Cloudburst: Taking on the Old World

I check in on Margaret River boutique producer Cloudburst, to see how Will Berliner’s wines are shaping up — but more importantly, with echoes of an historical tasting event, see how they fare when put in competition with some of France’s finest labels. During a very special tasting in Hong Kong, the results were somewhat unexpected…

Last year, while on a family holiday in Western Australia, I visited an American winemaker in Margaret River. His name was Will Berliner and he makes wine under the label Cloudburst. The experience of walking around his vineyard, and tasting his brilliant wines, led me to write a piece on The 23rd Parallel that gave me a new-found appreciation of what can be achieved by focusing on purity of process.

When Berliner told me that he was coming to Hong Kong, we agreed that we should set up a high-quality tasting for a small group of wine lovers, one that would put Cloudburst’s quality into context against the old, established order.

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With Margaret River flying the flag for the New World, could history be recreated?

In May 1976, British wine critic Steven Spurrier held a famous blind tasting that put a series of top French producers up against a group of leading wineries from California. The results sent reverberations through wine circles, not to mention the French vinous fraternity, with the Stateside Cabs and Chardonnays making a meaningful impact on the Bordeaux and Burgundy aristocracy. Gallic arms were thrown in the air, subjectivity and statistical significance was questioned, but one thing was clear — it seemed that France no longer enjoyed a sense of hegemony over their rivals.

So it was against this historical reference point we decided to pit Margaret River’s newest and most exciting producer against a series of famous French labels, the daunting challenge for the former to make a creditable showing in what, everyone assumed, would be a walkover.

The format? A table of 12 people, including Berliner, tasting 8 wines. Four are from Cloudburst, four from famous estates in Burgundy and Bordeaux. The run is composed of four flights — two pairs of Chardonnays, two pairs of Cabernet-based blends — in which everyone tastes fully blind, and in no particular order. At the end of each flight the group takes a vote on one simple question: “which wine do you prefer?

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Will Berliner in pensive mood pre-tasting

So, with Zaltos at the ready, here’s how my notes looked for the four flights (the identities of the wines will be revealed at the end).

Flight 1 (2014 Chardonnays)

#1: things kick off with somewhat of a vegetal note, some citrus then, as the glass warms, delicate floral cues with rich toasty popcorn. There’s good fruit on the palate; this is very fresh and pure. A lovely wine, and when compared to wine #2, definitely superior.

#2: a beautiful bright, light-gold colour. A little closed on the nose but the citrus profile is right on the money. Like its partner, there’s a great purity. Acid is more imposing than the first wine, but somehow the finish is shorter and less satisfying.

The vote: in a resounding poll, wine #1 wins twelve votes to nil. Emphatic start.

Flight 2 (2012 Chardonnays)

#3: the extra two years lead to a darker hue and, when hitting the nose, a real toffee popcorn note. Young, it seems very similar to wine #1. Deeper on the palate with lovely fresh minerality but, like #2, a touch closed with an appreciably short finish.

#4: a closed palate like its sparring partner, and a slight lack of zing to taste…but a truly wonderful nose. Multi-faceted, it had fresh lemon and an idiosynchratic saline note, but most striking of all, a beautiful eucalyptus character. Seriously impressive.

The vote: wine #3 takes three votes, #4 nine. Both classy, but that nose sealed it.

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Two 2012s; Cloudburst and Leflaive…but which is which?

Flight 3 (2012 Cabernet blends)

#5: A very primary, vineyard personality: herbal, blackcurrant and a slightly medicinal note. The table recognises this as Cabernet straightaway. Dry with great acidity, this is high-quality and layered. Smart stuff, and clean as a whistle.

#6: Fairly closed on the nose but the palate is “big”; rich with beautifully soft tannins, its powerful acid/alcohol double punch delivers almost a hedonistic experience. Berliner — and I suspect a lot of the crowd — know from the list which producer this is.

The vote: the room is split because stylistically the two wines were different. One of them contains a large dose of Merlot so perhaps not an appropriate comparison; both are terrific though. Wine #5 garners four votes, #6 gets eight hands in the air.

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Chateau Palmer, and the pretender from Margaret River

Flight 4 (2011 Cabernet blends)

#7: Really floral; violets jump straight out of the glass. Cedar and a slightly ashy note. Layered and complex, slightly brooding. Can tell there is more to come here but really not showing its full hand yet. Rich and powerful on the palate, this had bags of class.

#8: Seemingly very similar to its stable mate, this was soft and delicate throughout. More fruit than #7, with a mineral seam, and had a delightful finish of ripe plum and lavender. With a light tannic structure that was right on the money, this wine was so elegant.

The vote: this time the table was split because both wines were simply fantastic. A lot of discussion and debate over which one was best, and having to make the binary choice became somewhat of a burden. In the end though, #7 took it, nine votes to three.

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The heavyweight Chateau Lafite steps into the fray…left or right?

The results: once the fourth flight was concluded, with palpable tension in the room all eight wines were revealed…

Flight 1: Cloudburst was wine #1, so a clear 12-0 victory over a Roulot Meursault

Flight 2: Leflaive Les Folatieres was wine #3 with three votes, #4 Cloudburst with nine

Flight 3: #5 was the Cloudburst Cab with four votes, but the Ch. Palmer took it with eight

Flight 4: Chateau Lafite was #7 (nine votes) and the Cloudburst #8 with the three hands

So overall: out of the 48 votes on offer, the French classics won 20, Cloudburst 28. In spite of his label taking the spoils, Berliner immediately comments, “I need to work on my reds!”

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What a fascinating experiment. These wines may be produced 14,000km apart — and good ones from France tend to be naturally a lot more restrained in the first decade of their lives — but it was striking to the group was how similar in elegance and style they were, none more so than the Chateau Lafite-Cloudburst Cabernet comparison.

Tellingly, the Cloudburst wines seemed a million miles away from that obvious, fruit-forward style often associated with Australia, California and the rest of the New World.

The key though will be longevity. On a number of occasions we found ourselves using the word “closed” when describing what turned out to be the French wines: when any wine is made to a high standard, this often becomes a euphemism for “long-lived”, and at this stage we don’t truly know how well Cloudburst will fare in this regard.

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Structurally the reds appear to have all the ingredients to last for 15-20 years, the whites 10-15 perhaps, but until we get to taste a bottle that is a decade+ old, it’s a tough call (the first vintage was only in 2010). In the here and now though, we do know for certain that his wines are, without doubt, of the highest calibre.

One can always debate the composition of the tasting group, unconscious biases such as style preferences, and the way in which you score (or not) the wines. What makes these results impressive for Will Berliner’s wines, though, is that the tasting group had palates largely trained on the French classics.

In using these great Old World producers as a hallmark for purity and polish, even after you move past Cloudburst’s obvious and immediate qualities, you can see why these wines genuinely deserve their place at the wine world’s top table.

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A unique and memorable line-up

Thanks for reading, and my gratitude to the friendly folks at Ginsberg+Chan on Queen’s Road Central in Hong Kong, for hosting such a brilliant tasting.

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Ginsberg+Chan #winewednesdays: Meursault Villages (photobook)

In my latest “Wine Wednesdays” evening with Ginsberg+Chan, I was very excited to take the wheel and host the event to a group of industry colleagues. This week: Meursault.

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In Burgundy’s Chardonnay country, the Cote de Beaune, the Meursault commune has around 1,000 acres under vine. Often in the shadow of its illustrious neighbour to the southwest, Puligny-Montrachet, it still produces wines of the highest quality. No Grand Crus reside here, but 19 Premier Crus and a plethora of brilliant generic Villages wines are made – and it is seven of these we are going to try:

  • 2013 Anne Boisson Meursault Sous La Velle 
  • 2013 Pierre Boisson Meursault
  • 2013 Bernard Boisson Vadot Meursault Grands Charrons
  • 2014 Henri Boillot Meursault
  • 2012 Arnaud Ente Meursault
  • 2012 Roulot Meursault
  • 2011 Philippe Pacalet Meursault

In previous tastings, I’d usually be the guy at the other end of the table helping out Roberto Gallotto, the master host. For this one though I had the responsibility of navigating the crowd through the tasting. It was a lot of fun, and the wines were all excellent, but while on speaking duties I neglected to take sufficient notes…so this time I’ll just present a photobook of the evening!

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Chateau Latour: a Hong Kong masterclass

On Tuesday I spent an evening sampling a group of wines from the estate of Château Latour, one of the five “First Growths” of Bordeaux. In the format of a masterclass, led by president Frédéric Engerer and in conjunction with Altaya Wines, the audience sampled eleven different wines, culminating with their 2000 Grand Vin…

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On Bordeaux’s Left Bank there lies a 3,000 acre plot of land, housing some of the world’s finest red wine. Pauillac AOC is not only home to three of the five Premier Cru châteaux; in providing multiple 2nd-5th growths it is here where Cabernet-based blends are often seen as quintessential Bordeaux.

Along with Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild, Château Latour has been a beacon of the commune’s wares since the 1300s. Now under the exacting influence of the Pinault stable of luxury goods, Latour is a modern-day vinous giant, producing upwards of 30,000 cases of wine per year across three labels. The most prestigious of these, the Grand Vin, can be seen on high-end wine lists from Sydney to San Francisco, and has long been known for its power and elegance.

Latour’s president Frédéric Engerer was in Hong Kong earlier this week and, along with Paulo Pong of Altaya Wines, hosted a tasting of three vintages of their generic Pauillac wine (usually 60% Cabernet, 40% Merlot), three of the Les Forts de Latour (70%+ Cabernet, 25% Merlot and 3-4% Petit Verdot), and five iterations of their Grand Vin (similar to Les Forts, but including some Cabernet Franc).

In a lively tutored tasting, discussion between our hosts and the audience moved between philosophy on ageing and release of their wines, to appropriate food matching and approach to biodynamics. As for the wines themselves, here is the run-down…

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Frederic Engerer of Chateau Latour (left) and Paulo Pong of Altaya Wines

Le Pauillac

2012: On the nose, fresh dark fruit and a lovely herbal, rubbery quality – closest reference would be aniseed. Evolving. Tasting it sees most action on the front palate, with bracing acidity and a fruit-led finish. Oak lingers subtly in the background.

2011: Hmm..seemed very closed, with nothing really discernable jumping out the glass. A similar story to taste; structurally fine but little expressiveness and a narrow finish. Avoid.

2010: A different nose again, with savoury character taking over, with any fruit seemingly at the end of its vibrancy. When tasting the extremely soft tannins first hit you, along with refined, plummy fruit. Definitely an early-drinker.

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Les Forts de Latour

2011: Really interesting adhesive/medicinal nose…reminiscent of glue from an Airfix kit as a kid. Not unpleasant though, and accompanied by beautiful lavender and a strong seam of blackcurrant that carries through, and dominates, the palate. Medium finish.

2010: What a brute! More herbal than medicinal nose versus the above – but this wine is all about its power. At 14.4% abv, it delivered an intense acid/alcohol/tannin triple whammy. In a brilliant vintage, this showed real refinement and balance in spite of its early attack on the senses. This will evolve to ultimately deliver an excellent wine

2005: Lovely rounded nose, with Cabernet’s trademark graphite making the first appearance of the night. Power also there like the ’10, but at only 13.2% abv and 5 years older, everything is more in check. “Good tannic structure”, Engerer comments. The finish is rustic, not particularly long but a terrific wine all the same.

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Le Grand Vin

2008: Develops very nicely on the nose with a couple of swirls, firstly a touch of red fruit but it’s more about the vegetal – grilled asparagus and salad greens. High acidity and very dry to the touch, this was a really enjoyable palate of liquorice and unripe plums. Very fresh, with good residual taste.

2007: A more Claret-like nose, cedar and cigarbox, appealing to my traditional sense of what Pauillac should be all about. Continues through to the palate with good concentration although it feels like this is more of an early-drinker. Again, so enjoyable though, and probably shaded the mini face-off against its younger sibling.

2006: Very floral and attractive straight out the glass – Parma violets there – followed by lovely fresh dark fruit. Acid-alcohol double punch upon first taste, although the finish, although pretty long, seemed slightly off-kilter as the blackcurrant fruit was somewhat stewed and bitter. Should mellow out over time but showed it is not ready yet.

2005: There’s immediately a sweetness to the nose, like mellow toffee, instantly showing appeal. Not much fruit but soft and approachable. The palate is first class; beautifully balanced and still very concentrated, you can tell this is wonderful Bordeaux from a terrific vintage. A rich finish confirmed its quality, as well as longevity.

2000: From the millenium vintage, the 2000 Grand Vin still looks young, slightly syrupy in the glass. Maturity starting to show, with bitter liquorice and prunes accompanying a notable mineral character. The palate is typically Cabernet although you can tell this wine is still a baby – refined and elegant, and still unfolding, like the ’05 its concentrated finish delivers a wonderful, thought-provoking experience.

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So a great way to finish a fascinating event. As the 2005 and 2000 Grand Vin showed, exalted estates in exceptional years produce wines of class and finesse, capable of providing great drinking for two or more generations. It was a pleasure to be involved in seeing how they are developing.

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Ginsberg+Chan #winewednesdays: Vosne-Romanee Aux Malconsorts 1er Cru

In my latest collaboration with Hong Kong wine merchant Ginsberg+Chan, from arguably the most revered collections of vineyards in the world we taste six wines from two producers. The result shows how vastly different styles can be achieved from the same vineyard…

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On the outskirts of a small village in the heart of Burgundy lies a parcel of land unlike any other. Often described as the finest, most elegant and purest expression of the Pinot Noir grape, Vosne-Romanée is home to the world famous Grand Cru vineyards of La Romanée-Conti, Richebourg and La Tâche. These micro-sites, in some cases no larger than 2 acres in size, have for hundreds of years produced wines that have little competition from. As such, according to Jancis Robinson, “the market seems to stand any price”.

Orbiting these Grand Cru sites are 14 Premier Cru vineyards on 135 acres of land. For my next tasting with the friendly folks at Ginsberg+Chan on Hong Kong’s Queens Road Central, we choose one of these vineyards — Aux Malconsorts (below) — and open 3 vintages from 2 different producers, Domaine de Montille and Dujac. Often known for their austere and closed early years, before flourishing with sufficient bottle age, the tasting was an excellent exercise in the different styles being produced.

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The vineyards of Vosne-Romanee: Aux Malconsorts can be found to the left of La Tache

Hosted by Roberto Gallotto, with around a dozen people in attendence the evening takes the form of three flights, Premier/1er (for the 2012 vintage), Deuxieme/2eme (2011) and Troiseme/3eme (2005)…

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2012 Domaine de Montille Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts Christiane 1er Cru

This wine’s youth immediately jumps out the glass in the form of sulphurous minerality, often the hallmark of young red Burgundy. Along with a marked flinty note, Cypress tree and pine grab hold, showing how complexity is already starting to develop (you needed to search for any trace of fruit though). Its palate seemed very delicate, with subtle power and an acid thread that sits in the background; again the fruit was peripheral. With some bitterness on the finish, this is a wine that still has some way to go.

2012 Dujac Vosne-Romanée Aux Malconsorts 1er Cru

Like the Montille, the innocence of youth is immediately obvious. Again sulphur is present, but less imposing. Its nose was full of interesting elements, but it seemed slightly out of kilter: rosemary and sage make an appearance along with button mushroom, as well as a definite cherry/red fruit character. Sounds okay, but the nose did not seem overly appealing to the audience. Upon first taste though, everyone could tell this was a wine built for the long term; in spite of slightly dulled alcohol, strong acid and tannin levels suggested this should unfold excellently. A powerful finish immediately showed that stylistically, even though the rows of fruit are just metres apart, Dujac seem to be making a different wine to Montille.

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First flight: the 2012s

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2011 Domaine de Montille Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts Christiane 1er Cru

Ah, there’s the fruit missing from the younger wine…and goodness me, a whole bunch of other stuff. One of the most complex and interesting noses I’ve ever sampled. All in balance, there was a heck of a lot going on here: firstly, a big hit of fresh lavender, then dark plum, before going on to an aniseed/liquorice-type of note. Almost seems bubble gum-like; unusual but very pleasant when in conjunction with everything else. Later, all I got was roast lamb, blackcurrant (not typical of Pinot!) and sweet spice. Quite the nose indeed, and marks this down as having a seriously good first impression.

Once we had bounced around the room on what people could smell, the palate seemed like an after-thought. It was good, although somewhat straightforward, in peverse contrast to the multi-faceted nose. Linear, with lovely acid and a red fruit-led finish of reasonably good length, this was perfectly pleasant but wow…those aromas.

2011 Dujac Vosne-Romanée Aux Malconsorts 1er Cru

The styles continue to move apart as the wines get older. Pretty much the polar opposite in terms of nose: still that trademark meaty/savoury Pinot character, along with a touch of oriental spice (hoisin sauce?), but that was about it. To taste is where it became elevated though; like the ’12, the power and concentration hits you. Very precise. Again suggesting serious longevity, this vintage still seemed very closed but everyone was highly impressed with its undoubted ageing potential. But – was it interesting in the here and now though? Against the above, not really.

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Second flight: the 2011s

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2005 Domaine de Montille Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts Christiane 1er Cru

OK, time to put the theory into practice. How do these wines age with a proper period in the bottle? Unfortunately, the Montille did not impress as we’d hoped for in a Premier Cru wine from such an exalted site, just 500m from those incredible Grand Cru vineyards.

The wine seemed quite reserved; a very pleasant aniseed/vegetal combination, but the fruit was immediately seen to be fading badly (or perhaps yet to show itself?). The palate was good with still a lot of punch, including a satisfying finish, but the room seemed to feel this wine was not showing as it should — i.e. built to last — instead impressing early in their life with those terrific noses, without too much follow-on.

2005 Dujac Vosne-Romanée Aux Malconsorts 1er Cru

Could the last wine of the evening fare any better? Fortunately, yes, and the slow-burner we’d tasted before finally showed its teeth. Rich and compelling on the nose, deep and brooding with savoury, mature red fruit mingling with a rocket-like pepperiness. Attractive rusticity there too, the calling card of top Pinot. Nothing like the complexity of the ’11 Montille, but somehow just as engaging. Still unfolding on the palate but now announcing itself properly, this brilliant vintage showed class and power, exhibiting the longest finish of the night with meaty, vegetal and smoky red fruit nuances. Loved also the black tea that layered the beautiful tannic structure.

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The third and final flight: the 2005s

A fascinating tasting. The quality was without doubt there: these are two brilliant producers using fruit from hallowed ground. The common thread — and expectations from the audience — was that this is supposed to be Pinot that is built to last, and perhaps the 2005s were nowhere near ready, but the Domaine de Montille wines did not seem to have the longevity. The Dujac on other hand showed it in abundance, right from the earliest year we tasted.

While the Dujac were built for the long-term, the Montilles had so much instant appeal though, especially that incredible, mind-blowing 2011 nose. It will certainly live long in the memory.

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How to speed-date at a wine tasting

Start the clock! Between late October and mid November, Hong Kong’s food and wine scene goes into overdrive with a series of events. On Sunday I went along to one of them, a collaboration between Altaya Wines and eRobertParker.com known as Matter of Taste. Instead of excessively dwelling on each pour, I attempted to fly through as many as I could in the shortest possible time…

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Time to make some introductions: Matter of Taste wine event

Wine writers — including me, I admit — have a tendency to over-elaborate when explaining the glass they’re tasting. Instead of helping the reader, what often occurs is losing them in an exercise in ‘wordsmithery’, describing things that bear little practical relationship to an alcoholic drink made from grapes (“crushed rocks”, anyone?).

In attempt to take a different turn, at the recent Matter of Taste event in Hong Kong’s Shangri-La I decided to hit as many wines as I could, speed-dating style, in 90(ish) minutes, then see if I could come up with a conclusion as to which ones I actually liked best.

In true matchmaking style, I’m only allowing myself 3-4 minutes at each tasting table…

We start with bubbles, and two terrific producers (below) were on hand to help: Delamotte and Pol Roger. The former’s standard NV fizz was dry, rich and creamy, with their 2007 Blanc de Blancs (that is, 100% Chardonnay) a lovely mix of stewed apple, toast and biscuity yeastiness. An excellent way to get things going.

Pol Roger makes quality Champagne at all price points. Their entry-level NV was clean, energetic with pure apples and pears (no Cockney Rhyming slang intended). I really liked the 2006 vintage (60% Pinot Noir + 40% Chardonnay); with terrific balance, it was nutty and rich. The 2008 Blanc de Blancs, on the other hand, was more herbal and a touch on the hollow side. The 2004 of their benchhmark cuveé though, the Sir Winston Churchill, was rich and powerful, delivering a big hit of vanilla-infused Chardonnay. One for a serious, perhaps second or third, date.

Staying in France, we head south to Burgundy. A 2014 Château des Quarts Pouilly-Fuissé is still our familiar grape Chardonnay, but because it is located further south, tropical fruit and weight comes through. Delicious, and would be a great food wine.

South again into the Rhone Valley, and Château de Beaucastel’s Blanc and Rouge Châteauneuf-du-Pape were both strong; the former an attractive rose-gold colour, oily and floral, with the latter big and powerful, with its 10% Syrah hitting you with its customary pepperiness.

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James Rowell of Altaya (right): not speed dating but delivering the good stuff

Now who’s this? At speed-dating events you’re normally looking to get to know new faces — but here’s a familar one. It’s none other than Pablo Alvarez, main man at Vega Sicilia, and host of probably the most memorable wine dinner of my life. His entry-level red, a 2011 “Pintia”, is rounded, full of brambles and black cherry. Next up is Vega’s “Valbuena 5°”, with its 5-year maturation it was full of soft dark fruit and beautifully integrated sweet spice. An old flame.

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Game face: Pablo Alvarez, CEO of Vega Sicilia (right) overseeing proceedings

The Kiwis are here, albeit in low numbers and tucked away in a corner. What a couple of outstanding producers though. First up was Rippon, arguably home to the world’s most picturesque vineyard, are described as a “hidden gem” by James Rowell, Altaya’s Manager of Corporate & VIP Sales. He’s not wrong; their 2013 mature-vine Riesling is tight, refreshing, high acid and gives the taste of pure Granny Smith apple. The 2012 Pinot Noir is ripe, full of dark fruit and beautifully balanced. 

We’ve always loved Martinborough’s Ata Rangi in our household. Their 2013 Pinot Noir, a box of which has my name on it somewhere in the Wiltshire countryside, is seriously powerful, herbal with some red fruit…but its all about that concentration of flavour, yet to unfold, that suggests this will be perfect for a long-term relationship.

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Two top New Zealand producers: Rippon (Central Otago) and Ata Rangi (Martinborough)

Time to go Stateside. Fisher has vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Counties in California, producing a lot of different styles — most coming from individually-named sites — and I’m here to try four. First up, their Mountain Estate Chardy was rich and mouthfilling, but the oak was not over the top. Plenty of time to develop. We jump straight to older wine, a 2003 Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: more herbal (sage) than fruit on the nose, but to taste it was rounded and extremely pleasant, especially the tannins.

Next up is the Wedding Vineyard Cabernet. Its name might suggest a little too much keenness for a bunch of quick-fire matchups, but this was a lovely wine; excellent concentration and bags of blackcurrant varietal character. We finish with a younger offering, Fisher’s Mountain Cabernet; this is more of a blend seeing as though there’s a decent amount of Cab Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot in the mix, and it’s a cracking early-drinker, full of up-front fruit and sweet toffee-like notes. Perfect for a sixth-date night in, watching a movie with a burger.

Any tasting in Hong Kong — fast or slow — wouldn’t be complete with taking in its most popular wine: red Bordeaux. There was plenty on offer…

Starting with the nice people at Château Haut-Bailly (above, pouring), their 2012 Grand Vin was attractive and classy, with a typical Cabernet nose. Its older sibling, the 2008, was appealing enough but lacked body. Forgettable unfortunately. On to Château Calon-Ségur, with just the 2009 on show, its 90% Cabernet in 20 months in new oak really coming through with a powerful finish.

Next door at Château Phélan-Ségur (below), in spite of being part of a stellar vintage, their 2009 was a little flat on the nose; it certainly seemed quite shy but you’d expect it to blossom given 5 more years. The 2010, another fine year, was a monster though: the tannins hit you between the eyes and rolled over any notion of fruit. This should come together to form a brilliant wine in 10 years+. Imposing character indeed.

Weariness setting in so on the final table, I taste a 2009 Château Baron Pichon de Longueville (beautiful nose typical of Pauillac, the AOC it comes from), a 2009 Château Petit-Village (from Pomerol, Merlot country, with lovely soft tannins) and my final wine, a 2009 Château Suidurat (hooray; something sweet from Sauternes, with its rich and honeyed marmalade nose and palate, and a finish of pure caramel). Phew…all done.

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Going large: Chateau Phelan-Segur

So in a short space of time, I managed to meet a good number of wines, all with different personalities. Pretty much all of them made for very enjoyable company. Which ones would I want to politely ask for their details though, in the hope of a follow-up drink?

If I was only allowed three from the 26 I tasted, I’d have to go for the 2006 Pol Roger, the 2013 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir and Fisher’s 2006 Wedding Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, with an honourable mention to the 2010 Château Phélan-Ségur.

I guess I’m ready to commit after the speed-dating frenzy after all.


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A big thank you to the friendly folks at Altaya Wines for asking me along!

Ginsberg+Chan #winewednesdays: Deuxieme Grand Cru Classe 1985/86

In my latest collaboration with Hong Kong wine merchant Ginsberg+Chan, we take a journey through half a dozen wines from two mid-Eighties vintages of Bordeaux’s “Second Growth” wines.

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Ah, Bordeaux. For hundreds of years, along with Burgundy it has been the quality benchmark by which all other red wines are measured against. But the best bottles will make you wait; in most examples of top quality “Claret”, you need at least a decade before the elements of fruit (and other flavours), tannin, alcohol and acidity start to properly unfold and integrate to produce a symphony of a glass.

So in conjunction with Ginsberg+Chan, we pick out six 30-year-old bottles in order to take a snapshot of this ageing process. Following the stellar Bordeaux vintage of 1982, lauded as among the greatest ever, most harvests in the 1980s suffered from poorer-relation syndrome: often patchy in quality or early maturing, notable for a loss of fruit, buyers had to be cautious in what they chose. Fortunately we have some excellent examples, all from the Deuxieme Grand Cru Classe, i.e. those wines deemed a “Second Growth” as per the Bordeaux 1855 Classification, a process requested by none other than Napoleon III.

Led as ever by our host, the effusive and gregarious Roberto Gallotto, we taste two simple and straightforward flights: 1986 and 1985.

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1986

Château Léoville Las Cases

A touch cloudy but a lovely purple hue (above, right) makes the wine look a lot more youthful than it is. On the nose, beautifully balanced fruit, still fresh although not particularly prominent. More of a branch-like, woody character upon first sniff. Very attractive. Palate excellent, tannins soft but just the right amount of coarseness — quite subtle. Good acidity. On the group’s return to the glass, fruit started to unfold in the form of dried strawberries. Finish not particularly long but a fantastic wine. Aged Bordeaux is really on-song when like this.

Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande

Very clear and clean to the eye, indeed the best clarity of the three ’86s. A much more pronounced nose, but again it is the rustic woodiness and savoury notes jumping out the glass — soft smoky oak, leather and graphite all there. To taste is where this one gets interesting: more power than the Las Cases, with a strong acid thread and a tannic structure that has yet to fully develop. There was an astringency present, leading to some bitterness which manifested itself in the form of smoky Chinese tea on the finish. For a wine already 30 years old, fascinating to think you could leave for another decade and it would still be absolutely fine (albeit with a further loss of fruit). One for the purists.

Château Cos d’Estournel

Big expectations from the group going into this one, given Cos’s lofty status as a First Growth pretender, and its proximity (just 2km, across the Chenal du Lazaret) to the estate of Hong Kong’s favourite blue chip wine, Château Lafite. Sadly, it was a bit of a let-down.

To start, similar in depth of colour to the Las Cases, with some cloudiness. As with the previous two, fruit was only lingering in the background, but this one carried a beautiful herbal character. “Dried mint”, a taster mentions. There’s also a wonderful aroma of soft liquorice, taking me back to my childhood. The palate is where the disappointment started for everyone though; perfectly pleasant with nothing out of place, acidity and tannin fine, but it really lacked any degree of body, depth or complexity, with only faint dark fruit for company. As another member of the group said, “it’s drinkable”. We all thought that summed the glass up pretty well. A shame given the high hopes.

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1986 flight (R to L): Leoville Las Cases, Pichon-Longueville C. de Lalande, Cos d’Estournel

1985

Château Rauzan Segla

A touch of oxidisation upon first inspection (smoky bacon?), although not enough to knock things out of kilter. Brambles and countryside fruit gives this wine a certain rustic charm, something which carries through to the taste. This wine’s most notable feature was its acidity — very refreshing, and despite the black fruit struggling to be prominent, led to a really satisfying finish. As such, this Rauzan would be make for a terrific accompaniment for richer red meat dishes.

Château Leoville Poyferré

A seriously elegant wine on our hands here: easily the most perfumed of the six glasses, dried lavender and fresh herbs danced with rocky minerality and sweet, jammy red fruit. What a nose, oozing class. Continuing on the palate, nothing exalting but with everything in place, unlike the ’86 Cos it went on to have a long balanced finish that left you going back for more. Just a brilliant example of old Bordeaux, with hints of its previous life: the Cabernet Sauvignon’s blackcurrant leafiness came through, as well as the smooth red fruit of the Merlot, and rustic power of the Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. I hadn’t tasted Poyferré before, but my goodness this wasn’t bad as a first try.

Château Cos d’Estournel

Can the ’85 redeem Cos in this particular showing? Well, yes and no. First up, the nose was very different to its younger brother. In keeping with the quality of the vintage, it seemed more youthful: displaying a toffee note, as well as fresh plummy black fruit, this one had a lot more personality out of the glass. To taste it was also a lot richer than the ’86, the weight of alcohol carrying through well on the finish (where sweet spice made a nice appearance). Overall though, it still did not carry real purpose, and ultimately left the group scratching their heads at a perceived lack of quality. I’d factor in the high hopes everyone had going in, given its modern-day status, but on its merits, and compared objectively to the other wines in the flight, it disappointed.

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1985 flight (R to L): Rauzan Segla, Leoville Poyferre, Cos d’Estournel

A really good tasting of some fantastic old Bordeaux. Overall, the 1986 Léoville Las Cases was the most popular (as is customary in our #winewednesdays events, the group take a vote at the end of the evening), garnering lots of hands. I loved it too, but the wine I left thinking about the most was, without doubt, the ’85 Léoville Poyferré. That nose was elegance personified, its palate offering an intriguing glimpse into its past while still showing how good it was in the present day. I’d be a fool not to buy a bottle or two.

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Thanks to Ginsberg+Chan for hosting such a good tasting. Specializing in partnerships with brilliant producers and those hard-to-find bottles, be sure to go and visit their friendly crew next time you’re on QRC:

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New Zealand wine: a retrospective

Having got my hands on a fascinating old wine book, I thought I’d dig further into what the Kiwi wine scene looked like a couple of generations back. The result shows not only the challenging moment it found itself in, but also highlighted some notable social stereotypes of the time…

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Rippon vineyard, Lake Wanaka, Central Otago

Fifty years ago, the Land of the Long White Cloud did not enjoy its current image for the production of high-quality, low-yielding wines, for export around the world. As we’ll see, quality issues, coupled with availability and cultural acceptance of the drink, were a hindrance on the growth of the industry. But where did it all start?

Although Colonialist and Maori antagoniser-in-chief James Busby was one of the earliest viticulturalists in the 1840s (having already established himself as one of the founding fathers of the Australian wine industry), it is widely accepted that Anglican missionary Samuel Marsden directed the planting of the first grapes on Kiwi soil. The most senior Chaplain to the New South Wales government, he was also responsible for introducing new species of livestock, fruit trees and vegetables to New Zealand. Under the guidance of Marsden, in 1819 Superintendent of Agriculture Charles Gordon planted the first grapevines on Bay of Islands sites such as Rangihoua, Kerikeri, Russell and Waitangi.

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Arrival of Samuel Marsden at Bay of Islands, 1814

Fast forward around 150 years, as the seeds for the modern-day boom were being sown, and in 1965 the below grapes were the most-grown in the country. Not heard of Baco 22A? If you like Armagnac, that fiery brandy (distilled wine) from the south-west of France, this science-experiment of a grape is its primary ingredient. The main stand-out from the table is how Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand’s current calling card on the international stage, is missing: not introduced to the country until later in the 70s, initially to be blended with the Müller-Thurgau grape, it now accounts for nearly three-quarters of nationwide production.

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1965 Grape Survey, NZ Journal of Agriculture

And where was it all being produced? By looking at the map below, amazingly we can see how three of New Zealand’s major wine-producing regions today were not even seen as being important: Martinborough, Central Otago, and the grand daddy of them all – Marlborough, the modern-day engine room of the country’s Sauvignon Blanc output, and two-thirds of total national yield.

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Wine regions, early 1970s (Wine in New Zealand, Frank Thorpy, 1971)

So was any of the wine worth drinking back then? Albany Surprise, Seibel 5437 and Gamay Gloroid don’t sound particularly appealing, and according to the internet, Waltham Cross is a town in southern England. In Wine in New Zealand, published in 1971, Frank Thorpy asked “How good are our wines?”. To start he classified quality into four groups:

  • Ordinary (“no pretensions to quality…with a definite alcoholic strength”)
  • Standard (“blended uniformly from year to year”)
  • Fine (“wines made from great care and distinction, usually one grape type”)
  • Great (“quality equivalent to classical grapes from select vineyards in France”)

For the wines of the time, his conclusions were not encouraging. Thorpy described New Zealand as having no Great or Fine wines, “perhaps some Standard wines, with the bulk fitting into the bakanocategory of Ordinary”. Hmm. Using another definition, as laid down by Australian author Dr Max Lake in his book Classic Wines of Australia, he also explored whether or not a Kiwi wine could be designated as a “Classic” by being of “highest quality for that country, established for more than ten years, consistent during that period, and of a particular style”.

Even at the higher end of the market, consistency of quality seemed to be a real problem. McWilliam’s, a leading winemaker of the day, produced a wine called Bakano (pictured above left), a mash-up of hybrid grapes and “a touch of Cabernet”. It had solicited high hopes of vintage quality year after year, and was certainly regarded as one of the best wines of the era, but upon opening the 1956 vintage, the author found “it had not improved as much as a wine of that age should”, with the ’62 and ’65 having “no bouquet and without a great deal of character”. Oh dear. No Classic status either, then.

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Two of the founding fathers of New Zealand’s wine industry: the Corbans

Quality issues aside, by looking at the social habits of the day it is also easy to understand why wine struggled to get traction in the 60s and 70s. As my own mother-in-law (Welsh, but settled in Wellington in 1968) explains, “when we arrived in New Zealand I had never even tried wine. It wasn’t really available. We used to drink rum and Coke, brandy and dry, beer, that sort of thing. By the mid-70s we would maybe have a bottle of wine at a restaurant as a treat, but it wasn’t until the early 80s we started to have wine at home – usually Chardonnay in cask. In the early days it wasn’t sold in supermarkets, and independent merchants weren’t really around”.

Cultural stereotypes were unfortunately pervasive, too. “Traditionally the host, not the hostess, pours the wine. If the ‘host’ happens to be a woman, then she should ask a male guest to do the pouring”, Thorpy recommended in Wine in New Zealand. Moreover: “Rosé wines are becoming popular as they are light and innocuous, of a pleasing colour and are ideal for women’s luncheons”.

In addition, the country certainly did not enjoy its strong food-and-wine dynamic as it does today. As Thorpy goes on, “for the hostess looking for an easy and fashionable way to entertain, wine and cheese tastings are the vogue. Cheese acts as a good foil for wine tasting, but it should be cut up into cubes and served with toothpicks to prevent the smell of cheese from your fingers overpowering the wine”. Continuing: “More wine should be used by the housewife in everyday cooking”.

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“A happy combination of of NZ wine, grapes and cheeses” (Wine in New Zealand)

Overall, Thorpy summed up the situation by using the overseas market as his yardstick:

We would be deluding ourselves if we were to think we could export wines in any quantity at the moment. Having visited and tasted wines in most countries of the world, I think New Zealand would find it extremely difficult to compete. We must first put our house in order.

And put their house in order is exactly what New Zealand’s wine trade went on to do. As renowned writer Michael Cooper commented in his landmark 2002 publication Wine Atlas of New Zealand, in the 1980s and 90s, amid a backdrop of large-player consolidation and the growth of artisanal entrants, “winemakers switched from cheap, everyday drinking wine to premium-quality wine with export potential”.

With a focus on producing quality and a move away from hybrid grapes, although the country is not in the top ten wine-producing nations globally, according to the New atafeltonZealand Winegrowers’ 2016 Annual Report Kiwi wines now have a significant export footprint, vastly outstripping domestic demand, with markets such as the US and UK leading consumers.

In further recognition of the consistency now being achieved from single varietal-single location wines, exactly what Max Lake was attempting to define, at the 2010 International Pinot Noir Conference, Ata Rangi (Martinborough) and Felton Road (Central Otago), left, were bestowed the title of Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa, which translates from Maori as ‘Great Growth of New Zealand’. Decanter awarded NZ a total of seven Platinum medals in their 2016 World Wine Awards, two more than South Africa (which produces 4 times the amount of wine). The above-linked NZW Annual Report also provides a multitude of evidence that documents the marketing efforts being made, the research being carried out…and the plaudits being earned.

To finish, and again going back in time, in thinking about the modern practice of keeping wine in fancy wine fridges and the sort of bottles we keep at home for both everyday and “special” drinking, Frank Thorpy makes some excellent recommendations about what he felt should be de rigeur in the late 60s and early 70s:

For the person who wishes to maintain a small cellar for entertaining purposes…may I suggest the following; obtainable from any wine merchant:

  • 3 bottles of Dry Sherry
  • 1 bottle of Medium Dry Sherry
  • 8 bottles of Dry White table
  • 6 bottles of Rosé table wine
  • 12 bottles of Red table wine
  • 3 bottles of Sparkling wine
  • 3 bottles of Port, Muscat or Madeira or a full rich Sherry
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“A small wine cellar of one’s own”, including a Montana “Chablis” (right)

Although New Zealand still has a long way to go — even for the well-established Cloudy Bay, 2015 was only their 30th vintage — as this look-back has shown, a country can go through a vinous transformation and create an image based on quality and accuracy in their winemaking. It’ll be a pleasure to see how the next generation will play out.


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Ginsberg+Chan #winewednesdays: Chassagne-Montrachet

In my third collaboration with Hong Kong merchant Ginsberg+Chan, we explore the brilliant wines of Chassagne-Montrachet in Burgundy by tasting seven different examples.

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Ginsberg+Chan present a selection of wines from Chassagne-Montrachet, the white wine-dominated AOC on Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Adjacent to its illustrious “brother” Puligny-Montrachet, it has 55 Premier Cru vineyards – three times more than Puligny – and 3 Grand Cru ones: Le Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet and Criots-Batard-Montrachet, the first two of which share a border with its neighbour.

Our tasting, composed entirely of white wine, takes the form of three tranches: “1er” (‘Premier’), “2eme” (‘Deuxieme’) and “3eme” (‘Troisieme’).

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1er

2013 Frederic Cossard Abbaye de Morgeot 1er Cru

Medium yellow in colour. A very soft mineral note first hits you – less sulphurous than a young Puligny-Montrachet. Instead of fruit, a minty (spearmint?) character appears next with citrus a distant third. To taste, bracing acidity leads to a simple, perfectly pleasant and refreshing lemon-led mouthful. A straightforward young wine.

2013 Buisson Charles La Romanee 1er Cru

A really nice wood smokiness from the oak draws you in, although there’s not quite the layered aroma you’d expect. Strong on the palate though: rich and rounded, apple, lemon peel and an interesting mineral character (perhaps expressive of the chalky/limestone soil under this particular parcel of land) all feature well. A solid, medium-length finish with a nice note of white flowers.

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2eme 

2012 Dugat Py Morgeot 1er Cru

The second tasting flight (pictured below) immediately looks an interesting prospect. All of them, as expected, were darker in colour given their age. First up, this Morgeot from Dugat Py had a nose not dissimilar to the Buisson. Very balanced and inviting. Mouthfeel good but to taste it was all about the finish – a strong acid thread delivering a seriously rich, buttery/toasty experience. Enjoyable stuff.

2011 Michel Niellon Les Chaumees Clos de la Truffiere 1er Cru

Huh – what’s going on here? A really funky nose, almost vegetal-like in character. Hard to place, but to me it seemed like buttery grilled asparagus. Someone also commented it had a fungal note there, coincidentally reflecting the site’s name (‘walled truffle’ vineyard). Very idiosyncratic, and perhaps slightly reductive in nature. Despite a lack of fruit, the palate was good though, with razor sharp acidity and that trademark oaked Chardonnay finish of buttered toast, like the above. Worth sticking with.

2009 Lucien Le Moine Ruchottes 1er Cru 

Seriously deep gold in colour, but unfortunately this was the only appealing aspect of this wine. Bordering on faulty, the nose unfortunately had the spectre of oxidization hanging over it. “Frazzled bacon” I find myself writing in my notebook , for some reason. To taste it was structurally okay, but those out-of-place oxidative flavours (raisins, bruised apples, among others) dominated. Fine in Madeira perhaps, but not on Burgundy’s Golden Hillside.

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3eme

2005 Pierre Yves Colin Morey Champs Gain 1er Cru

We got right back on track with this effort from Morey. Pale gold, there was something distinctly soil-led in the nose. It seemed, if anything, quite closed – teasing longevity, a fact confirmed upon first sip. With notable power, its bracing acidity and punchy alcohol was in terrific harmony with a fresh citrus and mineral thread. Excellent balance, and the first real example we’d seen of this. A lovely “strong” finish, again that real power coming through, this would be an awesome match for a rich chicken or fish stew. Voted favourite of the night by the majority of the group, and a wine which has many years left in it.

2005 Ramonet Les Morgeot 1er Cru 

The nose on our final wine was much more in ready-to-go mode versus the above. With a fresh apple-lemon note, there was also something candied there (appealing). Confirmed on the palate, this wine is likely at or near its peak, with its buttery richness now fully integrated. Not overly complex, but a very pleasant and mature finish nonetheless. Good wine.

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An evening with Sam Weaver of Churton Wines

In conjunction with Altaya Wines of Hong Kong, I spend an enjoyable evening in the company of Churton winemaker Sam Weaver, sampling seven of his terrific bottles.

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Having studied microbiology at university, and initially spending a decade in the fine wine trade, British-born Sam Weaver found his way to New Zealand’s South Island and began a journey to make first class wines in the famous Marlborough region. Although his aim has always been to “bring a different perspective, a European perspective, to New Zealand wine”, Sam is committed to people identifying his wines as Churton, first and foremost. Their 2016 crop marks their 20th vintage.

Through biodynamic practices, low-intervention vinification and unique site selection (the majority of which carry cut-of-meat related names), Churton wines are individual and characterful. The evening involved Sam running our small group through his philosophy and practices, as we tasted four whites and three reds:

2013 Petit Manseng

Made in extremely low quantities, this 10% abv off-dry wine (or “Demi Sec”, as the French like to call it) was an appealing medium yellow colour and had an intensely aromatic nose. Floral cues, quince, ripe pineapple, tropical fruit and what appeared to be an unusual tomato juice-like character (Bloody Mary, anyone?) all attacked the senses. On the palate it was extremely refreshing – the high acid level doing the heavy lifting in the face of that lower alcohol level, providing a moorish, fruity, mouthfilling experience. So drinkable, and stylistically not a million miles away from a lower-alcohol Spätlese Riesling from the Mosel in Germany. Cracking as an aperitif.

2011 Viognier

Another aromatic varietal, this wine was very well balanced on nose and palate. Not particularly expressive out the glass, showing a marked austerity. Floral; very linear, it felt like this is still closed and in its early development. To taste this wine showed notable power, high acid, being delivered by a punchy 14% abv, with a very pleasant and refreshing finish of citrus, apple and a touch of white flowers.

2014 Sauvignon Blanc

An interesting exercise, compared side-by-side with the below wine. Typically – and beautifully – herbaceous on the nose, with those classic Kiwi SB cues of gooseberry, green pepper and cut grass. It goes further than most though, with an excellent texture and strength. Highly refreshing and enjoyable.

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2013 “Best End” Sauvignon Blanc

Sam’s ‘premium’ Sauvignon is a real step up from the above. 100% fermented in barrel for 12 months, and it adds another dimension. A wonderfully complex nose: all of the above, plus a marked flinty minerality, the faintest touch of vanilla (“I never want my wines to be ‘oaky’; I want them to have the flavour of oak in them”, says Sam), on top of a note of pure passion fruit and feijoa, a local “spoon fruit”. Apricot in there too. Later, on the fifth or sixth swirl, a pleasant vegetal note makes an appearance, akin to fresh asparagus. Layered and rich on the palate, with a flavour concentration that marks this out as special, its finish goes on and on. An outstanding wine.

2012 Pinot Noir

This Pinot was very approachable and enjoyable, showing cherry, soft oak, sweet spice and violets on the nose. Drink-young Pinot is terrific when it’s like this. There’s a real thread of cinnamon and dark cherry to taste, and its dry, high acid structure means nothing is out of place. Good stuff.

2013 “The Abyss” Pinot Noir

From a site on the edge of an 80m cliff drop, Churton’s benchmark Pinot is a cracker. Still opening up (Sam described it as “brooding”), its nose is somewhat tentative at this stage – but still showing signs of what is to come. Wonderfully floral; rose petals, violets and a savoury character is all there, although red fruit staying under the covers. Very young. On the palate there’s real flavour concentration but the tannic structure really jumps out – not grainy but fine, this wine has a real elegance about it. You can tell this wine is going to live a long life. Rich on the finish, it’s still a baby. Will likely reward you after 10-15 years.

2010 “The Abyss” Pinot Noir

The last of the night takes the above wine 3 years into the future. Starting to show brownish/tawny tinges, its maturity is starting – only starting – to emerge. Fruit now present, in the form of dried cranberries and stewed apples, with some fresh dark cherry there too. Most strikingly though, a marked sweet liquorice character runs through nose, palate and finish. Almost reminds me of my childhood! Tannins nicely grippy, indicating continued longevity, this is structurally very elegant indeed. A touch short on the finish, and I suspect this is going through a bit of a closed period – but lovely nonetheless.

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An excellent and informative evening, centred around Sam Weaver’s terrific wines. The Best End Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Abyss Pinot were the stand-outs, worthy of any collection. A huge thank you to Sam for stopping over in Hong Kong on the way back to New Zealand from the UK!

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You can find out more Churton’s wines by going to their website. Altaya act as Hong Kong’s official distributor.

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Cloudburst: a moment of reflection, a moment of quality

On a visit to Margaret River I meet an American winemaker who is taking a different turn by producing low-output wines of unique garagiste appeal. Already widely acclaimed outside Australia, I investigate his philosophy and approach…and how acceptance locally may not be easy to come by.

“Top secret location”, I am instructed.

Having spent the past two days moving from polished winery to polished winery, all of sudden I find myself in unknown territory: no signposts, no sweeping driveways, no dark-wood tasting rooms, no robotic and repetitive hosts in branded polo shirts.

Below a clear and sunny Autumnal sky, I find myself in a silent vineyard, a small plot of land just two acres in size. It looks nascent, rough around the edges, experimental. I’m no more than 2,000 metres from the sea, and beyond the vines stretches paddock and Karri trees. An eagle, being antagonised by two smaller birds, circles overhead.

A figure then appears, clutching a swathe of foliage. “Radishes”, he states. “My latest compost pile is starting to get active so I need to feed it”. It is Will Berliner, New England native, horticulturalist, self-styled philosopher and Yale-educated architect of Cloudburst wine. We’re in Margaret River, on Australia’s south-western tip, a long way from home.

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Cloudburst — the name deriving from a meteorological-led “epiphany” Berliner experienced — has been stimulating discussion within the Caves Road firmament since its 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon won Best Red In Show at the region’s 2013 annual wine awards. It was his very first vintage.

With an annual production of just 450 cases, as we stroll through the vineyard it becomes clear his oenological mindset, as well as the price point of his wines [Chardonnay US$155; Cabernet $200-250], occupies a unique position among what is already a collection of well-established, high-quality winemakers. Of other premium Margaret River producers, only Cullen’s “Vanya” Cabernet – at $270 – is priced similarly, and no-one else’s output comes even close to being so low. His 2013 Cabernet had a crop of just 1,688 bottles.

“Minimal intervention is all I care about”, Will starts to explain. “This land and this environment can create something truly extraordinary. Believe me, this place wants to express itself. The soil beneath our feet is a billion years old; why should I mess with it? If all I can input into the winemaking process is a few essentials plus controlled use of oak, then I’m happy”.

Initially a filmmaker but latterly studying at both Yale and UC Davis, he sold his business in the US and moved to his wife’s native Australia, ultimately electing to start a winemaking operation. He doesn’t do it without help, although effective collaboration was (and is) hard. “I really struggled to learn from people. The essence of what I was trying to achieve – and am still trying to achieve – in winemaking was largely anathema to the existing fraternity here. I admit my approach is different”. He makes Cloudburst under the watchful eye of Stuart Watson of Woodlands Estate, a person he describes as a “friend, co-winemaker and mentor”.

“I plant 30 rows of 31 vines for each block [all have names, like the one below]. Every day I am here, among them, using my hands. No machinery touches this place. I’m trying to understand why things – like the radishes – grow in certain places but not others. I find myself on this journey where it is a daily process to understand what the land is telling me”.

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He seems to be a pragmatist, as well as someone not afraid of manual labour. “All the weeding gets done by hand. Why would I want to use chemicals, something that could interrupt the inherent character of the vines?”. Minimal input appears to be the mantra during vinification, too. He “barrel ferments to a consistent formula” [always: 1/3 new French oak, 2/3 old], and doesn’t “worry about how long my malolactic fermentation takes”.

“Would you describe yourself as a solitary person?”, I ask. “Well, yes, I guess I would. My job allows me the luxury of being alone with my thoughts. I do have quite an ego, so I have to work hard to get out of my own way. It’s the only way the wine can develop a style of its own”.

Large-scale production of a supposedly premium product appears to not sit well. “Take Chateau Lafite for example. They produce 20,000 cases of their Grand Vin per year. 20,000! I do not buy in to the idea that you can produce something of such quality, in such high volumes, without a significant amount of human control and input. It is not where I am looking to take Cloudburst”.

With his raison d’être firmly established, “I want to show you what I mean by all this”, he says. At this point, my expectation blunted by the mechanical repetition of everyone else’s approach to tasting, I wonder how exactly he intends to demonstrate the output of his labour by allowing me to drink his wine. I needn’t have worried. We walk over to his Ford pick-up, and Will produces two boxes: one is full of wine, the whites chilled just right, and the other a selection of Riedel stemware. He sets up our tasting run right off the back of the truck.

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“To start, I want to do a little experiment. Try these two wines; I won’t say a word”. Not allowing me to see the bottles, he pours two glasses of what I assume is Chardonnay. I suddenly feel slightly under pressure. I find myself reverting to my WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting training but from the outset I feel I am being duped in some way. They’re both young wines, “no more than 3-4 years old” I say to him. While the first is a little more flat and less expressive than the second, they’re both beautifully balanced with demonstrable complexity. Delicate stone fruit, floral notes and integrated oak lead their flavour profiles.

So what was the trick? “They’re the same wine”, Will reveals, “both are my 2012 Chardonnay. The second one I opened just before you got here, but the first has been open cburst_chardya week. I wanted you to compare the two to illustrate how not adding anything, especially preservatives and chemicals, can keep a wine perfectly stable long after you’ve opened it”. He makes a compelling point.

The 2013 Chardonnay mimics the ’12, but in addition it has somewhat of a saline note, akin to an Albarino from Rias Biaxas in Galicia. You can tell Will relishes idiosyncratic touches such as these, and appears to enjoy seeing his bare-bones philosophy being vindicated.

The 2014 is a real step up. This is wine of the highest quality. With the austerity and steely certainty of a young Chablis, but the assured weight of Puligny-Montrachet, it dances between flinty minerality, yeasty autolytic and soft nougat cues, and bracing citrus, white flowers and soft peach. The finish, with lovely acidity, goes on and on as we continue to talk.

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (which includes 7% Malbec) has purity and cleanliness. At first its varietal character of blackcurrant, cedar and herbal leafiness shines through, but then I spent an age pondering its tannins, which seemed so light and feathery. Coupled with its lovely ripe fruit and perfectly balanced acidity, the wine lasted on the palate for well over a minute.

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Like the ’12, the 2013 (with 4% Malbec) is rich, concentrated and powerful, reminding me of a young St. Estephe in a hot year, like trying a 2003 Montrose a decade ago. Deep purple, it looks inky and syrupy in the glass. It has a beautiful linear finesse on the palate, the calling card of great Claret, while still maintaining that uniqueness, that sense of place, that Will is clearly aiming for in his wines. Both stunning, for me the ’13, with an even longer finish, was the better of the two. It should last for 30 years+.

We round things off by sampling his ultra-low volume 100% Malbec from 2013. It’s a “work-in-progress”, but a fine first effort. With dark fruit leading the way, it still carries the site’s trademark complexity with rustic and savoury notes, all with that structural accuracy and individualism.cburst_cab

It is probably being facile to directly compare Will’s wines to those of Burgundy and Bordeaux. It’s clear his approach differentiates his wines stylistically from the handful of other premium Chardonnays and Cabs I’ve tried at other local houses, not to mention the Cote d’Or and Left Bank. Like a perfectly executed plate of food, it’s only once you’ve finished, and reflected on the technical expression of the individual elements, you appreciate the aggregate picture. And what a picture it is.

So what’s next? Is there a plan to grow production and really get the product out there? “Well, I definitely need to build myself a proper winery”, “but really, apart from that, I just want to keep understanding what the land, the climate, is telling me, and if I can innovate around that, then great. There’s no grand marketing plan!” [A limited amount of Cloudburst sells in Australia, but most of his wine can found on the restaurant tables of Manhattan, Conneticut and California]

Whatever the Margaret River winemaking community think of his project, Will Berliner – and his first class wines – will continue to garner attention. Without doubt, his product will sell to its target market. More importantly though, in the context of my trip to Margaret River, laced with undoubtedly excellent wine from those highly-polished operations, trying Cloudburst off the back of the weathered Ford somehow reaffirmed my faith that maybe, occasionally, brilliant wine can be made for the right reasons.

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Footnote: this article was written after a trip in March this year; in May we managed to persuade Will to come up to Hong Kong and host a tasting. Hugely well received by all, Asia’s first Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee was also in attendance (below). Thanks to Ginsberg+Chan for helping host a brilliant night, as well as to all who came along!

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You can find out more about Cloudburst wine, and the praise it has received, by going to Will’s website. This article was also published in Palate Press magazine.

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