A week in English wine

Seeing as though the UK probably needs to start producing more of its own product in the face of their impending exit from the European Union, I profile English wine – yes, English wine – by taking a tour through a number of bottles while on a recent holiday back to the homeland. There were some real surprises…

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England: the old Empire, Elgar’s Nimrod, rolling countryside, fish, chips, cup of tea, bad food, worse weather. History, The Queen, pomp and ceremony…as well as newly-found political turmoil. What a place.

One thing that has escaped the lazy cultural stereotypes over the years though has been wine, largely because it was so dreadful that even seasoned vinous commentators couldn’t be bothered to talk about it. In mitigation, my native turf’s green and pleasant land has always suffered from being climatically challenged. Overcast conditions, a lack of sunshine, too much rain and generally not being warm enough have meant those berries have often struggled to establish ripeness and hence a proper flavour profile. In short, England was too far north to produce the good stuff.

Encouraging news though: English wine is now worthy of conversation. Furthermore, in a few cases it has the quality to be compared to its more illustrious counterparts from around the world. Thanks to humanity’s ability to alter their surroundings, the facts point to a warming-up of the planet so all of a sudden, the English have got some skin in the winemaking game. Heck, even those cynical French have invested in our vineyards, with Tattinger – that famous Champagne house – most notably buying up land on the south coast. Something must be afoot.

So in the interests of science, during a recent family holiday to Blighty we decided to open a series of interesting and varied bottles, to allow us to judge the scene for ourselves. Before getting into the tasting notes, here’s how the geography plays out, the below map showing the various “shires” from which the bottles came:

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According to English Wine Producers, there are currently 133 winemakers in the country, growing in 502 vineyards with a total production of 5 million bottles per year. Around half of all fruit is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, driving the dominance of sparkling wine (2/3 of total output). Third most-planted is Bacchus, the white grape, with just under 10%. From those 5 million bottles, here’s what we thought of 10 of them:

NV Stanlake Park Wine Estate Heritage Brut (Berkshire)

Made with the Methode Traditionnelle, but far from traditional grapes, instead using Seyval Blanc, Muller Thurgau, Richenstein and Pinot Meunier. Extremely pale, soft mousse. Very clean on the nose, apple and some citrus, although not particularly exciting (couldn’t detect oak in any of the blend wines for example). Structurally good with clean/fresh acidity, nothing out of place although flavour fell away markedly on the finish. Thin but reasonably refreshing, Prosecco-like.

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NV Stanlake Park Wine Estate Stanlake Brut (Berkshire)

Deeper in colour than the above. Pinot Noir (“mostly”, according to their website) and Chardonnay used here, so reverting to French type, something you can detect on the nose immediately. Seems more serious, although struggling to be truly vibrant (ripeness of fruit still a challenge here). Autolytic character of biscuit and yeast a common thread, and again that refreshing acidity comes though. Short finish again but overall, reasonably good.

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2009 Nyetimber Rosé (Kent)

These guys are the English fizz heavyweights, and the original pioneers. From humble beginnings in the late 80s, their estate now occupies nearly 10% of the country’s total land under vine (we’ve seen their standard NV bubbles on a couple of lists in Hong Kong). Overall, this was very strong. Definitely led by the palate: fresh strawberries front and centre, with lovely balance to go with a fine mousse. The taste of Custard Creams, those ubiquitous British biscuits, really features. This is a proper Champagne mimic (although no Pinot Meunier present in this blend), confirmed with good acidity, a touch of residual sweetness and a long rich finish. Seems more than capable to last a few more years yet; given this, and seeing as though it shares my daughter’s birth year, I put my money where my mouth is and bought a case.

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2013 Brightwell Vineyard Bacchus (Oxfordshire)

Kicking the whites off, this grape has been among the most widely-planted in England for some time now, popular for its hardiness and ability to produce fruit-driven wine in the face of tough ripening conditions. Coming in at only 11.5% abv, this was a fine example: a nose with something about it, pure Granny Smith jumps out the glass and later, when the wine was a touch warmer, a definite mineral thread – very unusual for what we’ve tasted so far. Clean, crisp with refreshing acidity on the palate, this is a “proper” wine, and definitely comparable to something dry and fruity from, say, northern Italy. A good offering with bags of appeal.

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2015 Chapel Down Flint Dry (Kent)

A mash-up of a handful of varietals: Bacchus, Chardonnay, Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner and Schonburger. Not a blend of everyday grapes by any means. Pale lemon and attractive. Not quite as nuanced as the Brightwell but interesting nonetheless: apple, pear and citrus there, and later, something I convinced myself as spearmint (strange, I admit; normally you’d only get minty cues in Cabernet-led red wine). Gets some malolactic fermentation during production so to taste, there is a slight creaminess there. High acid and refreshing, this was a really nice pour with excellent balance.

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2013 English Wine Project Bacchus-Sauvignon Blanc (Warwickshire)

Featuring the Greek God of Wine and New Zealand’s favourite grape – from a site in England’s Midlands – and a super result. Seriously aromatic nose; elderflower, nettles, grass (an English meadow, perhaps?), but then those trademark Sav Blanc cues of gooseberry, citrus and green pepper. Flint makes an appearance too. Really surprising but well delivered. On the palate, the acidity is seriously bracing and mouthwatering, so despite the sub-12% alcohol it has a terrific mouthfeel. A notable limey-mineral finish occurred, of good length. The best of the whites, and love the label. A classy package.

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2014 Bridewell Organic Gardens Phoenix (Oxfordshire)

The Phoenix grape has German origins, and is the result of crossing Bacchus and Villard Blanc. Some grassiness and apple cues on the nose – not particularly appealing though. To taste, acidity fine but balance was all off via a demonstrable thinness. Not enjoyable. Definitely something missing here, a shame as the other Bacchus showings had all been very characterful in their own way.

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2013 English Wine Project Pinot Noir Précoce-Pinot Noir (Warwickshire)

Our first red of the trip contains the notoriously tough-to-grow Pinot Noir, as well as its mutant cousin Pinot Précoce, or Frühburgunder as the Germans call it. Nope, I’d never heard of it either. Almost like a dark rosé in appearance, it looks just like Beaujolais – and tastes a bit like it too. Raspberry and dried strawberries, with a notable green peppercorn smell, this was straightforward and simple. Medium bodied and pleasant to drink, although acidity a touch on the flabby side, this struck us as the sort of Summer red wine you’d stick in the fridge for half an hour before opening. Needs work, or perhaps less than 3 years in the bottle before drinking, but an okay effort.

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2013 Sixteen Ridges Vineyard Pinot Noir “Early Red” (Herefordshire)

This producer, like the English Wine Project, operates over 200km north of most of these other wines being tasted. You can tell from the ripeness of the fruit, not to mention overall balance: from a vineyard close to the Welsh border, this is a very earthy and rustic wine. Some floral stuff and cherry trying to get through, but mustiness and a raisiny character dominates. Seems slightly oxidised. Medium in body with a narrow finish, this wasn’t to our liking unfortunately. Surprised to see this with a Decanter medal – must be missing something. Or perhaps our bottle wasn’t at its best. Or perhaps the judges had an off day.

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2011 Chapel Down Wickham Estate Red (Kent)

Now we’re talking; was worried all the reds would be average. Using fruit from much further south, as well as a bit of bottle age, this blend of 79% Rondo (popular in cool climate conditions) and 21% Pinot Noir immediately announces itself as a serious wine. Looks inky and syrupy in the glass – appealing. Bags going on with the nose: a real farmyard character (evocative of our time in the country..), violet, leather, blackberry, plum and eucalyptus are all there. Engaging and encouraging. On the palate, not quite as a good given a slight lack of balance (it could do with more alcohol to balance its fuller body and fruit), and does have a slightly overbearing jamminess. But this is concentrated and rich, with a cracking black fruit profile and excellent acidity, so without doubt it’ll last for anything up to five more years, so long as that 11.5% abv holds out. A good wine, and a really solid finish to our little experiment.

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So there you have it. Of the fizz, the Nyetimber was hugely enjoyable (and a genuine Champagne competitor), the English Wine Project Bacchus-SB technically excellent and appealing, and the Chapel Down red a good example of the use of a climate-appropriate varietal in combination with a more internationally-recognised one. But there were a number of decidedly average bottles unfortunately.

Interesting that in the majority of large retailers I visited, English product was, to put it politely, thin on the ground, especially still wine. As a staffer at Majestic — one of the UK’s largest outlets — summed it up, “the problem we have with English wine is that it just doesn’t have the scalability. We have over 200 branches in the UK, meaning we need sufficient volume of high-quality wine to sell in every store from London to Edinburgh. Excluding the large sparkling makers, 99% of producers can’t give that to us”. This problem seemed to be confirmed even when searching through renowned English produce champions like Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

Price appears to be an issue, too. Both English Wine Project wines came in at £16.95/bottle [US$24], a level most consumers would find hard to stomach when compared to the floods of currently-fashionable Pinot Grigio and Prosecco from northern Italy, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and recognisable reds from Rioja and southern France.

There appears to be comfort with a £20-30 price point for sparkling wine, in large part due to the huge popularity of Champagne, but with still wines, as a friend who works for a major online retailer explained, “they’re just too expensive for us to fit into our business model. Most consumers are still in that sub-£10 bracket so there’s next-to-no margin”. Using this approach, the Brightwell Bacchus, at only £9.95, could be considered a “better” wine than the EWP equivalent.

While sparkling wine gains traction via a handful of heavyweights, in the still wine market it appears clear that for the time being at least, the battleground for connecting these wines to the drinking population is via smaller, independent merchants whose businesses are built on niche and esoteric wines. 7 of the 10 bottles tasted were bought this way.

Outside the economics and scale barriers to growth, encouragingly the quality is definitely there. You just need to go out and find it. A number of producers are being critically acclaimed now (see recent Independent and Decanter articles), so in the future we might be talking about how wine should be added to the list of England’s contributions to the world…as opposed to how bad its weather is.


This article has also been published on Grape CollectiveIf you like it, please share by using the links below. Also, be sure to follow me by going to The 23rd Parallel’s Facebook page (here) and hitting that Like button. I can also be found on Twitter here.

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Ginsberg+Chan #winewednesdays: Maison Leroy

In my first blog for Hong Kong wine specialist Ginsberg+Chan, I present notes from an evening sampling a number of bottles from Maison Leroy of Burgundy.

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Led by our engaging and gregarious host, Roberto Gallotto (below), Ginsberg+Chan present a selection of wines from the famous Maison Leroy of Burgundy. Since 1868, when Francois Leroy founded the house in the village of Auxey-Duresses near Mersault, the name has been synonymous with authority, innovation and quality. The family still own a major stake in Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.

In its present day guise, Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy is at the heart of an empire which has control over three domaines: Maison Leroy, Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay. The former sits at the centre of the business and acts as a negociant house through which Madame Lalou purchases and distributes wines from most appellations in Burgundy. Her reputation has been built on an innate skill in unearthing some of the best wines of the vintage, then completing the vinification and maturation process, before releasing them under the Maison Leroy label.

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Our tasting takes the form of three tranches, “Blanc”, “1er Rouge” and “2eme Rouge”…go to Ginsberg+Chan’s website for the full write-up here.

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Old Empire Long Lunch II

A week before Christmas last year, four friends convened at a restaurant in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district to enjoy a journey through some brilliant food and wine. Common sense tends to dictate that it is worth repeating the things you enjoy in life, so here we are for the second installment.

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“We’re probably going to need another table”, we say to our host at Duocento Otto restaurant, or 208 as most call it, a modern Italian staple in Hong Kong’s restaurant-laden Sheung Wan district: we’ve come armed with a veritable arsenal of wine. Luckily they have the space to oblige us.

In a real go-slow, we spend the proceeding 6 or 7 hours (who knows) working our way through some terrific wines. A newly-found tradition dictates we start with vintage fizz…

1996 Dom Perignon

Coppery-gold in colour. Meg and I tried this at a friend’s place around 18 months ago; it was largely flat and lifeless, something we put down to the wine going through a “quiet period” in its maturation. Fortunately, this view was proved right as the latest tasting showed it as having come back to life: expressive, it was full of stewed apple and raisins (almost reminding me of a wintery English pud), with a rich autolytic and doughy mouthfeel. Not much citrus, and it seems to have lost some of its early complexity, but the finish was characterised by an interesting roasted fennel character.

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1996 Dom Perignon

2012 Domaine Roulot Mersault

Unlike the first installment, this time we elect to pour all the whites together so we can compare and contrast. Handy coloured dots guide our way. The Mersault has a beautifully appealing nose: so flinty, with citrus with a lovely floral character underneath. the palate was fantastic, power and richness from the oak while it still integrates, but not over-powering. Long finish, excellent wine.

2011 Cloudburst Chardonnay

This boutique Margaret River label (look out for future articles) produces Chardonnay of the highest quality. Tasted adjacent to the Mersault, it was clear it shared so much in common stylistically: a strong mineral, fresh citrus profile, but it also stood out for its marked individuality, specifically stone fruit and mealy biscuit. This wine will age well for at least a decade. Super stuff.

2008 Gaja Gaia & Rey Chardonnay

Providing a fascinating contrast to the above two wines, this “Super Tuscan” (that is, wines from coastal Tuscany made with non-traditional grapes outside designated growing areas) was totally different. You could immediately detect the warmer climate in it: with tropical fruit like mango (always a sure sign the fruit has ripened later) and a fuller body, at first it was less expressive, but opened up with time in the glass. Very rich finish, still seemingly very youthful. You’d expect this wine to become quite “serious” and austere in its later years.

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2008 Gaja Gaia & Rey Chardonnay, 2011 Cloudburst Chardonnay, 2012

Having navigated the Champagne and whites with a selection of cheeses, meats and pastas, it was time to move on to the more serious stuff:

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(Slightly overcooked) Steak Fiorentine with roasted spuds and rocket salad

2012 Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche

Very young and dusty. A violet, floral note jumped out the glass before ripe red fruit took over, along with a sulphurous note so often accompanied with young red Burgundy. Probably too young at this stage, it was enjoyable once it had been in its jug for an hour.

2011 Cloudburst Cabernet Sauvignon

Starting promisingly with rich blackcurrant and vanilla (almost hedonistic), it unfortunately did not show well after that. Alcohol and tannin were fine, but the fruit and acidity were out of whack, leaving the whole palate somewhat unbalanced. Suspect this hasn’t traveled well, because this label is a lot better than this (again, see future articles), but it seemed to be reverting to type as a hot climate, New World offering without any real finesse. Not a poor wine by any means, but a shame, especially in such strong company.

1982 Château Lynch-Bages

In what was a landmark vintage for Bordeaux, arguably the most popular of all Fifth Growths was on awesome form for our long lunch. Gave it around an hour in jug before first pour (fruit was initially pretty ripe). First aroma: the unmistakable note of pure wood smoke, almost like the waft you get when you walk into a centuries-old English country pub in the middle of Winter, with open fire crackling away.

With the patriotic symbolism done, at a technical level the wine looked very vibrant with hardly any tawny colouring (the best indicator of age). Blackcurrant leaf and graphite jumped out of the glass, before moving into lovely ripe dark fruit, especially blackberry and plum. Very refined; some hard-to-place dried fruit in there too. On the palate, it was more concentrated than the Ch. LLS (next up), and the finish – wow – rich and powerful, with a cedar character went on and on. Outstanding; an absolute pleasure.

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2011 Cloudburst Cabernet Sauvignon, 1982 Ch. Lynch-Bages, 2012 Dujac Clos de la Roche

1989 Château Leoville-Las Cases

This estate has one of the oldest and richest histories of any in the Medoc. A Second Growth, this was a real treat as it came in magnum format. Beautiful Claret nose, instantly recognisable and lovable. Sweet (Asian?) spice there. On the palate it seemed so young: good concentration and, despite some savoury/meaty leads, it was still very fruit-led, with a strong cassis thread especially running through the whole experience. The finish was long albeit slightly on the tart side, but this was a wine of excellent quality.

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1989 Chateau Leoville-Las Cases (in magnum format)
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Nutella calzone to finish (what else?)

Another fine afternoon, and a brilliant follow up to our pre-Christmas get-together. Sense that a third instalment could soon be in the pipeline. The line-up of wines contained some real winners, especially that ’82 Lynch-Bages, but like before it was the excellent company that made this very long lunch so damn enjoyable.

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The complete line-up

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Vega Sicilia: a truly special dinner

The following is an account of a dinner organised by Vega Sicilia and Altaya Wines, Hong Kong and Macao’s official importer of Spain’s most famous and long-lived wine.

“Follow me please, sir”.

I am led through the bustling restaurant and into a private room. The door is slid closed behind me; formal introductions are made. This will be an evening full of surprises.

Overlooking glistening Victoria Harbour, eight of us take our seats around a large round table in Lung King Heen, the Four Seasons’ famous Chinese restaurant. Holding court at the 12 o’clock position is Señor Pablo Alvarez, CEO and patriarch of “Spain’s Château Lafite”, Vega Sicilia.

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The next three hours would be spent on a quite remarkable vinous journey. All bottles had been decanted an hour before we arrived, with Pablo adamant he would not tell us the identity of any wine until we had all taken a sufficient sample.

Flying blind, we start with Champagne.

2002 Salon “S” Blanc de Blancs

“Chardonnay heavy”, we say. The consensus across the table is that we are drinking a Blanc de Blancs (that is, Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay, as opposed to the traditional blend of Pinots Noir and Meunier, and Chardonnay). More straw-yellow than gold, it was light with a super-soft mousse; refreshing but with lovely depth of mouthfeel. Not overly complex, although served a little too cold so much of the nose seemed slightly suppressed. Baked apple and white flowers started to come through as it hit its stride. Still very youthful.

2005 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet

A shimmering rose gold colour with a slight coppery hue. Inviting and interesting. A haunting nose, making me ponder, and then ponder some more. I can’t recall such a complex set of aromas as this, immediately knowing it was unique, and certainly something I have not tasted before. Beguiling and truly ethereal, it danced between flinty/granite mineral, soft citrus and stone fruit, wild flowers and a perfect level of vanilla and toast from the oak. On the palate it was structurally perfect, delicate yet powerful, rich yet understated, it had an almost impossible-to-fathom finesse and subtlety.

Our host is enjoying watching us trying to figure this one out. The reveal: it is a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, from the most famous white grape vineyard in the world. The production of this wine is just 250 cases per year. Hours later, when I am lying in bed, I am convinced I can still taste it; like it has somehow been imprinted on my subconscious. Simply the finest white wine I have ever been fortunate enough to taste.

“Normally”, Pablo says matter-of-factly, “we would serve this at the end of the meal with a simple piece of Comté cheese”. Vega Sicilia also happen to be the Spanish importer of Burgundy’s most famous label.

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Appetiser selection with 2005 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet

2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5°

With heads still spinning from the above wine, we move on to the reds. This will be the youngest wine we try, and the first from the Vega Sicilia estate, located in Spain’s Ribero del Duero region. Named 5º after its five-year maturation period, it is a pure expression of the Tinto Fino grape, or Tempranillo. Fresh dark fruit leads, plum especially, but a savoury note was already starting to emerge. Very early in its life cycle, rich vanilla jumps out of the glass, and the palate is almost creamy. The tannins are already very soft. Later, when I return to it, a note of pure mocha attacks my senses.

2004 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5°

The seven-year difference to the above is stark; this one is a lot more reserved, almost in a closed period. Initially, it was clear it needed more time in decanter or glass. Upon trying later in the evening, it started to introduce itself with a notable – and curious – menthol character. Savoury and sweet rustic red fruit (dried strawberries?) came through.

Although the number four is not synonomous with good fortune in Chinese culture (quite the opposite, in fact), “the 1954 vintage of this wine was great”, a fellow guest comments.

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Hot and sour soup with shrimp wontons, with 2004 and 2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5deg

2000 Château Haut-Brion

Pablo’s first trick of the evening arrives, but the audience isn’t being fooled. The table instantly recognises that this is not from Spain, but from Bordeaux’s Left Bank, with its trademark Cabernet-led nose. Herbal, cedary and dusty, a slight metallic cue joins the expected blackcurrant leaf. So elegant. Clean and linear on the palate, nothing out of place. Powdery tannins and precise acidity means this perfectly-executed Claret, with its long finish of soft dark fruit, is simply a delight.

2003 Vega Sicilia “Unico”

Vega’s flagship red, very few wines spend this long maturing before release. Most vintages, Pablo explains, spend at least a decade in oak and bottle before hitting the market, and then a generation is often needed to hit their peak. “The 70s and 80s are drinking very well now”, he says when I ask him where the sweet spot for his wines are.

This is a beautiful wine: plenty of fruit on the nose from the Tempranillo, but wonderful floral and brooding smokiness, and what appeared to be black tea, made for an initial sensory overload. With perfect balance, not in any way heavy, it was a terrific accompaniment to the Wagyu beef.

1996 Vega Sicilia “Unico”

As with the Valbeunas, we taste a second iteration, seven years older. Idiosynchratically, although it is in the minority, the Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the nose (usually, Unico is made up of 80% Tempranillo and 20% Cab). Lovely blackcurrant wafts after that initial swirl. Like the 2003, the balance on the palate strikes you most, but it is the extra age which adds an extra dimension to this complex and layered wine. The finish goes on and on.

1996 Château Cheval Blanc

As with the Haut-Brion, this seems out of place, but in a wonderfully good way. More rustic and powerful though, the Cabernet Franc and Merlot deliver hedonistic but savoury fruit, along with a marked graphite note. So much quality to the taste. For me, this one took the prize for best Bordeaux of the evening.

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2000 Ch. Haut-Brion, 2003 & 1996 Vega Sicilia “Unico”, 1996 Ch. Cheval Blanc

1968 Vega Sicilia “Unico”

Our final wine of the evening is a third Unico, and it is stunning. In an example of take-it-to-the-extreme maturation, this was not released to market until 1991. For a 48-year-old wine, the table could hardly believe its freshness (in my notes, I use an expletive to describe my initial reaction): with a remarkably similar fruit profile to the Valbuena 5º, it showed soft smokiness and sweet spice, but perfectly ripe dark fruit led the way. And as the below picture shows, it showed hardly any tawny-brown colour, a key indicator of age. The finish, rich and satisfying, lasted for even longer than the 1996.

It feels like this wine will live as long as its lucky owners resist the temptation to open it.

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Lobster fried rice with 1968 Vega Sicilia “Unico”

It is often said that people don’t like surprises; not being in the know can often be a disconcerting experience. After a fascinating journey through this series of truly special wines though, all which were not revealed until after we’d taken our initial sips, I’m not sure I subscribe to this idea anymore. It was a pleasure to attempt to decode what we were tasting, concurrent to actually enjoying them.

Away from the feeling of good fortune in being able to taste these wonderful bottles, special evenings like this can affirm that when done right, wine can produce some truly glorious and profound moments.

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The complete line-up
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David Rogers and Snr. Pablo Alvarez of Vega Sicilia

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Sincere thanks to Mr. Paulo Pong, Managing Director of Altaya Group, as well as Snr. Pablo Alvarez, for arranging, and allowing me to participate in, such an incredible evening. You can find out more about Vega Sicilia, as well as purchase the wines themselves, by going to Altaya’s listing page here.

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Wine: how do you actually make the stuff?

Via a trip behind the scenes to the Deep Woods winery in Margaret River, I walk through how our favourite drink is made. Huge thanks to chief winemaker Julian Langworthy for allowing me to be a pain, asking him questions all morning, and generally following him around.

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The journey from vine to bottle – and our subsequent enjoyment, reflection and in many cases, hangover – is an interesting and long one indeed.

First up, what do we understand about wine? Well, we know that grapes are the magic ingredient; they ultimately get converted to the good stuff by, most importantly, the process of alcoholic fermentation, a chemical reaction that is bought about by the action of yeast. This reaction converts naturally-occuring sugars in the grape into alcohol, carbon dioxide, heat and flavour compounds.

Science part over. Well, nearly: to wind the clock back, the process to produce the various components of a vine comes from a combination of heat and sunlight from the air, and water and nutrients in the soil. Things don’t end well if any of these factors fall down: for example if the temperature around the vine is below 10ºC, it is too cold for the vine to function (…and this is why they’re dormant in the Winter, and the reason wine is only produced between certain parallels of latitude).

Science part definitely over. Now to Deep Woods in sunny Margaret River.

The first job of the day is not with the grapes, but in “the lab”. Every day Julian (below right) and Dan Stocker (left) – “the architect and the builder” respectively, as one of the guys on the winery called them – assess the state of the wines that are currently in the fermentation process. Some are as young as two days old; some are over two weeks.

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We start by tasting two Riesling flights (below). We’re attempting to blend a dry style for a major international supermarket. The first glass is sour as hell with a very short finish [that is, the residual taste sensation after spitting it out]; the second has a lot more about it, good citrus, bracing acidity and a finish that lasted nicely. “I’m thinking at the moment, 85-90% of the second one will make up the blend”, says Julian.

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With the reds, there is a lot of them. The numbers on the side of the bottles refers to the fermentation tank from which the samples have been taken:

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“At this stage all we care about is structure”, Dan says. “Fruit and alcohol haven’t fully formed yet, so acidity and tannin are our main indicators” [tannin: a funky chemical found in the grape’s skins, stalks and pips; we detect it as a drying sensation on the gums. It gives structure to red wine and acts as a preservative, essential for ageing] The lads mechanically move through the wines, as I try to keep up, with no more than one or two lines of commentary for each sample. It’s a quick and efficient process.

A lot of the Cabernet samples take me back to my childhood, when my sister and I would be treated to Ribena: that cloyingly sugar-sweet, blackcurrant juice only drinkable in small quantities. My palate feels flattened by the end of the 21 samples.

We then head out to the yard to see how you actually make this stuff.

The fruit has already been picked, so the main job of the day – and the first one in the winery itself – is crushing and destemming nine tonnes of machine-harvested Malbec, and three tonnes of hand-picked Cabernet. Here’s the Malbec:

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And this is the machine that does it:

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Why crush and destem to start? This is the winemaker’s choice (some wines are made by chucking whole bunches straight into a fermentation tank), but most will carry this stage out because if the grapes have been hand-picked, the bunches will have stems and other leaf material still attached. The crushing, which gently splits the grape’s skin, initially helps the fermentation process.

The appliance, the centre of which is very similar to the drum of a washing machine, breaks the skins and liberates what is known as free run juice, without impacting the pips, which if broken can release bitter and astringent oils – which will almost certainly affect the ferment, and therefore the finished product.

Once they’ve been through the spin cycle, this is them making their way to the next stage:

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Apart from the free run juice produced, here’s what the grapes now look like…note the split skins with still a lot of juice in them:

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At this stage the winemaker may choose to allow the grapes to macerate at cool temperatures, something that allows the greater extraction of colour and flavour. Once the fermentation process is to kicked off though, the grapes (with the juice) are fed through a pipe, from the crusher, and into the fermentation tank:

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And here they are, stewing away at the start of the primary fermentation process. It is here the yeast is added. Approach can vary, as yeast naturally occurs in the air, so the winemaker may choose to leave the tank open and expose the must [unfermented grape juice] to the elements, but nowadays the winemaker will choose a particular strain of yeast in order to have a greater degree of control over the outcome of the fermentation.

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Another important element to modern winemaking is the addition of sulphur dioxide (SO2). In all but the final stages of producing wine, oxygen is a producer’s worst enemy: because just like that bunch of bananas sitting in your fruit bowl at home, leaving out anything organic that has been detached from its host can soon lead to overripness and hence spoiling. It is for this reason that an antiseptic/antioxidant is needed. As soon as the grapes have been picked off the vine, SO2 is used throughout the process.

Depending on the colour and style of wine the winemaker is going for (hence all that constant tasting in the lab), the ferment can last from a few weeks to several months. White wines are usually fermented between 12°C and 22°C, reds 30-32°C. The process of converting that sugar into alcohol maxes out at around 15%abv (i.e. once the sugar has been exhausted).

Skin contact is the key choice for the winemaker: this is where the majority of the flavour and aroma is derived from. In whites, once the crusher has done its thing, often the free run juice is separated off and the remaining grape mass is sent to a press. In reds though, in addition to any cold maceration, a decision needs to be made about how much time the juice of the grapes spends in contact with the skins during fermentation. The longer the time on skins, the fuller the body, the bigger the tannins and the punchier the fruit profile. The result is a “big wine”, often associated with hot climate, high alcohol reds.

Once the ferment is done, the juice is drawn off, and the skins pressed separately (to extract more juice). The SO2 is still never far away. Before clarification, filtering and/or fining – which removes any nasties such as dead yeast cells – one of the final stages of the game is the strange-sounding malolactic fermentation. All red wine goes through this, and some (again, depending on required style) whites do. It is a secondary ferment where tart malic acids (what you get when biting into an apple) are converted into softer lactic acids, which are found in dairy products. This is the process that produces flavours such as butter and nuttiness in your wine.

Then we mature. Barrel-ageing wine, especially red, allows the key elements of wine – fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannin – to integrate and produce what tasters often refer to as balance. For the first time, oxygen is helpful; the oak allows it to gradually seep through and alter – in a good way, hopefully – the flavour of the wine. Here’s the barrel hall at Deep Woods:

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The months (and often years) tick by and the winemaker will taste at regular intervals to see how their embroyonic product is developing. Once they’re happy, and it is of the style they’re aiming for, it’s off to the bottling line:

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And here’s the finished product (Julian kindly gave me this bottle…yet to be drunk):

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So there you have it. The wine will then continue to develop and evolve over time in the bottle, in the hope the drinker picks exactly the right time to unscrew or pop the cork for maximum enjoyment. In the case of high-quality red wine from Bordeaux, this can often take 15-20 years; for commercial, lower price point Pinot Noir, drinking it after just 2-3 years will find it at its peak.

Mother Nature plays the biggest part in the production of wine, but without those important human interventions in the winery – like a controlled alcoholic fermentation, skin contact and that SO2 – your favourite red or white (or rosé, if you’re of that disposition) could not be the drink you know and love. An incredible process which requires a lot of skill and appreciation of the elements. Thank goodness for winemakers and the product they produce.

Which makes me think, what are we going to open this evening..?

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To learn more about Deep Woods, give their website a go.

If you like this article, please share by using the links below…and if you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. I also now have a Facebook page here. Please remember to Like!

 

The 23rd Parallel Q&A: Adam Bilbey, Sotheby’s

Adam Bilbey is a Sotheby’s Director, and their Head of Wine in Hong Kong. In my latest Q&A for Grape Collective magazine, he talks to me about the current state of the auction market in Asia and beyond, consumption trends at the top end of the market, as well as the issues surrounding wine forgery.

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Adam, the extent to which Asia – and Asians – impact your global purchasing demographic at Sotheby’s is a real stand-out. It’s huge. To start could you talk to us about the auction market here, and where you think wine trends are in Asia in the context of both these numbers and the city’s historical attachment to blue-chip French red wine?

Well it’s a far more global market than it has ever been. Firstly, on pricing: historically it was always seen that a premium could be achieved here in Hong Kong; with a few exceptions now that is not really the case anymore. As you can see by the slide [below] we have Asian people buying actively in both our US and UK sales hubs in addition to their “home” market, and we only rarely see, for example, Americans having a strong presence here. This is due to the continued and growing nature of Asia’s appetite for fine wine, and the competitive market in the region. China, Japan and South East Asia are all now extremely busy markets for us. You’re seeing a continued thirst for wines at this end of the market, and auction houses like us offer the opportunity to buy from specific collections around the world.

I think there’s very much a consistency of purchasers across the auction market now. In the UK, it is skewed slightly more towards trade customers, but in Hong Kong we tend to see a similar demographic of private collectors year after year. Of course you will always see themes, for example in the US where the market for Italian wine is much stronger than anywhere else at present. But in the same breath you say that the demand for high-end Burgundy is extremely strong in Hong Kong.

Over the last 6-12 months, top collectors here are growing their awareness of the provenance of the stock they are looking to buy, such as with our recent Mouton collection the most popular lots were the ones that came directly from the Chateau itself. Likewise, when we are selling a single owner cellar, the original source is without question.

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Are you saying then that previously, the “buyer beware” mentality wasn’t really here in Asia, that there was just this rush into an asset class that happened to be wine?

I think the Asian markets probably have more experience with trademark infringement than any other area of the world, so we see more scepticism and scrutiny here. But it’s clear that people here are very quick learners. They are now far more aware now of provenance of stock, of storage, than they were 5-10 years ago. For example, Asian collectors were heavily involved in the recent Don Stott collection in New York, and if you look at the outcome, the success of it was shown in most of the sales being at medium to high estimates.

He was a very well-known and respected collector, and the buyers were aware of the efforts he and Sotheby’s had put in. But it’s not alright just to say an auction comes from a great collector, unless you have every single factor absolutely spot on – what you put in that catalogue, the label condition, the level, the wine’s appearance – people will not buy in to it. We are staking our reputation on it.

You’ve briefly mentioned a couple of consumption trends there. When I look at the presentation, the Top Lots of 2015 [below] really says a lot; the Hong Kong hub dominates, Asian buyers, the Burgundy and the Bordeaux. So do you think you guys have to maintain the focus there, and you’re not seeing the diversification you may be witnessing elsewhere? Are Asians looking at other areas outside blue-chip French wine?

In the general retail market, yes people are definitely moving away from purchasing traditional bottles. But in the auction market, the fine wine market, where the top 10% of collectors operate, as much as we’d love to see things even out, we are still driven by people’s desire to find wine that simply doesn’t exist on the secondary market anywhere else.

But we’ve seen some hugely encouraging signs of diversification of late. It tends to be the blue-chip, better-known labels though. In Spain for example, Vega Sicilia, Pingus, does very very well. People understand and appreciate these wines. The crucial point here is that knowledgeable collectors buy from the top, and work their way down – it is the complete opposite of the retail segment, where typically you buy a wine from a specific country, then aspire to drink something of better quality from the same region.

What is always fascinating to see here is that say the top Burgundy collectors that might have originally started by buying ready-to-drink Romanee-Conti, are now buying Rousseau, Mugnier and Roumier, and subsequently working their way down. In Asia, knowledge is power so it’s important to them that they understand Burgundy in a general sense.

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So on that point, the retail side is an area Sotheby’s is growing into, and your background [Adam used to work at Berry Bros & Rudd] brings experience to the firm. It has been clear from the other people that I’ve interviewed that Hong Kong is a hugely competitive market place, but still one whose sales are still largely taken up by French red. Talk us through the firm’s motivation to enter the market, where you think any niches might exist and how you can impactful.

It is a tough market for sure. Our motivation came from a desire to replicate the success of our US-based retail business, based on the Upper East Side in New York. We took the view that we’d like to see what we can do in Hong Kong: we are extremely lucky that we already have a broad customer base, across a variety of tastes. They trust our brand and our reputation, but most of all we want people to associate with the high level of service and advice we can provide.

We’re still finding our feet; the market is very price-sensitive here, and the question is what is our point of difference versus a plethora of local retailers. For us it is about the quality of service, the advice we offer, and – as silly as this will sound – we inspect every single bottle of wine we purchase. It’s a lot of effort. Our price point starts at about HK$200 [US$26]; we’re not going to be offering a massively broad range of wines, instead we’re aiming to have a series of “reference point” wines from each region that you won’t see anywhere else, including auction. We want them to be entry point for people, to help them understand wine better.

And going back to that diversity theme, how are you going to work on that?

As a business we still need to respond to what the market is telling us, but we are advocates of growing the health of the market. For example we’ll have that red Burgundy, but right beside it we’ll have a terrific New Zealand Pinot that we love.

We have a lot of people who’ll come in and say, “I need a bottle of Cote de Beaune for tonight, what do you think?”, and we’ll walk them through what we have, but in the same sentence say, “well if you like that, how about trying this?” It’s hugely satisfying when people not only take our advice, but when they come back for more of the same, new wine. We’re adding to the market, and it’s great to see people expanding their horizons.

In our auctions it’s been encouraging to see the leading labels of Napa Valley do well, from Barolo the likes of Conterno sell well. It is all has a drip-feed effect. Personally I’d love to see German Riesling do better in Hong Kong: it matches the weather here, it matches the cuisine, particularly seafood.

We’re about to launch a pop-up store which we’re really excited about. There’s a middle market of clients where we are going to be able to deliver that diversity and education message effectively, we hope. Again it comes back to that idea of providing of good advice based on building relationships and listening to what they need; that’s where we feel the battleground is here.

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An important area I wanted to talk about was the issue of fakery. You’ve talked about provenance already, and you guys obviously have to be so fastidious about where your wines are coming from. In a more broader sense, and not necessarily specific to Sotheby’s, can you educate us about the degree to which wine forgery is still prevalent in Asia?

There’s been a huge amount of press around this issue in recent years, and certain merchants and auction houses have garnered some serious attention. For us it is simply a case of working hard every time we talk to a new source, conducting our due diligence. If there is even a slight degree of doubt, then the conversation ends.

I don’t think we are paranoid, but the reality is that you do still see collections nowadays that unearth inconsistencies that can’t be explained. They may be innocent, but it is not possible to accept them for auction. For example if we’re being shown a dusty cellar full of 19th Century Lafite, if it sounds too good to be true, there is a chance it probably is.

It’s tough for me to go into it in more detail, but what I can say is that Asian collectors, particularly here in Hong Kong, are far more sensitive now than they have ever been, and this is our primary focus. If you look at the cover of our April 2 brochure [below], we have a 1947 Cheval in 5-litre format: we went back to the Chateau to be in absolutely no doubt that it is what it is.

I’d also suggest it hasn’t just been an auction house problem, the whole of the secondary market has experienced issues. It is not just in Asia too; a lot of the highest-profile forgery cases have stemmed from Europe, from the US. We just need to make sure that we have done absolutely everything in our power to ensure the consumer gets exactly what they have paid for.

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So finally, how do you think the next 5 years will shape up for Hong Kong?

Well, in addition to the general broadening and growth of the market, an acceptance of other regions and grapes, I actually think Bordeaux is going to make a bit of comeback, as strange as that sounds for the city. A lot of it is undervalued now. I don’t think we’ll see any of the post-2005 pricing silliness return, but the Second to Fifth Growths are well placed to do well in both the retail and auction market. Hongkongers like a bargain, and I think the coming years will see people go back to the producers they perhaps lost a little bit of faith with after the 09 and 10 vintages.

And any chance of German Riesling becoming popular?

We can but hope!

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This interview was originally published on Grape Collective, the current front cover of which can be seen below.

If you like this article, please share by using the links below. Please remember to go to my Facebook page here and Like! If you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here.

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Margaret River: a week in 105 wines

If you haven’t been to Margaret River, I recommend you go. Great weather, beautiful countryside, an amazing food and wine scene, so much to do with the kids (caves, lighthouses, animals, farms, beaches…and plenty of ice cream and chocolate), and zero jet lag if you’re in the Asian timezone. All wrapped up, of course, in that unique Aussie hospitality.

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[our home for the week at the tranquil, and wi-fi-less, Burnside Organic Farm]

Seeing as this is a wine blog and not a tourist board service though, I’ll move on to the vino. Along with some pics, here are my speed dating-style tasting notes from our visit to 9 wineries, 3 restaurants, 3 accommo-drunk bottles and 1 horse-riding centre. We got through over 100 different wines in the 6 days we spent in the region.

I’ve added some general thoughts about the wines – and the industry – at the very end. I’d love to hear any comments you might have.

Morrie’s restaurant, Margaret River township

NV Adelaide Hills Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay)

  • Like a Prosecco but without the residual sugar
  • Dry, toasty, short finish

2012 Juniper Crossing Tempranillo

  • Cherry, plum, damson. Red-wrapper Lindt chocolate ball from the wood
  • Sweet spice; not great balance but enjoyable

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Jester’s Flat horse riding centre (who also produce their own wine)

2015 Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon (“SBS”, as it came to be called by the locals)

  • Gooseberry, grass on capsicum on the nose
  • Flabby acidity, watery, palate not great

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Vasse Felix

2014 Blanc de Blancs

  • Sulphurous note, biscuity and yeasty
  • Apple, citrus – pleasant

2015 Classic Dry White

  • 60% Semillon, 40% Sauv Blanc (or “SSB”)
  • Citrus, dry white, nothing complex

2015 Filius Chardonnay

  • 20% of blend in oak
  • Apple/pear, bracing acidity

2014 Chardonnay

  • Mineral and flinty
  • Toasty oak, well rounded

2014 Heytesbury Chardonnay

  • 65% new oak, rich and rounded
  • More powerful than above

2014 Classic Dry Red

  • Soft Shiraz, pleasant quaffer
  • Some earthiness, cherry, black fruit

2013 Shiraz

  • Wild yeast ferment
  • Brambly, plum, some pepperiness

2014 Filius Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Bags of varietal character; blackcurrant, cassis, leafiness
  • An early drinker, took one back to base

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Tighter, more concentrated than above
  • Should last 5-7 years

2012 Heytesbury Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 18mo in oak, 77% Cab, 16% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot
  • Soft tannins, powerful, dark fruits – needs time

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Cullen

2013 Chenin Blanc

  • Funky, refreshing, high acid

2014 Vineyard White

  • Sauv Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc
  • Very light, citrus dominated

2014 SSB

  • Neutral, forgettable

2013 SSB

  • 90% oak for 5mo, added body
  • 71% Sauv Blanc so very grassy – good

2015 Rose

  • Grenache-based
  • Neutral again but pleasant

2015 Malbec

  • Dark fruit, savoury notes
  • Pleasant fruity/toffee finish – big wine so took one back to base

2012 Vanya

  • Uber-Priced (A$350/bottle) premium Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 3% Petit Verdot for structure
  • Savoury out of the glass, somewhat restrained
  • Soft blackcurrant leaf, liquorice
  • Concentrated and powerful – serious wine
  • Palate: rubbery/leather, farmyard (bacon?), long finish
  • Excellent, but not the same quality as Cloudburst (see forthcoming separate article)

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Drunk at accommo

2014 Xanadu Chardonnay

  • Straw-gold appearance
  • Not overly complex, nice citrus

2014 Hay Shed Hill Vineyard Series Chardonnay

  • Pale yellow with hint of lime-green
  • Understated but very pleasant nose of nougat and vanilla
  • Lovely wine, perfectly balanced on the palate

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2015 Deep Woods Chardonnay

  • Very citrusy, lemon, simple
  • Toasty finish with nice acidity, slightly bitter
  • Not as good as Hay Shed Hill above

Deep Woods

2 Riesling samples / blend

22 Cabernet / Malbec / Shiraz samples

Julian Langworthy, head winemaker (below right), kindly gave me a bottle of their 2010 Cabernet-Merlot, which we flew back to Hong Kong and will lay down for a year so it can properly get over the bottle shock of being bounced around in a suitcase for 10 hours!

Look out for my separate article on their wines…based around how you actually make the stuff. A lot of fun.

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Cloudburst

2012 Chardonnay (1-week-old + just-opened)

2013 Chardonnay

2014 Chardonnay

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

2013 Malbec

Again, another separate article coming on this – it was a truly unique experience with Will Berliner (below) and his ultra-low volume, stunning wines.

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Cape Mentelle

2012 Walclife SBS

  • Tropical notes, interesting
  • Barrel fermentation, weightier

2014 Chardonnay

  • Mild smoky oak
  • Good weight

2015 Rose

  • Thin, flabby, not balanced
  • Pleasant red fruit nose but not expressive

2013 Shiraz

  • Restrained but good
  • Fruit forward, but a nice savoury character

2014 Trinders Cabernet-Merlot

  • 29% Merlot so plenty of soft tannin
  • Simple fruit, pleasant

2012 Wilyabrup Cabernet-Merlot

  • Very enjoyable, aromatic and layered
  • Soft on the palate, medium finish

2013 Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Really good tannic structure, balanced
  • Complex flavour profile. 91% Cab

2014 Botrytis SBS

  • Sweet wine, candied orange, marmalade
  • Long finish; probably won’t improve much

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Swings restaurant, Margaret River township

2013 Swings & Roundabouts Shiraz

  • Dark fruit, very soft
  • Restrained, not particularly tannic 

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Leeuwin Estate

2015 Art Series Riesling

  • Disappointing lack of expression on nose
  • Palate better; bracing acidity with apple and citrus

2014 Siblings Sauvignon Blanc

  • Aromatic and floral
  • Saffy’s notes got in on the act…definitely apple and peach in there, sweetheart

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2014 Prelude Chardonnay

  • 9mo in new oak
  • Mineral, balanced, nicely expressive
  • Had with Birthday lunch on winery – great with oysters (see below)

2013 Art Series Chardonnay

  • Heard host say to another taster, “this is one of the best wines in the world”. Not cool
  • 11mo in new oak, nose slightly closed
  • Undoubted quality, long finish but did not blow me away

2013 Siblings Shiraz

  • Medium-bodied, herbaceous nose
  • Pepper fully integrated

2013 Art Series Shiraz (new release)

  • Fruit forward (b/currant), layered with sweet spice
  • 20mo in new oak, super-soft tannins

2012 Prelude Cabernet-Merlot

  • 80% Cab / 20% Merlot
  • Lovely red fruit nose, tannic structure for ageing

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Voyager Estate

Before the notes, the owner of this place is a touch patriotic you could say. Their flag is one of only three this size (a tennis court) in Australia, one other of which sits above Parliament in Canberra:

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2013 Tom Price SSB

  • 91% Semillon, oak 10mo
  • Weighty, pineapple notes but not particularly interesting

Following 6 done as a fancy tasting flight, with accompanying iPad app to boot

2012 Girt by Sea Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Slight (odd?) waxy/oily quality – maybe Semillon hangover from above
  • Good quaffer

2012 Shiraz

  • Fairly neutral, earthy, red fruit
  • Medium bodied, dark cherry

2012 VOC Collection Petit Verdot

  • Violets and dark cherry on the nose
  • Full bodied, bramble, dark fruit

2011 Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Sweet fruit, esp. blackcurrant
  • Beautiful soft and grainy tannins

2011 Cabernet-Merlot

  • Nose still quite closed, savoury
  • Excellent balance between all 4 elements {link to how to taste page}

2007 Cabernet-Merlot

  • Still seems so young
  • Complex and layered nose, fine tannins
  • Lovely soft palate of cedar and dark fruit

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2012 Chardonnay

  • 11mo in oak: not showing on nose but does on palate
  • Light, not overly weighty but good

2009 Chardonnay

  • Golden colour, weighty on palate
  • Excellent balance, long finish – better than Leeuwin AS equivalent – superb
  • Another one that made it into one of the suitcases home

2015 Shiraz Rose (project wine)

  • Acidity surprisingly not flabby
  • Dried strawberries and raspberries

Pierro

2014 Fire Gully SBS

  • 70% Sauv Blanc, no oak
  • Dry, fruity style, a Summer quaffer

2015 LTC SBS (l’il touch of Chardy)

  • Adding 5% Chardonnay to SBS blend
  • Bracing acidity, slight tropical character

2014 Chardonnay

  • Their premium wine, A$80/bottle
  • Weighty and balanced, 12mo in new wood
  • Had interesting banana and herbal quality – excellent

2015 Blanc de Blanc (non-sparkling, different meaning)

  • 85% Chenin Blanc in fresh and fruity style
  • 18g of residual sugar; refreshing, needs to be drunk v.cold

2013 Pino’S

  • 90% Pinot / 10% Shiraz
  • Didn’t really work; bitter aftertaste, out of whack

2012 Fire Gully Shiraz

  • With 7% Viognier (N.Rhone style) – well done, really interesting
  • Floral note with dark fruit, medium/full bodied
  • Another one for the suitcase!

2012 LTCf (l’il touch of Cab Franc)

  • Cab-Marlot majority, not particularly interesting

2011 Reserve Cabernet-Merlot

  • 63% Cab Sauv / 32% Merlot / 5% Cab Franc
  • 18mo oak, a serious wine
  • Less fruit but a real eucalyptus note there, slightly medicinal

2005 Shiraz Blend No.1 Reserve

  • Mature nose, a touch meaty
  • Plum/dark fruit palate with a herbal finish

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Hay Shed Hill

A monster tasting to finish…a total of 16 wines. This estate produces 30 in total.

2015 Kerrigan+Berry Riesling

  • Citrus, bracing acidity, very refreshing
  • Good as a drink-now aperitif or could last 10+ years

2015 Block SBS

  • Nose more interesting than palate
  • Herbal, passion fruit

2015 Vineyard Series Chardonnay (tried the excellent ’14 at base)

  • Fresh, rounded, no malolactic fermentation
  • Didn’t quite have the depth of the ’14 – still good though
  • Snuck one back to HK

2015 Block 6 Chardonnay

  • 12mo in oak, again no malo
  • Closed vs. above – more serious wine – but long pleasant finish

2015 Pinot Noir Rose

  • Don’t like rose and this didn’t change my mind
  • Summery nose as expected but acidity and body all wrong

2014 Tempranillo

  • Surprisingly, goes through carbonic maceration {link}, but not obvious on the nose
  • Nice grainy tannins with red fruit

2014 Shiraz-Tempranillo

  • 86% Shiraz; quite powerful
  • Rustic dark fruit, medium finish, high acid

2014 Block 8 Cabernet Franc

  • Blackcurrant + herbal nose
  • Super dry, gasping for air, tannic and concentrated. Very good
  • Fifth and final bottle that made the cut for journey home

2014 Grenache

  • Closed on the nose, short finish
  • Forgettable

2015 Nebbiolo

  • Closed nose again, slightly vegetal
  • Proves why this grape only works in Piedmonte

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 100% Cab; lovely varietal nose
  • Straightforward dark fruit and sweet spice palate, great little quaffer

2012 Block 2 Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Layered nose, very good (18mo oak
  • Good balance, long finish, slight sweetness there

2011 K+B Cabernet Sauvignon

  • More of a Claret style; bramble/plum
  • Slightly closed; definitely a keeper

2014 Malbec

  • Dark fruit, soft palate
  • Not sure they needed to produce this one

2014 Cordon Cut Viognier

  • Sweet wine; floral, honey, honeycomb finish
  • Not cloying, nice acidity, all late harvest (not enough damp for botrytis)

Muscat

  • Made in their own 9-year-old Solera system…usually found in Jerez, Spain
  • Fortified wine; 21% alcohol
  • Caramel, coffee, brown sugar, nutty
  • Rich espresso finish, some sort of honeyed macadamia

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Phew. All done. 

Do shout if you need more detail on any of the wines – I’d be happy to share!

If you’ve made it to the bottom of this article, I’d say this last producer, purely from a wine discovery perspective, was a great example of the good and bad side of a trip like this. While many New World wineries are still in a stage of experimentation (a lot of these estates only planted their first vines in the 90s and 00s, while in the Old World many have been around since the 1800s), I still feel they’re adopting too much of a, “let’s do everything and see what sticks” approach.

It can create confusion for the consumer, and moreover, means you have to trawl through a LOT of wine in order to narrow down what you really like. Firstly stylistically, that is, do you like early-drinking fruit-forward wines, or complex stuff that’s closed now but will reward you in 5+ years? Secondly, what actual grapes and/or blends float your boat?

I’d much rather see a winery spend a decade developing their specialities, then terrain, aspect and soil permitting, hone in on producing just 3 or 4 exceptional wines that people will love and pay for.

It was great to see a lot of people from overseas (especially Asia) at some of the wineries. With their trendy degustation lunches, places like Vasse Felix, one of the very first growers in Margaret River, have now got a highly polished operation that appeal directly to this audience. I fear though their wines may follow a similar path, in that they are targeting a burgeoning audience with offerings that follow a set formula, and lose a lot of the character and expression of place that got them to where they are in the first place.

But all that aside, it was a really enjoyable trip, hugely relaxing, and our first proper experience of the broad spectrum of Margaret River wines. We’ll definitely be loyal to a number of producers and specific bottles from here, as some were world class and we wouldn’t have had access to them in Hong Kong.

As you’ll also see in upcoming articles, it was augmented by the pleasure of getting to know some interesting characters, to go with some truly unique wines.

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[standing on top of Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet, at Australia’s most south-westerly point]

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Beyond Bordeaux in Hong Kong

Running over, so back to writing. I have authored the below feature – telling the story of Hong Kong’s past, present and future wine scene – for US-based online wine magazine Palate Press. It appears in full on their website: due to copyright, only the opening part of the piece is produced on The 23rd Parallel. For the remainder, please click on the link at the end of second paragraph. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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Hong Kong. A city of more than 7 million people shoehorned into a small parcel of land at China’s five o’clock. This is an Asian city with a growing Western influence, with food and drink a central cultural tenet. Despite a rapid growth in middle-class incomes since the mid-1990s, the local moral compass has retained the importance of “face”: this raising of one’s profile through vocational and academic rigour, in order to enhance social standing, has been one of the key drivers of the wine scene here.

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In addition to education, there have been two other catalysts for the growth of wine consumption in the city. The first was the points-based assessment of wine. Linked heavily to the ritual of gifting, people started buying high-scoring bottles in an attempt to align themselves to the notion of sophistication. Secondly, a two-stage drop in duty on wine from 80% to zero in the 2000s meant the volume of wine being purchased rose dramatically.

…click here to continue.

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I’m hugely excited to be contributing to the Palate Press team, the current front cover of which can be seen below. In circulation since 2009, their online magazine has a significant national and international following. You can find out more by going to their website.

If you like the article, please share by using the links below…and if you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. I also have a Facebook page you can like here.

And now that I am back on the grape, be sure to check out our latest tasting adventures here.

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The 23rd Parallel Q&A: The Master of Wine Student

Currently in her second year of what could be a six year journey, Amanda Longworth of Berry Bros & Rudd in Hong Kong is currently studying to become a Master of Wine. Arguably the most prestigious qualification in the field, since the launch of the program in 1953 only 391 people have passed the exams. There are currently 338 living in 24 different countries. In my latest Q&A for Grape Collective magazine, Amanda talks about the demands the course places on you, her motivation for undertaking it, and what she hopes to get out of becoming “an MW”.

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The subject of being an MW is fascinating for a lot of wine-loving people because it has a certain mystique about it. There certainly aren’t many MWs out there. When we first met last year, I asked you how it was going: you said how tough it was. Can you give us a sense of what it’s like to actually study for this thing?

It can be a bit overwhelming is the probably the first thing to say. It is so rigorous in terms of not just the preparation but also the exams themselves: you need to be physically as well as mentally fit! For the Theory and Practical exams, there are eight elements over five days: for the Practical part, there are three blind tastings – each of 12 wines – during the first three mornings, then Theory papers in the subsequent afternoons. For the final two days there are further Theory papers on each day. All Theory exams are 2-3 hours each.

[all Theory and Practical exam questions from the last 3 years can be found here]

So in terms of intensity, and the adrenaline you need, it’s like running the perfect marathon: on that day, you will never taste as well again, and it is the culmination of two years of study coming together on those individual days. There’s a lot of stress around trying to achieve perfection on that day. And then assuming that’s all successfully completed, you then have to move on to the Research paper [a 6-10,000 word thesis].

That certainly sounds tough. But going back to the start, what was your motivation to do it?

I won’t deny there’s a huge amount of credibility to be gained by achieving the qualification, but for me it was just an interest in learning. I just found for that extra depth of learning in wine, no other course could give me that. While you do have to be a generalist – winemakers do them, marketing people like me, journalists – the course is fine with you excelling in one area over others. I’m in the client-facing side of the business, but I still need to attain an understanding the role of chemistry in winemaking for example, and then to be able to speak confidently about it.

In that respect you have to have a knowledge across a very broad number of topics, and the key is not so much about the theory but about the application of it, and that’s where the learning differs from other courses that are very textbook-heavy. 

The concepts are the things that need to grasped; so if I talk to two people about something specific to winemaking let’s say, and I ask, “how do you do it?” and “but you do it differently, and why?” then understanding the impact of those two different approaches. I love the idea of exploring this.

As you look forward to when you do hopefully achieve it, aside from international stardom, fame and people generally falling at your feet, what do you want to get out of being an MW?

[laughs] Well I’m not sure about all that. Look, once you do get it, it’s obviously an amazing achievement, but it is then really up to you as to how you leverage it as a person. We have two MWs based here in Hong Kong – Jeannie [Cho Lee] and Debra [Meiburg] – who have created quite a platform for themselves, and that’s been great, but for me I’m not looking so much for that public persona; I’d like to focus much more on getting in the vineyards, working with the producers, that sort of thing. 

Michael Palij recently made the comment to me that the “deification of MWs” in this part of the world is silly, because people still have that desire to be attached to the notion of sophistication, and the caché that comes from being in exalted positions such as teachers, doctors and so on leads them to act differently. What’s your take?

I think there’s probably only a relatively small circle of people that are like that nowadays, but what is true is that there is still a significant proportion of the population that does not even know what a Master of Wine actually is, let alone what it entails. Debra for example has done a great job in terms of being focused on education, so if you can bring that caché to bear in a positive way, it doesn’t matter so much if that is the dynamic in Hong Kong.

So how long have you got to go?

I’ve done one year and I’m not sitting the Theory and Practical exams until next June. I’m really hoping I can get everything done in 5 or 6 years. It’s a long road but I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

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This interview was originally published on Grape Collective, the current front cover of which can be seen below. The latest edition includes some excellent insights from none other than Robert Parker.

If you like this article, please share by using the links below…and if you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. We also now have a Facebook page here.

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When Napa Headed Way East: The Wine Stash

Despite a change in consumption habits taking place, a consistent theme from The 23rd Parallel‘s first few Q&A sessions was that Hong Kong, as a wine-loving city, still has some way to go before it can say it has collectively embraced vinous diversity.

Two things stick in my mind about wine consumption here. Firstly, according to Michael Palij MW, 77% of all wine sold is French red. Then, according to Watson’s Wine (our largest physical store-front retailer), in their stores in Cantonese-heavy areas, the sales contribution of non-French wine can often come in at less than 10%.

So what hope for everyone else? As you’ll see in future articles, there are clear moves by restaurants, hotels and independent retailers to put interesting and exciting wines from non-traditional areas into our glasses. In an attempt to gauge the degree to which this movement is being received, 10 days ago The 23rd Parallel joined forces with boutique Napa producer The Wine Stash to put together a tasting.

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Started by two brothers, what could be described as a “garagiste” operation by the French, The Wine Stash now has its wares on offer in the some of the city’s leading eating houses, such as Blue Butcher. The aim of the tasting was to challenge people’s preconceived ideas of quality from traditional wine-growing areas, and whether these modern-looking offerings can offer something new.

Without further ado, the scene at Nights on Peel Street before the crowd arrived…

thelineup

Getting the notes down early; was a good exercise in rapid-fire tasting!

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Time to kick things off. Starting with a rosé and the whites…

thewhites

(1) 2014 Rosé

  • Blend of 90% Pinot Noir from Carneros, 10% Grenache
  • Are we in a bar in Hong Kong, or at Wimbledon in the Summer time? A nose of pure fresh strawberries and cream. Very pleasant and appealing. Refreshing acidity delivered dried candied raspberries and cherries, but its body was the most surprising: with the addition of oak, it had genuine weight, without being unbalanced or awkward

(2) 2013 Sauvignon Blanc

  • 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Calistoga
  • Fairly neutral in character. Some citrus and green apple out of the glass, with a small amount of vanilla from the oak. Refreshing and simple, nothing memorable

(3) 2010 Sauvignon Blanc

  • 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Calistoga
  • Interesting contrast with the above. Much more about it, and very much in keeping with a Bordeaux-style dry white: not an overly expressive nose but excellent on the palate. Mouthfilling with fresh acidity, to go with a stony seam it had satisfying finish of lemon and pear. Good wine

(4) 2010 White Blend

  • Blend of 60% Roussanne, 30% Viognier, 10% Sauvignon Blanc
  • An idiosyncratic wine with a construct based heavily on northern Rhone. Funky and aromatic, plenty of citrus, going with a musky/mineral note. Reasonably pleasant to taste, again citrus but also a touch of toffee popcorn courtesy of the new wood. Lack of balance

(5) 2009 White Blend

  • Blend of 60% Roussanne, 30% Viognier, 10% Picpoul de Pinet
  • Very different to the ’10, with the marginal PdP grape replacing the Sav Blanc. Rich and complex on the nose, first up it was stewed apples and raisins (slightly reminiscent of vintage Champagne), followed by stone fruit and a soil-led funkiness. Really interesting palate; mealy and rich, although fruit not so prevalent, with a long finish

And on to the reds…

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(6) 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 100% Cabernet from Rutherford
  • Good solid varietal character of blackcurrant, cherry and plum, accompanied by milk chocolate and sweet spice from the oak. Simple but really enjoyable, this fruit-forward offering is versatile enough to be paired with most foods, or fine to be drunk on its own

(7) 2012 Red Blend

  • Blend of 75% Syrah, 10% Merlot, 5% each Zinfandel / Viognier / Petit Syrah
  • An interesting, rustic style of wine, with its dark fruit (black cherry/plum), savoury notes and earthy minerality. Quite powerful and one which will definitely benefit from further ageing

(8) Wine Stash Mystery Blend

  • Blend of 2005 Zinfandel, 2006 Syrah, 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 Merlot
  • The crowd favourite, and markedly different to the other reds on offer. Given the age of grapes in the blend, its garnet tinge was immediately apparent when compared to its ruby-coloured stablemates. Lovely mature nose of ripe plum and blackberry, leafiness (probably from the Cab) and nutmeg/cloves. On the palate it was dry, linear and clean with a long fruit-based finish. Excellent wine

(9) 2013 Reserve Red Blend

  • Blend of 85% Merlot from Mt. Veeder, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot
  • You could see why Merlot is behind the wheel of this car: plump red fruit, rich and full-bodied with velvety soft tannins. It had excellent balance on the palate although needs time for the tannins, while enjoyable, to fully integrate with the fruit and alcohol. In 3-5 years it should be in fine fettle

(10) 2012 “Summer” Red Blend

  • Blend of 95% Syrah, 5% Viognier
  • A big ol’ wine at 14.7% abv, it is designed to be given a bit of fridge or ice bucket time, then drunk in the sunshine. Another northern Rhone mimic through the addition of white grape Viognier, first up it had a leathery/savoury nose with only a hint of that trademark Syrah pepperiness. A lack of balance as that alcohol hits you between the eyes, although the black fruit flavour was decent

(Bonus) 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon in Magnum format

  • 100% Cabernet from Rutherford
  • Useful to compare to its younger (and smaller) brother; almost identical aroma and taste profile to the 2012, this one has plenty of life left in it despite its drink-young appeal. Again very enjoyable, that nice blackcurrant and red cherry was accompanied by a milk chocolate note from the wood

thecrowd

The evening went well, and the crowd enjoyed running through the line-up. But what did everyone think? They loved the Mystery Blend, which to my mind spoke to that hard-wired enjoyment of good vintage Bordeaux. The Rutherford Cab hung on to its coat-tails, with understandable and excellent varietal character: no wonder this is becoming a go-to house pour for a number of restaurants.

The rosé was well received (due to our hot climate?), but what people struggled to accept were the funkier blends on offer: taking the White Blend for example, to put a twist on what is already a not-widely-drunk wine from the Rhône Valley, it could be considered a gamble, not to mention a stretch when it comes to a consumer’s comfort zone.

And the “Summer” red wine, although well constructed, may not be appropriate for our food as well as local palates (remember what José Alba said about Cantonese tolerance to alcohol levels last year).

theaftermath

My conclusions? In their own right, The Wine Stash produces well-made, solid wines, and there is definitely a space for them in the Hong Kong market. But care needs to be taken as to how they are marketed and placed into our bars and restaurants. The diversity movement is in full (albeit slow) swing now, so pricing will be a huge advantage, but an awareness of the current market is vital too. Taking their Sauvignon Blanc for example, could it really compete with the herbaceous Kiwi style, already very well established here, or the more traditional take from France’s Loire Valley? Unlikely to my mind.

Where it could create a point of difference though is a modern fresh look that highlights their geographical origin. For a sommelier at a restaurant to recommend a HK$100-120 [US$13-15] glass of 100% Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that offers superb early drinking can be a strong message; then, further up the price curve, a blend of older fruit that reflects what’s being done in Napa right now, showcases an exciting philosophy of experimentation that Hongkongers could undoubtedly buy in to.

Let’s hope we see more from the likes of The Wine Stash in years to come.

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Huge thanks to The Wine Stash team for this collaborative effort. You can find out more about their wines via their website. Special mention also to James and the team at Nights, our gracious host.

If you like the article, please share by using the links below…and if you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. I also have a Facebook page you can like here.