Advice for young winewriters

I try to be a helpful sort of guy. Now that I have climbed the first few rungs of the wine writing ladder, I’m occasionally asked for advice about how to start out writing about wine. And unlike the last post I wrote on the topic – how to succeed as a wine writer by writing boring wine articles – this post is mostly serious and sincere. So here are my tips if you are thinking about becoming a wine writer, or if you are currently a loser wine writer and would like to be less loser-ish.

  1. Read widely and read often. Seriously, if you aren’t devouring a novel a week, then how do you hope to write fluently and well? ‘I haven’t got time to read,’ people respond. Well, I’m surprised you are busy if you are a lousy writer. Maybe I was right: producing boring, formulaic wine pieces is the way to stay too busy to read.
  2. Read. I’m repeating myself because you just ignored my first point, because you think you know better. Seriously, read more.
  3. Find a niche. Take a step back and look at yourself.What are you known for? When people mention your name, what is the immediate association? The only people who can afford to be generalist wine writers and not be total losers are the likes of Jancis and Hugh, the very top critics (perhaps one or two of them), and people who do top TV. To establish yourself you need one, two, or possibly three specialities. You need to be a big fish in a small pond, because in the large pond you are going to get eaten immediately and no one will notice.
  4. Develop your own writing style. And it’s so much easier if you are using a style that is YOU – that is authentic and represents the way you think and speak. Because then it will be effortless to maintain.
  5. Write fast. Think of yourself as a painter decorator, not a painter artist, but working with words not paint. You need to use a roller not a delicate paintbrush. Get those words up there, and fast. It’s the only way to make a living from this game.
  6. Practice writing different sorts of articles. Some of my colleagues are great writers, but they are one-trick ponies. All they can write is 1500-2000 word features, because that’s all they have ever done. There are different sorts of writing. Expand your toolkit.
  7. Don’t try to make wine writing your sole income, at least not at first. You’ll be under such pressure that you’ll end up taking crappy gigs, you’ll make compromises you never intended to make, and you’ll be sucked into turning out rushed articles that give you no joy and only just enough income to pay your rent. Being under financial pressure sucks, and it’s never a good place for a writer to be. Be realistic: how much do you need to live on, and how will you earn this as a freelancer? When I started as a freelancer I was the sole wage earner in the home with two kids to support. It was not a decision I took easily, but as a moonlighting wine writer I already had a newspaper column, a book deal and two Glenfiddich awards in the bag, so I reckoned I had a chance of success.
  8. Always be on the lookout for the story. Look behind the surface. Try to tell stories that no one else is telling.
  9. And when you begin to achieve a bit of success, be careful. Everyone is looking for new, fresh, young voices in the world of wine, and people will help you and celebrate you. There are two perils that then face you. The first is that you’ll begin to believe the hype, and think that you are something special. This will cause you to behave like a dick, and your work will suffer. Second album syndrome. The second is that those who helped you initially will begin to regard you as a potential threat, and will no longer be quite so helpful. Stay humble, be grounded, and keep your head. Now is not the time to take your foot off the pedal, it’s the time to work really hard. You won’t be new or young forever, so you’ll have lost that advantage. Now is the time to produce your best work, dude. Go for it!

Testalonga King of Grapes: precise elegance or 'cranberry flavoured wheat beer'?

testalonga king of grapes

I was thrilled by this. It’s the latest red from Craig Hawkins in the Swartland, and it has been a bit controversial in the wine press. Andrew Jefford, normally a hero of mine, seems to have it in for Craig, and in a very mean swipe in his Decanter blog he described it as ‘fermented verjuice, and tastes like cranberry-flavoured wheat beer’. I disagree: I think it’s a very brave wine that touches the profound. It’s a little challenging, yes, but why is it that wine critics are the only people in the flavour world who feel threatened by challenging flavours? In the restaurant world, bravery and flavour boundary-pushing is celebrated far more than among wine critics, who tend to have a narrow view of what’s acceptable.

Anyway, now Craig and Carla have left Lammershoek, and therefore no longer have access to fruit from the farm, it looks like they are going to pioneer some new areas, looking to find exciting terroirs. Good luck to them.

Testalonga El Bandito King of Grapes 2014 Swartland, South Africa
100% whole bunch Grenache. Red cherry colour with a bit of cloudiness.So pure, vivid and fresh with juicy red cherry fruit and some spiciness. A bit of cherry pit character, lots of grippy structure and some keen acidity. This is pure, fresh, detailed and fine, full of life and energy. Thrilling, and – above all – great fun. 95/100

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Le Clos de la ‎Févrie Muscadet 2013

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Normally, I find it hard to get too excited about Muscadet. But I’m beginning to change my mind. On a recent trip to Canada I tried a Melon de Bourgogne (the Muscadet variety) from Malivoire, and it was really interesting. It reminded me straight away of good Muscadet in its flavour profile. And this wine, which is an expression of an individual terroir, is just brilliant. Maybe we need to start taking Melon and Muscadet more seriously. I good growers got more money for their wines, meybe they’d be able to make the investments needed to produce more interesting wines. This is a single site wine from Vincent Caillé, and it’s really good. UK agent is Carte Blanche.

Le Clos de la ‎Févrie Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie  2013 Loire, France
12% alcohol. Powerful, lively and almost exotic with a very stony, mineral character as well as fresh apple and pear fruit with some citrus freshness. Lovely acidity here with a refreshing yet complex personality. Such a vital wine which seems to capture the essence of the Melon grape variety. 92/100

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The amazing Dry River Pinot Noir 2012

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I am a Dry River fan. The wines – produced in small quantities and hard to obtain – have all the makings of a cult winery’s offerings, but they are just so consistently delicious. The only criticism in the past has been, from some quarters, that they are just a bit too scientific and controlled. the good news is that Wilco Lam, who has been there since 2009 and winemaker since 2012, is continuing the journey of easing off a little on the control and taking the wines in a slightly more natural direction, without sacrificing the purity and deliciousness.

I’ve always loved the wines, and now I love them even more. This 2012 Pinot is really thrilling, and all those who’ve not really been fans of Dry River Pinot should make and effort to try this. It’s just so good. UK agent is Raeburn.

Dry River Pinot Noir 2012 Martinborough, New Zealand
30% whole bunch. Very fine, expressive, pure red cherry fruit nose showing lovely finesse and fine spiciness. Very fine palate with fresh, taut red cherries. So linear and bright with real purity and firm but fine tannins and keen acidity. Such a great wine, with massive potential for development. 96/100

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Reasons to be optimistic

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I was originally going to write today about things in the world of wine that worried me. For example, I’m anxious that wine shouldn’t be so expensive that normal people can’t afford interesting wine. I’m also worried that the high-point-scoring critics will win the day and those of us who like to actually write, as well as rate wines, will be squeezed to the margins. And I’m also a little concerned that big, ripe, spoofy red wines will become the new norm – the aesthetic standard of fine wine.

But instead, after a couple of days where I have tried some really interesting wines, I’m going to focus on reasons to be optimistic.

First, there’s more interesting wine being made today than any time in history. Winegrowers are finding interesting terroirs outside the established classic regions and are producing really interesting wines with a sense of place. There’s the new world, where Australia, New Zealand, California, South Africa, the rest of the USA and even Chile and Argentina, where the fine wine scene has a sizeable element who are looking to make profound, elegant, detailed wines from special sites. If you are UK based, look at the portfolios of Indigo, Caves de Pyrene, Carte Blanche, Winemakers Club, Raymond Reynolds, H2Vin, FMV and many others, and they are all full of interesting producers.

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And when I travel, I discover so many new, fantastic things. The next generation of winemakers are well travelled, and invariably value elegance over power, and want to express their place. It’s really encouraging.

As a punter, it’s becoming easier to access interesting wine, too. There has been an explosion of wine bars and restaurants in London with interesting wine lists. You wouldn’t believe how much of  a desert London was for interesting wine in the on trade 10 years ago, compared with how interesting it is now.

I lament the increase  in prices in some of my favourite wine regions such as Burgundy and the Northern Rhone. When I started drinking wine in earnest in the late-1990s, there were lots of classic wines much more accessible in price than they are now (although I was earning less then, so they were still expensive in comparative terms). But now there are so many wines that are out of reach of people on normal incomes, like me. Having said this, if you are interested in great wine and aren’t obsessed by wine as a status symbol, for every wine that has passed into the realms of unaffordability, a dozen have sprung up that are qualitative equivalents at a more sane price.

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And there’s the internet. Information is now so much more widely available. With social media, you can be drinking a bottle and simultaneously engaging with the winegrower on twitter or instagram. You can read what others have to say about the same wine. And you can see where the wine came from and what the vineyards look like. That is brilliant.

The last two days? I had a brilliant Dry River tasting yesterday morning when Wilco Lam visited with a bunch of wines in tow. Then this morning, a vertical of Angelus with Hubert de Bouard, spanning 2000-2012. And this afternoon: the Austrian trade tasting, with so many great surprises, as well as a few old favourites. The wine world is a very exciting and dynamic one, and it’s a privilege to be part of it.

Four very fine Rieslings: Germany, Italy and New Zealand

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It seems to be a bit of a season for Riesling. Here are notes from four bottles tried a while back which I have found in a notebook, and feel compelled to write up now because they just deserve to be written up.

Wittmann Morstein Riesling GG Trocken 2009 Rheinhessen, Germany
13.5% alcohol. From limestone soils, this is a remarkable wine, even from a rather warm vintage like 2009. It’s lively, mineral and spicy with precision and richness in nice tension. There’s lovely citrus and pear fruit with some herby notes. It’s rich but quite dry, and really compelling. 93/100

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Van Volxem Wiltinger Gottesfuss Alte Reben Erste Lage 2009 Mosel, Germany
With rich melon and herb notes, this is a textured Riesling showing nice depth and some fine spicy notes. It’s rich, intense and very attractive with lovely density of fruit. 93/100

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Falkenstein Riesling Vinschgau Val Venosta 2011 Sudtirol, Italy
I don’t know much about this wine, but it’s brilliant. Focused, fresh and precise with lovely herb and pear and white peach fruit, as well as notes of citrus and spice. Textured and rich with a hint of sweetness, showing some waxy notes, but never giving up its freshness and precision. 94/100

Mountford Liaison Riesling 2013 Waipara, New Zealand
The debut vintage of new winemaker Theo Coles. Fine, expressive and detailed a lemony nose and lovely freshness. Notes of melon and spice with lovely texture and detail on the palate. Really compelling. 94/100

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Culmina Unicus, a Gruner Veltliner from British Columbia, Canada

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On my visit to the Okanagan Valley, it was nice to meet Donald Triggs (above) and taste a few of his wines. One stood out immediately as being particularly interesting: it was Gruner Veltliner, made from third-leaf fruit.

Triggs has been an important figure in the Canadian wine industry. A businessman with international experience, he partnered with Alan Jackson to form Jackson-Triggs in the early 1990s, and this became part of a larger company, Vincor International, with Triggs as CEO. It grew to become one of the world’s largest wine companies before a hostile takeover in 2006 by Constellation Brands. This left Triggs and fellow shareholders $1.5 billion better off, but he needed a fresh project.

So he and his wife Elaine left Niagara for British Columbia, and set up a new vineyard, Culmina, on a property in the south Okanagan. Joined by their youngest daughter Sara, they are clearly very ambitious, and have constructed an 8000 case gravity flow winery. The Triggs have just over 50 hectares of vines split over three sites, and the first wines are now beginning to emerge. Alain Sutre is providing some consultancy advice: he’s known to Triggs because of his work at Okanagan winery Osoyoos Larose, which was owned by Vincor.

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Culmina Unicus 2013 Okanagan Valley, Canada
From 600 m elevation schist mountain soils, with 1280 GDDs, this is a cool climate Gruner Veltliner. It’s spicy with some white pepper bit and a hint of fennel, as well as fresh, textured pear fruit. Lovely weight. Quite fine. The single hectare of GV yielded 60 cases, and retail price is $27. 89/100

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Two from the Swartland: Mullineux and Testalonga

mullineux syrah 2012

Two lovely South African wines recently enjoyed. The first, quite conventional: the 2012 vintage of the fabulous Mullineux Syrah. While I love their Granite and Schist bottlings (I haven’t yet tried the new Iron cuvee), this is the wine to go for. It’s lovely, and a comparative bargain compared with its expensive peers. The second is a quirky wine that I admire because of its bravery. Craig Hawkins is a vinous risk taker, and I really like his wines. It’s great that someone has the guts to leave a white wine on skins for two years. The result is unusual, but not undrinkable.

Mullineux Family Wines Syrah 2012 Swartland, South Africa
This is a beautifully balanced example of warm climate Syrah, showing fresh black cherry and plum fruit with lovely focused aromatics. There’s some pepper spice and a delicious savoury olive character alongside the sleek black fruits. A superb wine. 94/100

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Testalonga El Bandito 2010 Swartland, South Africa
This is Craig Hawkins’ famous experiment where he left the wine on skins for two years. It’s lively and complex with orange peel, nuts and spice. Very grippy and tannic with some raisin notes. Astringent but with low acidity, this is a distinctive, complex, really interesting wine that’s just so hard to rate. Most people think that two years’ maceration was too long, but this is a wine that is worth trying. 92/100

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Influence Wines Riesling 2012 Finger Lakes

influence wines riesling 2012

This is the first wine I have tried from the Finger Lakes region in New York  State. They are a network of long, finger-like lakes just south of Lake Ontario, and presumably with a fairly similar climate to the Niagara region just a little to the east over the border in Canada.

It’s a Riesling made by Erik Bilka, who created the label Influence Wines in 2009 as a negociant operation. The grapes for this bottling come from Ovid Farms and the vines were planted in 2002 on silty loam soils in Seneca County. No sugar or acid were added, and this was fermented in stainless steel, and has a pH of 3.02 with TA of 7.1 g/l and 23 g/l residual sugar.

Influence Wines Riesling 2012 Finger Lakes, New York State, USA
11.5% alcohol. Very bright with apple, pear and spice notes. It has richness and some sweetness, but it isn’t overly sweet. So pure and detailed, this is a lovely wine. 92/100

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Two from Spain: Basconcillos and Sandoval

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After posting on two Portuguese wines yesterday, I thought I’d stay in the Iberian peninsula and write up two Spanish bottles. The Basconcillos is a low-SO2 red that’s brilliant value for money, and although there’s some American oak here it doesn’t dominate at all, although there’s certainly some oak evident. The Sandoval is made by Spanish wine journalist Victor de la Serna, and it’s very good: don’t let the high-ish alcohol put you off, because this wine has lovely definition.

Dominio Basconcillos 2012 Ribera del Duero, Spain
14% alcohol. Organic grapes, 6 months in oak, from a 50 hectare property at the northern end of the Ribera del Duero, at an elevation of 1000 m. Lower SO2. Deep coloured and sweetly aromatic with red cherries, raspberries, some floral notes and a bit of wood spice. The palate is fresh and vibrant with nice fresh berry fruits and a savoury, spicy, woody edge. Youthful with nice freshness and definition. 90/100 (£12.99 Vintage Roots)

finca sandoval

Finca Sandoval 2008 Manchuela, Spain
14.5% alcohol. This is Syrah with a bit of Bobal. Fine, vivid and pure with lovely raspberry and cherry fruit with hints of cedar and spice. A bit grippy, showing nice purity. It’s a ripe wine but it has good definition and all the components are well integrated. 93/100

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