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From 25 November 2013 I have moved my blog to a new location at http://sraquinn.org/
Please go there for future blog posts. Cheers,
From 25 November 2013 I have moved my blog to a new location at http://sraquinn.org/
Please go there for future blog posts. Cheers,
Supermarkets dominate the wine retail market in many countries. In Australia, the Dan Murphy and Vintage Cellars chains, owned by supermarkets Woolworths and Coles respectively, sell more than 70 per cent of the wine in the country.
In the United Kingdom, the supermarkets control even more of the market than in Australia. That explains the shortage of independent wine shops in that country.
Supermarkets in both countries wield immense power to control prices. As wine guru James Halliday wrote recently: “It is sheer nonsense to pretend that wine quality has not suffered there [in the UK] as a consequence of the remorseless squeeze on margins to keep the same price for a given wine over a period of years in the face of cumulative inflation and tax that rises every year. The result has been a downward spiral in quality of the major brands.”
What hope then for independent or family-owned vineyards? Especially given the fact that in Australia four conglomerates own about 90 per cent of the country’s more than 2,500 vineyards.
The independents are forced to diversify and find ways to make a living with wine-related events, and/or sell via an online shop.
Tilba Valley Wines on the south coast of New South Wales, which I visited this month, represents an example of how an independent vineyard survives and possibly thrives. The keys to success are location and innovation.
The vineyard has a beautiful location, on the shores of Lake Corunna and in the foothills of Mount Dromedary. When Captain Cook discovered the east coast of Australia in 1770 he named the mountain thus because it looked from a distance like a camel. Nowadays it is also known by its Aboriginal name, Gulaga.
The vineyard is also a few minutes drive from a National Trust village, Central Tilba. This village is picturesque and cute, with scores of original wooden houses converted into restaurants, art galleries, craft shops and cafes. The village also houses the original headquarters of the ABC cheese factory, which has become famous for its innovative approach to making new flavours of cheese. In summer thousands of tourists flock to the area.
The area under vines at Tilba Valley Wines is relatively small, so they are forced to buy in grapes to make some of their wines. Martyn Davies, a former television weather presenter in the United Kingdom, emigrated to Australia a year ago with his Australian wife, who works as a vet in the area.
Martyn presents the wines to visitors. He is charming and possesses a vast knowledge about wine. He told me wallabies had eaten all of the recently-planted chambourcin vines, but since then fences had been erected to keep the marsupials out. Wallabies are the more compact version of Australia’s famous kangaroos – the creatures which adorn the tails of the country’s airline, Qantas.
The vineyard makes semillon, chardonnay, riesling, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon from estate-grown grapes. Martyn Davies told me most of the wine is sold at the cellar door. This explains the rather appalling label, which would not attract many eyes if viewed on the shelf of a wine shop. But the label works for wines that are sold on site – it is a garish purple, which can be seen if you visit the web site at http://tilba.com.au/tilbavalleywines.html.
James Halliday has not reviewed the wines in his annual Halliday’s Guide to Australian Wines since the 2008 vintage. Prices have barely changed since then, which is comforting for people who buy at the cellar door. Wines average about $A 20 a bottle, with discounts for purchases of a dozen or more.
Some of the wines I tasted that had just been bottled, such as the 2012 riesling, showed potential. The 2011 semillon has lovely crunchy acidity, like biting into a green apple, and it pairs wonderfully with local oysters. The 2012 chambourcin rosé also had crisp acidity plus a range of red fruit aromas and flavours.
The estate has diversified into providing meals and entertainment. Food prices are kept low to ensure repeat business, and it was a delight to be able to buy a large glass of wine with lunch without paying a small fortune, as happens in the fancy wine-bars of Sydney and Melbourne. The food was fresh and focused on local ingredients like smoked trout, vegetarian quiche and cheeses.
A feature of the vineyard is the quality of the entertainment. Live music or variety acts are available on the first and third Sunday of each month (except August when the vineyard closes for annual holidays). Many are from Europe, such as cabaret act from Berlin, which was highly regarded on its first visit last year.
Tilba Valley Wines shows what happens when a vineyard, to borrow from the Apple advertising campaign, thinks differently.
In late October the 120 best wines in the 2013 New South Wales Wine Awards were announced. NSW is Australia’s largest wine-growing state.
The half dozen best dry reds were later judged in a separate category, and I had a chance while in Australia to taste those six blind. One of the six received an award as the best red in the state. The task of our group of 11 tasters was to choose which one.
Here are my thoughts on the six 2011 reds the awards judges chose as the best, in the order in which I tasted them.
The Xanadu Margaret River cabernet sauvignon, though labeled a cabernet, contains small amounts of malbec and petit verdot. So it is probably best described as a Bordeaux blend. After years of lauding the qualities of cabernet from places like Coonawarra and the Margaret River, I find myself leaning towards red blends because of the extra layers of subtlety and complexity.
Xanadu experienced a warm and dry summer. The fine weather continued during harvest and most varieties were picked one to two weeks earlier than normal. This meant the wines retained plenty of natural acidity. This acidity was apparent in a wine full of fleshy and juicy fruits suggesting cassis and dark berries.
The wine offers aromas of ripe blackcurrants and dark plums entwined with hints of dried herbs like thyme, integrated with toasty oak. It will become more complex with bottle maturation if cellared for half a decade.
The second wine was also a cabernet sauvignon, from Dorrien Estate Vine Vale Road in the Barossa Valley. Since its first vintage in 1988 Dorrien has become recognised as one of Australia’s best wineries. It has won a host of national and international awards and trophies.
This is a generous wine, with savoury (perhaps slightly green) tannins providing a structure for lots of ripe and spicy fruit to display their elegance. Layers of blackberry, dark plum and black cherry integrated lovingly with subtle spicy oak flavours. I found this wine slightly unbalanced, but this situation could be remedied by half a decade in the cellar.
The Di Fabio Estate Marietta from McLaren Vale is a classic blend of grenache, shiraz and mataro. Goe Di Fabio was Geoff Merrill’s chief winemaker until 2000. Since then he has remained as a consultant. This wine is a tribute to Goe’s mother Maria Michela, known as “Marietta”.
This was my favourite wine, the three grapes working together to produce a balanced array of ripe berry fruit mixed with subtle spice and savoury notes. The aromas reminded me of a bitumen road in summer mixed with the licorice scents of fennel growing by the side of the road. The fine tannins and subtle toast sensations of the oak lead to a lingering finish.
The Dolan Barossa Valley shiraz comes from another pedigree vineyard that has twice won the Jimmy Watson trophy for the best one-year-old red in Australia.
Aromas of stewed plums, blackberry and mulberry mingle with hints of chocolate, licorice and bacon. This wine spent time in high-quality oak and exhibits all the characteristics of a world-class Barossa shiraz: rich yet soft and full bodied. Hints of semi-bitter dark chocolate and caramel at the end reinforced the idea that the fruit was picked when very ripe.
The David Lowe Wines reserve shiraz came from the Rothbury estate in the Hunter Valley of NSW. Like the Dolan, it was made from ripe fruit that gives the wine plum and earth notes and tastes of sweet, toasty oak. The palate is long and textured.
This is a classic Hunter Shiraz with spicy leather characters integrated with ripe berry fruit aromas. I particularly enjoyed the perfumed aromas left behind in the empty glass.
The final wine was the Langi Ghiran Colonial Road shiraz from the Grampians region of Victoria. Ripe fruit was again a feature of this wine, with its complex aromas of raspberry, violets and mixed spices. The violet notes appear to be a feature of wine from this vineyard, based on a re-reading of my earlier reviews.
At first this wine seemed tight and reluctant to open, with finely structured tannins giving it a feeling of restraint. But the wine opens on the palate with flavours of ripe blueberry, complex spices and tight acidity. A classic example of a quality Grampians shiraz.
And the winner? The 2011 Dolan Barossa Valley shiraz. Interestingly, none of the 11 chose the wine that the NSW judges selected as the best. This shows how subjective wine judging can be, and why it is important to have blind tastings with a large number of judges.
Jetlag and wine sometimes make for strange bedfellows. I’m in Australia for the month of November, catching up with family and friends.
The visit has given me the chance to taste some of the wine I left in my cellar several years ago. The wine has been marvellous, but the time difference from Europe has created havoc with my sleeping patterns.
Wine has been a constant solace on the occasions when I have been awake at strange hours because of jetlag. Hence the attempted pun of the opening line of this article.
This week I opened three bottles of the 2005 Zema Estate family selection cabernet sauvignon. The family selection wines are the flagship of the Zema family in Coonawarra and are only made in the best years.
The Coonawarra is a cigar-shaped strip of land only 12km long and 2km wide. It is famous for its “terra rossa” or red soil that is so distinctive when viewed from the air.
About a metre of limestone sits under the red topsoil and the combination of rich minerals from the limestone plus the unique climate gives wines from this region very distinctive flavours. The name Coonawarra, incidentally, comes from the Aboriginal word for honeysuckle.
Interestingly, China is the top export destination for Coonawarra wines. About a quarter of the region’s output goes there each year.
Grapes were first planted in Coonawarra in 1890. John Riddoch, the region’s founder, made the first vintage in 1895.
Wynns is the biggest producer in the region, with about 900 hectares under vine. Their flagship red is the John Riddoch cabernet sauvignon, created to honour the region’s founder.
The Zema family have been involved in grape growing and winemaking since the 1800s in their home country, Italy.
The history of the Zema family in Australia offers a story of love and hard work. Demetrio and Francesca Zema fell in love in Italy in the aftermath of World War II. Soon after becoming engaged, the couple were separated when Francesca moved with her family to a new life in Australia.
In 1953 Francesca’s father Nicola started working for Wynns and remained there as a viticulturist until he retired in 1975.
Back in Italy, Demetrio decided to travel to Australia to marry Francesca and to bring her home to Italy. The couple married in June 1959 in Penola, the main town of Coonawarra. Francesca convinced Demetrio to stay and the couple settled in Penola.
Demetrio established his own painting business but maintained a passion for wine. He and his family bought a small parcel of land in the best part of Coonawarra in 1982 and made their first vintage the next year.
The current winemaker is Greg Clayfield, helped by members of the Zema family. Nick Zema, the son of Francesca and Demetrio, is based at the winery. His brother Matt represents the company in Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria.
The family believes in producing wines made from estate-grown grapes that are hand-pruned. Irrigation is kept to a minimum to concentrate flavours, and the best-quality oak is used for the flagship reds.
Andrew Caillard MW wrote that the flagship family estate wines deserved wider recognition as one of Coonawarra’s best.
The 2005 vintage offers intense aromas of peppermint, blackcurrant and dark cherry, along with fine tannins and savoury oak flavours. This is a wine designed to show its best after a decade in the cellar. The 2005 vintage was just beginning to open.
The Zema family selection has all the characteristics of a classic Coonawarra cabernet, with concentrated fruit flavours, a rich palate and excellent balance. It could be cellared for three decades because its firm structure, based around the tannins produced from two years in oak, means the wine will blossom with age.
The 2005 version was delightful, and just beginning to show it majesty, though some people might be put off by the high alcohol, at 15.5 per cent. I look forward to trying this wine in years to come. It has been worth the sleep deprivation to enjoy this wine.
A serious accident caused Nick Mills to changed his passion for snowskiing to winemaking. To abuse a cliche, skiing’s loss was wine’s gain.
Mills was scheduled to represent New Zealand at the 1994 Winter Olympics but the injury meant he needed to find another focus.
So Mills went to France where he worked for four years in Burgundy, obtaining qualifications in viticulture and biodynamic winemaking. A superb range of pinot noirs is the product of that extensive training in Burgundy.
Mills was born about the same time his father Rolfe Mills started planting vines on the family sheep farm in 1974, on the edge of Lake Wanaka in Central Otago. This vineyard must have one of the most beautiful locations of any wine estates in the world. Indeed, photographs of the vineyard with the lake in the background usually adorn most Wine New Zealand media events. The lake shimmers a clear yet luminous blue.
Winter frost remains a constant danger in Central Otago but Lake Wanaka acts like “a big hot water bottle,” Mills said. The core temperature of the lake only changes two or three degrees from summer to winter.
The late Rolfe Mills experimented with a range of vines on the family property. Despite mockery from locals, Mills senior and his family persisted, planting the first commercial vineyard block in 1982 and focusing on pinot noir, riesling and gewurztraminer. Rolfe believed these varieties most suited the site.
The property has been in the Mills family for four generations. Wines are made in an old lambing barn. The estate is named after Emma Rippon, an ancestor of Rolfe Mills.
Nick Mills returned to Rippon in 2002 to take over as winemaker.
The estate’s vines are among the oldest in the region. Most were planted between 1985 and 1991, and 80 per cent of the 15-hectare vineyard is planted on its own rootstock and receives no irrigation. The vineyard also offers one of New Zealand’s best examples of biodynamic methods.
I’ve been lucky enough to taste a range of vintages, on site and elsewhere, and believe Rippon wines truly reflect the terroir. Rippon’s schist-based soils produce wines that are layered and complex. To quote Nick Mills, the wines have lift rather than weight, precision rather than opulence, and finesse rather than fullness.
The 2011 Rippon riesling has outstanding length and zippy acids mixed with a range of citrus flavours.
Nick Mills said a warm summer “put plenty of flesh on this wine”. The fruit from Rippon’s mature vines is memorable because over time the roots have burrowed into the schist rock below to extract intense flavours.
As Mills notes on the vineyard’s web site, in his characteristic sense of humour, “lurking towards the end of the first mouthful is substantial phenolic power and it soon starts to take charge of the wine”. This is a riesling with a lovely sense of place.
The 2011 Rippon gewurztraminer also comes from mature vines. Mills said 2011 was the first really favourable year for this grape variety since 2003. He pressed whole bunches slowly, and used natural yeasts for the fermentation plus extended lees contact. The result is a wine with remarkable grace plus a range of tropical fruit flavours. In a word, delicious — a wine that would be ideal with most noodle dishes. A friend who tasted with me said she thought the texture quite delicate.
But it is the estate pinot noirs that always captivate me. The fruit comes from the oldest vines on the estate, and the resulting wine has an ethereal quality that is delightful and compelling. Wines that one wants to drink glass after glass.
These pinots also get better with age, unlike a lot of pinots from Marlborough which should be consumed within half a decade. Rippon pinots offer subtle yet luscious fruit flavours, finesse and elegance that show they are at least as good as premier crus from Burgundy. Over time we could be likening them to grand cru from Burgundy.
Rippon wines can be purchased online from the vineyard. The web site shows the beauty of the region, though the photographs cannot match the sense of place and majesty of actually visiting the vineyard.
The wines this week come from Waiheke Island, about a half-hour ferry ride from New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland. My first trip to the island was almost three decades ago, to help with harvest.
At the time Waiheke only had three vineyards. Now it has more than two dozen and is known locally as the “island of wine”.
The first vines at Obsidian Vineyard were planted in 1993, with the aim of producing a great Bordeaux-style red. This remains the focus but other grape varieties have been introduced, to reflect consumers’ changing tastes.
After he bought the vineyard site Lindsay Spilman started reading about the island’s history. Spilman discovered that Maori tribes living in Onetangi, close to the vineyard, treasured the semi-precious rock obsidian. They used it to make weapons and jewellery.
Obsidian is a dark natural glass formed by the cooling of molten lava. Because it is hard and brittle it produces very sharp edges when it fractures. It has been used as scalpel blades for surgery.
Spilman decided obsidian was a good name for his vineyard, even though the stone is not found on the island (though it can be found on neighbouring islands in the Hauraki Gulf).
I tasted a trio of his wines. All exhibit a precision and elegance. The 2012 Obsidian chardonnay offers vibrant aromas of grapefruit, peach and lime mixed with notes of butter and biscuit.
During winemaking the fruit was gently whole bunch pressed and then put into tanks where it settled overnight before being put into barrels to ferment, using indigenous yeast. It was aged on lees with occasional battonage for 10 months.
Battonage is the process of stirring the lees to increase the complexity of the wine. The longer a wine stays on lees, the more it tastes of bread and brioche. This is an elegant wine that has a distinctive edge, if you will forgive the pun.
The Obsidian, a Bordeaux-style blend, is the vineyard’s flagship wine. The 2008 edition consists of cabernet sauvignon (38 per cent), merlot (30 per cent), cabernet franc (14 per cent), petit verdot (12 per cent) with the balance malbec. The grapes came from a single vineyard at Onetangi. They are dry-grown – that is they receive no irrigation – on sheltered coastal hillsides, and the wine aged in French barriques for a year.
The quality of the tannins and the elegance of the structure are the first things that strike one when smelling the wine, along with the intensity of the ripe fruit. Flavours of ripe blackberry and cassis surround the tongue and linger for a good time.
Even when tasted at five years of age this wine still needs time to unfold. Like a classic Bordeaux wine, it should be kept for at least a decade to let it evolve. It is an example of the rewards of patience, to quote from the marketing material from the great Australian wine company, Penfolds.
This version of The Obsidian won a silver medal at last year’s International Wine Challenge in London. Michael Cooper in his guide to buying New Zealand wine gave it five stars, his top rating.
Everything is serious about this wine, from the quality of the cork and bottle to the elegance of the label. It left quite a large amount of sediment in the glass. The fact I drank the entire bottle, to reach the sediment, is a testament to the wine’s quality.
It also suggests the wine was not overly fined – a process that removes much of the sediment – meaning the winemaker intended this to be a wine that develops as it is cellared. In the case of long storage on the bottle’s side, the sediment aligns along the side of the bottle. It can be quite beautiful to observe after the bottle is emptied.
A colleague who tasted The Obsidian with me said it was classy and expensive, with a classic combination of oak and blackcurrant. She thought it very smooth on the palate, perfectly balanced, with very elegant texture.
Later I tasted the 2009 Obsidian syrah in a hotel in Oslo in Norway, after hand-carrying a single bottle. I was forced to say in a cheap pension, with narrow beds and poor heating – the kind of place that makes travel a pain.
My hotel did not supply glasses in the room. When I asked they gave me a beer glass. Drinking this syrah from a beer glass detracted from the wine’s natural aromas and it took a while to give its best.
Finally the nose displayed aromas of cassis, plum and spice, encased in soft tannins. This wine reflects a trend away from Bordeaux blends on Waiheke Island towards more Rhone-style wines. It is a blend of 97.5 per cent syrah with the balance viognier, matured for 10 months in French oak barriques, of which 40 per cent were new.
Gentle tannins surround the fruit flavours and give it a silky finish. Sadly, this wine is sold out, but the 2010 is available. Obsidian wines, if you will forgive the pun, are at the cutting edge of new styles on Waiheke Island.
Plenty of politicians drink wine, but few members of Parliament make it. Denis Marshall founded Hawkeshead Vineyard in Central Otago, at the base of New Zealand’s south island, with the aim of creating natural wine.
Marshall was a farmer before entering Parliament in 1984 as a member of the National Party. During his time in government he spent six years as an associate minister of agriculture with responsibility for horticulture, and then later five years as minister of conservation and three years as minister of lands.
In 2000 he became founding chairman of New Zealand’s National Parks and Conservation Foundation, a charity dedicated to raising funds to support conservation projects throughout the country.
Marshal bought land in the Gibbston Valley in Central Otago in 1995. Visually this is one of New Zealand’s most spectacular regions. The arid farmland was once home to sheep and later gold miners out to find their fortune.
Now the valley is known as the “valley of vines” because of the growing number of estates that have been developed there in recent years. At Gibbston, Marshall and Ulrike Kurenbach established the Hawkshead Vineyard, planting the first pinot noir vines in 2001 and 2003. They focus on careful land use and soil management, with minimum interference with nature.
I tasted three Hawkshead wines. The 2012 Hawkshead pinot gris is pale white gold in colour and offers aromas of lime, pears and fruit blossom with a slight acidity aligned along an elegant mineral backbone.
Winemaker Dean Shaw said the grapes were hand picked. Whole bunches were pressed and then cool fermented in stainless steel to preserve natural vibrancy. This gives the wine a delicate feel, which works nicely with its textured and balanced finish.
The 2010 Hawkshead pinot noir is a medium-bodied wine with aromas and flavours that suggest the essence of slightly unripe strawberries, in a mixture of red fruits such as cherry and cranberry.
It was aged for 11 months in French oak barrels, about a third of them new. This explains the fine tannins, which are quite reserved and pleasant, giving an overall impression of elegance and silky reserve with mineral undertones.
Winemaker Christopher Keys notes on the vineyard’s web site that the 2010 vintage “presented us with a long growing season allowing the fruit to ripen well and catch the best of the late autumn sun”.
Highlight of the trio of wines for me was the 2010 Hawkshead pinot noir “first vines”. The best fruit from the estate’s oldest vines is selected for this wine. Grapes are fully destemmed, which requires a lot of work.
After fermentation the wine was aged for 11 months in 40 per cent new French oak, with the rest older barrels. This use of oak explains the hint of cedar on the palate, and provides the supple tannins which act as a superstructure for the fruit flavours.
Ripe acidity gives this pinot an energy that carries through to a sustained finish. The sensation in the mouth was slightly bitter like tasting an under-ripe blackberry fresh from a hedgerow. The surprising contrast was the difference between aromas, suggesting ripeness, and the elegant taste of acid and fruit.
This pinot was a little restrained and opened slowly. I left a part-filled glass over night to see how it evolved. The next day it was bursting with flavours and perfume. It offered aromas of black cherry and dried herbs. The palate had a lovely texture that suggested sunshine and ripe generosity.
The later tasting produced extra flavours of damson plums and blackberries, identified by colleagues who tasted the wine with me, plus what one called a “suggestion of Bakewell tart”. The wine was velvety and elegant on the palate, and exuded a sense of “weight” – that undefinable sensation of quality in one’s mouth.
I would serve both pinots with Asian duck or pork dishes. Both will be dlelicious over the next half decade.
A blind tasting in London last week of 53 pinot noirs from Central Otago, the relatively new region at the bottom of New Zealand’s south island, was a revelation.
It was held in the penthouse suite on the top floor of New Zealand House, and one felt like an eagle looking down on the city.
Memories of the board game of Monopoly we played as children came flooding back. All of the places on the game lay spread out below. But the wines impressed just as much as the scenery.
The Central Otago region has only recently been recognised, though wine has been made there since the 1860s. A Frenchman who arrived with the hordes of people from around the world keen to find gold gave up his dream of riches for something more realistic.
Jean Desire Feraud planted the first vines in 1864. But interest in wine was low and subsequent settlers planted stonefruit and raised sheep.
Serious attempts to make wine did not occur until more than a century after Feraud. The first commercial wine appeared in 1987. Since then the region has attracted the world’s attention because of the quality of its pinot noir.
Members of the Central Otago Winegrowers’ Association pay respect to Feraud through an annual dinner that marks the major achievement in winemaking that year.
The main reason for the quality of the grapes is the climate and the unique terroir. A long and dry autumn separates hot summers and cold winters. This lets grapes ripen fully.
New Zealand is generally a rainy place. But the Southern Alps to the west of the region block most of the rain, leaving a distinctive semi-continental climate. The dry weather means low humidity which reduces the potential for disease, and means less need for spraying chemicals.
This combination of factors produces high quality grapes. Yields are also kept low to increase quality.
Central Otago has four sub-regions. Each has special characteristics. It will probably be many years before they become official appellations – the French term for a distinct area marked by unique terroir and climate. The Cromwell Basin produces 70 per cent of total output. Gibbston contributes 20 per cent with the rest from Clyde/Alexandra and Wanaka.
The fascinating thing about the blind tasting of 53 pinots was, as one colleague noted, “there were no duds”. Every wine was at least good and some potentially were great. Of the 53, one was from the 2008 vintage, four from 2009, with the remaining 48 in equal batches from 2010, 2011 and 2012.
In terms of value for money the best Central Otago pinot noirs are as good as premier cru from Burgundy. As the vines mature – the oldest would be only about 30 years, though the late 1990s and early 2000s saw a major boost in vine planting – we will see wines as good as the grand crus from Burgundy.
Of the 53 tasted blind, I gave top marks to the 2012 Akarua Rua. It was quite delicious, delivering sweet and ripe black fruit with hints of spices such as bergamot, the flavour you find in Earl Grey tea.
Acid and fruit were well balanced and the wine had lacey tannins. Those tannins were a little strong on the end palate, suggesting potential longevity (up to 10 years). This wine lingered in my mouth like the memory of a love song from years ago.
While it was a pinot noir tasting, a handful of Central Otago whites were available to try. A trio of rieslings from Felton Road proved to be delightful, ranging in tastes from a Germanic-style full of zingy acid and sweet fruit, through to a bone-dry wine.
Best among them was the 2013 Block 1 Bannockburn riesling, which was a sheer joy – all zesty zing of lemon sherbet encased in a texture of pure and thrilling fruit. This was an absolute delight that suggests Central Otago produces more than exceptional pinot noirs.
The Rheingau, while small, is Germany’s most prestigious wine-growing region. Hugh Johnson, in his majestic book The World Atlas of Wine, describes the Rheingau style of wine, at its best, as “the noblest in Germany”.
Riesling is the dominant grape, representing 80 per cent of all plantings. A tasting of rieslings from the great 2012 vintage in London highlighted the international launch of a new labelling system under the VDP banner. VDP stands for Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter, or association of German wine estates. Its symbol or logo is a stylised eagle holding a bunch of six grapes.
To the novice wine drinker, German wine laws and labels can be daunting. Think of VDP as the most prestigious association of Germany’s best winemakers. Its members “are obliged to maintain an unwavering commitment to quality,” according to the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in London.
Wines made under the VDP system use their own labelling terminology trademarked to the VDP, and do not form part of the national German wine law. None-the-less, VDP stands for excellence.
The best vineyards under the VDP system are known as “erste lage”, which effectively means they are the best vineyards in Germany. The best dry white wines from these vineyards are labelled as “grosses gewachs”, usually abbreviated as “GG”. If you see “GG” on a label it means you are encountering the best rieslings in Germany — think of them as the equivalent of the grand cru wines of Burgundy.
Rheingau refers to a small section of the Rhine river that produces superbly age-worthy wines. The Rhine river mostly flows north south trough Germany. But for about 20 kilometres it runs east-west before resuming its northerly course.
This means the vineyards of the Rheingau, on the northern bank of the river, face the south and receive lots of sun. Combined with protection from the Taunus hills, this provides superb conditions for growing grapes. We must remember that Germany does not have as much sunshine as many new world wine regions like Australia or Chile.
Rieslings from Rheingau were once considered the best wine in the world. Two hundred years ago, these wines fetched the highest prices of any wines in the world — higher than Burgundy or Bordeaux or Champagne. But then the world lost interest in this grape variety. Rieslings are sometimes described as heavenly for wine lovers but heartache for wine marketers because the world seems to prefer other white varieties like sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, based on the fickleness of fashion.
The Rheingau region pioneered the modern style of German dry white wine in the 1980s. These rieslings have medium to full body and flavours at the ripe peach end of the spectrum.
The best 2012 rieslings at the London tasting included the Kiedrich Grafenberg from the Robert Weil vineyard, the Rudesheim Berg Scholssberg from the Geheimrat Wegeler vineyard, the Oestrich Lenchen Rosengarten by Josef Spreitzer and the Hochheim Konigin Victoriaberg by Joachim Flick. All were elegant with a piercing acidity balanced against slight residual sweetness — think ethereal lightness and power at the same time. All with wondrous flavours of ripe peaches or tangy limes and pineapple.
It is a pity that the names of German wines are so complicated for many Asians new to the world of wine. In countries where face or reputation are so important, many people are reluctant to face the embarrassment of getting the pronunciation or label wrong.
Yet these marvellous wines reflect the modern style of the best German rieslings, and would be ideal with most forms of Asian food. A chilled riesling with dim sum or fish is a true delight.
In the Rheingau area the Rhine is upwards of one kilometre wide. Humidity from the river provides excellent conditions for the production of botrytis-style wines, known as noble rot. In Germany these wines are described as beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese, usually abbreviated respectively as BA and TBA.
Beerenauslese wines are rare and expensive sweet wines whose flavours are enhanced by noble rot. Trockenbeerenauslese are even rarer and are made in only the finest vintages. These grapes have undergone such a degree of noble rot that the berries have shrunk to the size of tiny raisins.
The best trockenbeerenauslese are among the world’s most expensive wines. Such was the case with the final wine presented at the London tasting, a 2011 Schloss Johannisberger trockenbeerenauslese. It received 98 points and was named the best TBA in Germany this year. A superbly balanced delight of golden honey and lemon zest whose flavours of ripe apricots and peaches linger in one’s mouth for ages afterwards.
But it retails for 1,040 euro a half bottle. We have to pay for our indulgences, and this wine is like the gods singing.
English sparkling wine has seized the imagination of the wine world in recent years.
It all started in 2007 when Theale Vineyard’s 2003 sparkling chardonnay beat some of the best champagnes and European sparkling wines to be classified in the world’s best 10 sparkling wines at the world’s only dedicated sparkling wine competition, the French-based Effervescents du Monde (sparkling wines of the world) that year.
Events like the 2012 London Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary as a monarch that same year boosted sales of sparkling English wine.
A tasting of some English sparkles this week suggests that while the industry still has a way to go, the best wines are very fine indeed, while the rest can be quite ordinary, along a wide continuum. Much like the wine industry everywhere in the world.
For many years the English wine industry was perceived as struggling because grapes could not ripen in such a cold climate. In recent years warmer summers have boosted hopes. Some people speculate that this is because of global warming. In the past 30 years in Sussex, one of the counties on England’s southern coast, average temperatures have risen almost 2 degree Celsius.
The 2008 Breaky Bottom sparkling brut is made from seyval blanc, the most widely-planted grape variety in England, according to Jancis Robinson in her Oxford Companion to Wine. Seyval blanc is the result of crossing two hybrids of seibel. It ripens early, which makes it ideal for a cool-climate countries like England where grape production occurs at the very limit of what is possible — much like in the Chablis and Champagne regions of France.
The Breaky Bottom has a fresh and zingy citrus taste and a relatively long finish. It’s like a squeeze of lemon on a plate of oysters — highly acidic, yet without the creamy texture of champagne. The mousse is subdued. This is probably the biggest difference between champagne and English sparkling. The former typically has a thick mouse — that explosion of bubbles in the mouth when first tasted — and aromas of toast and freshly-baked bread combined with a creamy texture.
The most significant characteristic of English sparkling is the acid zing, often described as a “knife-edge” of acidity. Some critics use phrases like “delicate floral” to evoke the aromas of English hedgerow.
The December 2011 edition of Decanter, one of the world’s best-known wine magazines, featured rose champagne. Author Tom Stevenson awarded three champagnes 19.5/20 and gave another five 19/20 (including Dom Perignon). In a sidebar on English sparkling rose he also gave 19/20 to Nyetimber Rose 2007. His tasting note talked of “delicate soft and orchard fruit” and a “knife-edge of pure English acidity.”
The 2008 Breaky Bottom received a bronze medal at last year’s Decanter World Wine Awards and a silver at this year’s International Wine Challenge in London.
Winemaker Peter Hall chose seyval blanc as the main variety at his vineyard for several reasons. It has high acidity, essential for long bottle ageing. Hall believes seyval gives a cleaner taste, yet with a touch of fruit. His wines resemble the classics of the Loire, which he admires.
Hall planted his vineyard at Breaky Bottom in 1974 at a time when there were only a dozen or so growers in the whole country. Now he is reaping the rewards of his innovation and forward thinking.
Plumpton College in East Sussex is the only higher education institution in Europe and England to offer undergraduate degrees in wine in the English language. The Plumpton Estate non-vintage sparkling, called The Dean, is made from grapes grown on the estate that students craft into wine, under the supervision of wine-making professionals.
The grapes are not mentioned on the label but are also probably seyval blanc. Again the wine has piercing acidity and a zingy mouthfeel. It would be an ideal companion to fresh shellfish like oysters. Or a delightful way to start the day. Some sparkling wines are just perfect for this, like an early-morning kiss from one’s beloved.
The final sparkling tasted was the 2009 Bluebell Vineyards Hindleap. It is made from the classic champagne grapes of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, and has an ethereal quality. It is this lightness of touch in the mouth that is typical of English sparkles.
The high acidity is also there, like the slightly sour taste of green apples with the skins removed. The wine also has slightly salty tang, the result of the limestone soil upon which many English vineyards on the southern coast rest. Indeed, the same soils that give Chablis its characteristic flavours extend into much of the south coast of England.
* Published 23 September 2013. Find a link here.