Wine writing is drowning

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Wine writing is in its death throes, and there’s not much that can be done about it. [If it's not already dead, that is.]

Why? It is because it is drowning in the sea of content. [And here we're talking content as in media, rather than a state of peaceful happiness.]

This is not because there aren’t good writers out there – they still exist. Nor is it because of any problems in the wine world (despite what some vocal commentators suggest, wine is actually in better shape than it has ever been).

It’s because of major changes in which media content is consumed, and where the advertising spend goes.

All specialist newspaper columns, not just wine, are in trouble. And magazines are no longer profitable, so a specialist wine title is doomed, too.

This is largely because advertising money has moved. The way that newspapers and magazines survived was through advertising. Yes, they charge a cover price, but it’s the advertising that makes the money. They paid specialist contributors to produce good quality content that then allowed them to sell advertising.

And most of the advertising money has not only gone online, it is also now following user-generated content. Instead of specialists writing content, it’s the social media chatter that provides eyeballs for advertisers. So Google and Facebook now make the money that newspapers and magazines used to. They don’t have to pay their content generators.

Another, related, nail in the coffin of professional content suppliers (such as wine writers) has been the changing way we access content. When I started work in 1993 most people on the commuter train had newspapers. Now they have mobile phones or tablets. On the internet, there’s enough free content that we don’t feel much of a need to pay for any.

There’s also a vast profusion of content. The sea of content has myriad voices. It’s almost overwhelming: how do you get noticed or read?

There still exist a few professional wine writers. I’m one of them. But in the absence of specialist columns that pay well, or decent-paying magazine commissions, we’ve all had to find extra ways of making a living.

There are business models for surviving in the new media landscape, but many of them are questionable. As a wine writer, I don’t want to be involved in one of these models if it involves asking wine producers for money, as some media organizations and individuals do.

There’s still a need for words about wine. It’s a shame the old model is broken, but wine writing is not alone in the media world in having to adapt to a novel and still-changing landscape. Creativity, honesty, bravery and perseverance will be necessary for success.

Visiting two excellent sake producers

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On my recent Japanese trip I had a chance to visit two high-end artisanal sake breweries. It was really interesting, especially coming from a wine background, to see how sake is made.

Rice at various degrees of polishing

Rice at various degrees of polishing

The sake making process begins with the polishing of rice. The amount of material removed is expressed in a percentage, and generally speaking the lower the polishing rate the more flavour, but at the cost of elegance and refinement (although this is a simplification).

Rice ready for steaming

Rice ready for steaming

The polished rice is then soaked carefully to absorb just the right amount of water.

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The rice is then steamed and after the steaming process it’s popped onto a complex looking conveyor, which is responsible for cooling the rice down to the right temperature for the next step.

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After this, the rice goes to warm room where it is spread out on racks and dusted with fungal spores, known as koji (scientific name Aspergillus oryzae). It’s this fungus that starts a process that converts the starch into sugars. This is a critical stage in the process, and a good sake brewer will be monitoring the rice carefully.

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We tasted some of the rice that was undergoing this process, and it was partially sweet. The room is kept in the mid-30s centigrade, and at an appropriate (high) level of humidity.

Then, it’s time for fermentation. This takes place at cool temperatures, and involves sequential addition of yeast, more koji, and rice, and this is followed by pressing. The best sakes aren’t just free run, but contain some pressings, too.

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You can see some of this process in action in the following short film, which was shot at both breweries.

 

MATSUNOTSUKASA SAKE BREWERY

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Matsunotsukasa sake brewery is based in the Shiga prefecture, to the east of Kyoto. Close by is Lake Ryuou, and Mount Ryuou, but here the land is flat and suitable for rice production. The region is famous for its omi beef and preserved, stinky sushi.

There are two rice sources: one is close to Kobe and is the sake rice equivalent of a Grand Cru site: it’s triple A graded. Only a handful of producers have the right to farm this plot, which is called Tojo, in Katou City. The soils there consist of very dense, heavy clay and the water is hard.

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The second is local to the brewery. The same variety, Yamadanishiki, is grown here but the soils are nutrient poor, the water is softer, and the productivity is lower.

We met with chief brewer Ishida Keizou and the MD Tadayuki Matsuse for a tasting and tour.

I have scored these sakes on a 10-point scale. They were all superb (8 is a high score, and 9 extremely high).

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2016 Yamadanishiki, Junmai-ginjo, polishing rate at 50%
Made with soft water. Gentle fermentation and round palate. Lovely complex favours: really bold and rounded with nutty notes and some sweetness. Lovely texture here with apple and pear fruity notes. Really stylish and full flavoured.

2016 Yamadanishiki, junmai, kimoto(ancient method), amphorae, polishing rate at 65%
(Red label) Really complex and full flavoured with a slight cheesy edge to the bold, rich, nutty fruity characters. It’s really rich and smooth with lovely savoury complexity. Has a long, slightly salty finish, with some herbal hints. 8.5

2015 Yamadanishiki, junmai-daiginjo, polishing rate at 35%
(black label) Low polishing rate delivers more flavour. Very elegant aromas: fine, some ripe pear. Really supple and elegant on the palate with refined, smooth texture and subtle nuttiness, with some salty hints. Lots of flavour. Finishes smooth and savoury. 8

2015 Yamadanishiki, junmai-ginjo, azolla (Organic), polishing rate at 50%
(Azolla means water cress in Italian). (Green label) Beautiful elegant aromas of fine ripe pear and green apple. The palate is very open and fruity with lovely smoothness, nice texture and depth, and subtle nutty hints. The finish is really long and smooth. Such refinement and concentration. 9 

2014 Yamadanishiki, junmai-daiginjo, azolla black, polishing rate at 35%
(dark blue label) Fruity, refined nose. Some straw, citrus and pear. Really rich and expressive on the palate with lovely fresh fruity characters. Has depth and freshness, and lots of flavour. Some herbal hints, and a long, nutty finish. 8

2013 Yamadanishiki, junmai-daiginjo, azolla black, polishing rate at 35%
Detailed, broad and really interesting with pear, ripe apple and a hint of melon, even. Very stylish and expressive with amazing freshness, focus and purity. A really long, smooth, fruity finish. 9

Yamadanishiki, junmai-daiginjo, Matsu, polishing rate at 30%
A different style with international markets in mind. Bright, aromatic and very fruity on the nose. Very fruity on the palate with pears, melon and even table grapes. Very enticing with a hint of sweetness and some nutty notes on the finish. Lots of flavour here. Slightly salty. Impressive in a different style. 8.5

 

ENASAN SAKE BREWERY

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Enasan is a sake brewery located inland, in Nakatsugawa in the Gifu prefecture. Here there’s a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters, where the temperature dips as low as -10 C.

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Nakatsugawa is a bit of a touristic hotspot, on a symbolic road from Tokyo to Kyoto. It is one of the resting places. It is also home to cut flowers, Takamine guitars, Ena violins and Kiso AOP cypress wood. This is also a place famous for traditional sake drinking vessels.

The Enasan brewery dates back to 1820. More recently it merged with the Maruto-Mizutanidi distribution company. Takahumi Sumikawa is the consultant sake maker here; we met with chief sake maker Katsuyuki Iwagama.

Production is 65 000 bottles per year.

80% of the production is from Yamadanishiki rice, but 20% comes from Gohyakumangoku and Hidahomare rice (the latter is a local variety that deals well with cold winter temperatures).

All the production here is junmai-gingo style which is rare

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Yamadanishiki, Junmai, 60%
This is a very fruity style with lively apple and pear characters, as well as some nuttiness. There’s some citrus on the finish: mandarin and lemon. This is quite bright and vivid, with real freshness and intensity. Long sweet finish. 7.5

Yamadanishiki, Junmai-Ginjyo, 50%
Delicate, floral nose with some sweetness. The palate is very fresh with bright fruity characters (pear, mandarin) but also a lovely refined nuttiness. Lovely texture with sweetness and saltiness in nice tension. 8

Hidahomare Junmai-Gingyo  50%
Really distinctive: a fresh style with lots of citrus characters, including lemon and tangerine. The flavour builds after it enters your mouth, and it finishes lively, nutty and spicy. Very long, savoury finish. Quite different in style. 8

Yamadanishiki Junmai-Daiginjyo 40%
Refined nutty, waxy aromas. Subtle ripe pear fruit. Lively palate has a rounded texture and some bright citrus peel notes, as well as baked apple and conference pear. Long finish is nutty, sweet and quite bright. Nice harmony here: lots of flavour. 8.5

“Shumikawa” Junmai-Daiginjyo 40% Nakadori
This is very elegant and textural, but also has freshness and lightness. It has a nice balance between fruity (melon, pear) characters and also the slightly spicy nuttiness, and finishes smooth, long and sweet. Nicely fruity in style. Accessible yet serious. 8.5

 

Three from Melville, Santa Barbara County, California

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Tried these three from Melville, in Sta Rita Hills (It’s no longer allowed to be Santa Rita Hills on the label, because of a complaint by a well known Chilean brand). Ron Melville was one of the first winegrowers in the region and farms 120 acres here.

Melville Estate Chardonnay 2014 Sta Rita Hills, California
14% alcohol. Quite full coloured. This is rich, generous and peachy with some broad pear fruit with some fresh lemony notes adding a foil. Bold and full flavoured, this is pretty Californian in style but not over the top. 89/100

Melville Estate Pinot Noir 2014 Sta Rita Hills, California
14% alcohol. 40% whole bunch. This is fresh, supple and floral with sweet cherry and raspberry fruit. There’s some nice grainy, spicy structure here and appealing fine herbal notes. Lots of detail and some freshness, alongside some sweet fruit. Fresh, light-bodied and supple, with fine green notes in the background. 92/100

Melville Estate Syrah 2015 Sta Rita Hills, California
13.6% alcohol. Supple and fresh with meat and clove notes. Very distinctive with slightly murky flavours of mint, meat, medicine and fine peppery spiciness. I admire this wine but it need time to open out. Juicy and a bit spicy with clove and herb characters as well as sweet fruit. 88/100

In my wandering, am I lost?

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I woke in the middle of the night. This occasionally happens. When it does, my mind is frequently overactive.

The dead of night is rarely the best time to think about deep things. I remember as a child that the shadows on the curtains became monsters; as an adult, it’s sort of similar – fears and concerns are magnified.

On this occasion, three words came to mind, and they wouldn’t go away. They were: ‘Am I lost?’

As I write, I am on the back-end of a crazy travel schedule that’s consisted of a week in Tokyo, a night in London, a week in New Zealand, a night in London, and a week in Canada. and then a night in London tomorrow will be followed by three days in southwest France, before I return home for a week in London for the International Wine Challenge.

This has been the pattern of the last 18 months. Or is it two years? Wandering.

In looking at our lives, we often use the metaphor of the journey. It gives a narrative structure that makes sense of our adventures and difficulties, the occasional success countered by a setback, and the sense that we are always pushing towards a destination that we never quite reach.

In this phase of my life, I’m quite literally journeying. But is my excessive travel a sign that I am lost?

This is the question that wouldn’t go out of my mind. It has been bugging me for some time. And while I think it can be dangerous to be too introspective, the occasional session of self-questioning is probably a healthy thing. It’s also very hard to see yourself in a true light. We are usually good at sussing out what is going on with our friends, but poor at reading our own situations. So I have been trying to step outside myself and look in, and be honest about what I see.

I am in a job where travelling is essential. The schedule I have is on the extreme side, but I have chosen it, and so far I seem to be handling it, making sure I give myself some rest while I’m on the road. I’m don’t think I’m running away from anything: I have a healthy, constructive relationship with my ex-wife and see my adult children fairly regularly. When I’m back in London I enjoy my time, and I value my friends and colleagues. I hope one day to settle in a community somewhere and not travel as much, but I’ll wait for the right time and place to make itself clear, and also I’ll be patient in waiting for my career pattern to shift a bit to make being at home, wherever that is, a more significant chunk of my time.

Still, it is good to ask the question. I suppose all of us are a little lost from time to time. To not be lost requires two things: knowledge of where we are now, and also some idea of where we are heading. I think I have these, at least in part.

But the question was still bugging me, until half way through this latest flight from Montreal to Amsterdam.

Back in February 2016 I was in California. I remember a friend sending me a message: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’ I think it was a line from the Hobbit. The next day, I checked into a hotel in Solvang, and the key had a leather key-ring. On it was embossed the same phrase: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’ It was the most remarkable sign (or coincidence). I’d only recently left home at that stage. It was incredibly reassuring. I’d forgotten completely about this until it came to mind just now. It was and is a voice from the universe saying keep going, it’s all OK, and it will be OK. You aren’t lost. You are not alone.

Highlights from Norman Hardie: some of Canada's best wines yet

Tasting with Norman Hardie

Tasting with Norman Hardie

I’ve written extensively about Norman Hardie’s wines before. But on this recent trip I tried some of his wines that astonished me, and are really next-level. These have to be among Canada’s best ever, and are peers of great Burgundies.

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Norman Hardie Cuvée Dix Chardonnay 2014 Niagara, Canada
In magnum, under cork. This has an extra six month’s age, and was released for the 10th anniversary in 2017. Superbly refined and taut still, with lovely refined citrus fruit. This has a bit of saltiness and some mineral hints. Superb balance and precision, with just a hint of reductive character. Has some richness, too, with hints of nuts, spice and creaminess. 96/100

Norman Hardie Cuvée Des Amis Chardonnay 2015 Prince Edward County, Canada
Beautifully detailed nose with spicy, mineral citrus fruit. The palate has amazing precision with lovely purity. Lemons, grapefruits and a brilliantly vital mineral character. Tight but with a bit of generosity. Very fine and detailed with amazing acid structure. A lovely wine. 96/100

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Norman Hardie Cuvée L Chardonnay 2015 Prince Edward County, Canada
Extremely reduced yields this year that produced a very concentrated wine. Mostly from Cold Creek, which is a very bony site. This is tight and Chablis-like with just a hint of creaminess and some nutty notes. Very refined on the palate with high, yet well integrated acidity and a lovely linear core of citrus fruit. Such amazing texture and purity. This is remarkable and intense, with astonishing mineral character. 96/100

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Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir 2016 Prince Edward County, Canada
11.7% alcohol. Deliciously sappy and bright with some raspberry and red cherry fruit. Elegant and pure with some silkiness to the perfumed, floral red fruits. Real finesse here: a beautifully expressive, balanced wine that’s drinking well now, but which will develop beautifully over the medium term. Such precision. Norm says that this has a hardness and an inaccessibility in the mid-palate which is a bit like Chambolle, and is a very good thing. 95/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

A few days of gastronomic overload in Montréal

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Deirdre Heekin pouring a magnum of Forardori the proper way

I can’t believe it took me so long to visit Montréal. Canada’s second largest city (with a population of 2 million, but double that in the metropolitan area), it’s a brilliant place to hang out for a few days. I merely scratched the surface, even though I went in hard to explore the food and drink hotspots in the city.

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Straight from the airport I headed to Montreal Plaza, gate-crashing a post-tasting dinner with producers who’d taken part in Le Salon des Quilles that day. This featured some of the top names in natural wine, and I was seated next to Alice Feiring, the leading commentator on these wines. Pictured above: some of the bottles we enjoyed. Clockwise from top right, a brilliant Brasserie Dunham beer; Champ Divin Cuvée Stellaire 2106 Jura, a blend of Chardonnay and Savagnin with amazing precision;  Morei Teroldego 2015 from Foradori, which was thrillingly taut and dense; Pacina La Cerretina Toscano Bianco 2015, which is an amazingly well balanced, intense skin contact white; Brand Riesling Vom Berg 2016 from the Pfalz; and the strange Collective Anonyme Wine Punx Banyuls, which is intense and powerful and a bit crazy. The food here was excellent – really creative and delicious small plates.

The open kitchen at Pied de Cochon

The open kitchen at Pied de Cochon

After this, I headed over to meet Claude Arsenault (Norman Hardie) and MC Lauriault at Au Pied de Cochon, a very highly regarded restaurant that specialises in all sorts of rich, meaty fare. They’d eaten, as had I, so we drank wine and had a classic desert – pouding chômeur.

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The wine? A really focused Alsace Riesling: the Kaefferkopf Grand Cru Le Cuvée de René 2013 from Binner. And then some Calvados. Next time I definitely want to eat here, but I need to be really hungry first, I’m told.

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Feeling the evening still had some energy, we trekked over to Majestique for some more wine. In the early hours, we drank a delicious Bornard Savagnin from the Jura. I didn’t take notes.

Claude and MC at Majestique

Claude and MC at Majestique

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A spot of late night Bornard (Jura)

The next day, lunch at L’Express was a highlight. I was feeling a bit sluggish, but this woke me up. This Montréal institution is a classic French-style bistro, and it is effortlessly perfect, with a really good old-school feel, honest, beautifully prepared food and a cracking wine list. With the food, a Boxler Sylvaner and also a beautiful Bojo Villages from Christoph Pacalet (2016) in all its smashable goodness.

Food at L'Express

Food at L’Express

This Boxler Sylvaner was beautiful - on the list at L'Express

This Boxler Sylvaner was beautiful – on the list at L’Express

Then it was beer time:

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Reservoir is a brewpub, and they make a range of rather delicious beers, including some quirky things in bottles. We stopped here for a while and tried a few things. This would be a great lunch spot, but we were just drinking.

On Tuesday, after the climate change conference we lunched joyously and simply at Le Petit Alep.

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The tasty Syrian/Armenian fare here is well matched with a great wine list, from which we tried two Alsace whites (Alsace was fast becoming a theme of this trip) and an astonishingly good Syrah. The Kreydenweiss Andlau Riesling was a tiny bit oxidative and volatile, but still enjoyable, and the Frick Sylvaner offered a lot of stony, mineral pleasure, without too much oxidative character. The star was the Hervé Souhaut Saint Joseph Les Cessieux 2014, which was the very essence of elegant Syrah. I love unpretentious, affordable restaurants with tasty food and good wine lists. We need more of them.

Dave McMillan and Vanya Filipovich, Vin Papillon/Joe Beef

David McMillan and Vanya Filipovic, Vin Papillon/Joe Beef

Then it was time to do the holy triumvirate of Joe Beef, Liverpool House and Le Vin Papillon, all on the same street and under the same ownership. This is Montreal pilgrimage territory, and it’s worth visiting the city just to hang out on this street! It was great to hang out with David McMillan and Vanya Filipovic. Vanya is the wine buyer, and also has her own import company with an epic list of producers: Les Vines Dame-Jeanne. We began at the wine bar, Le Vin Papillon, where we worked our way through a range of wines, including some really interesting Quebec wines from Pinard et Filles, and a lovely Californian Carignan from Martha Stoumann.

vin papillon montreal

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David explained how Quebec has one of the oldest wine cultures in North America: the port of Montreal is older than Manhattan. Samuel de Champlain, who established Quebec City in 1608 brought with him a large array of wines and spirits: his food registers include Bergerac, Jurançon, hams, white alcohols from Alsace and more.

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We then headed over to Joe Beef for an incredible dinner. This included the most remarkable fish pie I’ve experienced, among other beautifully flavoured treats, and was washed down with good wine and beer, including a bottle of Selosse Initiale.

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Slowed down by this onslaught of deliciousness, but not finished, we went to the third establishment, Liverpool House, where we drank a bottle of Touraine Gamay from Gregory Leclerc.

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I need to get back to Montréal soon. It’s a city with European sensibilities in North America. A rare-ish thing.

Wines from Chapel Hill, McLaren Vale

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I recently tasted through the range from McLaren Vale producer Chapel Hill, whose wines I hadn’t seen in a while. I was impressed. ‘The past 12 years have been a transitional period for the winery,’ says winemaker Michael Fragos. ‘It was in the 2008 vintage that we started showcasing our single site wines and when the changes to our approach to winemaking really gained purpose and momentum.’

Michael outlined the wine growing philosophy at Chapel Hill:

“The Chapel Hill vineyard benefits from elevation, ancient rocks, contoured plantings and moderating sea breezes.  The undulating landscape results in a series of small blocks with unique combinations of geology, soil, aspect and climate.

  • As the winery does not have access to mains water, rain water is collected and utilised in the winery.  Winery waste water is captured and treated though a wetlands system for subsequent vineyard irrigation.
  • All marc and mulched bunch stems from the winery are composted on site then spread back on to the vineyard, negating the need for synthetic fertilisers.
  • The spray program has been revised to minimise the impact on beneficial insects, this maintains a natural balance in the vineyard and prevents pest and disease outbreaks.
  • Hoeing, spot spraying and brush cutting have replaced blanket under vine weed spraying.  Volunteer cover crops have been encouraged in both the mid-row and under vine area to smother out problem weeds.  These grasses are left to die off naturally over summer, providing valuable cover for the soil and hence reducing evaporation, increasing organic carbon levels and reducing erosion.

“Similarly, with our winemaking, all grapes benefit from gentle handling and patient winemaking, we utilise:

  • Small batch open fermentation with gentle plunging
  • Basket pressing
  • Maturation in 100% French oak (with a lower percentage of new oak)
  • Minimal additions
  • Natural clarification (no fining or filtration)”

 

Chapel Hill Shiraz 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. This is floral, sweet and intense with direct black cherry and blackberry fruit. Nice grip with some freshness to the fruit, and a creamy, sweet undercurrent from the oak. This is ripe but shows good balance, and has keen acidity and structure supporting the lush fruit. Still primary and a bit unformed, but delivering a lot of pleasure, and with lots of concentration and intensity. 93/10

Chapel Hill Mourvedre 2014 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. Vivid, herb-tinged, spicy blackberry and blueberry fruit here, with a herby edge. Vivid and fresh with some red fruit brightness and a peppery twist, as well as herbs and olives. Sweet and savoury at the same time, with nice grip on the palate. There’s a nice contrast between the dense fruit and the bright, spicy, peppery character. Varietally true, and opens up nicely on day two, after initially being a bit reductive. 91/100

Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2014 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. This is bright, supple and fresh, with a vivid, lively raspberry and red cherry character, as well as hints of tar and spice. It’s juicy and quite elegant, although at the same time nicely ripe. Sweet raspberries and plums, coupled with savoury herbs, pepper and tar. Some tannic grip, too. Opens up well on the second day, suggesting that this should develop nicely. 91/100

Chapel Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. This is a a lovely fresh, full Cabernet Sauvignon with juicy berry fruits and hints of tar and spice. It has a blackcurrant core and also some bright red fruits. Lovely freshness allied to density of fruit, showing how good Cabernet can be in this region. Could age nicely, too. Harmonious and pure. 93/100

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Day two at Norman Hardie, 2017 vintage

Norman Hardie

Norman Hardie

Winemaking is fascinating. Of course, it’s all about the grapes. Once a year you get to harvest them, and the quality of the grapes determines the quality potential of the wine. And while you can’t make great wine out of ordinary grapes, it’s not hard to make ordinary wine from great grapes. So skill, attention to detail and a methodical approach is necessary in the winery.

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I spent most of the day shadowing Norm, and seeing just how he keeps in his head every ferment that’s taking place in the winery. The attention to detail here is astonishing. He knows exactly what he wants, and the harvest crew here seem to be really focused on getting it right.

One of the key tasks is monitoring the ferments. Tank 2, which is Sauvignon Blanc (a new grape for Norm), is slowing down and beginning to smell a little reductive (each ferment is monitored daily, and brix levels and temperature are recorded – a decline in temperature and a slowing down of the decline in brix suggests the ferment isn’t going so well). So the decision is taken to rack it to a new tank, then rack it back, adding a bit of Fermaid (yeast nutrient). Some other tanks aren’t starting fermentation, so they might be warmed up, or inoculated with cultured yeasts. The barrels are monitored in a similar way, until they are dry.

There’s also a lot of logistics in winemaking, especially when space is at a premium. Picking decisions are critical in wine quality, and so when grapes are arriving, they need a home.

Syrah grapes ready for processing

Syrah grapes ready for processing

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The vibrating sorting table

The vibrating sorting table

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One of the main tasks of the day was processing some Syrah and Cabernet Franc for rosé production. The grapes had arrived a couple of days earlier, but because of the low temperatures (it’s November in Canada!), and the fact that they were whole bunches, hand picked, there is no vast hurry to process them. These were from the county, and they hadn’t got ripe enough for red wine production, with around 18/19 Brix and very high acidity. But they are perfect for rosé.

So they are tipped, slowly, onto a vibrating sorting table. This is so they can be sorted, but these grapes are in very good condition without any rot, so little sorting is actually needed. But ladybirds can be a problem in Ontario, and just a few of them in the ferments can cause a green-tasting taint. This is where the vibrating sorting table proves its worth, because it gets rid of any that might be present on the clusters. Many growers will spray shortly before harvest in order to cut down the numbers of ladybirds when it’s a difficult year for them, like this one.

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Here’s a short film of the process:

 

 

Tasting Climate Change, in Montréal: the impact of warming on wine

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Yesterday was the Tasting Climate Change conference https://www.tastingclimatechange.com/en/   , organized by Michelle Bouffard and held in Montréal, Canada. It was a half-day event looking at the impact of climate change on wine.

Stephen Guilbeaut

Stephen Guilbeaut

Stephen Guilbeaut, CEO of Équiterre, began by presenting an overview of the situation globally. CO2 concentrations are currently highest than they’ve been for 800 000 years, and this rise is through human activity. The trends are very clear: our planet is getting warmer and warmer.

So what are the implications if the planet warms by 3 C in the coming years? This is the projection by scientists of the sort of scale of change likely over the next century. This level of change would likely have dramatic impacts on the life on planet. Let’s remember that when Canada was completely covered in ice, the average temperatures were only 4C cooler. He pointed out that 1976 was the last time that average global temperatures were below average.

Risks include increasing drought, especially closer to the equator. But they also concern wine regions: in Napa, the severe droughts have meant that if you look at the fire hazard severity map, there are lots of areas with a huge risk. Such severe droughts in California have resulted in legislation to cut water use by 35%. Overall, globally there has been a severe increase in the cost of natural disasters.

Fortunately, people have started paying attention to this problem. Steven described how he recently attended the Paris Agreement, where there were three rooms meeting simultaneously each with 5000. The world is starting to recognize the severity of the situation.

How bad are things? Current policies take us +3.6 C in the next 100 years. If pledges made in Paris are kept, then temperatures should rise by +2.7 C. It’s not enough of a change but it is significant. All the modelling shows that if we pass the +2 C mark, the climate will probably get out of hand, so this is a good first step but we need to do more.

What’s happening? There have been investments in renewable energy production, that since 2010 have surpassed those in fossil fuel. And while fossil fuel is still the dominant source of energy, the prospects aren’t good for them (fortunately). As an example, the value of coal companies in the USA was $63 billion in 2011, but this had fallen to $4.7 billion in 2016. Even the Kentucky coal museum is switching to solar power (this is where the coal industry started in the USA).

It might surprise many to hear that China is a solar power giant. They are responsible for 70.5% of the world market of solar energy, and this is in just a decade after they began with it. They are shutting down coal plants and replacing them with renewables.

What about cars? China will force car companies to produce 8% zero emission vehicles if they sell in China, and in Quebec, car companies will need to produce 3% of these. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine.

If we are to move away from cars, then we need to change our thinking about how we organize our cities. Pedestrians in modern north American cities have a hard time, because most of these cities developed in the age of the car. The road has to be shared by different users.

The building sector is also going through changes, with more energy efficient designs

We have gone through many technological and social changes over the last 50 years, and responding to climate change will require some more changes. The good news: we already have the tools needed to address these challenges. We just need more willingness to make it happen.

Gregory Jones

Gregory Jones

The second speaker, Dr Gregory Jones, is well known for his work on climate change and wine. He began by pointing out that the wine map is changing. China and Russia, for example, are planting more vineyards. There are also a lot of fringe cool climate producers, in latitudes we wouldn’t have dreamed about a few decades ago.

These changes are in response to growing demand and changing demographics, with new markets and styles of wines emerging. There are also new purchasing trends, such as vending machines. There are changes in the tastes of writers and critics. There is a large movement in the production of bulk wine. There is a keen interest in organic and biodynamic production. But most of all, underlying these changes is climate change.

Greg went on to explain that all the grape varieties we know and love have climatic thresholds. Each can only be produced successfully in certain climatic ranges. Pinot Noir, for example is a narrow climate niche variety. You can grow Pinot Noir outside these climatic bounds but it either isn’t economically viable, or the wine isn’t stylistically suitable. He showed the spatial climate envelope for Burgundy: if this is compared with another Pinot Noir region, the Willamette Valley in Oregon, we can see that the envelope for Oregon overlaps that of Burgundy, but is broader. If we look at the envelope for Bordeaux, we can see that it is warmer than that of Burgundy. If we compare Napa with Bordeaux, we see that it is wider, and also warmer. Using these climate envelopes, it’s possible to see the impact of rising average temperatures on the world’s wine regions.

One of the effects of climate change is that the dormant periods have got warmer in many regions, so the same cold hardiness doesn’t develop, yet the winter freezes and extremes are still present. And warmer soil temperatures result in earlier budbreak, but the same frosts still occur. There aren’t dramatic changes in flowering, but cloud cover and rainfall can be more frequent affecting fruit set. Another observation is longer growing seasons and higher heat accumulation, but with high temperature variability. Also, lower diurnal temperature ranges occur during the final stages of ripening.

Greg explained that on average phenology has shown a shift 5-10 days, and the phases between these stages of growth have been compressed too.

There have been climate-related changes in soil fertility and erosion. CO2 levels are higher, but Greg says that there’s not enough research to say anything about this and its impact on viticulture. Other issues are water availability, and altered disease and pest susceptibility.

The +1 C change over the 1950-2000 period has changed the viticultural map. For cool climate wine production, some regions are now too warm whereas others have become suitable that weren’t before.

Looking to the future, Greg used the example of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. A +1 C warming causes the climate envelope to move, and the capability for other varieties increases, while still allowing the region to grow Pinot and Chardonnay. But a 2 C rise pushes the envelope completely out of the spectrum of what can be grown today.

Continued warming of the world’s wine regions is highly likely: the next century will see 1.5-4.5 C warming. If this was a straightforward rise in average temperatures, then playing to the averages is easier to deal with. But it’s the fact that there are more extremes that makes things much harder. If it was simply a question of rising average temperatures, then planting new varieties or moving to cooler areas would be an answer. But the variability we are likely to experience makes confronting change much trickier.

Altered ripening profiles creating challenges in managing timing of acid, sugar and flavour. There are also altered irrigation needs, and altered disease and pest issues.

Greg outlined some ways that the wine world can adapt to changing climates. Wine grapes have a huge genetic pool of potential for adaptation. There’s also the landscape potential – we need to understand where we plant grapes and how we manage the vines. There are alterations to canopy geometry and even the use of shading materials. Scion/rootstock combinations need to be understood better, and we also need a better understanding of grape vine water use efficiency and irrigation management.

Alberto Antonini

Alberto Antonini

As a consultant, Alberto Antonini has had some weird experiences of late. For example, in 2017 the vintage in Australia was the latest and coolest ever, while in Chile it was the earliest ever by a month. In Tuscany, 2017 was the driest and earliest ever, with picking in mid-August. He also mentioned Mendoza, where he’s been working for 22 years. It’s a desert, with 50-100 mm rain a year, but two years ago rainfall was six times more than average. Last year, it was three times the normal. ‘We had no experience of spraying for downy mildew,’ he says. ‘But two years ago we had to spray 12-14 times, when we normally spray 1-3 times.’

All he can do, he says, is make sure the vines are strong, healthy and fit. Healthy vines are much better at dealing with climatic variation, and the key to this is the soil. Soil is the most important part of vineyard management, and is critical for wine quality.

Alberto says that at wine school people are taught the wrong methods of vineyard management, using herbicides. ‘The soil is dead with compaction and no life or biodiversity.’ He showed pictures of a conventional vineyard that he had the task of reviving. The soil pit showed compaction, with no air or water going through, no biomass, and no microbiology. The root system is superficial in this compacted soil, and the roots are big. ‘Superficial roots are the worst because they live in the least interesting part of the soil, and they can’t go deep because of compaction,’ he says. And drip irrigation spoils the root system by encouraging the superficial roots.

In this Tuscan farm he started regenerating the soil in 2012, removing compaction by deep ripping, developing cover crops generating some biomass. After 3 years of this, the soils were totally transformed, with more porosity, more fine roots, and the root system has gone down deeper.

At university they were taught to use synthetic chemicals. ‘With the arrival of all these miracle chemicals we have lost the relationship with the soils, plants and climate,’ says Alberto. ‘The farmers have lost the wisdom they had 70 years ago.’ He points out that what we now call organic or biodynamic farming is nothing new: it’s how things used to be done. ‘To me, the major problem is not to regenerate the soil (this is quite fast)’ says Alberto. ‘The problems is farmers have lost wisdom that will take many decades to rediscover. This is a major concern.Lots of young people are committed to doing the right things, but they just don’t have experience.’ He adds: ‘We need wise experienced red necks, not oriental gurus.’

The answer to climate change isn’t straightforward, but one way forward is to plant sensible varieties and manage vineyards properly. ‘In Sicily this year there was a big drought, but the vineyards that survived best were planted with local varieties, not the international varieties that the market had forced on growers. The local grapes performed well. Part of the solution is there already: stay focused on what was there already.’

The best performing vineyards were those planted on the traditional 140R rootstock. These did much better than more vigorous rootsocks, and drip irrigated vineyards did poorly. ‘In Europe, we need to stay focused on the local grapes.’

‘Irrigation is quite an issue these days,’ says Alberto. ‘In some circumstances it is needed, such as in Mendoza. But I don’t think it is the answer. It is like an addiction: the vines just need more. Try hard first to see what people have done in warm regions. Have fewer vines per hectare and try other techniques that allow them to dry grow.’

‘Study botany, plant physiology, microbiology and soil science. Not viticulture and enology. Understand how mother nature works.’

‘In the new world the scenario is different. It’s important to identify the best grapes. The new world has developed grapes because they were asked by the market. But it is important review this and focus on developing what is really doing well in every wine region.’

‘Don’t make the wine for the market but find the market for what you do.’

Pedro Parra

Pedro Parra

The next speaker was Pedro Parra, who was entertaining and quite controversial. ‘I wanted to be a musician or a movie director,’ says Pedro, ‘but I ended up with terroir.’ He added, ‘there is no book on terroir. If you want to know what is making Burgundy great, nobody knows.’

‘Terroir is a global concept. You need to be old to have experience,’ says Pedro. He acknowledges that over the years he has changed his understanding, and learned new things. ‘Many clients should be paid back because every year I realise I was wrong.’

He’s not keen on a quantitative approach, and he finds much of the talk about soils meaningless. ‘I don’t want to look at numbers – when you travel and ask people about terroir they might say silty clay – this means nothing. Is is silt from limestone or granite?

What kind of clay? We need way more information to start talking.’

He then outlined the sorts of soils he looks for to make high quality, mineralic wines.

First of all, is the soil stony or not stony? ‘If it’s not stony it will be very boring to me and I will advise people to sell the property!’ he says. Then, for stony soils, is it limestone, granite, schist, gravels or basalt?

There are then a set of key factors in separating good from bad soils.

First, weather. Then stress. ‘This is a major problem today, every year I am seeing more stress.’

Another factor is the ratio of flesh/bone. ‘A good wine has flesh (soil) and bone (stones),’ he says. So there might be 1 m of soils and then stones or 2 m then stones. ‘A very bony place is Priorat, where you might get 200 g grapes per vine. Then you go to other places and they make 2.5 kg/vine.’

Then there is the ratio of alteration (rock is very hard, eg chambolle) to alterite (more fractured, more water holding capacity). The alterite is the bit at the top, over the alteration.

Clay quality is important. Pedro’s PhD was funded by Don Melchor. Their vineyard had stones, silt and clay. The vines struggled. Then over in Mendoza 20 minutes away by plane, there were vineyards with the same soils but the vines were so vigorous. It was the clay was different. 10% montmorillite clay is so much more efficient than 40% of kaolinite clay in terms of storing water and making it available to the vine.

The type of fracture of the rocks is important. Each fracture of limestone means some food for the vine, so the number of layers is important, but there’s no way we can measure this: it is a mystery forever.

The percentage of stones is important, as is drainage and water-holding capacity.

Across the world the superficial part of the soil is largely the same: what matters is what is under it, and this is where the fractures are important. Pedro has been looking deeper down in soils. ‘The results are amazing – we shouldn’t don’t take samples in the superficial soils.’ He says that if the roots are in the superficial soils you will be making MacDonald’s wines.

One of his strategies is to identifying the best parts of vineyards, which he calls polygons, and manage them differently and harvest them separately. He also talked about slopes. In the typical slope, the upper part is too dry and bony, resulting in dry tannins and higher alcohol. The middle is the ‘grand cru’ area. And the bottom bit tends to have better water holding capacity – so this will react better to global warming, and it might be that the village level might be the best wine. He says that these days, in Tuscany the deep clay soils are the best at the moment, with better vigour, no sunburn.

In Burgundy, Chambolle will suffer more than Vosne-Romanee, because it has just 40 cm of soil and then no soil in the underlying rock, just in fractures, and so the wines can end up with dry tannins in warm years.

As to climate change, one easy solution is to change the rootstock, but it will take 50 years. Another solution is to work the soils better, but how do we learn to do this? A recipe doesn’t work. If you have different clay or soil it will need to be worked differently. ‘We agree that working the soil is a great solution but we need to understand soils.’

Irrigation is a dangerous solution, he says. A drip irrigation of 8 h sends water just 40 cm deep, resulting in a superficial root system. He suggests irrigating for longer: a 40 h irrigation might be needed in order to mimic rain. But this all depends on the vineyard. He recalls when he worked in Chile with John Duval, in a warm climate with granite soils. They did just one long irrigation in one season for this reason.

I was the final speaker. I talked about my experience with wine regions worldwide, and which were the winners and losers when it came to climate change, as well as the sorts of challenges that the wine world was facing with rising temperatures and increased variation in weather. But more on that another time.

We finished with a lengthy Q&A session. Overall, it was a great set of speakers and a really good conference. Michelle will be repeating it in two years’ time.

Catching the tail end of vintage at Norman Hardie, Prince Edward County, Canada

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After some fun in Montreal (more to come on this), I headed down to Prince Edward County to catch a couple of days of vintage at Norman Hardie (I was here for four days during vintage last year). It’s a very late vintage here: there are still grapes coming in and it’s November 2nd. But the quality seems to be really good.

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Norm is very happy with the wines. We tasted through quite a lot of stuff that had fermented to dryness and it looks to be a pretty successful vintage here. This year Norm has a new property where he’s moved all the reds. It’s a 125 year old barn, on a block where he was previously leasing some vineyards, and there’s also room here to plant more.

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This is a good move because space has always been at an absolute premium in the winery. A lot of work has had to be done outdoors, including all the red wine ferments.

This fermentation has finished and the cap has fallen, and it's ready to be pressed

This fermentation has finished and the cap has fallen, and it’s ready to be pressed

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This morning I had a look round with Norm at what was going on. It was pressing time for some Pinot Noir lots that had finished fermenting, and where the caps had dropped. The reds are all fermented in blue plastic bins that take c.800 kg of fruit. These can be moved around easily, and it seems to work well. The basket press can take about one and a half of these bins – first the juice is taken off, then the skins and the remaining juice is dumped into the press, and the pressings are added back to the juice. These will settle for a day or so, then the clearer juice goes to barrel.

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We also looked at the white ferments, which are usually started off in dairy tanks. These are very convenient to work with, and have high lees to juice contact area because they are flat. It’s very easy to walk round and have a look at how things are simply by sticking your head in.

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This afternoon, there’s some Cabernet Franc to destem. Some is destined for rose, so this will be crushed, too, and when the colour is right, it will be pressed.

 

Cabernet Franc ready for processing

Cabernet Franc ready for processing