At ProWein I caught up with Dirk Niepoort, and took a look at his Douro wines, and also a new project from the Mosel that he’s involved with: a collaboration with Phillip Kettern (from Weingut Lothar Kettern) It’s always great to taste with Dirk.
Both of the Niepoort white Redomas are made the same way, but the Reserva is a barrel selection. This is done blind, but it’s always the same vineyards that end up making the Reserva: it’s the vineyards that make the difference.
Niepoort Redoma Branco 2015 Douro, Portugal (cask sample)
Very fresh with subtle lanolin edge to the taut citrus and pear fruit. Nice depth here with some richness, although it stays fresh. 92/100
Niepoort Redoma Reserve Branco 2014 Douro, Portugal
Linear, fresh and very precise with some waxy notes as well as attractive citrus and pear fruit. Very pure, with a lovely linear personality and good acidity. Complex. 94/100
Niepoort Tiara 2014 Douro, Portugal
This is mostly from a very old, high vineyard, with the key variety being Codega. It’s fermented in big old wood for 12 months and then goes to stainless steel on solids for 4 months. This is really linear, pure, fresh and expressive with a lightness to it, and complex notes of was and herbs intertwined with the citrus fruits. So fresh. 94/100
Niepoort Redoma Tinto 2014 Douro, Portugal
2014 was a rain-affected vintage in the Douro, but Dirk picks early and he picked the grapes for this before the rains. It is 60% stems, too, and has a lovely freshness. Fresh and bright with lovely sweet cherries and plums, as well as nice acidity. There are hints of tar and spice. Tight, focused, fresh and delicious, this isn’t a big wine, but it’s beautifully balanced. 94/100
Niepoort Charme 2014 Douro, Portugal
A short maceration with whole clusters in lagares is the way that Charme is made, and the key decision is when to get the wine off skins/stems. The 2014 is lovely. Very fine, fresh and expressive with bright raspberries and cherries, this has nice spiciness and real finesse. So delicate, with good tannins. Fresh and detailed. 95/100
Dirk has been collaborating with a number of very interesting winegrowers, and this was my first look at this Riesling collaboration with Philipp Kettern. The wines are just lovely.
Philipp Kettern and Dirk Niepoort Fio Riesling 2012 Mosel, Germany
This is made from one fuder (a large barrel) and spent two years here without any sulphur dioxide additions. It was bottled October 2014. This dry Riesling shows amazing finesse and texture, with wax, herbs, honey, melons and pears. There are fresh lemony notes but also richer textural elements. It’s mineral and dry with great concentration and depth, showing amazing purity and finesse. Stunning. 95/100
Philipp Kettern and Dirk Niepoort Fio Riesling 2014 Mosel, Germany
This is still in barrel. Amazing, lively, vivid citrus fruits with some pear, melon and cabbage character. Complex, fine and linear with high yet harmonious acidity. Apples and herbs, too. So linear and fine. 93-95/100
Philipp Kettern and Dirk Niepoort ‘Cabinett’ Riesling 2012 Mosel, Germany
8% alcohol, off-dry style. Linear and pure with slightly sweet linear fruit. Has finesse and purity. Lively with great acidity, this is lovely stuff. 93/100
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ProWein is a massive wine and spirits fair, held each year in Dusseldorf, Germany. It’s enormous. 6200 exhibitors, and 55 000 trade visitors. I’ve just returned, and these are some of my impressions. But it’s impossible for any one person to be able to give anything more than a personal perspective gained by merely scratching the surface of such a juggernaut of a fair.
There’s lots to do at Prowein. Despite its size, and its focus on business and doing deals, there are many opportunities to taste interesting wine. As long as you plan carefully – and failing to plan can result in hours spent wandering between the various halls – then as a journalist you can get really good work done.
My main reason for attending, though, was paying work. If you get gigs to present, or host tastings, or take part in seminars, then it makes the cost of attending worthwhile. Because this can be an expensive fair. Having so many people all crowd into a fairly compact city sends accommodation prices through the stratosphere. It also overwhelms the transport system and the local restaurants, particularly at peak times.
Grower Champagne, ProWein
Last year my main gig was with New Zealand; this year I worked mainly for Canada. Each day I conducted a seminar on a Canadian wine region in the forum area, ably assisted by a different Canuck each session. On Sunday we looked at the wines of BC with top local journalist Treve Ring, on Monday it was Ontario with Magdalena Kaiser of Wines of Ontario, and on Tuesday it was sparkling wines of Nova Scotia with winemaker Peter Gamble. All the sessions were really well supported, showing that folks are interested in what’s going on in Canada. Then, each afternoon, I took a group on a tour around the 22 producers on the Canada stand, picking out a range of wines each time that reflected on the country’s diversity.
I also did a session at the forum for aluminium closure manufacturer Amcor, who own the screw cap brand Stelvin. This involved interviewing four producers who were early adopters of screw caps in Austria and Germany about their experiences: with over 10 years’ experience each, how did they find their wines evolving? Were they pleased they’d made the switch?
In between these commitments, I tasted.
I spent quite a bit of time looking at Champagne and sparkling wine. Fizz is, I reckon, a wine style with a big future. I tried quite a few Champagnes that were new to me, including some lovely bottles at the section dedicated to the Special Club (Tresors) grower Champagnes. The distinctive thing about Champagne is the large range of styles, which become ever more evident the more you taste.
Top English Sparkling Wine. Protein
English fizz seemed to be making a big impression. There were lots of really good producers here, including Hambledon, Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Gusborne, Hattingley Valley and Hush Heath. It’s an exciting time for English sparkling wine, and it’s so good to see the best wines being shown to the outside world.
Provence Rose, ProWein
I also spent some time focusing on Provence rosé. There was a really good tasting station with a self-pour of 70 or so different wines from the 2015 vintage. It was a great chance to look at the different styles and quality levels of this wine style that’s gaining a great deal of traction (a 37% increase in sales by value in the UK in 2015). At a busy trade fair, these self pour tasting opportunities are quite welcome, because you can get a great overview in a relatively short time.
Highlights from Davo’s Grenache seminar
There are many seminars; I attended just one. It was a seminar on Australian Grenache, led by Wine Australia’s Mark Davidson. It showed just how interesting Grenache is when it’s handled a bit less like Shiraz, and allowed to express its true, more elegant nature. Aussie Grenache is an exciting category at the moment, and Mark picked some excellent wines.
I’ll be back next year, hopefully. Despite the problems associated with its size, such as walking 15 km a day and having to avoid peak times for anything, there’s a lot of fun to be had at ProWein. If nothing else, the sheer scale of the global wine industry on show here reminds us that we must be humble in the face of wine.
The final full day of our California trip was a little less frantic than the rest of the itinerary, with just one lunch visit and one dinner visit. This left some time for important things like catching up on emails, sleep, and beer at Ana’s Cantina in St Helena (somewhere I’d spent quite a bit of time at on last September’s Napa trip).
Lunch was at Rutherford Hill, with John Terlato and winemaker Marisa Taylor. The Rutherford Hill project was originally a sort of cooperative, started by Bill Jaeger in 1976. Jaeger put together a consortium of about 20 growers in the Rutherford district, and they established a reputation for their Merlots.
The Terlatos had been representing Rutherford Hill, and after a while they saw that this was a project that needed some investment. By the mid 1980s the wheels were coming off a bit, and the Terlatos helped turn things around. The growers had begun shifting their best Merlot to other wineries because it was in demand, and so almost imperceptibly the quality of the Rutherford Hill Merlots had been going down.
Then the 20 growers decided they wanted to sell. So, in order to protect their investments, the Terlatos decided to buy the winery. This was in 1996. The first thing they did was to sell off a lot of wine that they didn’t think was of the right quality. Tony Terlato had been dealing with growers in Europe and was used to telling wineries that if they want to participate on the world stage they needed to make better wine. So he said: the whole world will look at what we are doing here. It was vital that the first Terlato-era wines from Rutherford Hill were really good.
Subsequently, the Terlatos added further wineries to their portfolio. In 2000, Chimney Rock was acquired, and two years later Sanford. This gives them a nice spread of wine styles. In addition to these three properties, they also make wines under the Terlato Family Vineyards label.
The Rutherford Hill reds are pretty good, and they show that Merlot isn’t just a bit part player in Napa. It’s a variety that struggles with a sort of second-rate reputation, in part because of the role it plays on the left bank in Bordeaux. I also liked the Cabernet Franc. Of the Terlato Family Vineyards wines, the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir was lovely. The trio of Devils’, Cardinals’ and Angels’ Peak reds are also pretty solid, and they aren’t crazy expensive.
Then, after some beer at Ana’s with Oz and Chuck, it was time for dinner. We ate at Ca’Momi, which as well as being a restaurant, is also a wine brand. The story here is a good one. Stefano Miotti (our host) and Dari de Conti moved to the USA from Italy in the early 1990s and set up a thriving wine consultancy business, specialising in cross-flow filtration technology from Italy. Having the consultancy business gave them an entrance from the back when it came to sourcing fruit for their own brand, which began in 2006.
The food at Ca’Momi is excellent, and we had a lot of it. Pretty much the entire menu. And we tried quite a few wines, too. This is spot-on commercial winemaking. The Ca’Secco is a Prosecco taste-alike that is very convincing, primarily fashioned from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with a touch of Muscat. The Bianco and Rosso are both immediately delicious with sweet fruit. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel share the same fruit sweetness, and are very accessible. I really liked the handcrafted vodka, which is distilled from Napa Valley grapes and which has interesting, slightly grapey flavours and some nuttiness.
Had this at lunch on Thursday at the excellent Prospect restaurant in San Francisco, where sommelier Josh Thomas has put together a stunning and well priced list of fizz. I’m a big fan of the Gimonnet Cuis 1er Cru, but this is a real step up. Concentrated and lovely.
Champagne Pierre Gimonnet Cuvée Fleuron 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006 France
Tight, fresh and concentrated with subtle toast and intense lemony fruit. Really vibrant with ripe apple and lime notes. This is a superb Champagne: lively and complex with lovely focus. 94/100
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When you write for a living, the tools you use matter. But ever since I’ve been a freelancer, I’ve skimped a bit on laptops. In part, this is because I have been a desktop guy, and so the laptop has just been for use on the road. So I’ve bought cheap netbooks, and the odd second hand machine off eBay. You can get good cheap machines second hand, but there’s a risk that their best years are already behind them, and today my trusty Thinkpad X201 died in San Francisco airport. It only cost £157 though, so it’s not a huge deal (though it would have been had this happened at the beginning of a trip).
This left me with a problem. I have less than 24 h at home before leaving for ProWein in Dusseldorf, and I can’t survive four days without a laptop. So my hand was forced: not enough time to get a second hand laptop off eBay, so a new purchase is required. And I have made the plunge: after a few hours’ of considerations, I’ve gone Mac.
I’ve always been a PC guy. I was android for my phones, too, but a few years ago went iPhone and have never looked back. I even recently got an iPad mini, which is lovely (although I don’t seem to use it much). So now: the Macbook Air. The 13.3″ version. It’s so beautiful, but it feels so unfamiliar. It is going to take a while to get used to, but I’m sure in a few weeks time I’ll wonder why I didn’t make the jump sooner.
I’m spending more time on the road, so I need a better machine. I’m fed up with mediocre battery life: this has a stunning battery life of around 10 hours. And it’s light. And the screen is amazing.
It’s a strange relationship we have with our technology. I’m beginning to think that it makes a difference to our work if we create it on beautiful devices. I certainly love my Olympus EP-5, which is a beautiful piece of kit (a retro-looking digital camera), and I think it helps me take better photos just because it is so lovely, aside from the sharpness of the prime lenses and the resolution of the sensor.
I like this idea: tools shape our creative work. It’s as if the decisions we make about what we work with, where we work, and how we do it all feed into the activity itself. So, this is the first blog post typed on my new machine. It’s the first of many, and I hope that I’ll soon be up to speed.
Les Pavots, Kinghts Valley
Day four of the California trip. By now, the group was certainly performing, and this was to be one of our strongest days in terms of banter and general foolery. Of course, we were utterly professional. But bus banter is so important for a trip like this, and everyone played their part.
First of all, though, a note on the weather. It was shocking. Heavy rain all day, culminating in us all getting rather alarming weather warnings on our phones in the evening. This was new to me: I didn’t know that phones could do this. But where there is a severe risk (here, it was flash flooding), the mobile phone operators are able to send out alerts that make your phone go off in an audible alarm with a message detailing the specific risk.
The day began at Peter Michael Winery (there’s a very interesting profile of Sir Peter here). We were hosted by winemaker Nicolas Morlet, who is from Champagne. He took over winemaking duties here from his brother, Luc Morlet, who still consults. Their family domain is Pierre Morlet & Fils in Avenay-Val-d’Or. But here, in Knights Valley, the Napa Valley and Sonoma, Peter Michael is, in ripeness terms, pretty much the polar opposite of Champagne: the wines are made in a very lush, generous style.
We had a look at the Knights Valley vineyards. This is the home patch, a 630 acre estate on the volcanic ridges of the west face of Mount St Helena, and despite the rain, they looked quite stunning. There are just over 130 acres here, planted with Chardonnay and Bordeaux varieties, in five separate vineyards. Then there are a further 26 acres in the more recently acquired Au Paradis vineyard in Oakville, Napa, and 30 acres of Pinot Noir at Seaview-Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast.
We tried through quite a few of the wines, with a couple of library releases. I found the Sauvignon Blanc, at 15.5% alcohol, to be far too ripe and unfocused, and felt that while the Chardonnays were impressive, they might have been better picked earlier (they were above 15% alcohol also). But the 2011 Caprice Pinot Noir was delicious: lush and pure, but still with freshness and a very silky texture. And the 2013 Au Paradis, from Oakville, was a concentrated, structured expression of Napa Cabernet (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc), which carried its ripeness (14.9% alcohol) very well. These are, with the exception of the Sauvignon, high quality wines, but they cater for those who like their wines on the ripe side.
Next up: Corison. Cathy Corison has been the standard bearer for making a more balanced, ageable style of Napa Valley Cabernet, and she makes just two wines (not counting a small-production Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer) – her Cabernet Sauvignon and the single-vineyard Kronos Cab.
The latter is made from a 45 year old vineyard behind the winery, from paltry yields of 17 hl/ha (1.25 tons/acre) in an average year. The berries are so small, she has to run the crusher at half speed. Cathy harvests around three weeks earlier than the average, but this is beginning to change (others are beginning to harvest earlier too), so it is now getting more difficult to find harvest crews, a problem she’s never had before. We tried the 2006 and 2011 Corison, and both were fabulous wines. The 2011 and 2012 Kronos were also sensational, with a slight extra dimension. It’s no wonder these wines have such a good reputation.
This was followed by lunch with Barry Wiss at Trinchero. They have a centre dedicated to hosting and educating the trade, and 10 000 people visit it each year, which is remarkable. The Trinchero story is an interesting one. Back in the late 1940s Mario and Mary Trinchero left New York City and headed off to the Napa Valley, then a sleepy agricultural area, with their children, Bob, Roger and Vera. They bought an abandoned winery called Sutter Home, and slowly built the business. (Apparently, Bob Trinchero, when asked about why they didn’t rename the winery with their own family name, replied that they couldn’t afford to repaint the sign.) They built a reputation for Zinfandels from Amador County. Then, in 1972, Bob decided to make a Zinfandel rosé. For the first two vintages, this white Zinfandel was dry, but in 1974 a stuck ferment left it with some sweetness. Its reputation spread throughout the country, and Bob started getting lots of orders. The success of this Sutter Home white Zinfandel was unparalleled, and it went on to build the fortunes of the Trincheros.
The white zin at its peak was selling 4 million cases annually; now it sells around 3 million and has plateaued. With lunch we tried a range of wines, and the highlight for me was the Terra D’Ora Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel, from 130 year old vines in Amador County. It’s pretty serious, but isn’t expensive.
We then headed off to Silverado, which was founded by the Millers (Diane Miller was the daughter of Walt Disney) in the late 1970s in the Stag’s Leap district. Their first wine was released in 1983 (the 1981), and since then they have quietly been making excellent, balanced and well priced wines. Tasting through the range I was reminded just how good the Merlot and Cabernets from Silverado are. I particularly liked the 2012 Estate and Solo Cabernet Sauvignons.
Final visit of the day was a dinner visit at Chimney Rock, another Stag’s Leap property, and it was memorable. We had a lovely time with the talented Elizabeth Vianna, who is winemaker and General Manager here.
The winery was established by Hack and Stella Wilson in 1980 (so it’s from the same era as Silverado), and then sold to the Terlatos in the early noughties. Hack didn’t sell to the highest bidder, but chose the Terlatos because he was convinced they’d keep the winery running along the way he wanted.
Chimney Rock is another producer who flies under the radar a bit, and the wines are balanced and delicious. The Elevage Blanc, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Gris, is delicious and ages well. The Elevage red also ages well, as a bottle of 2002 showed. The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 was beautiful, and a magnum of the 1995 had developed in a really nice way. I really liked the 2013 Tomahawk Cabernet and the 2012 Omega Point Cabernet Sauvignon was equally remarkable. It was such a nice evening.
Day 3, Sonoma County. This is one of the most important and diverse of California’s wine regions. We headed over to David Ramey’s cellar in Healdsburg for a regional overview tasting. In addition to David Ramey himself, the other winemakers present were Nate Weis (Silver Oak), Mike Sullivan (Benovia) and Andy Robinson (Seghesio). They took us through flights of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon to illustrate what Sonoma can do.
It was a good tasting, well organized, and it didn’t drag. Things have changed in Sonoma, and with the development of newer, cooler sites Chardonnay (15 000 acres) and Pinot Noir (12 000 acres) are now the most widely planted varieties. Both flights were really good. Then comes Cabernet Sauvignon at 11 000 acres, and Zinfandel at 5800 acres. Cabernet was the weakest flight: but this is a grape that’s still in great demand. The Zinfandel flight was a surprise: some lovely, balanced wines. But it was pointed out to us that this wasn’t necessary a typical flight of Zinfandel.
Lunch at Iron Horse, with Joy, Barry and Audrey
After this it was off to Iron Horse, where we had lunch with Joy Sterling (CEO), and her charming parents Audrey and Barry. They came to Green Valley in western Sonoma back in the 1970s to start a vineyard. ‘It is hard to remember how pioneering it was to be this far west in 1976,’ says Barry. They decided to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because it was what they loved to drink. When the family relocated to California after spending time in France, they found that of their significant wine collection which they had shipped back, there was lots of Bordeaux left but very little Burgundy. Iron Horse are known for their sparkling wines. ‘Making sparkling wine was an accident,’ says Barry. They were friends with Daniel Carasso, who founded Danone, but also had a Champagne house. In 1979, they served Carasso a Pinot Noir saignee rose that they’d made and Carasso commented that it reminded him of Champagne vin clair. A year later the Sterlings made their first sparkling wine.
Joy, Audrey and Barry Sterling
Barry was born in 1929, on the weekend of the great crash. ‘When my mother went into the hospital she could afford me,’ he says, ‘but when I came out she couldn’t.’ Barry was an attorney with a law firm. Audrey had taken him to Paris when he was 30, and he fell in love with it. Then, when Reagan became governor of California, they decided it was time to leave. So he merged his law firm with one that wanted to open in Paris, and took his family there. ‘A lot of people dream, and a lot of people talk,’ says Joy, ‘but they do,’ referring to her parents and their pioneering spirit.
After lunch, it was off to Sebastopol, to the Wind Gap winery and tasting room. Pax Mahle was out of town, but assistant winemaker Jaimee Motley gave us a really good tasting, in the lovely cellar door wine bar space, which is super cool and has vinyl. I just love these wines: they’re fresh, elegant, detailed and precise.
Pax’s approach is to work with cool sites, picking early, using lots of whole cluster, and elevage in neutral oak or concrete. Chenin, Trousseau Gris, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay all excel. You can’t go wrong here: everything is good.
Duncan and Nathan, Arnot Roberts
This was followed up with a visit to Arnot Roberts, with Duncan and Nathan. They’ve been friends since third grade elementary school (I have no idea about the American school system, but this sounds like a long, long time ago). Their wines are breathtaking. Chardonnay, Trousseau Noir, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon – all compelling. Again: you can’t go wrong here. If you see these wines, buy all that you can, because availability will be the issue. There’s certainly freshness here, but also a silky elegance to the reds. We were all quite blown away.
Arnot Roberts: great line up of wines
We finished the day at Rodney Strong. This is a totally different operation: large, more commercial, with 1350 acres of vines across several sites. Back in the day, Rodney Strong was a pioneering figure in Sonoma – the Mondavi of Sonoma, if you will. The winery was purchased by the current owner, Tom Klein, in 1989.
Justin explaining the new cellar and its innovative design
Special polishing on the inside of tanks facilitates cleaning
Winemaker Justin Seidenfeld showed us the remarkable cellar that he’d designed, with square tanks, to maximize the use of space. They’re made from thicker steel, which is needed because cylindrical tanks are structurally stronger. But this extra thickness allows the tanks to be polished in such a way that they can be cleaned much more easily, without chemicals – the water saving in one vintage alone is 4 million gallons, which is around six Olympic-sized swimming pools.The wines are sleek and polished, and well made.
Day 2. On the bus nice and early, and a drive up the coast to Paso Robles, a large wine region that’s half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and one that is struggling to find its identity, a bit like an angst-ridden teenager.
We began with an overview, and a tasting of eight wines from four producers (two each). Established as an AVA in 1983, Paso Robles then had just 17 wineries. Now it has 32 000 acres of vines and more than 200 wineries. Interestingly, only 5 of the original 17 producers remain.
In 2007 the region was reorganized into 11 different sub-AVAs, and this was made official in 2014. There’s a conjunctive labelling rule, which means that Paso Robles needs to be next to the sub-AVA name on the label in at least the same size font. This is to keep the Paso Robles name in the forefront.
But what does Paso Robles stand for? What is its marketing message? At the moment, it’s one of diversity. We do a lot of things quite well seems to be the way the region is projecting itself to the outside world. And this is an accurate reflection of the situation: there’s an emphasis on Bordeaux red varieties, but Rhone red and white varieties are also strong. Then there’s Zinfandel, and Petite Syrah. And even Sauvignon Blanc.
Rather than focusing on the varietal mix, the marketing message that may have the most traction is that of the independent spirit and irreverence of the winegrowers here: the notion that this is a viticultural frontier land, where it’s not tradition that holds sway, but boldness and a spirit of adventure.
There are a few problems here, the chief one being high alcohol. Many of the wines, white and red, are in excess of 15% alcohol, and while this may reflect the sunny climate, it also speaks of stylistic choices. Winegrowers here could also do with a greater sense of perspective: when one said, ‘Paso Robles is one of the finest growing regions in the world,’ I was a little alarmed. Paso Robles is an interesting region with potential, but there’s a long way from here to being one of the world’s top wine regions. Let the wines do the talking.
Jason and Bob Haas
What gave me lots of hope for Paso Robles was a visit at Tablas Creek, with founder Bob Haas and his son Jason. These wines are amazing. Bob came here in 1989 in partnership with the Perrin family of Beaucastel, and has created what is very possibly the best joint venture of all in terms of wine quality (Opus One is probably the most important symbolically).
The emphasis here is on the varieties of the southern Rhone, and Bob was drawn by the limestone in the soils. Jason too a chunk of this and demonstrated its water holding capacity: if you take this seemingly hard, impervious limestone and pour water onto it, it soaks it up like a sponge.
One of the tasks facing Haas was to get the plant material: many of the southern Rhone varieties simply weren’t in the country. So they had to import them. And then they had to graft them: for a while, they ran a nursery business selling these varieties to others. Now they have pretty much the full collection of authorised Chateauneuf varieties to play with.
Vintage here is a complex business with lots of small batches, as the harvest organization board shows.
We tasted the wines with Bob, who – at the age of 89 – is still sharp and engaging. It was a lovely experience.
The range of wines is deeply impressive, and I was particularly taken by the Grenache Blanc and Clairette, which were both lovely. Of the reds, the Terret Noir is super-interesting, very pale, and elegant, while the blends really bring out the best in the Mourvedre and Grenache, which on their own are very good wines but not complete wines.
This is a shining light in Paso Robles, and shows the potential of the region. This potential, is as yet largely unfulfilled.
Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills
I’m in California again. This time for a press trip, with some fellow UK journos: Oz Clarke, Anne Krebhiel, Jane Parkinson and Erin Smith. We arrived on Tuesday evening, and so yesterday, Wednesday, was our first full day. We spent it in Santa Barbara County, which is the catch-all appellation that includes the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys, and various sub-appellations inside these (most notably the Santa Rita Hills). It’s quite a complicated region to get your head around, but it’s making some of California’s most lovely wines.
This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, although as you head east away from the coast it gets warmer, and Syrah begins to star. First visit was with Jim Clenenden of Au Bon Climat. He began making balanced wines 35 years ago, and was celebrated by influential critics such as Robert Parker. Then in the late 1990s Parker started giving his wines, which hadn’t changed, much lower scores. But Jim kept on making wines they way he had, and now balance is back in fashion.
I like his wines. They’re not the leanest; nor are they big. They express their place well, especially the lovely Chardonnays. But Jim is also making serious Aligote (it’s a thing!) and Nebbiolo. These are side projects, but they show how he gets wine. He tastes and drinks widely, and is a real wine geek.
Then we headed to Brewer Clifton, where we were hosted by the super Zen-ish and very thoughtful Greg Brewer. He has a lovely facility in Lompoc, where he makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines are beautiful and distinctive, and I was surprised by them. Greg isn’t an IPOB person, and so naturally – when I saw alcohol levels pushing, and in some cases exceeding 15% – I thought I might hate the wines. But the Chardonnays have this almost saline quality, and a real beauty to them. And the Pinot Noirs are silky and fine, with lovely detail. Greg has done something wonderful in managing to balance ripeness and elegance, and his use of whole cluster (almost exclusively) and 40 day cuvaison may be helping here. The whites don’t do malolactic fermentation, which helps keep them fresh.
He also opened a couple of older bottles, including a 1997 Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay, which had developed beautifully. This was very early on in Brewer Clifton history, so this was quite special – there are only a few bottles left.
Then we were off to the nearby Domaine de la Cote winery in the Lompoc wine ghetto, for a presentation of Santa Barbara County wines hosted by Michael Larner and Sashi Moorman. This was a very interesting session, looking at the unusual geology of the area and the climatic factors, leading to a tasting of some wines to illustrate these points.
Finally, we finished at Sanford Winery, where we were hosted by winemaker Steve Fennell. This is where it all started in the region, back in 1971 when Richard Sanford planted the Sanford and Benedict vineyard. He began by planting Cabernet and Riesling here, which was a bit daft, but the next year planted some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These blocks, on their own roots, still exist. We got to wander this historic vineyard in the evening light.
The Sanford wines are pretty good, especially the lean, taut Chardonnays. I like the Pinots, too, and I was impressed by their first sparkling wine, a 2013. This is a region that could excel with sparkling wine, I reckon.
A glass of Sussex anyone? I’ve written before about the proposals for a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO; basically, an appellation) for Sussex wine. It’s an issue that has raised its head again with a recent article in the Telegraph. The proposed Sussex PDO is a big problem, and it could be a major hindrance to the progress of English sparkling wine. This is why I’m speaking out against it.
The main issues:
- The proposed PDO seeks to protect too wide a range of wines lacking characteristics in common. This includes still and sparkling wines made from a large range of grape varietes, grown on very different soils. Take a look at the soil map of the south of England to see why county boundaries are not meaningful for PDOs.
- The soils and climates in Sussex are so diverse that they can’t hope to impart specific characteristics to wines that could then be protected by a PDO, and there’s no evidence to suggest that Sussex sparkling wine is distinguishable in any way from other English Sparkling Wines.
This is pretty damning, too:
A snapshot analysis of the 2015 international competitions shows that many English Sparkling Wine producers winning the top accolades would fall outside the Sussex PDO:
||Producers awarded a trophy or gold medal
||Those eligible for Sussex PDO
|Decanter World Wine Awards 2015
|The Champagne and International Sparkling Wine Awards 2015
|International Wine Challenge 2015
|International Wine and Spirits Competition 2015
And as if this wasn’t enough, then look at the following, taken from an objection to the PDO:
In particular the PDO covers
(1) Wine of every colour: White, Rosé, Red, more specifically described as: Light lemon, Mostly pale yellow or lime, Pale gold, Deep golden hues, Honey, Rosé blush, Pale pink, Rose petal, Wild strawberry, Pale to mid salmon, Stronger salmon pink, Salmon pink with slightly golden hue, Pale ruby, Violet through to mid ruby, and Violet and purple red hues;
(2) Wine of any sweetness: namely Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Medium Dry, Sweet, Demi-Sec, Doux
(3) Wines of every flavour: more specifically described as: Crisp lemon citrus, Green apple acidity, Prominent floral and fruit driven flavours, Lemon, Lime, Elderflower, Other floral notes, Apple, Pear, Gooseberry, Delicate and floral, Hints of white flowers, Clean and fresh, Rose petals, Melon, Strawberry, More earthy mix of red berry and baked apple, Have depth and are complex, With a richness in character, Developed autolytic notes of brioche, fresh toast, melon, baked brioche and honey aromas, Soft tannins, Hints of red and black fruits, Leather, Juicy plums and Wild berry.
(4) Wines from a huge range of grapes namely 26 different grape varieties: Acolon; Arbanne, Auxerrois; Bacchus; Chardonnay; Dornfelder; Gamay; Huxelrebe; Muller Thurgau; Orion; Ortega; Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc; Pinot Gris; Pinot Meunier; Pinot Noir; Pinot Noir Précoce; Regent; Regner; Reichensteiner; Riesling; Rondo; Roter Veltliner; Schonburger; Siegerrebe; Solaris.
(5) Wine of any style: including deacidified/not deacidified, oaked/unoaked, with or without malolactic fermentation, sweetened or not etc. Even orange wines would qualify.
It follows from the above that the PDO does not identify common ‘analytical or organoleptic characteristics’ in ‘Sussex’ Wines, namely Sussex Still Wine and Sussex Sparkling wine. Such wines cannot therefore be grouped together for the purpose of a PDO application. If asked what a ‘Sussex’ wine was, the answer would have to be ‘absolutely anything’. There are no benchmark characteristics against which a Sussex wine could be judged for conformity.
Is anyone going to argue in favour of this PDO?