A week as a wine writer

hushheath1

Hush Heath

So what does a week as a wine writer consist of? It’s hard to say. Every week is different. There’s travel. Attending tastings. Writing articles to deadlines. Lunches. Dinners. It all depends.

This week? It began on Monday with a day clear to write, and then dinner with Ryan and Michael at The Remedy, which I have reported on in this week’s blog posts.

Tuesday was another clear day f0r writing (I have a few pressing deadlines, including a project writing a monograph on screwcaps, and a commission to write about new world sparkling wine). But I had to head into town late afternoon for a tasting with Tim French of Fortnum and Mason, He’s a super-talented wine buyer, and he has put together an epic list of own-label wines. Some real stunners.

On Wednesday I headed down to Hush Heath Estate, a serious producer of English sparkling wine based in Kent. It’s a lovely place and the wines are really good. Then, early evening, I met with Felipe Tosso of Vina Ventisquero to taste some of the new-wave Chilean wines they are making, including impressive bottles from Attacama, in the far north.

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On Thursday, I worked at home in the morning and then headed into town in the afternoon. I had a meeting with Katie and Dean of Nomacorc, which we held in the Tate Modern espresso bar, followed by a meeting with the fabulously smart and engaging Laura Catena to discuss the science project I am doing with them, after my visit to Argentina last week. Then early evening I took part in a Google hangout with Helena Nicklin, Robert McKintosh and Brancott winemaker Patrick Materman. It was my first Google hangout, and I liked it a lot, although bandwith issues crept in a bit.

Hambledon

Hambledon

And today? I headed down to Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire, to check out what they are doing. I was really impressed by the vision of Ian Kellett, who is making some stunning wines and has the vision to propel English sparkling wine into the mainstream. A seriously impressive operation.

Ian Kellett

Ian Kellett

That’s my week.

Some nice wines from Sivervis, Swartland, South Africa

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I met up with Ryan Mostert (above right) and Michael Roets (above left) to drink wine. Ryan was until recently assistant winemaker at Reyneke, and with his partner Sam recently moved to the Swartland. There, he’s teamed up with Michael to work on a new project, Avant Garde Wines.

They’ve been scouting top vineyard sites, and will be making around 14 different wines each vintage, although no Avant Garde wines have yet been released. Ryan has been working on them since the 2014 vintage, which was made at Reyneke. They’ll be moving to another winery for the 2015, probably in the Perdeberg.

These wines are from Avant Garde, released under the label Silvervis, and they were made at Chris and Andrea Mullineux’s winery in the Swartland. Michael bought the Nomblot concrete egg that was auctioned off at the 2010 Swartland revolution, and also the one that was auctioned in 2011, so a good portion of these wines was egg fermented. They’re lovely wines. The NV Smiley is a steal at around 65 Rand, and the Silvervis pair are also a bargain, at R250.

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Smiley Chenin Blanc NV Swartland, South Africa
12.6% alcohol. 30% 2012 wine made in a concrete egg, 70% 2013 tank fermented. Sweet, rounded and full with fresh ripe apples and nice citrus bite, as well as some pear and peach richness. Lively and ripe with nice complexity. 91/100

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Silvervis Chenin Blanc 2012 Swartland, South Africa
12.9% alcohol, 85% concrete egg, 15% barrel. Sweet, ripe apple and pear fruit. Generous texture and lovely mouthfeel. Rich and bold but also has finesse. Bright with lovely balance and nice pear, peach and citrus fruit. 93/100

Silvervis Cinsault 2013 Swartland, South Africa
Very fresh and bright with supple raspberry and cherry fruit. Bright and expressive with focused cherry fruit. Fine, fresh and pure with some peppery notes. Amazing freshness and purity here. 93/100

Four great wines at The Remedy: Jura, Sicily and Tenerife

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Was at The Remedy wine bar last night, with a couple of dudes. We had some lovely wines, including two stunning bottles from Tenerife. The red in particular was quite sensational. It was a lovely evening, and I was impressed by the food. We had some great cheese and meat, and also lovely smoked mackerel (they smoke it themselves), a cool terrine and very nice tuna. The bread is great, too.

Occhipinti SP68 Bianco 2013 Terre Siciliane, Italy
12% alcohol. This is a skin contact white made from Zibbibo (aka Muscat) and Albanella. Highly aromatic, floral and mineral with some pear and peach notes, as well as a bit of tropical fruit. Slightly smoky, too. The palate shows sweet fruit with a fresh lemony edge. Some terpenic notes in the background. Just lovely, with just a tiny bit of grip. 92/100

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Domaine des Cavarodes Rouge 2013 Vin de Pays de Franche-Comté, France
From Etienne Thiabaud this is a blend of Ploussard and Trousseau from the Jura (he’s based in Arbois). Fresh,bright and grippy with lovely raspberry and cherry fruit. Bright acidity and just a touch of dissolved CO2. So utterly drinkable. 92/100

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Envínate Táganan Blanco 2013 Vinos Atlanticos, Spain
This Tenerife white is really compelling. Fresh, salty and mineral with a matchstick edge to the nose. Textured and fine with pears, apples, citrus and minerals on the palate. Fine, detailed, profound. 94/100

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Envínate Táganan Tinto 2013 Vinos Atlanticos, Spain
13% alcohol. Fresh, supple and fine red cherry and raspberry fruit nose with a lovely mineral dimension. Super-detailed, fresh palate is mineral and focused with red cherries and plums. Profound, expressive and beautiful. 96/100

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Mas Candi: making the most of Catalan grape varieties

mas candi

Mas Candi is a fairly new project (established 2006) that’s a collaboration between four viticulture and enology students who wanted to make wines from their families’ vineyards. The focus is mainly on indigenous Catalan varieties. They’re really interesting. UK agent is Indigo Wines.

Mas Candi Desig 2013 Penedès, Spain
13% alcohol. This is made from Xarel-lo planted in 1961. Vivid, fruity nose with lemon, pear and some spice. The palate is bright with grapefruit and herbs. Pure, with lovely precision. Lovely fine herbal notes alongside the grapefruit, and keen acidity. 90/100 7/14

Mas Candi Ovella Negra 2012 Penedès, Spain
13% alcohol. Old vine Garnatxa Blanca. Powerful, lively and exotic with notes of minerals, apples and pears. Real intensity of flavour with keen acidity and even a bit of tannic grip. Distinctive and quite lovely. 91/100

Mas Candi Les Forques 2010 Penedès, Spain
From Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1983. Sweet, supple, spicy, warm black cherry and blackberry fruit with a lovely smooth texture and notes of tea, herbs and spice. Warm and ripe and mellow with lovely balance and well integrated oak. Supremely balanced. Noticeably Spanish, but elegant. 93/100

Mas Candi Vincle Mandó 2013 Penedès, Spain
12% alcohol. Fresh, lively and sipple with pure, primary cherry fruit and some plummy notes. Quite mineral with good acid. Primary and slightly reduced: a fresh, vital red with notes of sour cherries and spice. 89/100

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White Stones and White Bones: terroir-based Chardonnays from Catena

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It was very interesting to try these two high-end terroir-based Chardonnays from Catena, and then the next day to have a look at the soils that produced them.

They both come from the same block in the Adrianna Vineyard, high up in the Uco Valley at 1450 m altitude. But even within the same block, there’s quite a variation in soils.

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Soil pit 1, above, shows one of the soil types. This is a deep sandy/loess soil that’s quite even. The Chardonnay it produces has quite a bit of ripe tropical fruit quality, so this would usually end up in the Catena Alta Chardonnay.

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Not far away, and soil pit two. This is completely different, with large stones, and lots more evidence of roots interrogating the soil. The stones are white, because although they are of alluvial origin (river pebbles), they are covered in limestone that has percolated through the soil and then, because of the low rainfall here, has accumulated on the stones. This terroir makes the White Stones Chardonnay.

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Also close by, we find this soil pit, showing the White Bones terroir. It doesn’t have big stones in the soil, but it does have some limestone that has accumulated in a layer (here, it doesn’t look white because it is saturated with water). The predominantly sandy soil here is layered with limestone and other calcareous deposits that can resemble bones.

Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay 2010 Mendoza, Argentina
Fresh and focused with a hint of mint and lovely precise pear and citrus fruit. Very little oak evident, with just a hint of toast. Very stylish stuff with lovely freshness. There’s keen acidity here (8 g/l), but it’s not at all harsh. Such a fresh wine. 94/100

Catena Zapata White Stones Chardonnay 2010 Mendoza, Argentina
Some subtle but intriguing nutty notes alongside ripe pear and citrus. Lively with lovely focus, but a slightly riper fruit profile than the White Bones, and a touch more development. But it’s still very fresh. 92/100

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Dinner at 1884 Francis Mallmann, Mendoza

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On my last night in Mendoza I dined alone. It’s something I rarely do on my travels: often I’ll use a free evening as a chance to skip a meal and try to avoid becoming fat, but my hosts had kindly booked me a table at 1884 Restaurante Francis Mallmann, one of Mendoza’s most highly regarded restaurants. It was also was within 50 yards of where I was staying. Altogether, these factors made the prospect of dining alone considerably more appealing.

There are two downsides to being a solo diner. First, it brings out your own personal insecurities. Am I an antisocial, no-mates loser? Second, it makes the restaurant staff and fellow diners feel uncomfortable. How could someone be happy dining on their own? Is there anything we can do to help this poor, lonely soul?

The only way to counter this is to exude happiness, confidence and a degree of engagement, either with the wine list, the menu, an electronic device such as a phone or kindle, or scribble in a notebook. The latter has the disadvantage that it makes you look like a crazy person. Laptops are bad form, so avoid them.

The other thing to remember is to eat slowly. With no conversation to break the meal, the tendency is to wolf down one’s food. So a deliberate slowing of eating pace is called for.

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Mallmann’s is a fine restaurant. The setting is beautiful: there’s a nicely furnished main room, but also a significant outdoor area, undercover, looking out onto an attractively lit garden. The garden, fringed by tall foiliage, has some casual seating, and also some more tables around the perimeter. The use of high-backed chairs gives each table a degree of privacy, but for the solo diner this makes people watching problematic.

The main dining area is separated from the outside area by some tall, round-topped windows with small panes of glass: these are a really nice feature.

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What about the food? The menus is largely grill based, which is quite cool, because it’s taking traditional Argentine food and elevating it to fine dining. (In other words: it’s not faux French.) I started with grilled squid salad with Andean potatoes and quail eggs. This was very well prepared, and the flavours worked nicely together.

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I then went large, ordering the rib eye steak with chimchile and Patagonian potatoes. You expect large chunks of meat in Argentina, and this was certainly a large chunk of meat. Huge, salt encrusted, with a lot of flavour. It was pretty good, but it defeated me. The Patagonian potatoes? A huge array of thinly sliced potato covering the surface of the large plate. They tasted like bad crisps, and this didn’t really work. A shame.

I’d brought a bottle of wine along (note below), but – of course – I spent ages examining the wine list. It was long and exclusively Argentine, with the exception of some Champagne. Lots of the top names, and the prices seemed pretty reasonable by UK standards, but would probably seem a bit rich to a local.

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Service was very professional: attentive and unfussy, with the wine and water being poured with appropriate frequency. I had a long chat with the sommelier who seemed really clued up. A long wine list like Mallmann’s needs a good sommelier to sell it properly. Even though it was solo dining, I had a lovely evening and the combination of wine, food and atmosphere was quite special.

Catena Angelica Zapata Alta Cabernet Franc 2009 Mendoza, Argentina
This is a beautifully vivid Cabernet Franc with slightly salty, intense blackberry and black cherry fruit. It’s sweetly fruited but with freshness and an appealing salty minerality, combining freshness and intensity very well. A delicious wine. 93/100

Some pictures from Mendoza, Argentina

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I have been in Mendoza for two and a half days now, and it has been a remarkable time. I have been with Catena’s Instituteof Wine, a research department bringing together academic resources with those of the winery, to look at some very interesting questions in wine research, in a scientifically credible way.

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For now, some pictures from excursions into the vineyards, beginning with the picture above, which is taken from Catena’s winery, looking down the Pyramide vineyard in Agrelo. The rest are from the high altitude (1450 m) Adrianna vineyard in the Uco Valley, which is one of the best studied of all vineyards in the world.

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This is Lot 1, the first part of Adrianna planted here in 1992. There weren’t any other vineyards around here when this was planted.

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Some of the Catena Wine Institute team

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Mate – a strong form of local tea.

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The clonal Malbec selection made by Catena. This was from plant material taken from Lot 18 of their Anglelica vineyard,planted some 80 years ago. The Malbec clones came from France in 1853 pre-phylloxera. When phylloxera hit France, it was a viticultural bottleneck and lots of interesting clones were lost there. Catena have studied 134 of these clones, and compared them with some of the remainingFrench ones.

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Stones with some limestone on the surface.

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Hail netting: many of the blocks are protected against hail, which is quite common here.

In Argentina

adrianna vineyard

I’m in Mendoza, Argentina. I just arrived, so the picture above is from my last visit, showing Catena’s high-altitude Adrianna vineyard.

Today started around 5 pm yesterday when I left for the airport. I flew overnight to Sao Paolo with TAM, then this morning flew to rainy Buenos Aires, and from there to sunny Mendoza.

I’m here on an interesting project with the Catena Institute of Wine, who over the last decade and a bit have been investing in research, on topics such as Malbec, high-altitude viticulture, the effect of UV light on vines and terroir influences. I’m here to interview the scientists who have been working on these projects, have a look at the vineyards that have been studied, ask lots of questions, and hopefully produce something readable and engrossing but which also does justice to the science.

So far I have had just a couple of introductory meetings (I didn’t get to Mendoza until late afternoon), but the packed schedule over the next three days should be really interesting. I’m so glad Catena are keen to get all the research they have been doing out there to the wider world, rather than keeping it all in house. I shall report back.

Southern Rhône, I have neglected you - Brusset Les Hauts de Montmirail 2012

brusset les hauts de montmirail

Southern Rhône, I have neglected you.

We used to be good friends.

When I first got into wine you used to give me a lot of pleasure. Vieux Telegraphe and Beaucastel, in particular, were happy wines for me.

But then you started getting all spoofy on me. You chased points, you got rich, you started driving expensive cars, and we drifted apart. It’s a shame, because your Grenache-based wines can be fabulous, when they’re made in an elegant, complex, detailed style.

I liked this wine, which I drank over three nights, which helped allay my suspicions that it might be a bit too glossy for its own good. I remember Brusset from the old days.

Domaine Brusset Les Hauts de Monmirail Gigondas 2012 Southern Rhône, France
14% alcohol. Sweet, enticing, lush blackberry and raspberry fruit is the key theme for this striking wine. Sweet and pure with lovely supple, ripe, focused fruit. Fresh juicy berry fruits nd a bit of grip on the finish, and nice pepper, herb and liqourice complexity, too. Will need some time to show its best, although it is already delicious. 93/100 (£29.50 Great Western Wine)

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New vintages from Duncan Savage, one of South Africa's stars

Duncan Savage

I’ve previously written about the first releases from Duncan Savage on this blog, giving them fairly hefty scores. Fortunately most serious commentators are in full agreement about these wines. The new vintages have hit the UK shores, and here are my notes. The score for the white might go up in time, because this is a wine that should repay ageing.

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Savage White 2013 South Africa
56% Sauvignon Blanc, 44% Semillon. Very fresh, tangy and citrussy with some herby notes. Pure and taut with subtle oak. Lovely focus. Still very primary. 93/100

Savage Red 2012 South Africa
62% Syrah, 14% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre, 12% Cinsault. Fragrant, fresh and supple with peppery red fruits on the nose – a haunting perfume. The palate has a lovely silky, pure, fresh red cherry character and lovely definition, as well as a taut peppery bite on the finish. Elegant and thrilling. 95/100

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