Some pictures from the Okanagan

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

Anthony Von Mandl

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

David Paterson

David Paterson

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

View from Chute Lake Road

View from Chute Lake Road

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In the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

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

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

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

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

In Vancouver

jamievancouver

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

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

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

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

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

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

On sweetness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in Alsace

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

Why judging super-expensive wines is difficult

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

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

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

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

Holly's Garden Pinot Gris 2013, a Victorian gem

hollysgardenpinotgris

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

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

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Cambridge Road Syrah from Martinborough, New Zealand

cambridge road syrah

From a small biodynamically managed vineyard in New Zealand’s Martinborough wine region, we have this, a supremely elegant and drinkable Syrah with the poise of a ripe Pinot Noir and more than a hint of the northern Rhone about it. It’s not cheap, but it’s quite brilliant.

Cambridge Road Syrah 2011 Martinborough, New Zealand
Ripe, smooth, complex nose of floral black cherries and pepper, with hints of tar and spice. The palate is fresh and lively with pure black cherry and plum fruit, nice freshness, good structure and some bright pepperiness. Just a hint of cloves, but this character isn’t too intense. Vivid and bright with depth. 94/100 (UK agent Les Caves de Pyrene)

A short selfie tasting video of this wine:



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Success is an enemy

Whether you are a winemaker, a winery, a wine brand or a wine writer, one of the biggest threats can be success itself. It’s made more dangerous by the fact that it would never be suspected of being a threat, because it is a goal.

You begin to believe your own hype. You get complacent. You lose the hunger that contributed to your success in the first place.

Your critics polarise. There are those who become sycophantic, saying great things about you whatever your performance. And there are those who will be critical whatever your performance. You listen to, and believe the former. A mistake.

Success means you can behave badly and get away with it. You don’t even realize this until your standards have dropped so far that even your most blinkered fans can no longer deny it, and the way back is then very hard indeed.

So while we strive for and welcome success, we should be wary of it. It is an enemy. Ignore it, and carry on as if it never happened.

Caves d'Auvergne Gamay 2012

caves d'auvergne gamay

This is a sensational wine for the price, if – like me – you have a fascination with lighter, more elegant red wines. I’ve written about its sibling Pinot Noir before, which is equally good, but in 2012 I love the Gamay from this winery, which has a bit more weight than most Beaujolais, while retaining drinkability.

Cave Saint-Vernay Gamay 2012 Cotes d’Auvergne, France
13.5% alcohol. Ripe, elegant, pure and with a lovely silky texture, this sappy Gamay has ripe red berry fruits and some cherry notes, with a herby spiciness under the fruit. So attractive and drinkable, this is a superb wine for the money. 90/100 (£7.95 The Wine Society)

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