednesday, and I finished it on the train home yesterday.
It’s an act of arrogance and folly, perhaps, to generate a manifesto like this. But I wanted to capture in short bullet points some of the thoughts I have about wine: where it is now, how it can be better, how we should understand it, and how it can be better appreciated.
It’s controversial, and you may well disagree with it. But I hope that it provokes some thought, and perhaps even some discussion.
So much fun to be had with South African wine right now. Here are three wine that are full of interest, and massively over-deliver for the price. They are available from The Wine Society. The Kloof Street wines come from Swartland star winery Mullineux, and the Liberator is the latest in a series of special purchases made by ABS’ Richard Kelley, who knows the South African wine scene intimately and is very well connected to land parcels like these.
Kloof Street Red 2012 Swartland, South Africa
13.5% alcohol. 83% Syrah, 13% Cinsault, 4% Carignan. Meaty, dense and spicy with lovely black fruits. It’s sweet but with good acidity and nice freshness, and an appealing savoury, spicy twist. Such a drinkable wine. 90/100 (£10.95 The Wine Society)
Kloof Street White 2013 Swartland, South Africa
13% alcohol. Old vine Chenin Blanc. Livey, fresh, fruity and pure with pear and citrus fruit, as wel as subtle spiciness. Lively and precise, this is good,simple fun, but there’s a hint of seriousness. 88/100 (£10.95 The Wine Society)
The Liberator ‘This Bird Has Flown’ 2009 WO Swartland, South Africa
14.5% alcohol. Thus is a blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay and Clairette Blanc made by one of South Africa’s leading winemakers. 210 case, exclusive to The Wine Society. Rich, ripe, sweet pear and peach fruit with some spice and apricot. Rich, warm palate has spice and nutty notes, with creamy pear and peach fruit and nice acidity. 90/100 (£11.95 The Wine Society)