Grapevine Archive for November, 2011

Mon 28 Nov 2011

Margaret River Bushfire

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McHenry Hohnen view of Margaret River bushfire, Western Australia

View from the winery at McHenry Hohnen

Last week a bushfire burnt through the coastal areas west of Margaret River. The fire is now contained but it destroyed 32 houses and nine holiday chalets with damage to a further 22 homes. Fortunately there was no human cost. The fire was a result of prescribed burns by government agencies which were reignited by very strong northerly winds. The agencies do this in order to reduce fuel loads and provide protection for summer months to local seaside communities.

I have been in touch with a number of The Wine Society’s key suppliers. Moss Wood’s Keith Mugford says “We have been very fortunate and so far we been spared by the weather.  The fires started about 10k south of us and the wind direction blew the flames and smoke away from us.  Most vineyards seem to have been missed.”

McHenry-Hohnen were less fortunate with some damage to 2 hectares of chardonnay in their Burnside vineyard. Winemaker Ryan Walsh explains: “All okay in lives and buildings here just a little chardonnay gone from this year…..There is no long term loss in vines, the loss will only be taken for this coming vintage 2012. The Sauvignon Blanc from Burnside is untouched and looking very good for the coming 2012 vintage. Freya and I live approximately 2km North East from the Burnside vineyard and were evacuated Wednesday to Friday as a precautionary measure. We have now returned. The house is fine.” And Vanya Cullen by text “We r ok, fires are in the south, we r in north, but it is sad.”

Pierre Mansour
Buyer for Australia

Categories : Australia
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Fri 25 Nov 2011

Two of the very best: an inspirational day

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Two of the world’s great winemakers came to The Wine Society this week. Chief wine buyer Sebastian Payne MW reports on one very special day.

Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge

Paul Draper, CEO and winemaker at Ridge

Paul Draper came to Stevenage to talk to 60 eager members of Wine Society staff about Ridge, the remarkable Californian winery, high up on the San Andreas fault at Santa Cruz, whose reputation he has established over 40 years.

After Stanford he became a sort of undercover roving ambassador for Jack and Bobby Kennedy in South America. With his fluent Spanish he kept open lines with the USA by listening and talking to leaders of rival parties in several volatile countries. (It would be encouraging to feel the USA had a similar policy today in the Middle East.) At one stage, because of his beard, he was even mistaken for Che Guevara and nearly blown up. He then moved to Chile working for a foundation that was developing various agricultural projects including wine making.

The Ridge story began when he was invited by three brilliant Stanford friends who had bought the vineyard to help them by making the wine. He was convinced because he had seen the potential of old vintages of cabernet and chardonnay made in the 1930s pre-Prohibition.

Ridge’s international reputation was made when its Montebello vineyard wine outshone top Bordeaux wines in Steven Spurrier’s Judgment of Paris tasting in 1973. Paul’s philosophy is that wine is made in the vineyard and should express its origin above all, not to be created to a formula in the cellar. “If you haven’t tasted great wine, how can you make it?” Good bottles were his mentors. The enemy is ‘consensus’ wine-making.

Though his zinfandel-based wines are usually 14º, the level at which the grape becomes fully ripe, he abhors the high alcohol levels so commonly found in Californian wines and Montebello cabernets have similar levels to Bordeaux. The proof is in the wines which have been consistently the most complex and delicious to be made in the USA over the last 40 years.

Candour, integrity and passion
Jean-Philippe Delmas’ story is quite different. He was practically born in a vat of Haut-Brion, where his grandfather made the wine for the family till 1961, when his father Jean-Bernard took over. Jean-Philippe worked for ten years alongside his father until 2004, the first vintage for which he was solely responsible.

The quality of the 2004, set beside such great vintages as 2005, 2000, 1998 and 1990 was a revelation, making one realise that Château Haut-Brion, the most senior of Bordeaux’s first growths, is also possibly the greatest and most complex of all. Jean-Philippe modestly says that his grandfather and father had to contend not only with many cooler vintages but also much leaner resources. The fact that Haut-Brion made no money between 1935 and 1975 shows a long-term commitment from its owner, Clarence Dillon and his family, unusual in a banker! His challenge is that he has no excuse. All of us 240 members and guests privileged to be at Merchant Taylor’s Hall were, I believe, convinced by Jean-Philippe’s candour, integrity, passion and deep understanding of this great vineyard which was reflected in magnificent wine.

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Wed 23 Nov 2011

The Wine and Cheese Workshop

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Earlier this month I was Joined by Olli of The Fine Cheese Company and 45 members to spend a Saturday morning exploring the merits and pitfalls of pairing cheese and wine.

For a general theme on which we could base the workshop, we decided to pit French and English cheeses against one another. Whilst intended to be very tongue in cheek, this approach did throw up some interesting observations as to how far English cheeses have come in terms of sheer quality and range over the last decade. Whilst France did produce some beautiful well-made cheeses, the English cheeses were the stars of the show.

This being a cheese and wine matching workshop, we divided the cheeses into four pairs. First came the goat’s cheeses, Saint Maure from France and the English Ragstone, which work fantastically well with sauvignon blanc; here we tried the Reuilly, La Ferte from the Loire, and dry white wines with high acidity – the English wine Midsummer Hill was an excellent match.

Second we had the soft, bloomy cheeses with a Fougerus from France alongside an English Brie: here we matched the Fougerus with the Au Bon Climat Chardonnay from California, and the Sharpham Brie with Domaine de Escaravailles’ Rasteau. Next came the hard cheeses; a Cantal from France versus the award-winning Wooky Hole Cheddar from Somerset. These fuller-flavoured cheeses needed gutsier wines so we turned to the red wines. Help came in the form of Momo, a tempranillo from Spain, and The Society’s Exhibition French Cabernet Sauvignon.

We finished off the day with the blue cheeses, France’s Forme d’Ambert, and Stichelton. Relatively light and delicate, the Forme d’Ambert called for a sweet wine which wouldn’t overpower it, so we plumped for The Society’s Exhibition Sauternes, working on the salt/savoury and sweet theory. The Stichelton called for something far more powerful, so we turned to the classic combination of Port and Stilton, choosing The Society’s Crusted Port for the finale.

Apart from enjoying spending a morning in the company of fellow cheese lovers, we also learnt a few things, mainly….

  • When looking to match cheese and wine the most important thing is to be aware of balance. Match cheese and wine of equal weights, or one will overpower the other.
  • Either match like with like – the creaminess in the brie was matched with the creaminess in the Au Bon Climat Chardonnay – or go for the opposites attract philosophy: the extreme saltiness and savouriness of blue cheese works very well with a sweeter wine.
  • Salt makes tannins in a wine appear harsh, so choose a red with plenty of fruit.
  • When looking to make a cheese board, try pairing one amazing cheese with one wine that will match it beautifully – it’s very difficult to find one wine which will work well with the array of cheeses you usually find on a cheese board.
  • Look to the classics for inspiration: Port and Stilton, sauvignon blanc and goat’s cheese, gewurztraminer and Munster from Alsace: these regional partnerships have worked together since time immemorial for a reason.
  • Enjoy experimenting – after all, that’s the only way you really get to figure out what works for you!

Emma Howat
Tastings & Events Co-ordinator

The Society currently stocks four cheese and wine selections for Christmas, which can be viewed here.

Categories : Wine Tastings
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Tue 22 Nov 2011

A Great Back Label

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A bottle without a back label is rare these days, though it is still the case that the more you spend the less you seem to get!

Less consistent, however, is the quality of the copy. The French are often guilty of adding insult to injury when they translate their typically florid marketing copy into English verbatim.

Not so Madame Evelyne de Pontbriand, owner of Domaine du Closel in Savennières, and current, eloquent Président of the Savennières producers’ association. Her command of English is impeccable, as members who attended our Loire tasting in London earlier this year will have discovered. She also has a teasing smile and definite twinkle in her eye (ditto!), so we should not have been surprised to discover her delightful back label, which appears on the 2009 Savennières, Domaine du Closel, and which reads as follows:

“Wine for conversation. A dry and fruity chenin blanc expressing a hill of schist over the Loire valley. Harvested at the end of September, the grapes were golden yellow. After a slow natural fermentation and 10 months of elevage in our old cellar, this wine shows charm and insolence, minerality and elegance of our world heritage landscape, the light of the Loire valley, my love for nature. Drinking Savennières is an art de vivre: Pour it in a beautiful glass, crisp music on, have a friend join you, smell the aromas of white flowers, citrus and honey, take a sip: the palate is round, surprising, slightly smoky. The fruitiness and freshness of this wine will give you an immediate and unique pleasure. You will have an interesting conversation and soon feel hungry. Get some shrimps, grill some fish, steam asparagus in the spring…or be yourself, creative, eccentric and share your favourite pairing with me. Evelyne de Pontbriand.”

I should admit that the back label was brought to my attention by my buying colleague, Mark Buckenham, who was prompted to open a bottle by a member who had been unhappy with his. We tasted the wine over a couple of days and agreed there was nothing to worry about. Savennières is serious (one might even say difficult) wine, and this one, admirably certified organic, benefits from decanting to reveal its full complexity and character.

As far as back labels are concerned, feel free to share with us your best, or worst, examples; we already have something of a rogues gallery here at Stevenage!

Joanna Locke MW

Categories : France, Loire
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Mon 21 Nov 2011

‘Tis the Season!

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Emma Howat

Ironically, Christmas is often seen as a period of intense stress: be it how to get the whole family round the Christmas table, or indeed even in the same house, who to invite over for your New Year’s Eve bash, or (as I found to my horror last year) the last-minute realisation that the turkey won’t fit into what you realise belatedly is an unfeasibly small oven. In amongst all this chaos it is very easy to forget one of the most important components of a successful festive season – the wine!

The ‘Tis the Season tastings were designed to take the stress and hassle out of this time of year. In a break from the usual formats of The Wine Society’s tastings, the events were divided not by style or region, but by festive event: aperitifs – Champagne, Cava and Sherry – were followed by the party wine section in which we suggested crowd-pleasing reds and whites on a more modest budget which can be drunk in any occasion.

The Christmas Day selection recongised that this day is always the perfect opportunity to treat yourself to something a bit special, whilst the Boxing Day and beyond section showcased wines to liven up those inevitable turkey leftovers. Finally we showed some fortified and sticky wines with which you can curl up on the sofa; perfect for when everyone has finally gone to bed, and you have a moment to sit and engage in the quiet contemplation of a box of chocolates.

The Bradford tasting was a relaxed and informal gathering, and with only 45 members there, all had ample opportunity to try all the wines and discuss their relative merits at length. There was a great atmosphere and everyone seemed to find at least one wine that they really liked. Following the tasting the three of us from The Society went in search of a good curry, never hard to find in Bradford, and I am pleased to announce that following some rigorous testing, the 2009 Bruno Sorg Gewurztraminer is indeed a good match.

It’s been a few years since we were last at King’s Lynn, and it was great to see such a good turnout of members, all of whom again seemed to be enjoying themselves. We held the tasting at the Town Hall’s Assembly Rooms, a beautiful venue which whilst being on the cosy side, made the tasting all the more friendly!

Bleasdale's 'The Wise One' Tawny once again showed its festive credentials

We try and get up to Scotland every six months and so on this occasion we chose Perth and Glasgow. The Perth tasting was a nice gentile affair for the most part; the venue was the Concert Hall, an amazing modern building right in the centre of town, with unsurprisingly fantastic acoustics. The wines showed well. The Champagne Marc Hébrart was a winner on both nights, albeit not the overall winner – that accolade went to the McHenry Hohnen Rocky Road Zinfandel. This lovely anomaly (it is Australian rather than Californian) has ranked amongst the members’ favourites in every tasting it’s been shown at so far and its impressive stuff.

Glasgow’s tasting took place in the Trades’ Hall in the Merchant City, in a beautiful old, wood-panelled hall. There were 150 of us in all and the evening was much more raucous than Perth (in a good way of course, being members of The Society!). Here the noisiest vote went to the Bleasdale’s ‘The Wise One’ Tawny. This fortified wine is another example of what fantastic wines are being produced in Australia, albeit with a slightly scary label (if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean!).

Thanks to all members who attended. We had a fantastic time and hope you found some great wines to enjoy this festive season.

Emma Howat
Tastings & Events Co-ordinator

Categories : Wine Tastings
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Fri 18 Nov 2011

Changing My Perceptions of Albariño

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Line-up of Pazo de Señorans going back to 1996.

Albariño, the premier league white grape of Spain, was probably the first wine to entice drinkers towards the country’s excellent whites; it has also experienced a staggering boom in the last ten years.

I think its appeal is in its tantalising freshness and juicy fruit flavour, and these are usually at their best as a youthful wine drunk within two years of vintage.

But to what extent is it a truly great grape on the world wine stage? A grape’s ‘nobleness’ is often judged by a wine’s ability to age, or its affinity to different winemaking techniques. In this regard, chardonnay is perhaps the ultimate example.

Recently I was invited to taste through a range of albariños going back to 1996 to see for myself.

Discussing the wines with Tim Atkin MW

The wines came from Galicia’s top producer, Pazo de Señorans, and my six fellow tasters included Tim Atkin MW, Steven Spurrier and Julia Harding MW.

It was a fascinating experience, altering my perception of albariño. The vintages that shone for me were the Señorans 2010 and 2009. This is the unoaked, early-bottled cuvée (that The Society sells), which even with just an extra year in bottle becomes more interesting and textured.

The revelation though was the string of Sol de Señorans (100% albariño fermented in tank and aged in barrique for 6 months): 2004, 2002, 1997 and 1996 were outstanding, all still lively but broad, opulent and complex in flavour. Quite Burgundian in fact, confirmation indeed that albariño is a premier league white grape and certainly Spain’s most exciting.

Pierre Mansour
Spain Buyer

Pazo de Señorans 2010 is featured in The Society’s current ‘Best of Spain’ offer.

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Thu 17 Nov 2011

Pleasures Unforeseen

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The greatest pleasures are often unexpected.

We had agreed to baby-sit our granddaughter (a predictable delight) while our daughter and son-in-law were at a friend’s wedding.

Our daughter and son-in-law booked us a room in a hotel, but the website was confusing and the place they thought they had booked knew nothing about it. The one with a similar name, and where we were booked in, looked at first sight distinctly unpromising, and in need of a good refurbishment.

But soon after we arrived and were about to regroup, a man arrived who changed our first impressions completely. He was carrying a tray of glistening Mediterranean fish, sweet-smelling lemon and tomatoes. It turned out that he was a born Sicilian, a trainee chef, had just taken over the hotel, and sensibly gone down to Portsmouth to meet the boat from Sicily (we were in Hampshire) and buy fresh produce for supper. My eyes lit up.

We discussed what fish we would eat for supper. We talked about the important subject of ripeness in lemons and tomatoes and later on we ate like kings. Our granddaughter slept with a seraphic smile on her face.

If the ingredients are fresh, ripe and good, and beautifully prepared, what more do you need?

So it is with wine too.

Sebastian Payne MW
Chief Buyer

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Wed 16 Nov 2011

Y Viva Espana

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Have we just witnessed the most successful member tastings ever?

Autumn vines at La Rioja Alta

While we do not generally use sales as a way of gauging success at a tasting (feedback on the night and afterwards is a much more satisfying barometer), we were taken aback by the sheer number of members who placed an order after having attended these tastings in London and York last week. Almost half of all members who attended placed an order! It has to be said that the buzz during both tastings was high and vibrant, with many smiling faces having not only revisited some old favourites but also made some amazing new discoveries.

This is testament to the great interest and excitement engendered by Spanish wines at the moment. Indeed, Spain is our fastest growing category. We showed wines from all over Spain (Alicante, Calatayud, Jerez, Méntrida, Monsant, Navarra, Priorat, Rías Baixas, Ribera de Duero, Rioja, Toro and Yecla, to be precise) and, gratifyingly, orders were placed for all 31 wines on show with prices ranging from £5.50 to £62 per bottle. There is, of course, an added bonus – members who attend our walk-around tastings receive a 10% discount on wines ordered that were available on the night.

Our Spanish offer, put together by The Society’s buyer for Spain, Pierre Mansour, formed the basis for these tastings, with growers or representatives pouring the wines and talking to members about them. Were you there? What were your ‘stand-out’ wines of the tasting and why?Do let us know.

And if you’d like to be a part of our extensive tastings & events scene, then please click here for further information.

Ewan Murray
Head of Tastings & Events

Categories : Spain, Wine Tastings
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This was the first time that we’d been back to Le Clos des Capucins since husband and wife team Guillaume and Isabelle Duvivier had taken it on so we were quite intrigued to see what it would be like.

The theme of the night was the wines of Burgundy, and so the menu was themed accordingly. As there isn’t much choice as to grape variety (it’s really either chardonnay or pinot noir with this one), we decided to try and show wines from as many of the communes north to south as was possible within the framework of the dinner.

It being a dreary night – the best kind of night to have a nice dinner on as it gives you something to smile about – we couldn’t take our aperitif outside as we have done before, so everyone took their glass of Chablis seated at their tables, giving them a chance to meet their dining partners for the evening. Realising that the room was quite small and that the noise levels over the dinner would inevitably rise, I decided to talk about all the wines in one fell swoop, so whilst everyone sipped I talked about the different communes and the wines we would be tasting that evening – it was then the challenge of the evening to remember the salient facts for each wine as it came round.

At the end of the evening as always we took a vote for the favourite wine of the evening. The Volnay was the hands down winner: still relatively youthful despite its age, it was rich and elegantly fruity, and made the perfect accompaniment to the Epoisses. A cheese whose bark is definitely worse than its bite, (or in this case, its smell is of old socks), but it tastes sweet, mellow and quite frankly divine!

The food was delicious, and the wines showed really well and seemed to work in harmony with each dish. The full list of what was eaten and drank is here.

Wine of the night: Volnay Premier Cru Chevrets, Domaine Henri Boillot, 2006

Aperitif & amuse-bouche
Oriental crayfish brochette
Chablis, Premier Cru Montmains, Domaine William Fèvre, 2006

Quail salad with truffle
Macon Vergisson, Joseph Burrier, 2009

Lobster stew
Puligny Montrachet, Premier Cru Les Referts, Etienne Sauzet, 2008
(The 2007 is currently available here)

Fillet of veal with escargot aioli
Nuits St Georges, Premier Cru Les Pruliers, Jean Grivot, 2001

Volnay Premier Cru Les Chevrets, Domaine Henri Boillot, 2006

Chocolat fantasy with marc de Bourgogne sorbet
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Domaine des Bernadins, 2009

Emma Howat
Tastings & Events Co-ordinator

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Mon 14 Nov 2011


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Biodyvin is a wonderful, eccentric, eclectic mix of growers who cultivate their vineyards biodynamically. Its aims are wholly admirable: to produce wines that reflect their origin in the most natural way possible – a concept all Wine Society members should applaud.

Naturally they have mixed success. Nature can be cruel. But at last week’s tasting the fruits of their hard work and passion were a joy. Alsace was well represented particularly by Josmeyer and Zind Humbrecht but I would like to commend particularly three brilliant producers from the Loire and the one and only, but quite outstanding, producer from Germany, Bettina Bürklin Wolf.

Bürklin Wolf have holdings in the heart of the great vineyards of the Palatinate, once the most highly valued white wine in the world. Wachenheimer, Deidesheim and Ruppertsberg make lovely, individual wines but their single-vineyard from Forst are among the greatest long-living white wines of the world.

My earliest baptism into the wines of the Loire came from Jean Vacheron in Sancerre and Gaston Huet in Vouvray. Jean Vacheron had a remarkable palate and understanding of the quality that different soils of Sancerre could produce which he passed on to his sons and to his neighbouring producers. On my first visit with Wine Society buyer John McLusky, we went with Jean on a leisurely Sancerre vineyard crawl of all the cellars of growers who might have been considered his competitors to discover the true nature of Sancerre. His childern and now his grandchildren always ploughed back the money they made into buying good vineyards and better cellar equipment. His particular favourite (and mine) is the Sancerre produced on silex (flint).

John McLusky’s predecessor, Christopher Tatham MW, introduced The Wine Society to the Vouvrays of Gaston Huet at the same time as Vacheron. Gaston had an outstanding record of resistance in the war and was mayor of Vouvray from 1947 to 1993. He also alone was able to resist the French government’s plans for the TGV which now not only did not cut through his vineyards (as the government planned) but also do not disturb the subterranean cellars because the tunnels lie deep below on specially cushioned rails. His son-in-law, Noel Pinguet, is an agnostic believer in biodynamism and his wines have a parity and longevity that would make his father-in-law proud.

The new Loire eccentric is Eric Nicolas who cultivates 14 hectares of abandoned vines of Jasnieres and the Côteaux du Loir north of the larger Loire: dry white wines from chenin, quite different from Vouvray, but with amazing personality and length of flavour.

Why don’t you try some of these wines below:

Germany: Forst Pechstein Bürklin Wolf, 2009

Loire: Sancerre La Reine Blanche Vacheron, 2010
Jasnieres Premices Domaine de Belliviere, 2009

Sebastian Payne MW
Chief Buyer