Day 2, in Madeira

Francisco Albuquerque and Chris Blandy

Francisco Albuquerque and Chris Blandy

Day 2 of our Madeira visit began in the new Blandy’s cellars, which are located near the main Port, just past the airport. They’ve been moving most of their production here from the lodge in Funchal over the last few years simply because it’s much easier to work here, and because it’s where the wines are shipped from. Funchal wasn’t designed for lorry access.

 

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We had an extensive technical tasting with winemaker Francisco Albuquerque, who’s been at Blandy’s for a quarter of a century, even though he’s not that old. He prepared lots of samples, and we did a deep dive with Bual, looking at samples from 2016 (just vinified, tastes petty appalling and nothing like Madeira), all the way back to 1957.

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We also looked at two very interesting young wines made from Tinta Negra, the island’s most widely grown grape variety. Tinta Negra is usually produced by the artificial heating process known as estufagem. It’s considered to be inferior to the traditional method of leaving barrels in warm lofts over summer. But Albuquerque has spent years examining the various parameters along with university scientists, and has come up with a protocol that avoids the problems of traditional estufagem, and replicates closely in quality the traditional process. The glass on the left is the same wine as the one on the right, only the one on the right has gone through four months of the Blandy’s estufagem protocol. The difference is amazing. It transforms an ordinary slightly sweet red wine into something quite compelling, even in its youth.

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This is a page from an order book, from the golden age of Madeira wine, in the early 19th century. They used to write so neatly

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The new warehouse has a lot of old barrels.

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Then after our session at the winery, we headed out to discover more of the island. We hopped over to the much more remote north coast, and this is where we stopped for lunch at Quinta do Furão, where Blandy’s have 2 hectares of vines. This was the view we had for lunch! So impressive, and the north isn’t short of views like these.
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A Madeira cocktail. With a view.

A Madeira cocktail. With a view.

After lunch we headed over to a new terraced vineyard planted by Blandy’s on land leased from the church. This is quite a project by Madeira standards. It’s called Quinta do Bispo and it’s located in São Jorge, and has 4 hectares of vines.

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Carrying on round the island: more views!

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The final vineyards we looked at were in São Vicente. It’s pretty spectacular here. This is one of the major vineyard areas.

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In Madeira with Blandy's

madeira

I’m in Madeira. It’s my first time on the island. It’s quite a beautiful place.

Funchal

Funchal

Tasting at Blandy's wine lodge

Tasting at Blandy’s wine lodge

The reason? To find out about Madeira wine, with the island’s largest producer, Blandy’s. Day one consisted of a tasting through the current commercially available range of wines, followed by a drive around the island to look at the various vineyards.

Tinta Negra vineyard

Tinta Negra vineyard

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Madeira is an isolated island, formed by a volcanic eruption in the Atlantic some 10 million years ago. It’s south west of Portugal, and is actually closer to Morocco than Lisbon. It’s a striking place, with very little flat ground. Steep slopes, cliffs, and contours are the way Madeira rolls.

Madeira ageing in the lofts at Blandy's wine lodge

Madeira ageing in the lofts at Blandy’s wine lodge

The vineyards are found in tiny pockets. Overall, there are just 490 hectares of vines on the island, and 85% of these are Tinta Negra. The white varieties Serial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey make up the bulk of the remainder, and these are in demand: there’s not enough of them to go round.

Verdelho vineyard

Verdelho vineyard

Most of the vineyards are grown on a pergola system, here known as ‘latada’. But some are grown trellised, which helps with maturation. The average degree of alcohol of the harvested grapes is just 10, with 9 degrees the minimum legally allowed.

Sercial vineyard

Sercial vineyard

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Chris blandy

Chris Blandy

Today, we’ll be seeing more of the island, and also tasting through more wines at the main winery. I’m really looking forward to it. Madeira may be a tiny niche in the world of wine, but it’s a unique wine style and good examples are really compelling.

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Gamay focus 26, Jean-Paul Thévenet Morgon 2015

thevenet morgon

Continuing on my quest to explore Gamay, I’m sticking with Beaujolais, and another of the newly released 2015s. This is a very highly regarded vintage in the region, but it was a big vintage, in terms of wine style. These are hairy-chested expressions of Bojo, and I’m not sure if it’s my favourite ever vintage, although I do admire the wines. Thévenet seems to have reigned the richness in quite well, though. This wine is naturally made with no added SO2, and it’s a total bargain at the current offer price.

Jean-Paul Thévenet Morgon Tradition ‘Le Clachet’ 2015 Beaujolais, France
13.5% alcohol. Complex, meaty, spicy and herby. There’s a richness and warmth here, with concentrated black fruits, as well as raspberry freshness. This is quite grippy, with some attractive spiciness. Grippy and detailed with a slightly animal edge, which I think is reductive youthfulness. Grainy and detailed. 93/100 (£18 Roberson currently on offer at £13.99)

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Grower Champagne focus: Vilmart et Cie Grande Reserve Premier Cru NV France

vilmart

Vilmart makes some excellent Champagne. I’ve included them as a grower even though technically they aren’t because they source some grapes as well as relying on their own production, but for all intents and purposes, they fit with ‘grower Champagne’ best.

Champagne Vilmart et Cie Grande Reserve Premier Cru NV France
12.5% alcohol. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. Base wine spends 10 months in oak, organically farmed grapes. Bright and lively with pronounced red cherry and citrus fruit. Linear, fruit-driven and very pure with a hint of apple as well as pure lemony fruit. The acid is really well integrated and the sweetness of the dosage rounds everything up beautifully. Really nice balance. 93/100 (£30 The Wine Society, Virgin Wines)

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GROWER CHAMPAGNE:

Co-chairing at the International Wine Challenge Tranche 1

IWC2017

This week I have been judging in Tranche 1 of the 2017 version of the international Wine Challenge (IWC). After eight years as a panel chair, I’m now a co-chair along with Tim Atkin, Peter McCombie, Oz Clarke and Charles Metcalfe, and also new this year, Sarah Abbott.

Over recent years, some panel chairs have taken guest slots as co-chairs to help with the workload, but this year the IWC decided to make a couple of official hires. This was prompted by the resignation of Sam Harrop. That two of us have been brought in speaks of what big shoes Sam’s were to fill. Sam has been resident in New Zealand for a few years now, and committing to three weeks each year away from his family, in addition to all his consulting work, was getting to be too much. He’s really missed, not least for his work on the faults reporting – a job that has been handed on to me.

So how has it gone? I’ll explain what the job is, and then you’ll see it is quite a tough but rewarding gig.

The role of the co-chairs is to act as a safety net, to add consistency and rigour to the judging. The panels on the floor – around 20 of them each date – taste through flights and then score them. In the first stage, it’s a sifting process: is the wine medal worthy or not? At this stage there are just three categories that wines need to be placed into. The first is medal. This is where the panel think the wine is worth at least a bronze medal. The second is commended: a good wine, but not worthy of a medal. The third is out.

The flights come off the floor with all the paperwork, and we then work through them, tasting – at this stage – just the commended and out categories. This is, of course, all done blind. We have no more information than the panels: grape variety, country, region, vintage, residual sugar. We are making sure that no good wines have been overlooked. It’s not very rewarding tasting just the worst wines, but it’s a necessary job.

If one of us thinks a wine should be reinstated, then we indicate it on the sheet, and another co-chair has to agree for the change to be made. So we don’t change scores on a whim. Some panel chairs are tougher than others. Certain panel chairs have pet hates and we need to make sure no wine is unfairly booted out.

In the second round, we are looking at the wines that made the cut from round one. Once again, the panels make their verdict. There are three medal classes: gold, silver and bronze. And at this stage a wine can still be ‘commended’ or ‘out’. Some bad wines are deliberately put back in to keep the panels on their toes. The process on the floor involves discussion and finding consensus, and panel chairs aren’t just chosen because they are good tasters: they must also be skilled at getting the best out of a panel. There’s a strength in this sort of competition in having more than one person’s view, and good panel chairs make use of the people in the team – which is usually of five tasters, including an associate.

One of the strengths of this competition is the training of wine judges. Everyone starts at the bottom as an associate, and you can only climb the tree by performing well. Not only do the team members get rated by the panel chair, but also they rate the panel chair. People are sometimes demoted or not invited back on the basis of this feedback, as well as being promoted. There’s a lot of competition for tasting places at the IWC because it is such a good training environment.

The tasting environment on the floor itself is important. It’s professional but relaxed. There are no white coats and we taste standing up. There’s also background music, provided by Tim Atkin’s iPod. There’s a good energy in the room.

As with the first stage, the flights come back from the floor to the co-chairs. One of us tastes through them and suggests any changes that are needed. Then any change is validated by a second co-chair. We’re reluctant to change a score but sometimes we need to. This moderating keeps things even, and helps adjust for generous or mean panels. Say, for example, there are six flights of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. We try to make sure that they are judged with equal rigour and that the standard is the same across all six flights, even though they are judged by different panels. Sometimes three or four of us will taste the same wine if it needs extra attention. In particular, we want to make sure Gold medal wines really deserve this accolade.

So how have I found this week? Hard work, for sure. I’m looking at a lot of wines, and it does cause some palate fatigue by the end of the day. But there’s a balancing point: the utility of having the safety net of co-chairs outweighs the risk of palate fatigue from the workload. But overall, it’s a great experience. You get an amazing overview across a wide range of wine styles, at different quality levels. As long as you have a robust set of teeth, and more than a little stamina, co-chairing is a brilliant gig to get.

We’re just about to start the final day of Tranche 1. Then, in April, we have two more weeks of this. That will be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.

Some good value wines that impress

good value wines

I’m aware that many of the wines I recommend here are quite expensive. So these are some wines that I’ve tried recently that represent excellent value for money. These are real stand-outs.

Château de Lascaux ‘Carra’ Pic St Loup, Languedoc, France
£13.99 Vintage Roots
14% alcohol
Organic. Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Really fresh and well defined with lovely bright black cherry and blackberry fruit, showing some peppery detail and hints of meatiness. Nice raspberry freshness on the finish. There’s lovely fruit here, but also nice structure and acidity. Super stuff for the price. 90/100

Tanners Super Claret 2012 Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux, France
£14.95 Tanners
13% alcohol
Made by Château Clément Pichon. 51% Merlot, 49% Cabernet Sauvignon. Beautifully fresh and vivid with a chalky edge to the blackcurrant fruit. There’s a nice greenness here with provides freshness and drinkability, and meshes beautifully with the supple, sweet fruit. So drinkable: this is what we come to Bordeaux for. Shows great balance. 90/100

Château Le Coin Sauvignon Gris 2015 Bordeaux, France
£10.99 Laithwaites
14% alcohol
Beautifully focused with a lovely herb, fennel and grapefruit edge to the nose. The palate has depth and texture with a slightly smoky, spicy edge to the pear and canteloup melon notes. It’s richer than you’d expect from a Sauvignon with lovely depth to the bold fruit. But it’s not overblown. There’s nice passionfruit richness, hemmed in by the grapefruit. 90/100

Nicosia Classic Etna Rosso 2013 Sicily, Italy
£12.49, £10.99 When you mix 6 or more, Laithwaites
13% alcohol
This lighter coloured red is a blend of 80% Nerello Mascalese and 20% Nerello Cappuccio, both local varieties that thrive on Etna’s volcanic soils. It’s fresh and aromatic with some spicy, mineral, slightly medicinal hints adding complexity to the red cherry and cranberry fruit. Elegant and moreish, and not lacking in flavour even though it’s a lighter-style red. So fresh and detailed. 90/100

Perdeberg Cellars The Vineyard Collection Chenin Blanc 2015 Paarl, South Africa
13.5% alcohol
£11.99 Virgin Wines
This is a lovely old-vine Chenin, with concentrated, fresh flavours of pear and peach with a hint of pineapple, as well as some ripe apple and spice. There’s a lovely lemony core here which keeps things nicely focused. A really tidy, precise wine with restraint, but also the potential for development over the next few years. 91/100

The Society’s Exhibition Pouilly-Fuissé 2014 Burgundy, France
13% alcohol
£18 The Wine Society
Full yellow in colour, this is a deliciously full flavoured white Burgundy with rich flavours of hazelnut and cream, as well as fresh citrus fruits with a bit of baked apple sweetness. After a while, the richer notes subside and it settles into a stony, mineral personality, with real presence and complexity. This wine shows good concentration and balance, and is drinking perfectly now. It’s made for the Wine Society by Frédéric Burrier of Maison Joseph Burrier and Château de Beauregard, who own 22 hectares in the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation. 93/100

Le Bijou de Sophie Valrose 2015 Cabrières, Languedoc, France
14% alcohol
£7.99 Waitrose
This is fabulous. It’s fresh, vivid and direct with blackberry and black cherry fruit, with some lovely meatiness in the mix. There are notes of pepper and clove adding savoury interest, and a deliciously floral, aromatic spicy garrigue edge to the fruit. It’s almost saline, too, with a savoury intensity and plenty of freshness. Grippy and delicious. So peppery. 91/100

On flying

on flying - tips for airline travel

Flew back from Vancouver on Saturday night. The plane in the top left picture above is the ancient BA 747-400 that we were flying on, getting ready for boarding. The plane was creaking at the seams a bit: it had to abandon taxiing and return to the stand to have its electrics looked at. We sat on board for 30 minutes while they rebooted various bits of the electrical system, and lights went on and off, and eventually they sorted it.

I travel a lot. I fly all the airlines and across different classes, and I’ve tried to fine-tune the whole flying experience to make it as painless as possible. Passing through airports is a pain, but it’s the little things you can do to improve the process that, together, make the experience tolerable. Here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, fly on modern planes if you can. Forget about the airline: if the plane is new your flying experience will be much better. New planes have more comfortable seats, larger entertainment screens, and everything tends to work. I’d rather fly on a new plane with a less good airline than the other way round. BA is a good airline but it tends to put the old 747s on the popular routes. I fly with them to Cape Town but the planes are the very oldest, and the only reason I persist is because there aren’t any other direct options from London.

Second, it’s worth flying on airlines which are trying hard. Turkey, Singapore and UEA are all making a big effort with their airlines, which they see as playing a role in national PR. I’ve been flying Emirates a bit of late and they’re excellent (very new planes, with wifi on board), although you usually end up in Dubai for a few hours in the middle of the night. Mind you, it’s relatively easy to get status on their frequent flier program so that you can use the lounges in Dubai.

Ah yes, frequent flier status. It’s worth getting some, but don’t fret about getting to the highest levels of status. I’m Gold on Star Alliance, Bronze on BA, Silver on Emirates. The first gets me lounge access and priority boarding, the second just priority boarding, and the third access to business class lounges in Dubai only. Plus you can do more with your airmiles, with all three. The one bonus I really like is priority boarding, because these days, when everyone is trying to fly hand luggage only, the real competition is for space in the overhead lockers. It’s a major pain if your carry-on gets checked because there’s no room, especially if you have tight connections. It’s also a hassle queuing to board.

Lounge access can be nice, but these days there’s less need for it. Lounges used to be the only places you could get reliable wifi and power, but most modern airports give you free wifi, and if you hunt you can usually find power. And the eating and drinking options in the main airport usually far surpass the quality of what’s available for free in the lounge. Lounge food and drink is usually pretty bad, and if you want Champagne you often have to beg for it. I like the peace of the lounge, but it’s no big loss not to hang around in the main part of the airport.

It’s a bit like business class flying: most of the benefit is a psychological one. Airlines play up to this. If you fly to Australia or New Zealand or San Francisco, you’ll be equally jet-lagged if you are in the front of the plane or the back. If you have a lie-flat in business, you’ll probably have slept quite a bit better, but your body clock won’t be any better aligned, and you (or a client) will have paid a serious premium for the privilege. If you can get over the perceived stigma of flying economy, then you’ll have saved enough money to buy a new Macbook Air or an Olympus Pen F, plus a Michelin-star level lunch to boot. This is how I think of it. Business or First class travel is simple conspicuous consumption.

Many people like to stick with just one frequent flier program, but then you end up travelling by less convenient routes, on older planes (sometimes), and paying more for your flights. It’s better to have the flexibility of a few to chose from. I draw the line at SkyTeam, though, because of the frequency of French strikes. It’s now bigger than Oneworld, but smaller than Star Alliance. I’ll stick with Oneworld in addition to Star Alliance because of BA, though, and its Heathrow hub.

Get to airports early. The inconvenience and stress that come through being short of time and almost missing flights far outweighs any benefit of having an hour or so extra at home before flying. Just decide you are going to get some work done at the airport and give yourself a decent cushion, and then if there’s a problem with your transport you won’t risk missing your flight. Most stress around flying is totally avoidable, yet it’s amazing how many people rush panicked to the gate because they thought they were being smart cutting timings fine.

If your airline has an app, use it. These apps usually alert you to things like delays or boarding times, and they are the easiest way of managing your airmiles/frequent flier status.

Finally, pack light. Buy clothes with a view to travel. Reduce duplication. Be ruthless. Packing light and flying hand luggage only makes travelling a much nicer experience. I don’t even use a big, wheeled carry-on these days, so I don’t have to worry about finding space in the overhead lockers. It reduces the potential hassle or stress of flying even further. The whole flying experience is much better if you feel empowered and in control, and these days with modern technology and a bit of planning ahead, you can be in control of your flying experience and have a stress-free time travelling the world.

Those are my views. Any tips for frequent fliers? I’d love to hear them.

Gamay focus 25, Julien Sunier Fleurie 2015

julien sunier fleurie

This Fleurie is from the ripe 2015 vintage, but Julien Sunier has fashioned a really detailed, relatively fresh wine here, and it’s delicious.

Julien Sunier Fleurie 2015 Beaujolais, France
13.5% alcohol. Lieu Dits La Tonne and Charbonnieres, 2.85 ha. Dense yet fresh and beautifully floral, meaty and spicy. There’s a sweetness here, from the vintage, but as well as the ripe, sweet cherry and berry fruits, there are herbs, meats and spices. Focused and dense with a lovely nervy edginess. Dense raspberry fruit core here. Lovely detail, and Julien has handled a riper vintage really well. 93/100 (£19.99 Roberson down from £23)

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

Natural wines from Haywire, Okanagan Valley, Canada

Haywire

I’ve been impressed by the wines from Haywire in the Okanagan Valley, in Canada’s BC. Based at the Okanagan Crushpad, where their team also makes wine for other people, they have been pioneers of interesting, geeky natural wines in a region that has often played it a little safe, as many emerging wine regions do. Rather than just using small oak and stainless steel as tools for elevage, they have invested heavily in concrete eggs and tanks. They’ve also used terroir expert Pedro Parra as a consultant (normally new world wineries just get expensive winemaking consultants).

These three wines intrigued and impressed. They aren’t easy, conventional wines, but there’s lots to like about them. Haywire is very much a work in progress, but they are already producing some very interesting things.

Haywire Waters and Banks Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.5% alcohol. From the Waters and Banks vineyard, which is a 7.5 acre vineyard in Summerland. Limestone and granite soils. Whole bunch pressed into concrete fermenters. Wild yeast ferment and malolactic in concrete. Seven months on gross lees. Highly aromatic with distinctive grapefruit, cats’ urine and passionfruit characters, with some subtle herbiness and a bit of white asparagus. The palate is concentrated and textured with weighty fruit and some lushness, and a fresh citrus edge that frames the richer flavours really nicely. This is a wine with freshness and also drinkability, showing lovely textural elements. It’s really hard to put into a box: there are just so many flavours jostling for position on a bed of creamy, leesy richness. Give it six months to resolve, and I think this will be brilliant. 92/100

Haywire Free Form White 2015 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13% alcohol. From the Waters and Banks vineyard, which is a 7.5 acre vineyard in Summerland. Limestone and granite soils. This is clone 72/1103P Sauvignon Blanc, in third year of transitioning to organic certification. Pedro Parra identified this site as special. Fermented with wild yeasts in stainless steel. Full malolactic and 9 months of skin contact. Pressed and then bottled unfiltered. Lots of deposit floating in the bottle. Beautiful, slightly lifted nose of peach, ripe apple and apricot, with a nice spiciness. The palate is rounded and spicy with sweet pear and ripe apple fruit, as well as hints of melon and apricot. Textured and detailed, this is really natural with a slight oxidative character and lots of ripe apple. I appreciate it, but it’s not for everyone. There’s a bit of grip on the finish. 90/100

haywire free form

Haywire Free Form Red 2015 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.8% alcohol. 23 Brix and pH 4 with a TA of 5.6. Clone 667 Pinot Noir from the Waters and Banks vineyard in Trout Creek Canyon, Summerland. There’s limestone and granite in the soil. Wild ferment in two 800 litre amphorae, with 8 months on skins. No added sulphites. Such a distinctive wine. Vivid, slightly earthy raspberry and red cherry fruit. Edgy and grippy with some herby notes as well as a bit of roast coffee. There’s a touch of raisin, too, alongside the bright berry and cherry notes. It keeps changing in the glass and shows nice freshness, but there’s also a softness and slight soapiness from the high pH. It’s very stony and tastes a bit of terracotta. I admire it, and enjoy it, but I don’t quite understand it. Do I have to? 92/100

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The UK importer of Haywire is Red Squirrel Wines

In Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

victoria

Coming out to Cornucopia in Whistler gave me a chance to visit Vancouver Island. I’ve not been here before, but I’d heard lots of good things about it.

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So for the last few days I have been in Victoria, doing lots of drinks-related things.

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On Monday I visited three breweries in Victoria with Brent Muller, of Vessel, Victoria’s top wine shop. We began at Driftwood, then headed over the road to Koyne, and finished up at Moon. All three were quite different, but really interesting: there’s a vibrant craft brewing scene here on the island.

beer vancouver island

Then we had a tasting of top BC beers that Brent and Vessel GM Ross Borland had selected. Vessel isn’t just a wine shop: it also has a superb selection of craft beers and spirits. I spent quite a bit of time browsing the shelves here and came away very impressed. Victoria is lucky having such a good store because the BC licensing laws don’t make it easy to run a high quality operation like this. I’ll be writing up the BC wine scene in full on beeranorak.com.

oak bay victoria

The view from my bedroom in Oak Bay

Tuesday was all about Champagne. Treve Ring, hosted me, Anthony Gismondi and David Lawrason at her home, and we tasted through dozens of Champagnes which had been sent in for a big feature on Gismondi on Wine. It was a great opportunity to try a lot of well known bottles, as well as some lesser known ones, in a comparative setting.

The wines from the VISA seminar

The wines from the VISA seminar

jamie goode seminar

On Wednesday, I gave a seminar for VISA (Vancouver Island Sommelier Association) at Vessel. I’d chosen nine interesting and affordable bottles from the selection at Vessel. I began by giving a talk on perception of wine based on my new book I taste red, and then we tasted and discussed the wines. It was a great group to speak to and taste with because they were really engaged and interested.

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Thursday was judging for Gold Medal Plates. I wrote the wines up yesterday on this blog. And also tasting more wines from BC, including lovely wines from Synchromesh. Le Vieux Pin, Averill Creek, Unsworth, Bella and Haywire.

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It has been fun to hang around here. Victoria is a beautiful place, on the water. It has a relaxed atmosphere. And the light changes all the time: every morning is different. I’m staying in Oak Bay, and the view from my bed is of the sea. It’s quite magical waking up to the dawn each day, as the sun rises over the horizon. Back to London tomorrow for the International Wine Challenge. I hope I get the chance to come back here in the summer.