Wine column

Wine guide for novices (1/13/2018)

This week’s column seeks to answer the question of how to choose when one knows little or nothing about wine? For publication in week starting 15 January 2018.

Appreciation of wine is a subjective experience. The allocation of points might suggest some degree of objectivity, but anyone who has judged wine knows differently. It is always a subjective process.

The only way to account for personal bias is for a large number of judges, at least 20, to assess each wine and remove the outliers — the points at each end when scores are listed in sequence.

In August last year this column reviewed a documentary about the rapid growth in popularity of rosé wine. Producer and writer Ken Kobré told me that the more he learned about wine, the more fascinated he became because “perception trumps reality”.

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

The best advice I can give to someone new to wine drinking it to drink what you like. Forget the rules about matching red wine with red meat. Drink what tastes good to you. This might mean starting with non-dry wine if your palate is accustomed to sweet drinks such as fruit juice. Over time you might find yourself moving from sweet to semi-sweet to dry wines. But focus on what you enjoy. Wine is, after all, about pleasure.

One sensible option is to start with single varietal wines rather than blends. Choose one grape variety and try a range of examples from different countries. The aim is to understand the flavour characteristics of that grape. If you begin with white grapes, perhaps start with fruit forward Chardonnays such as those from new world countries like Australia, New Zealand, Chile or South Africa.

As your palate develops, sample the same grape from France and Italy. Best to avoid Sauvignon Blanc because this grape tends to be too single-dimensional from new world nations, though I happily admit my prejudices against this variety.

After Chardonnay move to another single variety. Chenin Blanc makes superb whites and tends to be relatively inexpensive. Start with South African Chenin, and then compare that with Chenin from France.

All but one of the so-called international grape varieties (those grapes that have been most embraced around the world) — Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Granache and Merlot — originated in France. So if you want to understand wine ultimately you need to study French wine.

A word here about price. As a general rule price is an indicator of quality, but not always. One of the joys of wine-tasting is finding a quality wine for a low price. In Europe, Portugal and Spain probably represent the best value for money at the moment. Among new world countries, South Africa and Chile produce excellent wine at low prices.

Wine is affected by fashion as much as anything else in society. Some time ago we had the ABC movement (“anything but Chardonnay”) which saw people spurning that grape variety. A good rule in life is to zig when the rest of the world zags. So I drank lots of Chardonnay because the lack of popularity meant prices were lower.

It’s worth understanding the influence of local taxes on wine prices. The UK has some of the highest wine taxes in the world. The average price for a bottle of wine sold at a supermarket is about GBP 5.50. Because of the high level of taxes, only about 40p of what people spend is actually for the wine. The chart below shows that the sweet spot, in terms of getting value based on what you spend, is about GBP 15.

Tax as proportion of wine costs in UK
Retail cost of bottle

GBP 5

 

GBP 10

GBP 15

GBP 20

Tax on each bottle

GBP 2.88

GBP 3.3

GBP 3.72

GBP 5.38

% of tax per bottle

57.6

33

24.8

26.9

Vintage is another issue worth studying. Many white wines at the cheaper end of the spectrum are designed to be consumed young. Many restaurants and pubs only serve recent releases. Constant turnover and young vintages help avoid the cost of storing wine.

Many wines from new world nations tend to be designed for early consumption, and these countries focus on providing wines that display their fruit character. Some countries seal wines with screwcaps, and these seals tend to be an indicator that the wines are meant for early drinking. The exception to this rule is Australia and New Zealand where almost all wines are sealed with screwcaps because winemakers believe these are the best way to deliver a wine free of faults.

If you intend to drink older wines it is worth acquiring vintage charts to help choose the best years. This especially applies to countries like France where weather conditions vary considerably from year to year. New world countries have more consistent weather so vintage variation is less an issue.

Organisations like wine societies or local consortia make vintage charts available via their web sites. The Internet has scores of useful charts and guides, such as this one from Robert Parker.

Riesling is an exception among the international grapes when we consider early drinking. It an under-appreciated variety at the moment and you can find great wines at relatively low prices because it is not fashionable.

The exception is Germany, where it originated. There locals still respect one of the world’s great varieties. Riesling is delightful as a young wine but improves after a decade of cellaring. Bargains can still be found if you are willing to seek older Rieslings. Outside Germany, some of the best come from South Australia and New Zealand.

Once you have started to understand white wine, it could be time to move to red wine. Again, focus on one grape variety. If you like fruit flavours without too much tannin, try new world Pinot Noir. Tannin is a preservative and provokes a harsh sensation at the side of your tongue, like drinking cold tea that has sat too long in the pot. Protein dissipates that harshness, so if you choose to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc then drink younger wines with protein.

Footnote: Thank you to Glen Vile of Canberra, Australia, for asking the question that stimulated this week’s column.

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Natural wines shine (1/7/2018)

Many people will have made resolutions to eat more healthy food. Consider also drinking more natural wines. For publication in the week starting 8 January 2018.

Just over a decade ago a dozen important wineries from Austria and Italy formed a collective to bring more individuality to wine. Today the respekt-BIODYN group consists of 22 leading producers from Italy, Austria, Hungary and Germany.

Their aim: to pursue the highest quality through modern biodynamic winemaking methods.

Chairman Michael Goëss-Enzenberg of the Manincor winery in South Tyrol in Austria noted that whenever awards and prizes are given out, members of the group are “always at the forefront”.

This was the case at the recent awards presentation for the red wine guide of the major Austrian wine magazine, Falstaff. The best red wine award for the year went to Hans & Anita Nuttiness, while Paul Achs won the red wine Grand Prix and first place in the Zweigelt category. All three Pinot Noir prizes were also awarded to respekt vintners — Karl Fritsch, Fritz Wieninger, and Fred Loimer.

Late last year the “Premio d’Eccellenza” of the Italian sommelier association went to Goëss-Enzenberg’s Manincor winery, and international top ratings were also given to all five German wineries in the collective.

Michael Goëss-Enzenberg said that in 2005 a group of 12 wineries were looking for more individuality in wine because “we had reached our limits with conventional winemaking methods”.

“Although very successful, we were still not at our peak in terms of quality. It then quickly became quite clear that we had to go down the path of biodynamics, so we called in consultants and changed our way of doing business. In 2007 we finally founded respekt. It was the best decision we could have made. The quality of our soils and our wines today are the best proof of this,” Goëss-Enzenberg said.

The group is striving for the “ideal wine” according to Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic guidelines, though translated into the modern era, he said.

Three producers joined the association in 2009 on top of the original 12. In 2015 four wineries of the traditional German winegrowers’ association VDP, the “Prädikatsweingüter” (Busch, Christmann, Rebholz and Wittmann) followed suit. Since 2016 respekt-BIODYN has consisted of 22 wineries, with the addition of Dr. Wehrheim (also VDP), Hajszan Neumann, and Herbert Zillinger.

In 2015 the group updated its image. This involved re-designing its name and logo. A year later the production and cellaring guidelines for its four wine categories — white, red, sparkling and natural — were completely revised and defined even more rigorously “without any room for interpretation,” Goëss-Enzenberg said.

The 22 respekt member wineries are: Paul Achs, Judith Beck, Busch, Christmann, Feiler-Artinger, Fritsch, Manincor, Gsellmann, Hajszan Neumann, Gernot & Heike Heinrich, Hirsch, Loimer, Anita & Hans Nittnaus, Ott, Gerhard & Brigitte Pittnauer, Claus Preisinger, Ökonomierat Rebholz, Dr. Wehrheim, Weninger, Wieninger, Wittmann, and Herbert & Carmen Zillinger.

Their wines will be available for tasting at ProWein in Düsseldorf on March 17 from 3pm at Industrieclub Düsseldorf.

Natural wine will receive renewed attention at ProWein this year, which runs from March 17-21. Unlike organic, biodynamic and orange wines, no legally binding rules apply to natural wine. Instead it has become an umbrella term to imply wines seeking an uncompromising expression of time and place — terroir — using minimal intervention and zero technological manipulation.

Paula Redes Sidore and Stuart Pigott expressed the concept of natural wine poetically in their blog post last month. These wines are “liquid expressions of authenticity, with the hand of nature, not the winemaker, shining through”.

Their thoughts are worth considering. A few years back, they write, several leading wine journalists predicted that natural wines would “achieve a major breakthrough into the mass market”. But the boom never quite materialised, they wrote. “Natural wines are never simple, and are often divisive. The flavour profiles tend toward the wild, challenging and thought provoking. What some might champion as ‘vibrant, alive and … full of emotion’ (Isabelle Legeron, MW) are condemned by others as mousy, cloudy, muddy and flat. There were other factors as well, including limited quantities and a rising backlash against expensive hipster-friendly ‘movement’ products.”

Part of the problem is the fact that this style of wine involves financial risk. Production costs tend to be high and yields low. They cannot be mass produced. It would be almost impossible to sell a natural wine for less than USD 10-12, which means we will almost never see them in supermarkets, where a large proportion of people buy wine.  

Yet natural wines are unique. Paula Redes Sidore and Stuart Pigott point out that producers in Georgia have rediscovered many of the country’s ancient traditions, with “oxidised styles and seductively wild reds”. Similarly Slovenia, where a variety of estates “have embraced skin-fermented natural wines with their complex, savoury aromas and complex, brooding textured flavours”. These have been the subject of earlier columns.

Wine has been made in Georgia for at least 8,000 years, making it one of the earliest wine regions in the world. Georgia makes 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.

Kvevri feature in book by Carla Capalbo, Tasting Georgia: A food and wine journey in the Caucasus, reviewed in this column in August last year.

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.

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. Do try them, as part of a new year’s resolution to look for new delights.

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Australia’s wine pioneer (12/29/2017)

A new year should start with good wine, even if only for a few days before we enter what is known as “Dry January”. For publication in week starting 1 January 2018.

Swiss immigrants planted the first vineyards in Australia around the city of Geelong from the mid 1840s. The period known as the gold rush a decade later meant prosperous folk had money for wine and by the mid 1860s the Geelong region was known for premium wines.

But less than a decade later a phylloxera epidemic devastated the area and in 1875 the Victorian government ordered all vines to be ripped out of the ground to try to stop the spread of the phylloxera aphid. It kills vines by sucking moisture from vine roots. Vineyards were not replanted because more money could be made from other agricultural pursuits like growing wheat.

Winemaking did not really resume for almost another century. The Anakie and Idyll vineyards pioneered winemaking in the late 1960s. Since then Geelong, in the south-eastern state of Victoria, has become recognised as one of Australia’s finest cool climate regions, specialising in chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz, plus a range of other global grapes like semillon, viogner and cabernet franc.

Geelong has a similar climate to Burgundy in France. Cool-climate regions have long been recognised as the best places to grow grapes because long and cool autumns provide the best conditions for ripening grapes slowly and surely. This concentrates flavours and ensures distinct aromatics and nuanced profiles.

Chardonnay is the region’s most planted variety and wines made from this variety are elegant and fruit focused. Flavours vary depending on the terroir.

The Geelong region actually consists of three distinct sub-districts. Each sub-region produces different style of wine.

The Bellarine sub-region sits on a picturesque peninsula east of Geelong, the second-largest city in Victoria. Ocean breezes and spectacular scenery are a feature of the peninsula, which explains why the area has the largest number of vineyard restaurants open to the public. Wines made away from the water tend to be sturdier and richer than the lighter and more aromatic wines produced on the peninsula.

Some of the best known estates there include Bellarine Estate Winery, Scotchmans Hill (subs: note no apostrophe), Leura Park and Curlewis Winery. The Bellarine Peninsula has the added attraction of being near one of Australia’s most beautiful ferry routes. Take a ferry from Queenscliff on the peninsula to Sorrento on the other side of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, leading to the Mornington Peninsula wine region. Melbourne sits at the northern end of the bay.

A feature of the ferry ride is the large number of dolphins that follow the vessel. They are beautiful to watch as they sport and play around the ferry, often swimming upside down alongside the ferry, their white bellies aglow in the blue waters.

The Moorabool Valley sub-region to the north of Geelong, with its dark volcanic top soils over sandy loams, is the largest in terms of distances needed to be travelled between vineyards, though it has the smallest number of vineyards. The Surf Coast-Otways sub-region south of the city is, like the Moorabool area, warmer and drier than the Bellarine.

Best wines in the Moorabool Valley include Clyde Park Vineyard, Lethbridge Wines and Shadowfax Winery, the last named for the horse ridden by Gandalf the wizard in the Lord of the Rings sequence of novels. Lethbridge Wines are especially good, crafted with great precision by Dr Ray Nadeson. He was a successful academic before giving up science in 2003 to found a vineyard. One could argue that his area of academic research, pain relief, has been replaced by another more pleasant way of dealing with pain.

Best vineyards to visit in the Surf Coast-Otways sub-region include Brown Magpie Wines, Dinny Goonan Wines, Bellbrae Estate and Mt Duneed Estate. The last is located in Pettavel Road, the road named for some of the original Swiss immigrants who made wine. Two years ago the company branched into craft beer via the Mt Duneed Brewing Company. The estate hosts major music events each February, and performers have included Sir Elton John and Fleetwood Mac.

Dinny Goonan is a family-based operation that opened in 1988. It has focused on riesling and shiraz. A fascinating newcomer is the “Proserpina” sparkling wine made in an “Italian” from riesling grapes. It crisp and refreshing and designed to drink now.

Australia’s southern states produce the best pinot noir in Australia, and most of the best pinots are grown in a u-shaped arc that runs through Victoria on the mainland and the island of Tasmania. The right-hand side of this u-shape traverses the Mornington Peninsula south of the state capital, Melbourne. The base of the “u” covers much of the island state of Tasmania while the Geelong region forms the left-hand side of the “u”.

Mount Moriac Wines, established in 1987, focuses on pinot noir grapes and makes some fine examples of Geelong pinot. About a fifth of the company’s 35 hectares are devoted to this variety. The cool and dry climate — plus sandy loam soils that offer good drainage and limit excess vigour in the vines —  are ideal for pinot. Yields are kept low. Estate wines are only made if the winemakers believe the grapes are of sufficient quality. Pinot is also used to make quality sparkling wines in the traditional method.

Other fine pinot noirs tasted in the region came from Scotchmans Hill and Bellarine Estate. The Scotchmans Hill label is kept for the premium end of the spectrum and is best cellared for a few years. But the lesser-priced Swan Bay pinot, designed for early drinking, is a delightful mass of black cherries and good acidity and an absolute bargain.

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AR app for wine marketing (12/20/2017)

The wine industry has been slow in adopting digital technologies for marketing so a new app is good news. For publication in week starting 25 December 2017.

An augmented reality app from Treasury Wine Estates to market the Australian wine label 19 Crimes has proved highly successful in terms of audience reaction and sales. The project is believed to be a world first in the application of AR for wine marketing.

All seven of the 19 Crimes wines with augmented reality labels can be purchased in the United States, though only three are available in Australia and Asia.

The target audience is young men aged 18 to 34, and focuses on the one item they have in common – their mobile phone. After downloading the app people point their mobile’s camera at the label. The face of a convict on the label comes to life and tells a story.

Treasury are happy with the traction. A company spokesperson told me 500,000 people worldwide have downloaded the app so far and this number continues to grow.

The Better Retailing site reported earlier this month the brand had grown 60 per cent in volume sales and 70 per cent in value in the past year. More than one million cases have been sold this year in the United States. The app launched there in June, and it could be argued it has influenced sales.

Augmented reality represents an exciting example of how a brand can use technology to create a positive “buzz”. AR differs from virtual reality. The latter involves wearing a headset that creates a sensation of an alternative reality. An earlier column described the problems associated with virtual reality, especially for people with spectacles.

Augmented reality is less clunky. As the name suggests, it adds to the information available. In the case of 19 Crimes, the label comes to life via the mobile app. We see original images of prisoners as we watch and hear them talk. Six of the seven wines are red and feature male convicts. The seventh, Hard Chard, invokes the life of Jane Castings who describes her life as a thief.

By the late 17th century England’s prisons were very over-crowded. The laws of the time were harsh and even a petty crime like stealing a handkerchief or a loaf of bread meant prison. Australia was established as a penal colony in 1788 after England lost the war of independence with the United States, which meant that country was no longer available as a prison.

The label references the 19 offences sufficiently serious to almost receive the death penalty. Prisoners were transported to Australia “for life” instead of being sent to the gallows. These offences included bigamy, stealing more than a shilling (12 pence), taking fish from a pond or letters from a post office, stealing a shroud from a grave and – most bizarrely of all – impersonating an Egyptian.

The sea journey took seven months and was arduous. If prisoners survived the voyage and worked hard they could build new lives in the colony.

The company has been astute in its choice of subjects. Irishman John Boyle O’Reilly, shown below, is particularly interesting. In 1867 he received a sentence of transportation for number 18 of the 19 crimes – breaking out of prison. Apparently O’Reilly wrote poetry during the voyage to Australia and once there was clever enough to outwit his guards and escape to America. Via the app we hear him speak of “finding true love in the most unlikely of places”. {Photo courtesy Treasury Wine Estates.)
19 Crimes Red Blend 3D_NV.jpg
O’Reilly had a nice turn of phrase. Of the transportation experience he says only people “who have stood within the bars and heard the din of devils and the appalling sounds of despair can imagine the horrors of the hold of a convict ship”.

Reaction on Apple’s app store has been mostly positive. One person wrote: “A fantastic app that brings a little piece of history to life. I jumped out of my skin when the mugshot spoke to me.”

A Treasury spokesperson said the idea to use augmented reality came about when the company was researching using virtual reality for a client in the US. “It seemed like a natural fit [with 19 Crimes] given the stories behind the convicts and the images we have of them.”

No actors were used for the voices; the videos we see in the app were animated via computer. Treasury worked with an agency in San Francisco called Tactic, alongside its global creative agency J. Walter Thompson. “We are not aware of any other wine brand that is using augmented reality on their labels,” the spokesperson said via email.

Of the seven wines from 19 Crimes, the Shiraz and the Red Blend are available in Hong Kong, while the Red Blend, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are sold in Singapore. The company plans to launch in other Asian markets early next year.

The WiseGuyReports.Com site published a report earlier this year in which they predicted that augmented reality for advertising would grow at a compound annual growth rate of almost 31 per cent from this year until 2021.

“AR technology makes the consumer remember an experience or action related to a particular product, and it allows the viewer to manipulate a computer-generated 3D representation of the product. Hence, it is popularly being used in advertising and marketing. It also allows a more interactive experience, possibly leading to an improved retention of the product information,” the report said.

The 19 Crimes app is available for both Android and iOS devices. The wine company’s web site also includes a store locator for finding the wine, by typing the post or zip code.

The press release connected with the American launch offers this observation: “… 19 Crimes wines celebrate the rebellious spirit of the more than 160,000 exiled men and women, the rule breakers and law-defying citizens who forged a new culture and national spirit in Australia. Just like these legendary rogues, 19 Crimes wines are a taste that will live long in infamy.”

One wonders when other wine marketers will start appreciating the power of digital tools for selling wine, or creating a “buzz” about a label.

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Organic wines in Asia (12/16/2017)

Organic wines will feature at Vinexpo Hong Kong in May, further evidence of their growing credibility. For publication in week starting 18 December 2017.

Organic, natural and biodynamic wines will have a unique location for the first time at Vinexpo Hong Kong in May next year. The move was designed as a way to introduce the WOW! (World of Organic Wines!) concept to Asian buyers and consumers.

WOW! featured for the first time at Vinexpo Bordeaux in June this year. About 150 organic, natural and biodynamic wines were available for tasting. Vinexpo officials said it was an immediate success with importers, sommeliers and wine merchants seeking a “clearly defined organic offer” to meet the “growing demand” for organic wines.

Alvaro Baños of Bodegas las Cepas in Spain said WOW! in Bordeaux gave winemakers the chance to meet a huge number of industry professionals from around the world. “The buyers who visit this organic wine area know exactly what they’re looking for, which is a great time saver. We boosted our sales at Vinexpo Bordeaux and have decided to repeat the exercise at Vinexpo Hong Kong to gain a better understanding of the Asian market.”

At least 50 producers from around the world will be involved with WOW! at Vinexpo Hong Kong. The idea behind WOW! was to make Vinexpo accessible to small-scale winemakers, so exhibitor packages for this major wine event have been kept relatively low at about €1,500 or USD 1,770.

The organic market in Asia is undergoing solid growth. Organic produce, which includes wine and spirits, was worth USD 7,500 million in 2014, the most recent year when data were available. Of that USD 4,500 million was spent in China. Specialist stores are appearing there in increasing numbers, especially in Beijing and Shanghai.

Wine consumption is following the same trend and is expected to gain “further momentum” in coming years. This is because of the rapid increase in the number of Chinese vineyards producing wines from organic farming, a Vinexpo spokesman said.

The Sopexa Wine Trade Monitor published in November last year predicted growth possibilities for China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea over the two years to the end of next year. Sopexa is a global communications agency that focuses on the wine and food industries.

Major growth was expected in relation to organic and natural wines in Japan. About two in five industry professionals there anticipated an increase in sales of organic, biodynamic and natural wines to the end of 2018.

The Sopexa report quoted Carl Robinson, CEO of Tokyo importer Jeroboam, as saying that demand for natural wines in Japan was extremely high. Many of Tokyo’s best restaurants served them. “After the earthquake and Fukushima, people were even more careful about what they ate and drank. Honesty in labelling has become very important to the Japanese who are also more demanding than ever when it comes to quality,” Robinson said.

Interestingly, in China only 10 per cent of the industry predicted growth in organic wines, with 3 per cent forecasting more interest in natural wines.

In 1999 under one per cent of the world’s vineyards were certified organic, biodynamic or in the process of being converted. By 2017 the total was unknown, but was definitely growing. Demeter International, a non-profit organisation that bestowed its first biodynamic label in 1928, is the leading certification organisation worldwide. In France, long regarded as a traditional wine nation, biodynamic wine certifications have been growing at least 10 per cent a year for the past decade.

Much debate exists over the definitions of natural, biodynamic and organic wine. The legal definition of organic wine varies from country to country and usually focuses on the use of preservatives.

Organic wine is made from organically grown grapes. This generally means winemakers reject the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides when growing grapes. But the wines may be subject to chemical and physical manipulation during the winemaking process.

A growing number of winemakers are making wine without added preservatives. But it is generally acknowledged that these wines are meant to be consumed within a few years of bottling.

Certain types of wines improve with age, when flavours become more integrated and balanced. Currently the only effective preservatives that allow wines to last for a long time in the cellar are “non-organic”.

The addition of sulphites to help wines mature is debated heavily within the organic winemaking community. Some winemakers believe it is acceptable to use sulphites in small quantities. In Europe wines with added sulphites that are otherwise organic are labelled “wine made from organic grapes”.

Natural wine is made with minimum technological intervention during both the growing phase and in the winery. The term is used to distinguish these wines from organic wine and biodynamic wine because of differences in cellar practices. As well as being made from organic or biodynamic grapes, natural wines come from vineyards that have not been irrigated and with low yields. They have no added sugars, use only natural yeasts, with no adjustments for acidity (acidification), no fining or filtration and no manipulation via things like micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis.

Biodynamic wine involves a set of farming practices that view the vineyard as one organism. This style of growing works on the idea of sustainability – that is, viticulturalists aim to leave the land in as good or better shape as when they found it. Some of these practices are proven scientifically, like organic practices. Others such as the use of homoeopathic preparations have attracted criticism for being esoteric. The planets’ influence on the growing season and on vineyard and winery operations is also taken into account.

Monty Waldin, author of Biodynamic Wine (published last year), says biodynamics produces unique wines and notes that some of the world’s most famous wine estates such as Chateau Petrus in Bordeaux and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy are biodynamic. Scientist and wine writer Jamie Goode describes biodynamics as a “supercharged version of organic farming”.

Vinexpo Hong Kong next May offers wine consumers a chance to discover the delights of organic, natural and biodynamic wines.

Footnote: The new name for the national body representing the English and Welsh wine industry, announced this week, is Wines of Great Britain. It will use the shortened “WineGB” in all its communications.

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In praise of age (12/8/2017)

The Sémillon grape in Australia’s Hunter Valley, when cellared for at least a decade, provides a unique joy. For publication in week of 11 December 2017.

One of the joys of getting older is the knowledge that wines are maturing in cellars around the globe. Another joy is access to wines in the cellars of friends and family.

Early next month my mother celebrates her 90th birthday and I’ve been staying with her this past week near the Hunter Valley in Australia. My mother has several beautiful messages on the walls of her home. The most relevant says: “I’m not old. I’m just becoming vintage”.

Time is the magic ingredient in the unique wine the Hunter Valley produces: aged Sémillon. This grape variety improves radically with time. The closest comparison would be classic Riesling from Germany, which also starts to display its peacock-feathered beauty after decades. Indeed, some generations ago Sémillon from the region was labelled “Hunter River Riesling”.

Sémillon arrived in 1831 as part of collection of grapes that James Busby brought to the country. It was first planted in the hot and humid Hunter Valley where it became popular with winemakers because of its high yields and resistance to disease. The variety originated in the South West of France around Bordeaux, where it remains the most-planted white grape in the region.

Sémillon has been one of the most planted grapes in the world. In the 1820s it represented more than 90 per cent of South Africa’s vineyards, where it was known as Wyndruif. During the 1950s almost three quarters of Chile’s vineyards consisted of Sémillon.

The Hunter Valley produces Australia’s best aged Sémillon. Fruit is picked early with low sugar levels and fermented dry. In its youth Sémillon is like the character in the John Keats poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci “alone and palely loitering”. Expect aromas of lemon and lime, with a citrus-based crispness and lively acid. Some people enjoy Sémillon young, especially on a hot day. It is typically about 10 to 11.5 per cent alcohol, meaning it can be drunk with lunch and one can still return to work.

But major joys emerge with time. Aged Sémillon is class in the glass. After two decades that pale white takes on a noble hue of burnished gold. It radiates joy and golden majesty, much richer than the yellow of the daffodils Wordsworth rhapsodised about.

The aromas change from floral and white fruits to an excess of joy, if it’s possible to have excess of delight. Flavours of coconut, honey and citrus plus toasty notes with a sensation of beeswax. The kind of flavours associated with honey fresh from the hive smothered on good rye toast, with some pieces of wax still in the honey.

All this is achieved without any oak. The transmogrification is simply the product of time. The rewards of patience, to steal the slogan for the benefits of ageing that Penfolds apply to their range of great red wines.

Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of British wine writers, wrote in The Oxford Companion to Wine that Hunter Valley Sémillon was “one of the most idiosyncratic and historic wine types exclusive to the New World,” describing it as “one of the unsung heroes of white wine production”. Her understatement is too understated. Aged Sémillon is wondrous.

Most Sémillon does not receive any extra acid – known as acidification, a standard practice among some Australian winemakers. Wines with natural acidity have a softer and more refined palate compared with acidified whites that tend to feel hard or austere.

As a cellaring wine it is one of the greatest whites in the world, writes Australian wine guru Huon Hooke. He says it can live for at least two decades, often much longer. I suggest the great ones will live much longer. “When young it’s great with fresh oysters, cooked cold prawns and simply cooked white-fleshed fish,” he writes. “[and] at 10 or so years it goes with smoked trout or salmon, lobster with burnt butter, and other flavoursome dishes.” Even older Sémillon works best with full-flavoured foods such as smoked fish and smoked or roasted chicken.

Hooke maintains on his web site that Sémillon has a “quirky affinity” with the Hunter Valley because it ripens earlier than most other whites. This means it is not likely to be affected by late-summer rain. “The Hunter’s climate is unique in the sense that the weather is quite hot during the vine’s growing season, but the sunlight is moderated by coastal cloud cover. There’s also higher summer rainfall and higher relative humidity than in any Australian wine region west of the Great Dividing Range (a strip of mountains which shadows much of the east coast).”

Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley has been making Sémillon since the 1850s. Its flagship Vat 1 Sémillon was first bottled in 1962 and is a classic. I’ve had the privilege of tasting several vintages, most recently the 1998 with my brother Phillip in Newcastle.

Sadly it was his last bottle, but it will remain long in my memory. It glowed gold in the glass, with aromas and flavours of honey and toast, and with enough acidity to suggest it could have lasted at least another decade. That distinct citrus tang was still there but complimented by several layers of tertiary flavours.

Three of Tyrrell’s seven Sémillons come from a single vineyard labelled Stevens, HVD and Belford. In most years the Vat 1 is a blend of three vineyards. All come from distinct soils: sandy river flats near the winery. These four wines tend to be held back and sold about seven years after vintage. The other wines are entry level and are meant to be consumed young.

Other excellent Hunter Valley Sémillons tasted this week included the delicate 2010 and 2011 Poole’s Rock, and the 2007 Mount Pleasant Blue Label Sémillon. The Blue Label is released as “cellar-aged”. It does not have the refinement and class of the Tyrrell’s Vat 1 or the Poole’s Rock but at about half the price it is a bargain.

Another of the message on my mother’s wall is not connected to wine, but still relevant: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” I offer many thanks for the vinous kindness of friends and family.

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Medoc’s climate of quality (12/2/2017)

Wines from Bordeaux’s Medoc region are the result of a classic combination of terroir and tradition. For publication in week starting 4 December 2017

Bordeaux’s Medoc region has a distinct meso-climate that produces high quality fruit, which in turn is made into exceptional wines. It sits astride the 45th parallel of latitude to the north of the city of Bordeaux. The 45th parallel is exactly half way between the Equator and the North Pole.

Vines receive plenty of sunshine to ripen grapes. Winds from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde River regulate temperatures, keeping them relatively consistent throughout the ripening season. The winds also reduce the impact of summer humidity and the danger of vine diseases.

Think of the Medoc as being shaped like a cigar. It is about 80 km long and varies between 3-5 km in width. Medoc consists of two regional AoCs (Medoc and Haut-Medoc) and six communal AoCs. Moving south to north from the city of Bordeaux the communal AoCs are Margaux, Moulis, Listrac, Saint Julien, Pauillac and Saint Estephe, with Haut (higher) Medoc and Medoc at either end.

Five of France’s six First Growths, some of the world’s most prestigious and expensive wines, are located in the Medoc.

The region has about 16,500 hectares with average production of about 100 million bottles a year from about 1,500 chateaux and estates. Wine is an agricultural product and some vintages are small because of bad weather. Next year’s vintage, for example, is expected to be well below the average because of frosts that killed buds, especially in Listrac and Moulis.

The Haut Medoc and Medoc AoCs produce more than two thirds of total average production. The six communal AoCs only manage fewer than two in five bottles of the total output. This scarcity plus their high reputation around the world explains the high prices achieved for their wines.

Moulis is the smallest AoC (633 hectares) and produces only 4 per cent of the Medoc’s output. Listrac is only slightly bigger and makes 5 per cent of the total. These tend to offer the best value for money because they are not as well known as the prestigious communal AoCs like Margaux and Pauillac.

The 2014 Chateau Saransot Dupre from Listrac is a bargain, full of lashings of ripe fruit because of the long Indian summer of the 2014 vintage. So is the 2012 Chateau Pomeys from Moulis, a 50:50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the latter giving the wine opulence and richness.

All Medoc wines are red and a blend of classic Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Locals believe it is only possible to achieve great wines through blending. The cepage, or blend, in each AoC varies depending on the soils. Pauillac, for example, is heavily inclined towards Cabernet Sauvignon (62 per cent of plantings) against only 32 per cent for Merlot. Listrac is exactly the reverse, with 62 per cent Merlot.

When averaged out across all the Medoc AoCs, plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are evenly balanced at 47 per cent each, with 3 per cent each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Soils vary from gravel to calcerous clays. The former allows water to drain quickly whereas the latter retains water. Merlot is much happier in deeper clay-type soils and shallow gravel, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon hates to get its feet wet and flourishes in deeper gravels.

New research has appeared suggesting that the quality of Medoc wines in Bordeaux can be linked to the height of the hills. The best wines appear to come from hills with the most topsoil before the vines reach the limestone below.

We are not talking huge heights here. Margaux, the lowest AoC, is only 15-20 metres above sea level while Listrac is the highest, at about 39-45 metres above sea level.

We can thank Dutch pioneers in the region for the quality of the land. They built canals to drain the original marshland in the seventeenth century. Water drains into the Gironde, the river that runs into the Atlantic Ocean, and which is itself a confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Bordeaux wines are described as being left or right bank, as in relation to their position in relation to the Gironde. Medoc wines are left bank.

Nina Cerullo, a UK-based wine educator who specialises in Bordeaux, visits the region several times a year. She noted experiments with grapes other than the classic Bordeaux varieties, and the re-introduction of grapes that used to be grown in the region, such as Malbec, that went out of favour decades ago.

Cerullo also noted that Merlot is being picked earlier in the Medoc to ensure good acidity, along with a preference for ripe Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. “Merlot can be excellent if we have a long ripening period in the autumn which allow the grapes to gain lots of flavour.”

Cerullo said locals were increasingly embracing technology. For example, drones were being used to measure variations in temperature to help determine which grapes should be planted where. And many estates were employing optical sorters – devices that detect under- or over-ripe grapes after berries have been separated from bunches. The sorters expel poor-quality grapes with a blast of hot air.

Consumers are tending to choose Bordeaux they can consume young. Traditionally classic Bordeaux from the great chateaux was made to be stored and only comes into its own after decades in the cellar.

Why are consumers choosing to drink younger Bordeaux and not cellar it? Changing cuisines that do not demand older wines are partly the explanation. Asian food does not require a red with tertiary flavours that come after time in the cellar.

Some people appreciate fruit-forward wines with less oak. And perhaps some consumers simply do not have the patience or space to cellar wines. Smart wine regions such as Rioja in Spain have learned the marketing power of storing wines until they are sufficiently mature to be consumed and consumers appreciate the removal of that responsibility.

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Alcohol free wines (11/25/2017)

The market for wine with no or low alcohol is growing strongly in some parts of the world. Why? For publication in the week starting 27 November 2018

Younger adults are tending to avoid alcohol in some nations of the world. In the UK, for example, about one in four people aged 18-24 are teetotal, according to the Office for National Statistics. A decade ago the proportion was one in five.

Some people are rejecting alcohol for health reasons. On average in the UK about one million pregnant women each year avoid alcohol because of fears associated with damage to the foetus. Social pressure and drink-drive laws are also affecting consumption. During the forthcoming festive season, the question arises: What to serve the designated driver beyond water or sugary soft drink?

In the UK a growing number of people are adopting a Dry January policy after the excesses of the party season. Alcohol Concern started this initiative in 2013. That year about 4,350 people abstained from alcohol for the month. This year the total was more than five million, an indication of the potential number of people seeking a non-alcoholic option when entertaining. This partly explains why supermarkets introduce new lines near the end of each year.

These trends explain the surge in popularity of alcohol-free or low-alcohol wines in some countries. A sparkling wine known as the Bees Knees represents an example of the former category. The Bees Knees presents as the kind of sparkling wine served at receptions and parties, or can be enjoyed as an aperitif. It looks and tastes like fizz, but contains no alcohol.

Consider those designated drivers this Yuletide season: A flute of alcohol-free sparkling is more exciting than water, and not over-laden with sugar as is the case with the majority of soft drinks.

Some of the major wine-producing nations are concerned about how to maintain consumption levels if the trend among younger consumers continues. This has been the subject of earlier columns.

Bees Knees sparkling wine is made from grape juice, but infused with green tea which seems to give a sense of “body” that sparkling wine requires. It has no alcohol and only about half the calories of average fizz (a 750 ml bottle contains about 200 calories). It is available in white and rosé. Bees Knees is bottled in Germany, according to the label, but the origins of the grape juice are unclear.

The wine has the classic closure of cork and cage, and opens like a traditional sparkling wine with a pleasant “baby’s fart” as the cork emerges. The bottle looks like a sparkling wine container. The rosé has good acidity and colour and feels like a mid-weight rosé fizz. The white feels slightly sweeter and tastes more like Appletiser or sparkling apple juice than wine, but it has pleasing acidity. The stream of bubbles from the bottom of the glass to the surface of both wines, known as the “bead” in Champagne and sparkling wines, looks like classic fizz.

California produces more than 90 per cent of all the wine made in the United States. Debra Parker Wong is a wine educator and wine journalist based in San Francisco. She appreciates consumer concerns about excess alcohol consumption and the related intake of calories, but notes that low and no-alcohol category wines are not a regular choice for most drinkers in California.

“While sales of both low and no-alcohol wine and beer are growing in the United States, sales of non-alcoholic wine have been inconsistent largely because products don’t meet consumer expectations for taste and price. I saw this demonstrated first hand during a recent tasting of Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon, a non-alcoholic wine which has been on the market since 1985, by Millennial students in my Wine 1 course at Santa Rosa Junior College. Fewer than one per cent of students indicated that they would purchase the product.”

Some scientists argue that alcohol affects how we taste, but not what we taste. Others say that removal of alcohol produces a different portrait of what we consume: Alcohol provides “body” so more alcohol increases the sensation of weight. Alcohol also provides texture, so its removal can change the “feel” of a wine. White wines seem to maintain the original textural qualities of the alcoholic wine more successfully. Some argue the fruit flavours of the wine become more noticeable.

The character of the original wine, as in its aromas and taste, are said to be maintained better when a technique known as “spinning cone” is used. It gently removes the alcohol without reducing the aromas, quality or flavour profile of the wine.

Some low-alcohol wines are made either by fermenting the grapes for a shorter time, or by replacing the alcohol with artificial flavours. These wines tend to be almost alcohol free – less than 0.5 per cent. Wine critic Jane MacQuitty advised readers of The Times newspaper to approach all low-alcohol wines “with caution”. “Most of the low-alcohol and de-alcoholised wines I’ve tasted have been vile, sticky, grubby, luridly-coloured liquids that bear no relation to wine.”

Wine expert Alexandra Runciman developed a low-alcohol range for Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the UK. She told the drinks business magazine that more and more people were looking for high quality drinks with low alcohol. “Consumption of alcohol in the UK is down by 18 per cent over the past decade,” she said, “and we’re seeing more customers looking for a quality wine drinking experience without the alcohol.”

A number of European supermarkets have begun developing low-alcohol offerings. Germany’s Lidl this month launched its New Year Wine Cellar selection. In August this year Aldi added four low-alcohol wines to its list, each with about 5 per cent alcohol.

Clearly alcohol will remain a topic of debate for years to come. Regardless of what you drink, consume wine sensibly — for the enjoyment rather than the hit.

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Wine writing with flair (11/16/2017)

Many books about wine are published each year but too many are poorly written and lack flair. For publication in the week starting 20 November 2017.

A wonderful new book about the wine trade, Cork Dork, marries erudition with a delightfully light touch. It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve read for a while.

The premise is simple: Technology journalist Bianca Bosker, though interested in wine and describing herself as an “amateur drinker,” becomes fascinated by the elite world of sommeliers (“cork dorks”) and decides to write about becoming one.

Sommeliers have dedicated their careers to understanding flavour. Bosker wants to know why they love what novelist Robert Louis Stevenson called “bottled poetry”. Morgan Harris, an aspiring master sommelier in Bosker’s home city of New York, becomes her mentor, and is the book’s unofficial hero.

Bosker asks him why a grand cru Burgundy is better than a wine that cost a twentieth of the price. “Why can’t the answer be there isn’t a fucking answer,” he replies angrily. “It’s in your heart. It’s spiritual. It has nothing to do with quantification. … thank God there is still something on this planet that belongs completely to the … mysterious and the aesthetic.”

This outburst occurs relatively early in the book. Near the end Bosker relates her own epiphany. Wine combines art, culture, religion and history. Learning about wine must occur through engaging our senses of taste and smell. That training “does change us,” Bosker concludes, “even more quickly and profoundly than we realise”.

About 2,500 years ago Plato revered the senses of seeing and hearing, and dismissed taste and smell as lesser sensations. Hearing and sight could bring aesthetic pleasure but taste and smell were “intellectually bankrupt”.

Generations of thinkers and philosophers bought into this conceit. Immanuel Kant singled out smell as the “most ungrateful” and “most dispensable” sense. Thomas Aquinas said it was impossible for a human to be happy if they focused on the “pleasures of the table”.

Bosker’s book gently corrects this stupidity, using modern scientific methods such as MRI brain scans: “Far from smell and taste being primal, animalistic senses, it turns out that learning to cultivate them engages, in a literal way, the very part of us that elevates our reactions, endows our lives with meaning, and makes us human.”

Morgan Harris argues that good wine is “transformational”. Give him a good glass of wine, Bosker writes, and he could “decode, through its flavour, the blood, sweat, tears and hopes that the pickers, farmers and vintners had poured into that wine. He was sensitive to the human contributions and natural metamorphoses represented by the craftmanship of that bottle, along with the moral and historical dimensions of each.”

Harris admits he has had “experiences with wine in which I’ve felt small in a way that happens when you see Modigliani’s Reclining Nude. When I see that painting … [I know] there is something outside of myself and bigger than me”.

As any good journalist knows, the story is the key to engaging with people. Bosker notes that the best wines “regardless of pedigree, came with a story”. A glass of wine reached its “full potential” when it “left you with a story”. That story is often about the consumer who comes to appreciate the dimensions of life unlocked “by senses you thought you used only for basic survival”.

Bosker is talking here about the untapped power of the brain and the sub-conscious, which have a close affinity with smell and taste. Proust, among other great writers, helps us discern the connections between aroma and memory.

For Bosker taste and smell are the “most intimate” of senses. They enable us to enjoy life in a more vivid and informed way. “Honing the senses is a prerequisite to fuller, deeper experience.” Bosker admits that sometimes only she noticed the differences: “I’d take a bite of something and feel like I’d finally gotten the punch line to a joke I‘d been hearing for years.”

In her final paragraph she concludes: “Every person has the capacity to find and savour the soul that lives in wine – and in other sensory experiences, if you know how to look for it.” The key is paying attention, which she reserves for her punchline. “Feeling something for wine and unleashing your senses begins by just paying attention. And applying yourself with gusto.”

Bosker achieved something remarkable as the background to writing this book. She passed the difficult Certified Sommelier exam after about a year’s training. This is tantamount to doing a PhD in a couple of months. Many people fail several times and need to pay the USD 325 fee each time they sit the exam.

Morgan Harris taught her the skill of “unconscious consciousness” known as “mushin” (it means “no mind” in Chinese and Korean). Tasters learn to shed their thoughts, emotions, fears and ego as they prepare to identify wines based solely on taste and aroma. Mushin is similar to the Japanese state of “mizu no kokoro” (“mind like water”) where a person makes their consciousness still like the surface of a pond, able to reflect exactly what it is shown or encounters.

In the book, published last month, Harris is studying to achieve the award of Master Sommelier (MS), the highest rank in the wine world, and similar to the award of Master of Wine. In the US, a MS earns about USD 150,000 a year.

Bosker describes a MS as “the dining room equivalent of being made a Navy SEAL” and notes that at the time of writing (2016) America had 2,450 active SEALS but only 230 people had become Master Sommeliers.

About 200 people sit the exam each year and 95 per cent fail. The failure rate for the Master of Wine (MW) is more than 90 per cent. As of October this year the world had 369 MWs in 29 nations. Only four people worldwide have both qualifications. The first was Ronn Wiegand MS MW, who remarkably passed all exams at his first attempt.

One wonders what Plato would think about these statistics.

Other review books recently received include Hungarian Wine: A tasting trip to the new old world by Robert Smyth and The Ultimate Guide to Champagne by Liz Palmer. Both contain useful information and are recommended as reference texts. But they lack the flair of Bosker’s prose. Her book elevates wine writing.

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Century of achievement (11/9/2017)

A former South African co-operative is making a name for itself for quality wines that offer value for money. For publication in week starting 13 November 2017. 

The year the Great War ended, in 1918, was also when Nelson Mandela was born. That same year a group of South African wine farmers founded the KWV co-operative.

Their aim was to support a young and struggling industry and they worked hard for decades. Until the early 1990s, when world markets opened to South African wine after the end of the apartheid era, KWV played a major role in regulating the domestic industry.

KWV has always been a commercial player, exporting award-winning wines from its main cellar in Paarl all over the world. It became a private company two decades ago. It has had an average of about 54 growers each year over the past half decade. In that time KWV, which stands for Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika (South African winegrowers’ co-operative), has worked hard to shed its early reputation as a maker of lower grade wines.

The focus in recent years under chief winemaker Wim Truter has been on innovation. The company produces several types of wine, but its two main lines are the Mentors and Classic ranges. The Mentors line offers the company’s winemakers a chance to innovate with trials of new grape varieties and wine styles. Lessons from there go into the Classic range, the company’s main breadwinner.

A tasting of both lines this month with Wim Truter provided a chance to appreciate the high quality of wines available from KWV.

An introduction to Laborie wines was also a pleasant surprise. In recent years this columnist has had the chance to taste sparkling wines made by South Africa’s Graham Beck and been pleasantly surprised by the quality. Beck’s cap classique (the term refers to traditional sparkling winemaking methods perfected in the Cape Town region of the country) have won awards around the world. Nelson Mandela drank the wine at his inauguration, which immediately made it an icon in the coiuntry. Michelle Obama chose this wine to mark her husband Barack’s inauguration in January 2009.

The 2010 Laborie “methode cap classique” blanc de blanc is a significant sparkling wine that would challenge some champagnes in terms of quality, yet is about half the price of equivalent-standard champagnes. As the name suggests, it is made from Chardonnay grapes. The wine spends three years on lees and the flavours of mature Chardonnay are multiplied in the glass. The only deficit in the wine is a slight lack of acid zing, a problem typical of hot climates like South Africa or Portugal or the Australian mainland. Local winemakers reliably inform me that the 2011 contains more acidity, and would be worth pursuing when released next year.

The Laborie estate has been producing fine wines since 1698, making it one of the oldest wine farms in South Africa. A French Huguenot, Isaac Taillefert, received the land that became Laborie in 1691. Within seven years Taillefert and his son Jean were producing drinkable wine. A Frenchman named M. Leguat, who visited the Cape in 1698, said their wine was “the best in the colony and similar to our small wines of Champagne”.

The Laborie 2017 Sauvignon Blanc is another impressive wine. Think fresh, zingy and balanced New Zealand savvy without the smell of cat’s urine I associate with Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. This is a wine to enjoy on a hot summer’s day (we must learn patience as winter settles in for the northern hemisphere).

One of my favourite HWV wines is their 2015 Mentors Grenache Blanc. Chief winemaker Wim Truter offered a sample of the recently-bottled 2017 and noted this wine has good acidity, similar to a young riesling. Both the bottle sample and the 2015 offered lashings of bright and fresh fruit making it a delight to drink now, yet with the potential to age like a Riesling.

The skill, Truter said, was in maturing the wine in large old barrels that gave a smoothness, even a form of creaminess, to the wine.

“Grenache Blanc is a good grape for South Africa,” he said, “because it copes well with extremes of heat and lack of rain.” Parts of the country have endured drought for some years, and water allocations will always be an issue in South Africa.

Vines in the KWV company produce about 100 tonnes of Grenache Blanc a year, close to two thirds of all this grape grown in the country. Truter, who trained at Stellenbosch University’s prestigious winemaking course, believes Grenache Blanc has great potential for producing quality wine in South Africa, a country where the dominant white grape is Chenin Blanc.

Having said that, the 2014 KWV Chenin Blanc is another tasty wine that is easy to drink yet would reward some years in the cellar. It has a pleasing complexity, the result of some months in new oak, and again lots of ripe fruit flavours. A feature of South African whites is the purity and freshness of the fruit flavours. These are wines that are easy to drink and punch well above their weight along the quality to price ratio.

Among red wines, Truter has an affection for the Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc grapes, based on bottle samples provided at our tasting. The 2016 Classic Collection Petit Verdot is a bargain wine given the lashings of fruit available in a relatively inexpensive bottle.

The 2012 Mentors Orchestra is one of KWV’s flagship wines, and shows the growing mastery of blending among the company’s winemakers. Indeed, South Africa’s winemakers, like their counterparts in Portugal, are demonstrating increasing skills in this area.

Generally about half of the Orchestra blend is Cabernet Franc with the balance an array of classic Bordeaux reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. This wine is precise, elegant and poised, yet with subdued tannins that render it approachable now. Again, in terms of the price:quality ratio it is a bargain compared with wines of similar quality from France. France should be starting to worry about the number of countries such as Portugal, Serbia and South Africa that are making excellent wine for a lot less than the French.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of England’s North-South Wines at a lunch in Brighton in November to showcase KWV wines.

Words: 1,021

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