Wine column

Wine holidays (10/21/2017)

Wine tourism is surging around the world so this week we consider some unusual options for a wine holiday. For publication in the week starting 23 October 2017.

Tourism numbers in Portugal have trebled in the past three years, driven by a boom in wine tourism. This form of tourism has always been popular in Europe, and the key to success seems to be the ability to offer something different.

This week we consider some unusual wine holidays. This columnist has not been on any of these trips and therefore cannot recommend any. Details are based on analysis of company web sites.

Sharrow Bay, a hotel in England’s Lake District, has created a tour to celebrate a rare fine wine: Chateau Pétrus. The hotel serves dinner in a private room featuring a bottle of Chateau Pétrus 1979 Pomerol.

Pétrus is one of the world’s most expensive wines. It comes from the smallest appellation in Bordeaux. Note that only one bottle of Pétrus is available. But the wine list includes other fine wines such as Mouton de Mouton Rothschild (the younger sibling of the Bordeaux First Growth), Chateaux Palmer and Mazy-Chambertin Grand Cru. One night’s accommodation, dinner, bed and breakfast costs £4,235 for two people.

The world’s attention is on the Catalan region of Spain, amid calls for independence. One independent way to get to vineyards there involves cycling. The Inntravel company runs the Catalonia Cava Country tour in the rolling hills of the Penedès, an hour south-west of Barcelona.

The tour visits major wineries such as Condoníu and Freixenet, but also goes to tiny family-run wineries. Luggage is taken to hotels by car. The trip ends in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, where the first bottle of Cava was produced using the “traditional method” in 1872. Inntravel offers six nights’ half board, cycle hire, maps and cycling notes from £795 per person based on twin share. Flights and transfers are extra.

In the Halkidiki area of mainland Greece the Miraggio thermal spa resort offers a tasting experience in a region where wine has been made for 2,500 years. The rich volcanic soil allows for cultivation of grape varieties unknown to many people from Asia. These include the white Roditis, Athiri and Assyrtiko grapes, and the red grapes Limnio and Xinomavro.

One of the best vineyards in the area, which has featured in previous columns and which should be visited, is Ktima Gerovassiliou. The beautiful vineyard is in Epanomi, a few kilometres from the city of Thessaloniki. They have been making wine since 1981.

Cyprus has a long tradition of wine-making, and is home to the world’s oldest named wine still in production. Richard the Lionheart described Commandaria as the “wine of the kings and the king of the wines.” This sweet dessert wine dates back to 1192 when it was being produced and exported by the Knights of St. John.

The Cyprus Tourism Organisation has designed seven wine routes, including Route Commandaria where people can learn how Commandaria (also known as Koumandaria) is made. The indigenous Mavro (red) and Xynisteri (white) grapes are picked late and dried in the sun to boost sugar content. The grapes are pressed and then fermented in tanks or traditional earthenware jars.

Another route known as Krasochoria of Lemesos (Limassol) on the southern slopes of the Troodos mountain range passes the greatest concentration of wineries in Cyprus. Krasochoria translates as “wine villages”. The tour involves 20 picturesque villages and 16 wineries. A highlight is the traditional Cypriot architecture, as you journey along narrow cobblestoned passageways

The route Vouni Panagias to Ambelitis offers panoramic views and magnificent mountain terrain about 800 metres above sea level. This area is said to produce delicate white wines that taste of peaches, green apples and apricots. The 10 wineries on this route grow 27 varieties of grape. The main indigenous ones are the Xynisteri (white) grape and the Maratheftiko and Mavro (red) grapes.

Going back to nature and learning about home-grown regional food and drink has become a popular attraction. Villages Nature Paris is a new eco-friendly holiday village where guests can learn how to grow vegetables and live a sustainable lifestyle.

The village has an outdoor lagoon heated by geothermal energy, a working farm, a forest play area, a beach, restaurants and sport facilities. The Cépages restaurant offers local wine tasting. A two-night self-catered stay in a cottage that sleeps up to four people costs from £493 per cottage.

Elsewhere in France it is possible to visit vineyards along the Loire via Le Boat. This gives wine-lovers the flexibility of a range of tasting experiences and the chance to stop at riverside restaurants. A seven-night self-catered stay on a boat that sleeps up to nine people, costs from £1,977 per boat. No boating licence or experience is necessary.

Also in France, four luxury wine tours in the south of the country are available from the SmoothRed company. One from Carcassonne to Cannes allows guests to drive a Porsche sports car along the rural lanes of Languedoc-Roussillon and the Côte d’Azur.

Prices start at £4,980 per person, based on two sharing for six nights in five-star hotels, wine tastings and tours, some meals, and the services of English-speaking guide. It also includes return flights from the UK, and the loan of a Porsche 911.

Another tour is named the Provence Wine and Boat Experience. It is a four-day chauffeured wine tour of Avignon and its vineyards and features a boat trip to the dramatic calanques, the “fjords” of the Mediterranean coast, near Cassis.

This trip costs from £1,394 per person, based on twin share, including return flights from the UK, private transfers, three nights’ bed and breakfast in a four-star hotel, wine tastings and tours, boat trip, some meals, and the services of English-speaking expert guides.

Final thought: Accommodation and food tend to be the most expensive items of a holiday budget. One cost-saving option for holidays is to join a home-swap club. You pay an annual fee and advertise your home on a web site. Then you exchange your home with someone who has a home in a wine region. A home swap, and the chance to cook in the home kitchen, saves money that can be spent on wine.

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Fresh approach to amphora wines (10/14/2017)

A winemaking tradition from 2,000 years ago has been revived in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. For publication in week starting 16 October 2017.

Wines made in amphorae are making a comeback in the Alentejo, the major wine region in southern Portugal. There the clay pots are known as talhas. The Romans were making talhas wines in the region more than 2,000 years ago.

The Alentejo occupies about a third of Portugal’s landmass but only about 6 per cent of the country’s population live there. It benefits from more than 3,000 hours of sunlight a year, some of the highest in the world. Grapes ripen quickly and produce high levels of alcohol. Reds can be 16 or even 17 per cent.

Some winemakers have tended to use too much oak, which produces wines high in tannin. Consumers are not happy chewing on reds that taste like balsa wood and are seeking something less dominating. They also want whites with acidity. Whites from hot climates tend to have less acidity and taste flabby unless they are picked early. Talhas wines have no oak and taste fresh, with lively acids.

The Comissão Vitivinícola Regional Alentejana (CVRA) represents winemakers in Alentejo. They see themselves as the “great guardian” of amphora wines in the region, and are determined to preserve this winemaking process.

In 2011 the CVRA recognised talhas as a legitimate production method and included the wine in its Denomination of Origin Alentejo wines. That year, according to CVRA data, about 3,200 litres of amphora wine were made. Within four years the CVRA had certified almost 44,000 litres a year.

Amphorae range in size and shape. The largest are almost two metres high, contain about 1,000 litres of wine, and weigh more than a tonne. The smallest contain about 100 litres. Georgia is the other country making amphorae wine and it featured in this column of August 7. The key difference is the fact that “kvevri” in Georgia are buried to cope with earth tremors while talhas remain above ground.

Talhas winemaking methods differ compared with traditional methods using tanks and barrels. Fermentation and maturation take place in the clay container. Whole bunches are often placed in the pot and the mixture stirred with long wooden paddles. The residue eventually settles in the narrow bottom of the container, and the wine is bottled via gravity from a small hole just above the residue.

Under local rules wine must stay in the pots until November 11, St Martin’s day. Representatives of the CVRA visit each estate to check that wine does indeed come from a clay container.

Beja and Evora are the major towns in the Alentejo. The Herdade do Sao Miguel (St Michael Winery) near the UNESCO-heritage town of Beja started its amphora project two years ago and made two wines from the 2016 vintage. One has already sold out and the other, the 2016 Pimenta, is almost fully sold. This family-owned company produces 5 million bottles a year but amphorae wines represent perhaps 5 per cent of production.

Winemaker Paulo Pecas sourced his winery’s 21 amphorae from around the region, buying from families who no longer used them. Most of the clay containers are at least two centuries old. The largest vessels cost between 500 and 1,000 Euro, which is good value given that amphorae can last for centuries, though they become more fragile as they age and sometimes wine leaks from cracks. A new oak barrel costs at least 1,000 Euro and can only be used for three or four years.

“We are using the amphorae the way the ancient Romans used them [to make wine]. We refurbish the amphorae and line them with beeswax and this lasts for ten years before we need to do it again.”

Paulo Pecas said he de-stemmed some bunches to reduce tannins and make his wines easier to drink. “The wines have floral, minty and fruity characters.”

The nearby Vidigueira wine co-operative launched a special amphora project in September this year, only using grapes from vines that were at least a century old. The age of the vines was the group’s unique selling point, explained president Jose Miguel Almeida. The company followed the traditional method of putting a range of grape varieties into four clay containers. Each holds 750 litres. Jose Miguel Almeida has been advocating for talhas wines for two decades and believes passionately in the idea.

This year the co-operative included 10 grape varieties in the mix. A century ago when the vines were planted a range of varieties went into the vineyard. This is known as a field blend. All 10 varieties were picked at the end of August, meaning some of the varieties were ripe, others under ripe and some others perhaps over ripe.

The co-operative expects to produce about 4,000 bottles from its four amphorae when they bottle near the end of this year. This is tiny compared with the 8 million bottles the co-operative makes each year from the 1,500 hectares its 300 members own.

Lisbon-based journalist Pedro Luiz de Castro said that it was traditional for local people to make talhas wine at home for family consumption. When co-operatives appeared after World War 2 these locals sold their grapes to co-operatives and their amphorae languished in garages and other buildings.

Pedro Luiz de Castro said the Vidigueira co-operative was leading the revival of a technique the Romans established more than 2,000 years ago. The co-operative organises an amphorae wine competition in the second week of December each year. This year is the 20th occasion the contest has been held. It usually involves about 300 wines from the region. The jury goes to each house or vineyard to collect bottles for the competition to ensure the wine came from an amphora.

Pedro Luiz de Castro said this year was the first time wine had been made from vines 100 years or older and he was keen to see the results. Wines made in amphorae typically sell for between 5-12 Euro in local villages. “These wines are expensive because everything is done by hand.”

In 2015 Alexandre Frade, whose father owned a tavern in Beja, established a company focusing on selling wine in 1.5 litre amphorae instead of bottles. He believes the significant growth in wine tourism in the region in the past three years has provided an opportunity for small wineries to establish a point of difference from large companies. “It [telhas wine] cannot be a mass product and will not compete on price, but on quality.”

Footnote: A film about making telhas wine is available at the CVRA web site at http://www.vinhosdoalentejo.pt/en/media/videos/.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Vinhos do Alentejo. Special thanks to the organisation’s Pedro Verdial for being an excellent guide.

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AMPHORAE WINES IN ALENTEJO

Women winemakers recognised (10/7/2017)

Some of Australia’s finest winemakers are women, but their influence has not always been so strong. For publication in the week starting 9 October 2017.

Men tend to dominate the wine business around the world, and until recently that was very much the case in Australia. The Australian Women in Wine Awards announced in London are an attempt to balance the situation.

It was the first time the awards, announced late last month, have been held outside Australia. Event founder Jane Thomson said the industry was still regarded as very macho. This contributed to the high attrition rate among women wine graduates in many parts of the globe.

Brian Walsh of Wine Australia was quoted in various media as saying only about half of women wine graduates in Australia joined the industry after they qualified. And within a decade the proportion of them employed in the wine industry was down to 9 per cent.

One of the major awards known as Woman of Inspiration, sponsored by Irvine Wines, is designed to recognise a woman whose contribution and achievement have had a major impact on the Australian wine community. Entries do not need to be submitted because the advisory board of Wine Australia and the Australian Women in Wine Awards chooses the winner.

This year the award went to Sue Hodder, chief winemaker at Wynns of Coonawarra, in South Australia.

Hodder studied agricultural science at Roseworthy College, Australia’s first agricultural college, between 1981 and 1983. Roseworthy became part of the University of Adelaide in 1991 and continues to be regarded as the best place to learn the wine business in Australia. Hodder’s contemporaries included Peter Bright and David Baverstock, noted Australian winemakers based in Portugal, from where this column is being written.

Soon after graduating Hodder accepted a Penfolds scholarship to study the vineyards of the Kaiser Stuhl growers in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. Later she sold wine for the Oddbins chain in London and worked vintages in California.

She made sparkling wine at Penfolds in Nuriootpa under the Seaview label and became sparkling winemaker at Seppelt Great Western in 1988. But she has lived and worked in the Coonawarra in South Australia since 1992 and calls it home. Her first job there was as assistant winemaker to Peter Douglas at Wynns Coonawarra Estate. She became chief winemaker there in 1998 and this year celebrated 25 vintages at one of Australia’s most historic vineyards. Coonawarra is an aboriginal word meaning “honeysuckle”.

During a meeting in London, Hodder acknowledged that Pam Dunsford was her initial inspiration. Dunsford was the first woman to be accepted into Roseworthy Agricultural College, in 1972. There she studied alongside 180 men. Dunsford worked at Wynns and became the first woman chief winemaker at an Australian estate, at Chapel Hill in the McLaren Vale in South Australia, where she presided over 19 vintages. She was also one of the first woman wine judges in the country.

Because of Dunsford’s pioneering work, women hold some of the most highly respected roles in Australian winemaking. These include Hodder, Vanya Cullen at Cullen in Western Australia, Louisa Rose at Yalumba and Sarah Crowe at Yarra Yering. Last year the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology named Hodder and her Wynns winemaker colleague Sarah Pidgeon joint winemaker of the year.

Women were now “helping to shape Australia’s fine wine narrative,” Hodder said.

In London Hodder oversaw the celebrations to mark the sixtieth vintage of the Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2015. “It is a fortunate privilege that my 25th vintage at Wynns coincides with the release of the delicious 2015, the 60th release of this significant Australian label.”

This iconic wine was first made in 1954, and remains one of the most cellared and collected wines in Australia. It is the kind of wine that can be drunk young but rewards being cellared for up to two decades.

Hodder considers her work on development of Black Label Cabernet her proudest achievement. She describes the 2015 as multi-layered with intense aromas of dark cherry and blackberry with hints of complex spices leading to flavours of black pepper and brambles. The tannins are “melted” and perfectly ripe.

Hodder hopes people from around the world will come to appreciate the “heritage and unique character” of Australian wine. She acknowledged the work of the team of viticulturalists at Wynns. Allen Jenkins, senior viticulturist, said his company’s holdings comprised some of the best vines in the region, mostly on the famous terra rossa soil. This is a cigar-shaped block of about 30 hectares of land that gives special flavours to wines, and has been the subject of previous columns.

Australia’s summer heat can be intense, so Jenkins ensures that vine canopies are designed to protect grapes. “Each bunch gets a hat,” he jokes. Viticulturalist Ben Harris confirmed Jenkins’ protective attitude towards the grapes.

The Coonawarra mostly produces red wine – the region’s 5,600 hectares of vines consist of 90 per cent red grapes.

Half of all the red Wynns produces is cabernet sauvignon. Their oldest cabernet was planted on the Johnson’s block in 1954, believed to be the oldest surviving cabernet sauvignon vineyard in the region. Each year Wynns chooses a premium parcel of fruit from a single vineyard that displays the hallmarks of that vintage. The 2014 Johnson’s Block was selected this year as the showcase wine. Hodder said it has a nose of violets, sage and lavender with a mouthfeel of dark plums, cherry and blackcurrants, shaped around a tannic structure that is “almost creamy”.

About five years ago Wynns introduced a new range of wines named after V&A Lane, the road that runs east-west through the Coonawarra’s terra rossa soils and separates it roughly into two halves. The lane, surveyed in 1851, was named after Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert.

The 2015 V&A Lane Shiraz has aromas of cranberry and magnolia flowers, Hodder said, with silky tannins and flavours of spice and blueberries. It is designed to be consumed younger than the other reds mentioned, and is quite delicious young.

The company’s flagship red is the Michael Shiraz, released only in exceptional vintages, and it has become something of a legend in the Australian wine industry. It is named after the son of David Wynn, who bought it from John Riddoch in 1951 and transformed it into the world leader it is today.

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Taking a break (9/3/2017)

Stephen Quinn is travelling and teaching and does not have time to taste enough wine to make considered comments suitable for a column. This column is taking a break for a while. The column will resume from October 9, 2017.

Historic Norwegian wine bar (8/26/2017)

The Altona in Norway is possibly the oldest wine bar in the Nordic region and has a wonderful collection of fine wine. For publication in week starting 28 August 2017.

The Altona in Bergen has the largest selection of any wine bar in Norway – about 1,300 labels – and the second largest wine collection in the country, beaten only by the Park Hotel in Voss. The Park Hotel, about 110 kilometres inland in Hordaland among Norway’s fjords, says it has about 8,000 wines on its list.

Bergen is the second largest city in Norway after the capital, Oslo, and is located on the west coast. The Altona has been voted Bergen’s best wine bar several times, and has possibly the finest selection of any wine bar among the Nordic nations.

Wine Spectator magazine has awarded Altona its exclusive wine bar “Award of Excellence” or “two-glass rating” every year since 2009. It is the only wine bar in the city to receive this prestigious award. The Altona is housed inside the Augustin Hotel and below street level.

During World War 2 an explosion in a ship in a nearby harbour destroyed many of the buildings close to the harbour, but the Altona survived because it is underground. The Augustin is Bergen’s oldest family-run hotel and has been owned by the same family for four generations. Kjetil Smørås runs the family business.

Anyone taller than 150 cm – just under five feet in imperial measurements – risks banging their head as they enter the restaurant associated with the Altona. The size of the doorways suggests that people were much shorter four centuries ago when the wine bar opened in 1614. The Altona is Norway’s oldest wine bar and possibly the oldest in the Nordic nations.

The restaurant serves seasonal local food and is highly rated on the Taste of Norway circuit. All of the rooms in the associated restaurant are underground and all doorways are similarly small. The full wine list, in a hand-tooled leather case, weighs as much as a large telephone directory and provides extensive notes on more than 1,300 wines. Access to the cellar is via a narrow winding staircase and wines adorn the walls like trophies on a hunter’s wall.

The cellar bulges with fascinating wines from around the globe and wine list is legendary in terms of quality. The focus in recent years has been on red and white Burgundy, Champagne and the Piedmont region. Former sommelier Simon Valland said the wine list was an expression of the tastes of current and former sommeliers. “[When I was there] I had a big affection for Piedmont and Champagne,” he said. “The wine manager before me was a huge Burgundy geek.”

A visit to the cellar is mandatory for any wine aficionado. It is deep under the building, cut into the rock of the Altona’s foundations, and lit by dim lights. Ove Svendsen, a trainee sommelier, said the Altona was perfect for people looking for a wine bar with a large and classic wine list. “The cellar is a must visit. It’s historic.” Valland described the cellar as a “living, breathing thing”. “While wine manager I had the privilege to nurture it for a period of time.” Valland trained at the Norwegian Sommelier School in Oslo and when he graduated at the age of 22 in 2013 he was the youngest sommelier in Norway.

Wines are also offered for per-glass tasting. These sell for about 100 to 120 NOK (USD 11 to USD 13), vary each day, and are not on the main wine list. Each time I visited the sommeliers were happy to let people sample wines before they purchased.

Norway’s citizens mostly buy wines through the national wine monopoly, Vinmonopolet, which promotes a policy of removing the “private profit motive” from wine sales by being wholly owned by the state. But taxes are high and typically people pay high prices for wine in restaurants. A small glass of wine from a recent vintage will cost about 110 to 130 NOK, and a bottle of ordinary wine from 2016 will set you back anywhere between 700 and 1100 NOK in a restaurant.

Prices at Altona are very reasonable given the quality of the wine. The wine bar uses a fixed mark-up rather than adding a percentage of the original cost; the latter is typical at most Norwegian restaurants where wines cost four to five times the ex-cellar price. “You will find better wines at far more affordable prices [here] than at other restaurants and wine-bars in Bergen,” former sommelier Beatrice Lie-Gjeseth Bendixen said last time we met at Altona. Her expertise is German wines. “Wine to and for the people,” Valland added at the time.

Quite simply the Altona is a bargain in terms of the prices it charges. During visits in recent years I drank a 1999 Tyrrellʼs Vat 1 Semillon from Australia which sold for 650 NOK, a 2007 Domaines Denis Dubourdieu Bordeaux white for 650 NOK, and a 2007 Robert Weil Riesling from Germany for 600 NOK. All were well cellared and their corks moist and yielding. The wines were sublime, which explains why I always head to the Altona when in Bergen.

The wine bar’s entrance greets visitors with an array of brightly coloured artistic displays by Kjetil Berge, a well-known Norwegian artist. Local artists made many of the wine bar’s fittings, such as the table lamps created by Katrine Berg that resemble hovering airships. Most rooms have whitewashed walls and wooden beams, and are lit by candles, giving them a sense of romance and history. Just make sure you don’t bang your head on those small doorways.

Footnote: Bergen has an excellent group of good restaurants with fine wine lists. One of the best new arrivals, which opened about three months ago, is Bare, the feature restaurant at Borgen Bors hotel in central Bergen. They offer tasting menus of five or 10 courses, with an associated wine for each course. Highly recommended.

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Fine wine on safari (8/19/2017)

Wine and luxury game park tourism make for a heady blend in southern Africa. For publication in the week starting 21 August 2017.  

We do not usually associate game parks and lodges in southern Africa with fine wine, but the Singita company has managed to combine an appreciation of wine with a growing reputation for conservation and wild-life safaris.

Singita means “place of miracles”. It started in 1993 with a single lodge, Singita Ebony Lodge, built on what is now known as the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. The company currently operates 12 luxury lodges and camps in five wilderness regions in Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe. All up the estates cover about a million acres (almost 405,000 hectares) of land.

Along the way Singita has become known as one of the most influential buyers and collectors of fine South African wine. The company says it is dedicated to environmentally conscious hospitality, sustainable conservation and the empowerment of local communities.

Guests enjoy a range of South Africa’s finest wines while on safari, including some labels that are exclusive to Singita. The company also exports wine to guests through its Premier Wine Direct Service. Wines are delivered door-to-door anywhere in the world and represent about 30 per cent of the value of what Singita purchases.

Francois Rautenbach is head of Singita Premium Wine. He said acquainting guests with the scope and depth of Singita’s wine offering and staying in tune with what they wanted to drink inspired him to continue to aim for excellence. “The fact that we are becoming adept at turning guests from all corners of the globe into ambassadors for South African wine is a bonus.”

Singita has invested in developing the best wine culture at its safari lodges. A range of premium wines from exclusive labels such as De Morgenzon and Klein Constantia are flown to lodges from Singita’s cellars in the Sabi Sand and from a huge maturation facility at Delvera Estate in Stellenbosch.

The wines are free to guests in the sense they are included in the daily rate. Yes, people can drink as much as they like. The company makes its rates available online and prices can be as high as about USD 5,000 a day for one to three guests for cottages in certain lodges. Rates for all properties can be found at https://singita.com/rates/

The wine list covers about 222 labels and 20,000 bottles in Singita’s cellars alone. Many of the wines are not available anywhere else, and older vintages of wines are the norm rather than the exception at lodges. Wines are matured under carefully managed conditions, which is why the lodges are able to offer the majority of their red wines at five years or older.

Wines aged 10 to 15 years are regularly served to guests. Most guests appear to favour barrel-fermented whites and red blends featuring Cabernet Sauvignon or straight Cabernet Sauvignon. On average about 50,000 bottles of wine are consumed each year at the 12 lodges. The ratio or red to white is about the same, though the percentage of red wine increases to 55 per cent in winter.

Each lodge has seven in-house sommeliers available to lead informal and bespoke wine tastings within each lodge’s temperature controlled cellars.

Rautenbach is also head of Singita Premium Wine and manages the selection, acquisition, maturation and distribution of wine to each lodge as well as overseeing Singita’s extensive wine cellar. He has adopted a long-term approach to compiling Singita’s impressive collection and says he is constantly looking for new developments rather than reacting to trends. His list includes many limited‐release wines, plus bottles from auctions complemented by wines from smaller producers and emerging winemakers.

Rautenbach runs Singita’s apprenticeship training programme to develop the next generation of African sommeliers. The programme provides education, personal mentoring and formal wine training.

The company created its Premier Wine Direct Service a decade ago to ensure wines enjoyed while on safari could be packed for guests as checked luggage or shipped directly to a guest’s home.

Singita’s mission is to share a unique part of the world, while maintaining respect for the natural environment and challenging accepted notions of luxury. CEO Luke Bailes said guests chose to stay at the lodges because they have a reputation for being rare and authentic “while embodying a philosophy of sensitivity”. “There’s an authenticity of place at each of our lodges that is not only a rarity but touches guests on every level – spiritual, emotional and physical.”

Bailes said Singita was committed to facilitating the development of neighbouring rural populations through partnerships on specific initiatives including education, healthcare, nutrition, training and business development. “Modern conservation requires a keen focus on keeping tourism, the community and wildlife in a constructive balance,” he said. The health and survival of each of these aspects was crucial to the survival of the whole, he wrote on the company web site.

Singita’s story began in 1925 when Bailes’ grandfather purchased a piece of land in what would later become the Sabi Sand Reserve in South Africa. That estate, totalling about 18,200 hectares, has evolved from its early days as a hunting concession to become an exclusive conservation reserve where all species are protected.

The company is based on a low-impact yet high-value tourism model – fewer guests pay a premium for the privilege of experiencing vast open spaces. This enables the company to sustain the vast wilderness areas and their resident wildlife, while providing an exclusive safari experience.

Singita recently completed the refurbishment of its original lodge, Singita Ebony in South Africa. Bailes said the company would only develop new properties if they were better than, or as good as, those the company already had. He said this “disciplined approach” was designed to maintain Singita’s reputation and continued to deliver the “best possible guest experience, while still benefiting the land and communities in which we are privileged to operate”.

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Rosé revolution (8/11/2017)

A third of all the wine the French drink is rosé. How and why did this style become so popular in France and elsewhere? For publication in week starting 14 August 2017.

Two decade ago rosé was seen as little more than an alco-pop, an alcoholic version of soft drink. But more rosé is now sold in France than white wine, and rosé imports to the United States are increasing 50 per cent a year. A third of all the wine drunk in France is rosé and it is appearing on the wine lists of fashionable restaurants around the world.

A documentary released this week explains this radical change from pseudo soda to sophistication. The Rosé Revolution, or La Revolution du Rosé: How A Ridiculed Wine Became a Winner, is the work of San Francisco-based video-journalist Ken Kobré. He shot the documentary on an iPhone in France, Italy, the United States and South Africa.

In a telephone interview Kobré said his summer home in Provence is surrounded by vineyards, and he set out to make a short wine video to help with the development of an iPhone app he created. The more he learned, the more fascinated he became with rosé wine because, he said, “perception trumps reality”.

The poor reputation rosé had in France started in the 1930s. Provence is considered the best region for rose. Parisians would go there on holidays and from the late 1930s restaurants in the capital started to order rosé from there. But the wine needed to have sulphites added as a preservative. These sulphites gave people headaches and rosé became known as the “mal de tete” or “headache” wine. Sulphites are mostly no longer added to rosé.

In the 1960s outsiders started to buy chateaux vineyards in Provence, hiring young winemakers keen to make a reputation. They planted grape varieties more suited to rosé, and experimented with new production methods. More recently movie actors have endorsed this style of wine.

Rosé can be made in four ways, though the fourth is illegal in France except in the Champagne region. With the direct press method, a pneumatic press like a big balloon presses grapes gently so that only light and fresh juice escapes through tiny holes in the base of the press. The resulting wine is pale pink. In the second method, known as the maceration technique, crushed grapes are left in contact with skins from two hours to a couple of days before the juice is cool-fermented in the same way as a white wine. The colour is determined by how long the wine stays in contact with the skins.

With the saignée method — the word means “bleed” in French — early in the production of red wine some of the juice is separated while it is still pink so it can be made into a rosé. The fourth method is mostly used outside the European Union and involves adding small amounts of red wine to a base of white wine. The same technique is used to make rosé champagne.

The colour of rosé varies from country to country. The French generally prefer paler, softer and more delicate pinks. Paler rosés tend to have less expressive flavours compared with darker or richly-coloured pink wines. Provence is still royalty in terms of rosé production but winemakers from outside this region are also making wines with the same ballet-shoe hue, often to an equally high standard. Rosés from Provence offer a fine balance of fruit sweetness and citrus freshness combined with an elegant mid-palate and a bone-dry finish.

The documentary describes how rosé labels are designed to attract women, who tend to buy more rosé than men. This has occurred around the world since rosé became widely available in supermarkets. Gilles Masson, director of the Centre for Research in Rosé Wine, concluded after years of testing wines profiles – using black glasses to disguise colour – that no correlation exists between colour and taste with rosé.

Some of France’s best rosé comes from the Languedoc, in particular from Gerard Bertrand Wines. One of the best is Château La Sauvageonne Rosé La Villa, which is matured in oak. It is said to be as good as barrel-aged Garrus from Château d’Esclans, long regarded as the benchmark for fine rosé. Bertrand’s rosé is about half the price.

Patrick Schmitt MW, writing in the drinks business magazine, said rosé was still mostly a relatively simple strawberry-scented drink “best served straight from the fridge” but noted that the range of styles had expanded over the past few years. “Not only that,” he wrote, “but the quality levels have broadened too, with rosé moving successfully into the sphere of luxury drinks.”

The darkest rosés come from Portugal and Spain, with hues from Italy mid way between those from France and the Iberian peninsula. England is making some quality sparkling rosés and these tend to be at the pale end of the colour continuum. Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex makes some crackers. Schmitt said it was “further evidence that England is becoming a serious source of fizz”. Greece is also making high-quality rosé, he said, citing the quality of producers like Alpha Estate and La Tour Melas.

Kobré’s documentary ventures into controversial territory for the final quarter of its hour duration. He interviews Professor Robert Hodgson of Humbolt State University in California about research proving that wine judging is very subjective. An identical wine was slipped three times into the same judging panels, and received a range of marks from gold to nothing from the same judges. Professor Hodgson repeated this experiment for a decade before publishing.

Wine is the second largest industry in France. Given that a gold medal sticker will boost wine sales in many countries by 50 per cent, Professor Hodgson’s research is important. Will this part of the video appear when it screens in France?

Research by Professor Hilke Plassmann at the INSEAD graduate school of business in France also features in the documentary. She used MRI technology to measure pleasure centres in the brain. People were served the same wine yet were told that the wine sold at a range of prices. The pleasure centre of participants’ brains glowed more strongly when people were told they were drinking expensive wines even when it was cheap wine. “Price as much as taste influences pleasure,” Kobre said.

La Revolution du Rosé: How A Ridiculed Wine Became a Winner is available for preview sales on iTunes from 11 August 2017. It is an important and timely contribution to our knowledge of the world of wine.

Noted Kobré: “I explored whether the price of a wine could affect a drinker’s pleasure, and also the actual significance of awards, plus the impact of award labels on sales of wines. No matter how well you think you know wine, I think the answers will startle you.” Do watch this important film.

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Natural wine from Georgia (8/5/2017)

A new book highlights the beauty of traditional winemaking in Georgia using clay pots known as kvevri. For publication in the week starting 7 August 2017.

Wine has been made in Georgia for at least 8,000 years, making it one of the earliest wine regions in the world. Georgia is celebrated for the way it produces wine in clay containers called kvevri (also known as qvevri or churi in different parts of the country).

Kvevri are large egg-shaped vessels used for the fermentation, storage and ageing of wine. They look like amphorae without handles, and are either buried so that only the top shows, or set into the floors of large wine cellars. Kvevri vary in size from 20 litres to about 10,000 litres, though the average tends to be about 800 litres.

This traditional method using clay jars has been recognised as part of UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. The UN body established its list to protect important cultural practices, which it sees as a repository of diversity and creative expression.

Kvevri feature in an excellent new book by Carla Capalbo, Tasting Georgia: A food and wine journey in the Caucasus. Capalbo is the author of Collio: Fine wines and foods from Italy’s north-east, which won the Andre Simon wine book award in 2009.

Early in the book Capalbo says that her focus is on winemaking via traditional methods, despite the wide range of other wines produced in Georgia. “The so-called natural winemakers who are bottling wines made in this way [with kvevri] – now more than 50 – form only a tiny percentage of Georgia’s enormous wine output.”

But these wines are attracting the interest of wine enthusiasts around the world, she writes, noting that kvevri winemakers have become “cultural ambassadors for Georgia” as their wines appear on the lists of leading international restaurants, and the unique method drives wine tourism to Georgia from around the world.

Kvevri are handmade using the coil method where clay is wound in a coil from the base to create the pot. After the pots are fired, beeswax is spread on the inside to seal the container. A coating of powdered lime with cement and sand is applied to the outside to strengthen the vessel. This also acts as a disinfectant. The clay used to make a kvevri must be carefully chosen, because its characteristics will influence the flavours of the wine inside.

An external wire support is provided on larger pots to help deal with the pressure of the liquid inside and any earth tremors. Pots tend to be buried up to their lids in sand and gravel to manage the range of temperatures during the year, and to absorb any shocks from the ground, Capalbo writes.

Grapes traditionally are pressed by foot but more recently a hand or mechanical crusher is employed. The juice is poured into the pot along with grape skins, stalks and pips. Some regions do not include stalks, depending on the local winemaking style.

Juice is left to ferment in the kvevri for at least five to six months before being decanted and bottled. Wines tend to be consumed within a year, though some winemakers are experimenting with methods that produce longer-lived wines.

During fermentation a cap forms as skins float to the top, buoyed by carbon dioxide. The cap is punched down into the must using a long pole. After fermentation, solids in the wine settle naturally into the kvevri’s pointed bottom. Red wines tend to be removed from their solids soon after. White wines generally receive more skin contact, varying from days to weeks, to produce so-called “orange wine”.

The most archaic and unusual of traditional Georgian wines are known as Kakhetian (orange or amber wine), which have been macerated for several months with skins, seeds and stems. They can be very tannic. Wine-makers who use kvevri claim that their wines are stable and do not require chemical preservatives to ensure longevity and superior taste. Capalbo points out that wines from west Georgia are often paler, lower in alcohol and fresher because they spend much less, if any, time on the skins.

When fermentation is complete, the top of the pot is sealed, though small amounts of oxygen enter through the pores of the clay. After wines are bottled, the empty kvevri is washed, sterilised with lime and re-coated with beeswax, ready to be filled again. Kvevri can last for “decades, if not centuries, if they are well cared for,” Capalbo writes.

Leftovers from the winemaking process, known as pomace, consist of a mixture of pips, skins and stalks. The Georgian word is “cacha”. It is distilled into a high-proof brandy called “chacha”.

Capalbo quotes wine historian Giorgi Barisashvili from Ilia State University in Georgia, who said that kvevri wines were forbidden during the Soviet era, but noted a revival in recent years. The skill of making kvevri has been handed from father to son, and is believed to have happened for at least 8,000 years.

Wine is supremely important for the people of Georgia. Capalbo illustrates this through the charming story of when two Georgian men meet, the first greeting is “How are you?” while the second is “How is your vineyard?”

Capalbo has created a beautiful book after years of extensive research. It is well written with an approachable style, and organised in a natural flow based on trips from the capital, Tbilisi. It is also superbly illustrated with almost 400 photographs the author has taken. The 70 recipes are appealing because of the use of fresh ingredients and the authentic nature of the simple yet elegant fare. The book also contains details of 60 restaurants and wine bars, and 40 family wineries that specialise in natural wines.

Capalbo admits she loves the Georgian way of eating, with “multiple dishes arranged on the table at once”. “It’s both an ancient and a modern way to eat, dominated by fresh vegetable cookery with aromatic herbs, nuts and delicate spices that make the flavours distinctive. If the cooking techniques are mainly simple, complexity is attained by combining diverse dishes.” Noted chef Yotam Ottolenghi calls the book a “love letter” to the food and wine of Georgia.

This splendid book would make an excellent Christmas present, or indeed any form of gift for family or friends. It is published by Pallas Athene (464 pages).

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Volcanic vines and wines (7/30/2017)

Around the world, soils created by volcanoes produce exceptional wines, but especially so in Soave in Italy. For publication in the week starting 31 July 2017.

Volcanoes have a strong grip on Mankind’s imagination. They have been seen as the playground of the ancient gods, a place of myth where traditions are forged in heat and mystery.

Events relating to them usually occurred in an atmosphere of fire, noise and smoke. Ulysses encountered the gods in the Pastures of the Sun near Mount Etna. The shield of Archilles was created on Vulcan’s forge. The gates of Hades were said to be at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.

In his recent book Volcanic Wines, Canadian sommelier John Szabo notes that the oldest civilisations of the Mediterranean developed around volcanoes. Volcanoes could be creative as well as destructive. Szabo wrote they could be a “huge plough which nature uses to overturn the bowels of the earth”.

Volcanoes produce a range of soils. These in turn can produce a range of intricate wines, given that soil and climate – known as terroir – exert such a major influence on wines. Volcanic soils give special properties to wines including high acidity, minerality and salinity plus a potential for longevity.

Szabo doesn’t claim that soil is the only factor. He believes the preservation of indigenous grape varieties and ancient cultivation methods also make volcanic wines distinctive. His book cites examples of great volcanic wines on the Canary Islands, in Madeira, on the Greek island of Santorini, in the Golan Heights, around New Zealand’s Lake Taupo and in the Andes Mountains in Chile.

Recent research conducted in the Soave region of Italy shows how volcanic soils there have evolved and acquired complex structures, deeply influencing flavours in the wines. Soave produces about 50 million bottles a year from about 7,000 hectares of vines. Main export markets include Germany, the UK and the USA. Only about 16 per cent of Soave is consumed in Italy.

Garganega is Soave’s main grape and can comprise anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent of the blend in both DOC and DOCG wines. For Soave DOC the other part of the blend can be Trebbiano di Soave, also known locally as Verdicchio and Nestrano, up to 30 per cent. Yields for DOC wines must be no more than 14 tonnes per hectare and wines must have a minimum alcohol of 10.5 per cent.

DOCG Soave also contains mainly Garganega, though the other 30 per cent can include Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Trebbiano di Soave. In France Trebbiano di Soave is known as Ugni Blanc, where it is used to make cognac. It is different from the Trebbiano Toscano variety grown in Tuscany in northern Italy.

Garganega can produce a range of styles from dry and fresh through to a sweet nectar known as Recioto di Soave. Mists from the Po River valley influence the region’s climate though humidity can create problems for winemakers because of mould and other fungal diseases. Garganega’s thick skin helps it resist disease.

The Consorzio Tutela Vini Soave represents winegrowers in the region. The general manager of the Consorzio, Aldo Lorenzoni, believes that its wines are “a happy combination” of terroir and the Garganega grape. Lorenzoni said an on-going study of sub-zones in the region and cultivation methods had boosted knowledge of “how truly expressive the Garganega grape can be”.

Earlier this year Lorenzoni’s Consorzio published a report, Soave Volcanic Wines. In it he writes that cultivation of soils since ancient times have meant the gradual evolution of a terroir that provides an ideal environment for making great wine.

The Soave region only produces whites. It is in north east Italy, stretching east of the city of Verona to the foothills of the Lessini Mountains. Soave has DOC and DOCG designations, the latter also known as Soave Superiore. Both are sub-divided into general and “Classico” designations for wines produced in the heartland of the Soave region.

“Wines from volcanic areas enjoy a special reputation, … and they have always been readily traded thanks to their richness, alcohol content and ageing potential,” Lorenzoni wrote. White wines are often distinctive with bright fruits, freshness from high acidity, along with steely salinity, plus savoury and spicy notes.

Increased temperatures because of global warming have become a concern when grapes get burned. Professor Federica Gaiotti, from the CRA wine research centre in Conegliano, stressed the importance of protecting young grapes through careful cultivation of leaves to form an umbrella. Based on research she had conducted between 2003 and 2011, she said the Soave region needed to use a pergola style of cultivation for better shade management. “Compared with Guyot and Double Guyot trellis methods this means four to six degrees lower temperature in the vines,” she said via an interpreter at a wine conference in Soave.

Professor Gaiotti also noted that the heat from Guyot trellising increased sugar levels whereas pergola meant less sugar and more pronounced aromatics in the grapes. “The training system has a huge impact on grape flavours,” she said.

Pergola vines tend to be up to two metres from the ground, compared with Guyot which can be just over half that height. The main limitation of the pergola training system was the need to pick grapes by hand, which was more expensive than mechanised harvesting. “Pergola is labour intensive; the pickers have sore shoulders from having to reach up for the grapes,” Professor Gaiotti said.

Only about 12 per cent of all the vines in Italy are grown using the pergola vine training methods, but in Soave pergola represents about 85 per cent of all vine structures.

Professor Attilio Scienza, a wine historian at the University of Milan, said the pergola method developed about 3,000 years ago along the Po River. It probably evolved from natural wild vines that clung to trees and shrubs. He showed images from Medieval manuscripts depicting pergola methods, and noted that the great Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci had developed pergola methods in a special vineyard in Milan in the fifteenth century. Sadly, during World War 2 American bombs destroyed that vineyard, Professor Scienza said. He has published more than 400 academic papers on wine history.

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Virtual reality and champagne (7/23/2017)

Champagne house Nicolas Feuillatte should be congratulated for finding new ways to introduce people to their wines. For publication in week starting 24 July 2017.

Global sales of champagne were down about 2 per cent last year compared with 2015. About 306 million bottles were sold last year against 312 million in 2015.

The biggest fall was in the United Kingdom – almost 9 per cent – with the decline almost entirely attributed to Brexit, industry sources said. The United Kingdom remains Champagne’s number one export market by volume with about 31.2 million bottles sold in 2016.

Meanwhile, sales in the United States, Asia and some northern and southern European nations continued to grow. These helped offset the declines in the United Kingdom and France.

Decanter magazine reported that sales in France have been declining steadily since 2010, but the fall was especially noticeable last year because of the country’s continuing economic crisis and a drop in tourism linked to terrorist attacks in 2015 and last year.

Thus it is understandable that champagne houses are looking at new ways to market their wines. Earlier this month Nicolas Feuillatte offered the world’s first multi-sensory champagne tasting in London via virtual reality. Nicolas Feuillatte is the third best-selling champagne brand in the United Kingdom.

Participants experienced the sensation of walking inside a series of bottles of champagne. It was this columnist’s first experience of wine virtual reality, and it was not an entirely pleasant experience.

The main problem with virtual reality is the clunky size and nature of the headset. If one wears spectacles, the headset must fit over the spectacles. The fit must be perfect; otherwise light seeps in. This produces a sensation of one’s glasses being squashed against one’s head.

The other problem is the body’s reaction to any strange and new experience – it begins to sweat, especially when one of the virtual reality experiences is standing on a diving board looking down into a dark abyss. This caused my spectacles to fog even more, limiting my vision. The heavy cable connecting the headset to the laptop housing the virtual reality software got caught between my legs as I staggered around the virtual reality environment.

The discomfort and difficulty in seeing through a foggy eyepiece caused frustration and tended to negate any pleasant sensations coming from the wine. Indeed, the headpiece pinched my nose making it impossible to detect the subtle aromas of the range of four champagnes.

The public relations note advertising the event spoke of users being led “into an enchanting world in virtual reality … inspired by the beauty and mystery of the different Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte brands” and promised a “delight to the senses as it brings together virtual reality and Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte’s best-selling wines”. Frankly, it was not so much delight as endurance. Thank goodness for the champagne bar that was available after the VR trip where a range of Feuillatte’s champagnes were available. That was the much more pleasant experience.

During the virtual reality episode people tasted Nicolas Feuillatte non-vintage Brut Réserve, non-vintage Brut Rosé, the 2008 Blanc de Blancs, and the 2006 Palmes d’Or. The last is a 50:50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and is a beautiful wine, despite the distractions of an uncomfortable virtual reality headset.

Also available to taste were the 2008 Brut Millesime, its cepage the traditional blend of Pinot Noir Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, and the 2006 Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs (as we know, this style is only Chardonnay). Both are good wines, though both struggled when compared with the formidable 2006 Palmes d’Or. This was simply a reflection of the quality of the Palmes d’Or.

Afterwards in the champagne bar all these champagnes tasted so much better. A second and third tasting confirmed the excellence of the 2006 Palmes d’Or. Olivier Legrand, communications manager for Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, also confirmed this was the first virtual reality tasting in the world. “We wanted to try something different.”

The central London building in which the tasting was held was entirely white, from the walls and ceilings to the flowers in the large number of vases around the building. All Nicolas Feuillatte staff wore black, a nice contrast, as they offered delicate nibbles.

Most of the people at the tasting were fashionably-dressed women aged in their twenties and thirties, presumably a cross section of the brand’s intended demographics. Somewhat eerily, they all dressed the same, and sat stroking their hair as they focused on the screens of their mobile phones. None seemed interested in talking about their virtual reality experience.

Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte was founded in 1976 in the heart of the Côte des Blancs and is the youngest of the large Champagne houses. It is also the biggest growers’ brand, with about 4,500 contributors. Grower champagnes are wines produced by the same estate that owns the vineyards from which the grapes come. Some of the big houses buy grapes from other parts of the region.

Nicolas Feuillatte is the best-selling champagne brand in France and third overall in the world. They have access to more than 2,250 hectares of vines, among them 13 of the 17 Grand Cru and 33 of the 42 Premier Cru estates.

According to French law, brut champagne must spend a minimum of 15 months in the cellar, with at least three years for vintage champagne. Nicolas Feuillatte has extended the cellaring process to obtain extra finesse. Their brut champagnes spend three years in the cellar, and vintage champagnes age for at least four years. Olivier Legrand said the Palmes d’Or collection is sometimes aged for eight to 10 years. The last showed it is a beautiful wine despite the distraction of virtual reality.

Footnote: One of the highlights of Vinexpo this year was a vertical tasting of Vinedo Chadwick cabernet sauvignon from 1999, 2003, 2009 and 2015. The 2014 Vinedo Chadwick was the first Chilean wine to receive a perfect 100 points in international competition. Marketing director Loreto Queirolo has just announced that the 2015 Sena from the same stable has also been awarded 100 points in competition. At he same time the 2015 Vinedo Chadwick scored 99 points.

Words: 1,003

Categories: Home page, Uncategorized

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