Friday, May 22, 2015

Taittinger Visit and Champagne Conclusions

The greatest thing about touring Champagne houses are the caves. Taittinger has two cellars in Reims. One in the city centre, which holds 6 million bottles, and one where the old Abbey stood, which houses 2 million of large format bottles and the reserve Comtes de Champagne. This is where you visit. It is an impressive experience (and once I have worked out how to upload photos from the ipad or found an internet cafe, I will share some photos).

The tasting started with the traditional blend, a widely available Brut, composed of 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier. This Champagne is fresh and well balanced. It has good effervescence, length on the palate and some toasty characters. The 2008 Vintage Champagne takes it up a notch. It consists of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir. This Champagne has more weight, but is very elegant and rounded. It consists only of premier cru and grand cru grapes.

Taittinger is fortunate in that it owns 290ha of vines, more than most others and 50% of its needs, and 30% comes from grand cru villages. I did a quick calculation: 1ha is worth 1 million euros in Champage, so there is 300million tied up in capital. There is another 500million or so in inventory, which they can afford to keep and mature in the caves. How many are in this position? Entry barriers are high, and because of the regulations, not much is changing. The two wines I tasted here were good, but I would like to see a much more dynamic environment (and yes I know, many growers are starting to do it for themselves).

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Champagne Houses in Epernay

On my second day in Champagne, I went to three relatively unknown producers in the centre of Champagne, Epernay. The first was Castellane, a fairly large producer who sells 80% of its production domestically. This is unusual, but becomes clearer during the visit. Castellane would be the equivalent of an industrial wine producer. Its Brut Champagne has strong citrus flavours. It is fresh, but quite acidic with no yeast flavours to speak of. This is the result of bought-in grapes ( quality control?) and a relatively short maturation period.

A visit to the small grower Julien Chopin was a little more rewarding. I tasted a Brut from 100% Chardonnay,  a Rose made from 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir, and a Brut Nature (zero dosage) from 100% Pinot Meunier. The Chardonnay Champagne is light and quite delicate, the Rose is equally light, while the Meunier is much fruitier and a little plump. These Champagnes are true to their grapes, but lack finesse and excitement.

The third producer was Bouche Pere et Fils. The standard wines were similar to above, but the Cuvee Saphir was more interesting. This was a Champagne blend with 75% Chardonnay, matured for 8 years. Citrus was still the dominant flavour, but the finish was much softer and more toasty.

There are many rules and regulations in Champagne. The  mighty Committee tells you when to harvest, how many grapes per hectare can go into your Champagne, and so on. There are not many variables you can play with. And if you do not have old vines or the capital for long maturation periods, you will not make great Champagne.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Veuve Clicquot

My tour de France started in Reims today with a visit at Veuve Clicquot. This famous Champagne house can lay claim to a number of things. Madame Clicquot was one of the first female industrialists, when she took the reign more than 200 years ago. Her most audacious move was towards the end of the Napoleon war, when she managed to ship a large amount of Champagne across closed borders to St. Petersburg for the Russians to celebrate their victory. At the end of her time, she handed the business over to a German businessman. A French patriot she was not.

The caves are over 1000 years old, initially used for military defense. The highlight at present is a bottle from the oldest Champagne find, from the early 1840s, which was discovered on the bottom of the Baltic Sea five years ago. Of the 168 in tact bottles on the ship wreck, 48 were from Veuve Clicquot (still keeping dominant share of the Russia trade). Three were giftet back to Veuve Cliquot. Apparently, the Champagne was quite drinkable, although the bubbles were almost gone, and the sugar content even higher than desert wines in today's times.

I only tried the standard Veuve Clicquot blend. A special feature is that this Champagne is always predominantly made from red grapes, currently 50% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier. Only the juice is used, of course, so the colour is white to golden. The result is a relatively full flavoured wine, with a big mouthfeel. This Champagne is a bit fruity, but the flavours are complex. Dominant is green apple, but there is also raspberry and fig. The finish is not as crisp as I would have liked. This Champagne is best drunk as an aperitif, I think.

This was an interesting tour, and a good start. Tomorrow, the Champagne tasting will start in earnest.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Rosemount Founder's Edition Shiraz

The world of Shiraz! From the $650 per bottle Hill of Grace to the €5 per bottle 2013 Rosemount Founder's Edition Shiraz. You can buy this wine in German supermarkets. It is the most expensive red there. But imagine, after transport, customs, materials and production, how much would the grape growers have received? Pittens, that's what. The description says "South Eastern Australia", which generally means Riverina i.e. high yielding large vineyards, mechanically harvested.

The plum fruit flavours are actually surprisingly intense, but the wine has not much shape. The tannins are rough and not integrated, no doubt coming from wood chips. This is plonk, and you would not want to be in a position where you try to actually assess and appreciate the wine.

You could say you could get almost 100 bottles of Rosemount for one bottle of Hill of Grace, but I had trouble finish one glass, and I would never manage 100 bottles.

Score: 80/---

You can tell, I am now in Europe, and the tour de France, starting in Champagne, is only 4 days away. The French are my third largest reader group (after Australia and the US). Hopefully, there will be something interesting for them as well.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Henschke Hill Of Grace - New Vintage

One of the events of the year on the Australian wine calendar is the release of the new Hill of Grace, and it does not come much bigger than for the 2010 vintage. This highly regarded year started with a hot spring in Eden Valley, which kept the yield down. It was followed by a mild summer and autumn with very little rain. The grapes were very even when they were harvested. But what is the wine like?

As expected the colour is deep purple, but what surprises is the aroma. It is intense, very spicy and full of sage. The 2010 Henschke Hill of Grace is medium bodied and quite perfumed. The fruit is blackberry and mulberry, but the dominant element on the palate is white pepper, five spice, and sage, in particular. This is unusual. Spicy notes often occur, but they are intertwined with mocca notes. This is not the case with the 2010. This is a more lifted and fragrant wine. The 60/40 American French oak combination is not very noticeable, This is partly due to the unusual long seasoning period of the American oak. The wine has great length, but does the fruit fill the mouth? There is probably just enough weight. Alcohol at 14+% is noticeable. The tannins are velvety and fine grained, showing the age of the vines.

The wine did not grab me initially, but the complexity combined with the elegance and lasting penetration of the wine won me over in the end. This could be very special in a few years.

Score: 97/+++

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Orange Wineries, Day 2

Bloodwood vineyards; different aspects add complexity

I was quite pleased with my experiences on day 1. Some very serious and interesting winemakers there. Today, it is back to the beginnings.

My first stop is at Bloodwood, where Stephen Doyle started over 30 years ago. He offers a broad range of wines, like many wineries in Orange. The 2011 Schubert Chardonnay was named such, as Stephen was working in the vineyard on the day Max Schubert died. This wine is whole-bunch pressed and matured in 100% new oak. Despite this, it is a Chablis style wine with good acidity and structure. This wine can be cellared for some time (92 points). The 2013 Chardonnay is more a tank-style wine. It tastes of apple and peach and is a little broad (89 points). The 2013 Malbec/Cabernet Franc is similarly fruity (89 points). The 2014 Cabernet Franc is a highlight. This wine has a beautiful ruby colour. The flavours include an interesting mix of floral and spice. This wine is balanced with good intensity, as the berries were very small. The wine finishes smooth and dry (93 points). What is it about Cabernet Franc in Orange? The 2005 Maurice is a blend of the best berries of the year. Grape varieties and blends change from year to year. Redcurrant flavours dominate, there is mocca as well and good acidity on the finish (92 points).

The second stop is at Canobolas-Smith. This is another of the original wineries, and it probably put the area on the map, initially. Murray Smith is the long standing winemaker. However, this visit was quite depressing. He now makes two wines only, and at very small volumes. I tried Chardonnays from 2004, 2008 and 2012. They were totally different from each other. Murray says he wants vintage variation to shine through, but he is also changing the wine treatment drastically from year to year. One is fruity, the other earthy and tart, one has malo, the other has not. Yes, the wines can age, but not very gracefully (87-89 points). The Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Shiraz is called Alchemy (doesn't this say all?). I tasted the 2008, 2012, and 2013 vintages. The 2008 was the best example, a ripe wine with blackberry flavours, but also some minty/herb underripe character. The tannins were a bit softer than in the other wines (88-89 points).

My final stop is at Printhie, which is some 35km outside of Orange. This is a six year old winery and a totally different scenario from the last one. Dave Swift is full of optimism. The first leg of its business is Sparkling. They have forged a relationship with a successful grower Champagne producer and it shows. Their Brut Sparkling has a beautiful yeast character. A number of premium Sparklings are under development. The second part are the white wines, which come from the same high altitude vineyard Ross Hill uses. The 2013 MCC Sauvignon Blanc is interesting, with a creamy flavour and more weight than normal, as a result of using wild yeast, old oak and malolactic fermentation (90 points). The really strong whites are the Chardonnays, which are picked early. The 2012 MCC Chardonnay uses wild ferment directly to barrel. It is complex, as a result of varied treatments: 30-40% malo, 30% new oak. The fruit is citrus and lime, with well integrated acidity. A very modern Chardonnay version (93 points). Then there is the 2012 Super Duper (not sure about the name). This wine has more power, but is still elegant. Fruit is more in the ripe stone fruit spectrum, but the wine still has good acidity (94 points). The red wines come from their home vineyards at lower altitude (620 meters). I was less impressed with the Merlot and Cabernet/Shiraz, but the straight Shiraz were good. The 2012 MCC Shiraz is elegant, with savoury and slightly herbal flavours, backed by fine grained tannins (92 points). The 2012 Super Duper Syrah is finer boned and more elegant, but I am not sure that there is enough mouthfeel in this wine in a couple of years (93 points). Also, these Super Duper wines are overpriced.

My conclusion from this trip is that Orange is a region of promise. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be great from high altitude vineyards, whereas reds need to be grown at lower levels. Cabernet Franc impressed me, and Shiraz can do well, too.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Kilikanoon Oracle Shiraz

The 2003 Kilikanoon Oracle Shiraz from the Clare Valley is drinking well at 12 years of age under cork. The colour is still deep purple. This is a powerful wine with rich and intense plum fruit and white pepper. The wine fills the mouth well, but unfortunately is not totally balanced. While the components have integrated somewhat, vanilla from oak is still too strong. Also, the high alcohol from this drought year is still noticeable on the finish.

Score: 92/0

Friday, May 1, 2015

Orange Wineries, Day 1

de Salis vineyard

I spent two days in the Orange district to explore and better understand this relatively new and diverse wine region. The vineyards here are at high altitude, between 600 and 1100 meters. Pretty much every popular grape in the book is grown here: from aromatic whites to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux blends, Shiraz, 'new' varieties, such as Vermentino, Arneis, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Barbera, the list goes on. What is it all about?

My first stop is Philip Shaw. He is perhaps the best known proponent of the district today. His premium range is called the 'numbers' range. The numbers have no particular logic. They refer to birthdays, lucky numbers etc. I tried the most recent Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz in this range. Overall, the results were disappointing. I did not find much interest in these wines. These wines lacked depth and structure (85 to 89 points). There were certainly shades of his commercial past (Rosemount, Southcorp) in these wines His most famous wine, the #11 Chardonnay, of which I tasted 2014, had reasonable stonefruit, but it was very young, with oak being quite prominent and the finish quite short. I was not off to a good start.

Thankfully, things changed when I arrived at my second stop, Ross Hill. Phil Kerney, the winemaker, has certainly made his mark here, and he is not shy to tell you about it. There is a style which cuts across the wines. The key characteristic is the wild yeast fermentation directly into barrel. The 2014 white wines are of high quality. The Sauvignon Blanc is quite lean, is based on whole bunches and does not taste like anything from New Zealand. This is a delicate wine, made in the Loire style, with a focus on texture, and made to last (93 points). The Pinot Gris is lean also, with a good balance between the pear fruit and acidity (91 points). The (very young) Chardonnay is more tricky. There is a fair bit of sulphur covering the grapefruit and nutty flavours, but I think it will develop nicely (92 points). The fruit for these wines is grown at the winery vineyard, more than 900 meters in elevation. The red wines come from a lower lying vineyard, just over 600 meters. Still, I found the 2013 Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz lacking in depth, while the structures were strong (88-90 points). The best of the red wines was the 2012 Cabernet Franc, which is a focus at Ross Hill. This wine, with a purple colour, had a huge aroma. The flavours were intense and unusual, mainly like provancale herbs, in particular lavender and rosemary. There was good depth in this wine and a balanced texture (93 points).

The third winery of the day was De Salis. The vineyard here is over 1050 meters high, one of the highest in Australia, with beautiful views across the valley. Most of the white wines (Fume Blanc and Chardonnay) did not fully convince me, but the 2013 Blue Label Chardonnay hit the spot. This is like a reserve wine, 100% new oak, with more intensity and power. The flavour spectrum is stone and poached fruit, and the taste is a bit oily as well (93 points). The focus of De Salis, however, is Pinot Noir. The intention is to make quite feminine wines, suited to the cool climate. Burgundy clearly is the model. I tried five Pinot Noirs, and three in particular were outstanding. The two based on the MV6 clone were darker, with sour cherry flavours, well structured, but not totally harmonious (90/91 points). The two based on the Dijon clones (the Lofty Pinot Noirs) were more in the strawberry spectrum spectrum, finer and quite elegant. In particular the 2013 had great balance and a smooth finish (94 points). The 2013 Blue Label Pinot Noir was a bit different. It was ethereal, not weighted, similar to the last two, but also had earthy and truffle flavours; quite a complex wine (94 points). The Bordeaux reds have a play on using stems, but also Saint Emillon. They are called St Em M (for Merlot) and St Em F (for Cabernet Franc), named after the dominant component in the blend. These are Bordeaux blends for Pinot Noir drinkers, quite light bodied, but with an attractive texture. There was also a 100% light and elegant Cabernet Franc. These were from the 2012 vintage, which was quite cool in Orange (all 92 points). De Salis has developed this style based on texture and an ethereal feel - best suited to the Pinot Noirs.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Mauro Molino Wines

A sampling of a number of Nebbiolo wines reveals a couple of things. The multitude of regulations in Piedmont often does not allow more attractive branding, which offers opportunities to buy certain wines at lower prices than would otherwise be justified. Secondly, vintages are important in Piedmont, with the 2010 vintage being the stand-out in recent years.

The 2012 Mauro Molino Nebbiolo d'Alba is an attractive entry wine. It does not see any oak. The focus is therefore on the fruit, with a good cherry core and beautifully lifted aromas. This is an easy drinking style, and a wine which should be consumed in the next 2-3 years (90 points). The 2011 Mauro Molino Barolo comes from two vineyards in the Barolo subregion. The vines are relatively young and one vineyard is partly outside the demarkation. Therefore the generic labelling. This wine is aged for two years in old oak. The cherry fruit has an attractive intensity and delivers a satisfying, full-bodied mouthfeel. Obviously, this wine is more tannic and has a longer finish than the previous one (92 points).

The 2008 Mauro Molino Barolo 'Vigne Gancia' comes from their premium vineyard in La Morra. The wine has very lifted and floral aromas, but the mouthfeel is a bit light, whereas the finish is quite tannic (91 points). The 2010 Mauro Molino Barolo 'Bricco Luciano' comes from the same vineyard, but regulation required new naming. This is the wine of the night. The fruit is more concentrated and the mouthfeel fuller. Yet at the same time the wine is elegant and very well balanced (95 points). Then there were two Barolos from the 2011 vintage: the 2011 'Bricco Luciano' and the 2011 'Gallinotto'. These were ok Barolos, but did not measure up to the 2010 example in terms of fruit, mouthfeel and finish (91 points).

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bordeaux 2010 Vintage

The Institute of Masters of Wine brought their annual Bordeaux tasting to Sydney this year. It was an opportunity to taste and compare 60 wines from the 2010 vintage.

The 2010 vintage was unusual in that acidity and sugar levels were generally high at the same time. One would be hoping for freshness of flavour despite high levels of alcohol. It is a highly regarded
vintage and compared to 2005. My main interest was to see how the differences between the subregions compared to the differences in winemaking. This was made easier, as the wines were grouped by subregion.

My main conclusions:

1) The overall quality of  the wines is high, in particular on the left bank and where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the blend. Many Merlot based wines were not as impressive.

2) Quite a few wines were quite closed, many very tannic and definitely built to last.

3) In terms of my special interest: I would call it a 50/50 outcome: subregions definitely had different characteristics, but there were also major differences between chateaux's in most subregions.

In terms of the major subregions:

The wines are more ruby than purple. Some are
quite concentrated, but still feminine in character. Overall quality is strong. I liked Chateau d'Issan, Kirwan, Lascombes, Rauzan-Segla.

Very high quality, but variation. Black fruited, but very elegant top wines, high alcohol. Cos d'Estournel was wine of the night, with pure berry fruit, elegant, balanced acidity and rounded tannins. Montrose almost as good. Quite masculine, but not as big mouthfeel. Calon-Segur not nearly as good.
Earthy aromas in these wines. I did not rate these wines as high as Saint-Estephe. Some lacked structure, some fruit intensity. Tasted wines: Beychevelle, Lagrange, Langoa-Barton, Leoville-Barton, Leoville-Las Cases (disappointing!)

Darkest coloured wines, blackcurrant flavours, strong region.  Wines represented were from top producers: Lynch-Bages, Pichon-Longueville-Barton, Pontet-Canet. Despite the high alcohol, these wines were balanced and elegant.

Softer wines, chocolate flavours. Chateau Angelus and Figeac were great, with dark fruit and some softness. Close to new world style. Cheval Blanc and Canon disappointing, in particular on the finish.

The representation for Pomerol was poor, therefore I am not forming any views.  

Overall a great tasting, which gave good insight into this significant vintage.                                                                                                                                                                                      

Monday, April 20, 2015

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz

Over the last few years, we have all branched out to find the latest trendy thing in wine. Some attempts have been exciting, some disappointing. But when it comes to drinking a 17 year old wine, you may want to stick to the old and trusted. I was pretty confident when I opened a bottle of 1998 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz tonight. When it comes to mature wine, Penfolds is in a class of its own (Wendouree the only challenger) in Australia. This bottle still had a very high shoulder, and the cork came out beautifully.

The colour is still purple, and as it turns out, this bottle is showing off the two varieties at their best. The fruit of the Shiraz and the structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon are seamlessly blended together. This is a full-bodied wine with a beautiful mouthfeel from the front to the back of the palate. The black fruit and the American oak are well integrated. This is a ripe wine, as it should be: ripe, but you are keen to drink a second (or third) glass. The tannins have mellowed, but are still firm and, together with the intense fruit and cocoa flavours, produce a finish which lasts and lasts.

This wine has been a great drinking experience tonight, at a fraction of the cost of other wines reaching this quality level (I paid $28 for this bottle in 2001), and it will, if stored correctly, still have another ten years of drinking pleasure in it.

Score: 97/+++

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Houghton Jack Mann Cabernet Sauvignon

I still remember when the 1998 Houghton Jack Mann Cabernet Sauvignon came on the market, it received rave reviews for its intensity and being so powerful. There was general surprise that a wine company focused on high volume commercial wines could produce such a wine. The advice was to put it away for 15 years. This is what I did with the two bottles I purchased.

This premium wine is named after Jack Mann, who was the influential winemaker for decades. He introduced the famous White Burgundy in 1937, and died in 1989. So he had no hand in this wine.

I was astounded that on opening the bottle and pouring some wine, its colour was still ruby, definitely not garnet. The aroma is still very intense, smelling of beautiful pure blackcurrant. This translated onto the palate. There is also some eucalypt, but not as a dominant flavour. This wine is very varietal and very Western Australia. It is full-bodied, but not over the top. The wine is elegant and well balanced. The firm tannins are still noticeable, but have softened considerably. The wine finishes dry. The 17 years wait was worth while, for sure, but I would advise to drink the wine now.

Score: 95/+++