In a field like athletics, the recipe to success is clear: be the best. Being the best is quantifiable. If you run faster, throw harder or jump higher, no one can dispute that you deserve your position at the top.
When it comes to other fields, often it is trickier to quantify performance.
Take wine writing, as an example. How do you assess who is best? The quality of the writing? The accuracy of the reviews? The prowess of the palate?
[On that latter point, it would be possible to test the consistency of a palate. This is done in the Australian Wine Research Institute's Advanced Wine Assessment Course, for example. But very few wine writers are anxious to have their palates assessed in this way. There's too much to lose for most.]
Judging wine writing is quite subjective. Judging the ability of wine communicators or personalities who do gigs is also quite subjective.
If you are embarking on a career as a wine writer/communicator, then I’d suggest that you shouldn’t just focus on being the best. Clearly, we all want to be as good as we can be. We aspire to be the best. But if you aren’t the best, don’t let that deter you, as long as you are good enough.
Because what really counts is being famous. Become well known. Build your brand. There are lots of very talented wine writers without enough work. Don’t join their ranks.
Instead, be good enough, and then focus on becoming famous. When people with budgets hire freelancers, they aren’t necessarily thinking of the quality of the work that will ensue. They want it to be good enough, certainly, whether it is writing, or a talk, or a tasting, of hosting an event. They want it to be really good, ideally, but they have limited ways of assessing this in advance. So they go by reputation and fame.
The people who hire you will often also have clients who they want to satisfy. So, if there’s a choice between a good presenter who is famous, and an excellent yet unknown presenter, they’ll go for the former.
Of course, in an ideal world, you get famous by being excellent. This is still true, to an extent, but not everyone who is excellent becomes well known. The unfortunate truth: if you become famous, you will get gigs. I’ve been at conferences where people got the gig because they were well known, and then they stood up and bored the audience stupid. And people accept this, because the speaker is famous.
With social media, there are inconsequential, non-smart people who have managed to get large followings and then jump the queue to get gigs that others deserved more. Rather than resenting this, if you are really good, then become more famous, build your brand, and get on the radar of the people who are commissioning these gigs.
So in many fields of media, the spoils aren’t shared evenly. It’s the one or two names who take in most, leaving the scraps for the rest. Within the ranks of the rest there will be some with more ability and gifting, but they didn’t become famous. Being the best is great, but being good enough and famous wins.
Celebrated Burgundy producer Domaine Leflaive have switched away from natural cork to DIAM for all their wines, beginning with the soon-to-be released 2014 vintage.
I was alterted to this news by a tweet from Neal Martin, and I spoke on the phone this morning with Adam Brett-Smith of exclusive UK agents Corney & Barrow, who confirmed that from Bourgougne Blanc to Montrachet, proprietor Brice de La Morandiere has decided to bottle everything with this alternative closure. Brice, Anne-Claude Leflaive’s nephew and great grand son of Joseph Leflaive, has been fine-tuning how things are done at the domaine, and this is one of the changes.
This is the highest profile estate to move away from natural cork, and as such, it’s big news. Others in Burgundy have already experimented or shifted altogether, and it’s likely that more producers of white Burgundy will now also make the switch. Some years ago Ponsot famously adopted the rather unusual ArdeaSeal, an exotic plastic cork. Benjamin Leroux has used screwcaps for all his whites from 2014, except for those wines destined for markets where he feels they won’t accept alternatives to cork. From 2013, Dominique Lafon has also been using DIAM.
The big problem facing white Burgundy over recent years has been premature oxidation (known as PremOx). After a few years of cellaring, within the same case some of the bottles might be drinking perfectly, while others will be oxidised. There’s been a lot of discussion about its cause(s), but it’s clear that one of the contributors is the cork. While the wines seem to have become more fragile, it is the variation in cork that shows this fragility up. A more consistent closure with very low oxygen transmission might make PremOx rarer, even if it can’t deal with the underlying causes (which still aren’t completely clear).
DIAM, which is a technological cork made from grinding up bits of natural cork, cleaning them with supercritical carbon dioxide, and then glueing them back together with synthetic microspheres, is seen as a possible solution. It is consistent, and allows just a little oxygen transmission, like a good cork might. I’ve always had good experiences with DIAM-sealed bottles, but some winemakers claim they can spot a wine sealed this way because it dampens the fruit a bit. Andrew Jefford discusses this in an article on DIAM here.
The other option that may well take off for white Burgundy is screwcap, with a tin/saran liner. There are concerns that these screwcaps can cause or exaggerate reductive tendencies in wine, but some of my favourite new world Chardonnay producers, including Kumeu River, Neudorf and Norman Hardie all use screwcaps and the wines are thrilling. It will be interesting to see whether or not Domaine Leflaive’s shift causes a mass move away from natural cork to alternatives such as DIAM and screwcap.
Three nights ago I opened this pair of Pinots, both from the 2011 vintage. They’re wines that I’d cellared. The first is the Te Muna Road Pinot from Craggy Range, which I liked enough on first tasting to buy a six pack. I think it’s good to put your money where your mouth is: if you give a Pinot 95 points and you find it at £20 a bottle, then you don’t trust your own recommendations if you don’t buy some.
The second is from Norman Hardie in Canada’s Prince Edward County. Since I first visited Canada in 2013 I’ve been telling everyone about these wines, which are now available in the UK market, chiefly through the Wine Society. I bought some. This is the County Pinot Noir; Norm also makes a Pinot Noir from Niagara, which is also very good, but a little different.
I learned a lot tasting these wines over three evenings (so over 48 hours). Initially on opening I reckoned that they were both at peak drinking, or maybe even a little past their peak. They were both so delicious young. But they have held up brilliantly over this time to the extent that they are probably better after being open a couple of days, and I think that they both have a long future ahead of them.
Interestingly, both are screwcap sealed (for the geeks, the liner is tin/saran in both, which means very little oxygen transmission at all). Has this got something to do with their performance right on opening, and their development over two days in the face of oxygen?
The Norm wine is a degree of alcohol less than the Martinborough, which reflects the climatic differences (Martinborough is often a little warm for Pinot, but not excessively so). The Te Muna isn’t a blockbuster though: it’s made in quite an elegant, lighter style.
So I think both these wines will age further. I have more of the Te Muna, and I think one bottle more of the Hardie, and I’ll keep them for a few more years before opening. It will be interesting to see how they develop.
Lesson learned: if you can, revisit wines the next day, or even the day afterwards. Be slow in making conclusions, and always, always keep an open, enquiring mind.
Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir 2011 Prince Edward County, Canada
12.5% alcohol. Fine herbal notes with some undergrowth, as well as supple red cherry and cranberry fruit on the nose. There’s a tiny hint of mint, and the first stages of appealing decay hiding in the wings. The palate is supple and fresh with keen acidity and nervous red fruits. Finely spiced and quite elegant with some edges, finishing with lemony acidity. Lovely precise fruit expression. 94/100
Craggy Range Te Muna Pinot Noir 2011 Martinborough, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. Sweetly aromatic with herby cherry fruit with just a hint of malt. Textured palate with some spicy warmth and a silky mass of cherries and stewed plums. There’s a bit of spicy detail. Fine, fresh and expressive with the first signs of a warm maturity emerging. Quite delicious, and really benefits from being open a day. 94/100
There’s a very interesting article on Jancis Robinson.com today, in which she reports on a recent Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) seminar on mineralogy. It deals with some very interesting issues. In her piece, she reports on Maltman’s talk, but I think she jumps to too-hasty a conclusion about its implications.
As geologist Alex Maltman explained forcefully, in a reasoned, well-illustrated talk, there can be no direct link between what is below the surface of a vineyard and the flavours found in the resulting wine. This despite the fact that soil type has long been held to be one of the fundaments of the sacred notion of terroir – and today one of most common activities among vine growers the world over is to dig a soil pit in their vineyards to show what type of rocks lurk below.
Just because there is no direct link between the soil and the flavour of wine doesn’t mean that soils don’t influence the flavour of the wine. Soil pits are cool. We shouldn’t feel bad about them.
Despite what Jancis implies here, soil type remains one of the fundaments of terroir. While some definitions of minerality – namely that minerals from the soil end up in the wine and flavour the wine – are now in peril, Maltman’s thesis doesn’t question the notion that soils alter the flavour of the wine, in the way that Jancis implies.
The key here is the word directly. Those of us who taste curiously and widely know how important soil type is. Wines from a particular soil type often share similar characters: the same variety grown on clay, schist, granite, sand or limestone will often taste quite different, even if the climate is identical. And you can often spot the imprint of the soil type on wine style, even across varieties and climates. I don’t think this is controversial.
The soil is having an indirect effect on wine flavour, facilitated through plant physiology and microbial activity. Teasing apart the mechanisms of this is likely to prove super-complicated. Yes, water holding capacity is important, but so is soil chemistry, although that’s disputed by some.
I understand the frustrations around the use of the term ‘mineral’. Attempts to identify the ‘mineral’ component of wine through sensory analysis, lexical analysis and chemical analysis are, I suspect, doomed to failure. We should just stop trying. Let people use the descriptors they like to use. If I say that a wine is silky, I don’t have to prove to a scientist that there’s silk in the wine. So if I say a wine is mineral, why should MWs and scientists demand proof that I’m referring to a chemical that is soil- or rock-derived?
But I feel that in the face of this criticism, Jancis is backing down, giving in all too easily. She should fight her corner. Why should we have to abandon the idea that soils influence wine flavour? They do. It’s just a question of how, and that is likely to be very hard to prove scientifically, even though it’s not a controversial idea to those who taste lots of wines from around the world, and spend time obsessing over soil pits.
So, the death of terroir has been greatly exaggerated.
Coincidentally, I just got this question from a reader today:
In your article, you say that for some vineyards planted on deep, fertile soils, there will not be much of a terroir effect. However, if I’ve understood Maltman’s observations correctly then if said soils had a high CEC then surely those deep, fertile soils could produce grapes with a mineral nutrient rich juice, in which which yeasts and other bacteria could flourish during fermentation to make an interesting wine, regardless of the lack of bedrock influence on the soil?
Or is it the LACK of certain mineral nutrients in less fertile, shallower soils that would produce less nutritionally balanced juice, thus forcing yeasts to metabolise, for e.g., sulphur compounds, that would lead to a wine with potentially more interesting/site specific flavour compounds?
I suppose the simple question is: would the fertile soil produce an overly nutritionally balanced must that would in turn produce a boringly over balanced wine?
I think it’s the latter – it’s the less fertile soils producing a nutritionally less balanced juice, which causes the yeasts to do interesting things during fermentation, such as producing volatile sulfur compounds. Let’s not forget about the importance of microbes, be they local indigenous bugs, or cultured yeasts and bacteria.
The other effect of deep soils is to cause more vigorous growth of the vine, which then concentrates less on fruit production and is less in balance. This can affect the flavour of the wine quite significantly, and usually detrimentally.
The Belgian Beaujolais? This wine is from Château Durette, based in Régnié-Durette. In 2006 this was bought by Belgian Jean Joly. He got together some friends from Liège who purchased parcels of vines, with a view to making the wines at Durette, and the project is now quite sizeable, drawing on 30 hectares of vines. This is one of their top wines. It’s pretty smart, and as is common in Beaujolais, it’s excellent value for money
Château de Durette Morgon ‘Hommage’ 2014 Beaujolais, France
13% alcohol. This supple Gamay has really nice, dark, stony black cherry fruit with sweetness and also finely-spiced tension. There’s nothing over-done about this: it’s just mineral, rocky black fruits with nice acidity under the fruit. Very satisfying and dark, with fine herbs and tar in the background. 92/100 (£14.95 TheVintner.com)
Richard Kershaw is a British ex-pat and MW who has been making his own wines out of Elgin for a few years now. Previously he was winemaker at Mulderbosch. Richard has received lots of critical acclaim for his Chardonnays, and has been pivotal in leading the current Elgin Chardonnay crusade: his new releases represent a step up in prestige and pricing for this variety in the valley, so it was great to get to taste them. He’s also making really good Syrah and Pinot Noir.
The new release here is a three-pack of ‘deconstructed’ Chardonnays, which sells for 2400 Rand. 250 bottles each of these wines were produced, and they specify the clone and the soil type. There’s a similar three-pack of desconstructed Syrah, too.
I asked Richard about his inspiration for these wines:
My inspiration really came from the fact that South Africa has often struggled with the concept of regionality (producing ever more different wines from different grapes yet within one locale) and how one can put a stake in the ground to prove that regionally does and can exist.
Part of my personal mandate is to help try and put Elgin on the map with a signature grape, one that shows the quality that Elgin can produce. For me, Chardonnay can be that signature grape. This doesn’t mean that other grapes can’t be part of the equation, it simply means that Elgin should becomes synonymous with Chardonnay in the same way that Marlborough is with Sauvignon Blanc, Barossa with Shiraz or Clare with Riesling.
Producing my Clonal Selection wines enabled me to make a claim for Chardonnay being a grape that works well in Elgin. Being part of a group of like-minded producers will enable us to give confirmation that Chardonnay is the grape that Elgin can nail to its mast.
At the same time, this is but a step along the way and the point of my Deconstructed range of wines was to be able to show how different terroirs within the Elgin meso-climate can also show differences and add to the ongoing story.
By bottling different parcels of single vineyards means that the sites within Elgin can be highlighted and makes the case for Elgin more compelling. (Making them also clonal specific makes it even more interesting when comparing similar soils with different clones and in the future the same clone on different soils – I have bottled 2015 Syrah Clone 9c on 2 different sites).
In a way it is like taking my Clonal Selection and comparing to a bottling of say a Drouhin Premier Cru.
Drouhin will select different Premier cru sites and blend them together to make say a Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru. Meanwhile, Drouhin might decide to bottle each site individually under that named site: Puligny Montrachet La Truffiere 1er Cru; P-M Champ Gain 1er Cru; P-M Les Combettes 1er Cru, etc. Each site will have a flavour profile that will be different but importantly, not necessarily better than one another. The main crux lies in the consumer deciding that they prefer a Truffiere against a Combettes or vice versa. However, reverting to the straight Premier Cru, the consumer may decide that wine is equally as good and again different rather than better.
The opportunity to bottle these Deconstructed wines was thus inspired to help show the differences within the multitude of sites within Elgin. Essentially, if we really want to make a difference in the long term we need to dig deeper into what makes Elgin what it is. It may just be that in 100 years, we decide to classify parts of Elgin ourselves as we come to understand the terroir better.
Although this may sound Chardonnay based, the same applies to the Syrah Deconstructed. Interestingly, although Pinot Noir is the obvious calling card with Chardonnay, it is with Syrah that I have found a resonance with the current buyers around the world as they look for Syrah made in a lighter or medium bodied style, one that in restaurants isn’t restricted to pairing with steak but being able to show more versatility.
Interestingly, Syrah shows that it has a distinct style when grown in Elgin given it is cool climate Syrah. As more benchmark wines are produced, Syrah will certainly have more identifiable regional DNA.
For my Deconstructed Syrah, it may be too ahead of the curve but it is worth putting out there how Syrah can show differences on site and as you see the only difference for the 2014 are clone related (22 and 9c) as the 2 vineyards are bang next door to each other on Cartref soils. However…in the future, we may find more difference as vineyards are rarely homogenous and the slope off one is slightly steeper than the other – but that will be for another day!
Kershaw Deconstructed Chardonnay CY96 Groenleand Koffieklip 2015 Elgin, South Africa
Taut, mealy and spicy. Very linear with nicejuiciness. Fresh, spicy and taut with lovely mineral intensity. Has a bit of pear richness but also some taut, mineral character. 94/100
Kershaw Deconstructed Chardonnay CY95 Lake District Bokkeveld Shale 2015 Elgin, South Africa
Generous pear and citrus fruit. Rounded and textured with a fine mineral edge, and some mandarin notes. Very fine and delicate but also has power, walking a tightrope between richness and finesse. Green tea and herbs, too. 96/100
Kershaw Deconstructed Chardonnay CY458 Groenland Bokkeveld Shale 2015 Elgin, South Africa
Lovely intensity: very fine and expressive with nice spiciness. Citrus, pear, spice and a bit of pith. There’s some tangerine and grapefruit, too. Lovely precision: this is a Corton Charlemagne clone that usually gives austere, robust wines that are meaty and broad. Distinguished and fine. 94/100
Kershaw Deconstructed Clonal Selection Syrah 2014 Elgin, South Africa
Peppery and bright with juicy red fruits and a hint of herbiness. Lovely black cherry and pepper with some olive. A bright wine with nice focus. 92/100
Kershaw Deconstructed Syrah Lake District Cartref SH22 2014 Elgin, South Africa The two deconstructed clonal selection Syrahs are from the same south-facing block on Cartref soil, which is granitic with broken stones. Fine, fresh and expressive with black pepper, cherries and raspberries. Fine spices and some herby notes add detail. Fine-grained, fresh and vibrant. 94/100
Kershaw Deconstructed Syrah Lake District Cartref SH9c 2014 Elgin, South Africa
Dense, fresh, spicy and vivid with blackberry and black cherry fruit with lovely pepper and spice notes. Vivid and bold with firm black fruits. Juicy and intense. 93/100
Brian and Marion Smith are biodynamic pioneers in the Elgin Valley, with their Elgin Ridge wine estate. I visited them for a look around the vineyards with vineyard manager Taurai Matunbwa, and then a tasting with winemaker Koysie van de Merwe. I really like what’s going on here, and in particular the Pinot Noir and sparkling are very interesting. The Sauvignon is made in a more complex and interesting style than most in South Africa, which sometimes counts against it in competitions, but it’s an interesting drink.
Brina Smith, vineyard manager Taurai Matunbwa and Marion Smith, Elgin Ridge
For the Sauvignon Blanc, whch is the bulk of production, the 2016 vintage was a warm one, but the wines showed good retention of acidity. The cool weather in February saved the vintage, and harvest was in the first week of March. ‘We harvest on taste because we want ripe flavours,’ says Koysie. They open up the canopy quite a bit promoting thiol precursors, and pH was around 3.3 with acids at 5.4-6.
This year, the must was settled for three days and no enzymes were used. Juice washeated up to 15 C for fermentation to start, and Koysie tried to keep it there as it progressed. Biodynamics allows the use of a yeast nutrient called 2B Fermcontrol, which is really useful.
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Elgin, South Africa
(Tank sample) Left for 9 months on lees, natural ferment, 5% Semillon. 7% aged in concrete egg. Ripe but very fresh with subtle herbs, and rich pear and apple fruit, as well as some white peach. Has nice palate weight kept fresh with some grapefruit character. 90-92/100
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Elgin, South Africa
This was a challenging year which required rigorous selection in the vineyard, and the final wine had some botrytised fruit in it. Half the normal quantity made. Very pure, fresh citrus, pear, spice and ripe apple notes with a touch of apricot and maybe a bit of sweetness. Textured with melon and peach skin characters. 91/100
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Elgin, South Africa
14.5% alcohol. Very pure, fresh citrus and pear fruit on the nose with some passionfruit richness. Fresh and detailed on the palate. Quite delicate and precise with lovely citrus and passionfruit, and some fruit sweetness. Some alcohol evident. 92/100
Elgin Ridge Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa (cask sample of final blend)
6 barrels made, 1 of which is new. Very linear and spicy with nice citrus and some pear fruit, with apple and spice. Zippy and vigorous with some some oak. Lovely. 92-94/100
The next wine was interesting: it’s a blend of 60% Sauvignon and 40% Semillon, fermented in an upturned barrels with a third whole bunch, made red wine style. As soon as it begins to taste phenolic, Koysie presses it off to tank, and then it goes to barrel.
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Semillon 2016 Elgin, South Africa
(Cask sample) Very compacy with spice and citrus notes, showing good concentration. Lively and focused with fine spiciness and lovely precision. There are some floral hints on the nose and just a touch of good green. Multilayered. 92-94/100
Elgin Ridge Pinot Noir 2016 Elgin, South Africa
(Cask sample) First vintage was 2012, and the vines are now seven years old. Lots of fruit was dropped this year and there was a lot of sorting. 777 clone is punched down lightly and goes to stainless steel. 667 is fermented in 500 litre bins with 12% whole bunch on top. 115 goes into the concrete egg. Nice sweet red cherries and plums with some elegance. Very fresh and supple, and really nicely expressive. 91-93/100
Elgin Ridge MCC 2011 Elgin, South Africa
12.5% alcohol. Such a distinctive fizz. 83% Pinot Noir and 17% Chardonnay, with the base wine made oxidatively, fermented in stainless steel and going to barrel for 2 years, stirred every 3 weeks. Then the wine spend 3 years in bottle on lees with zero dosage. Full yellow colour with a hint of pink. Intense but delicate too, with ripe apple, pear and a hint of strawberry. Lovely texture with some almond and apricot. 91/100
The Cité du Vin is a major new tourist attraction in Bordeaux. I visited and spent a couple of hours looking around.
Here’s a short film of the visit:
It’s like a museum, but it’s very modern and creative, making good use of technology to create varied, creative, interactive displays.
You navigate with the aid of an iPhone-like device, with headphones that cleverly avoid touching your ears. At each exhibit, you point your device at a special symbol, and the commentary begins in your language.
The content is very good: I thought it was pitched just right, and although the translations from the French didn’t always feel completely comfortable, I found it interesting. It’s not pitched at wine professionals, of course. But if you are a normal person with a bit of interest in wine, you could learn a lot here. The information was accurate and up to date. Even if you know a lot, there’s plenty here to keep you engaged.
Realistically, you need a morning or afternoon if you want to get the most out of this. There’s a lot to learn. And it’s not just about Bordeaux or French wine, either.
After the main exhibition, there’s a chance to taste a wine of your choice from an interesting international selection on the top floor, which has good views over to the city, including the new moveable bridge.
And you can then go down to the ground floor where there’s an extensive wine shop, selling wines from a bewildering array of countries. Alas, the selection from outside France isn’t the best chosen: for example, the USA and South African selections were particularly weak. There’s a wine bar/bistro where you can drink any of these wines for a 10 Euro corkage fee, which is cool.
Overall, I was really impressed by the Cité du Vin, and would recommend it highly.
I’m in Rioja, on a short trip with Vintae, a dynamic wine company looking to make authentic wines across several Spanish wine regions. They’re working with organics, marginal vineyards, forgotten vineyards and have a particular focus on Grenache. We’re staying in Logroño, so on the first night it was pretty much obligatory to go tapas bar crawling in Calle Saint Jean and the famous Calle Laurel.
Many of the most authentic tapas joints here serve just one dish. For example, we visited one that specialises in mushrooms, and another that specialises in pigs cheeks (a bit too weird for me). At another we had pigs face (fried, delicious). Wine is cheap – typically you get a glass with each pincho, and it’s less than €2.
Bar Soriano specialises just in mushrooms
How to spot a more authentic joint? Look for the discarded paper napkins on the floor.
Eating is, of course, standing up. And while there are tourists here, the majority of customers are locals.
This is a lovely wine. Lopez de Heredia is an ultratradtional winery in Rioja, with no concessions made to modernity. I really like their wines, which show lovely complexity, made in quite an oxidative style. This Reserva 2004 is still a baby, but shows brilliant potential. If you can find any of the whites, they are also superb, and I’ve heard that the rosé is also amazing, but I haven’t tried it yet.
Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva 2004 Rioja, Spain
13% alcohol. Berry Bros & Rudd. Beautifully elegant with fresh, slightly sappy, juicy cherry fruit and some plum and damson notes. Leather, herb, spice and earth notes too. Juicy and taut with a lovely poise and balance between the sweet cherry and plum fruit and the savoury, spicy, slightly earthy characters. There are also some iodine, cedar and vanilla notes. Has some distance to go but already delicious now. Some lemony acid on the finish. 94/100