Grapevine Archive for August, 2012

Thu 30 Aug 2012

Notes From Australia: the West, and Farewell

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Western Australia is the youngest of all the wine regions outside of the Swan Valley which dates back more than 180 years. Plantings only began in Margaret River at the end of the 1960s, following the work of a couple of academics which identified it as a prime location for grape growing.

Considering the youth of the region and the vines, this has become a hot spot in the fine wine world with many of the estates? names ? Leeuwin, Moss Wood, Cullen ? being instantly recognisable.

A newer winery to look out for is Fraser Gallop, whose 2009s jumped out at me in our blind tasting sessions and this was only their second vintage! The winemaker is Clive Otto who was previously at Vasse-Felix and their estate is situated in the Wilyabrup region amongst the big boys. We stock their 2009 Cabernet-Merlot (£13.50 per bottle).

With my trip finished, the overall impression I got from the regions I visited is the sense of community: the winemakers are working together to gain a greater understanding of their regions and learning from one another in a way that I?ve not seen replicated elsewhere. This, combined with their passion and their keenness to address consumer concerns (e.g. amount of oak used in whites and alcohol levels), must mean that the future potential for Australian wine is enormous.

For consumers, the message is unfortunately now a lot less clear from when we thought we knew what to expect from which variety even from which region. The best advice would be to find a producer you like and drink around their ranges: I found in regional tastings that the same producers appeared at the top of my lists time and again.

Luckily, this tactic generally works as many producers make a range of wines which means that they have a very long and manic vintage as their picking later varieties while blending the earlier harvest etc. This must be a very stressful time, when it must feel like spinning plates – as the winery notice boards, detailing what went into each tank and when, will testify. I had an interesting debate with one winemaker about this and he said he occasionally wondered whether he was stretched too thin and wondered what his life would be like if he only had a handful of wines to concentrate on. However we both agreed that what we love about wine is the variety and if they can maintain quality levels and they sell then why not.

The main things I learned from my trip were:

1. The enormous potential for future quality with winemakers working together to better understand their regions potential and they listen to consumers.
2. Keep ageworthy wines for greater drinking pleasure.
3. Find producers whose style you like, then try your way around their range.
4. Trends to look out for: cool-climate shiraz from Victoria, sparkling rosé moscatos
5. Try the chardonnays again. They?ve changed. Much more restrained use of oak, and are very consistent in quality.
6. For an alternative to shiraz, give grenache fro McLaren Vale & cabernets from Yarra a go.
7. Mediterranean varieties: an increase in experimentation, especially in McLaren Vale.

I have returned feeling very proud of the work and the approach that buyer Pierre Mansour and The Wine Society have been taking. For instance, finding a sub-£10 Mornington Pennisula wine is virtually unheard of and in a few years time we?ll be able to offer some older vintages of some of Australia key wines. Making a selection from the wealth of quality wines available must be really hard ? not that I feel too sorry for him!

Louisa Peskett

Categories : Australia
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Tue 28 Aug 2012

Notes From Australia: McLaren Vale & Barossa

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South-east of Adelaide, the coastal McLaren Vale region is home to a great number of Society regulars, including Wirra Wirra, d?Arenberg and Brick Kiln. Although best known for its shiraz, the wines which bowled me over were the grenaches and some of the new wines coming through using Mediterranean varieties such as fiano and verdelho.

In the US particularly, there is a massive and growing demand for pink moscato (thanks in no small part to the hip hop community) and many producers from all over Australia now are introducing these wines. These are starting to take off in the UK too.

Sustainability and environmental concern is very important in McLaren Vale, with many producers using biodynamic principles in the vineyard. After a long project to map the region?s varied and ancient geology, the winemakers have started The Scarce Earth Project. Here, single-block shirazes are made from a variety of properties, as free as possible from any ?overt? winemaking (e.g. use of oak) to show off the effect of the different terroirs on the wines. Unfortunately these are currently only available at the cellar doors or specific tastings.

Barossan producers pride themselves on their gnarly old vines, which date back to the 1800s.

Similarly, Barossa?s winemakers are coming together in their Barossa Grounds Project. This seeks to ascertain once and for all if the wine from certain plots year in year out has characteristics that define the terroir and if generalisations can be made to describe the sub-regions.

The Barossa was originally settled by the Lutherans who were fleeing persecution in their then-Germanic homeland (now a part of modern-day Poland). This is reflected in the architecture of the many churches and the names of the regions towns and wine estates. I was surprised to find that the Eden Valley famed for its riesling lies adjacent to the Barossa Valley forming a part of the Barossa region and so some of the reds contain a dash of riesling to add freshness in the same tradition as viognier in the Rhône.

Almost everyone has now moved to screw-cap, even for their top wines. Cork-taint aside, the winemakers believe that the wine stays truer to their vision without the ?help? of the extra oxygenation that the cork brings.

Keeping the vine pest phylloxera at bay in the Barossa.

We had a very interesting experiment at Jacob?s Creek where we tried two bottles of their 2004 St Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet under both cork and screw-cap. The difference between the two wines was incredible: if I hadn?t known they were the same wine, I would have thought that they were totally unconnected. For drinking now, I actually preferred the wine closed with cork as it was noticeably softer and fleshier, but in two years? time I suspect the screw-cap would definitely be the victor. This movement to screw-cap is obviously affecting the ageability of the wines and I certainly found that in most cases the older vintages we tried were much more in keeping with my palate than the most recent releases.

The tastes of the domestic market and financial concerns mean that most of the wines are sold when they are babies. I really would recommend laying a few down to compare through a few years, for the reds in particular. Andrew Wigan at Peter Lehman even suggested that our 88 Growers Semillon (£7.50) could be kept for up to 10 years, which is astonishing for such a modest wine. However, this is a matter of taste and our buyer Pierre Mansour gives the wines a relatively short drinking window as he feels its appeal is in its youthful freshness.

Louisa Peskett

Categories : Australia
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Fri 24 Aug 2012

Notes From Australia: Rutherglen

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People tell you that Australia is large and that you can fit all of Continental USA inside its mass. It all goes in one ear and out the other until you drive for four hours, through an area of map that looks like it should be the equivalent of crossing London, to reach another wine region!

The Rutherglen wine region is definitely worth one of these treks. Still within the boundaries of Victoria it provides an exciting contrast to the modern wineries found elsewhere.

Here you get a real feel of the Australia I was expecting: long horizons, charming towns and a real sense of history, in a region established to service the gold-rush pioneers in the mid-19th century. There wasn?t much in the way of building materials so many of the wineries were made from components brought up by cart from the Melbourne docks some 275km away, and so they can look a little more ramshackle in parts. When the miners left the region, those wineries who had replanted following the phylloxera epidemic in 1898 stayed as they by then had found themselves a following for their fortified wines in the UK.

Today, by and large the wineries remain in the hands of those founding families. You may think that these houses which have been handed down to successive generations could lead to complacency, but in my experience this couldn?t be further from the truth. The wine making community is small and they have come together to ensure that the quality of Rutherglen fortified wines maintains its high reputation. They developed a grading categorisation around ten years ago, which ranges over four levels, from the youngest and simplest fruit flavours of ?Rutherglen? which develop in age, intensity and complexity through ?Classic?, ?Grand? and ?Rare?.

The winemakers regularly taste each other?s wines against one another in each of the bands to make sure that the wines are up to scratch and that the standard in each category is typical ? i.e. that the most developed wines in the lower classification remains more youthful in character than the least developed wine in the next tier up. There really isn?t any room to hide poor winemaking and standards have definitely been improved on the basis of some tough, but admirable, conversations.

Rutherglen is rightly proud of its port-style wines!

This classification has also been adopted by Australia?s port-style wines which are now labelled as either Tawny or Vintage, following the same agreement. These really aren?t to be overlooked. Penfold?s Great Grandfather Rare Tawny provides that rare heart-stopping moment that only happens once in a blue moon during your drinking lifetime; but only 1,000 bottles are made a year and it isn?t cheap. However, I always find Bleasdale?s Wise One Tawny (which will be back on our Christmas List around the £10 mark) offers exceptional value for money and it is a firm favourite of my family.

Muscats really are king here but you will also see topaques available from the same houses. These are made from the muscadelle grape and used to be labelled as Tokay before an agreement was made with the EU a few years ago not to use European region?specific names. Topaques have more fruity barley sugar, marmalade notes than the deeper mocha tones of the muscats.

The basket press is still very much in use throughout the region, which is really hard work: I gave it a go and won?t be offering up the red-faced photos for public consumption. Combined with the heat, most men operating the press will lose 6kg over the course of the vintage (one chap lost 13kg!).

For a taste of Rutherglen:

Solera at Campbells

Campbells use a sherry-like solera system, and their Rutherglen Muscat (£9.95 per half-bottle) is well worth trying. Watch out too for Stanton & Killeen?s Muscat, which we will be listing this autumn and will be perfect with the Christmas pud.

There is more to Rutherglen than stickies, however. I was also very impressed by their fruity reds (try the Blind Spot Grenache-Shiraz-Mataro for £7.95) and surprised by freshness of some of their whites.

Louisa Peskett

Categories : Australia, Fortified
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I?ve been working within the buying department at The Wine Society now for ten years analysing sales and have always thought that Australia should be a stronger category. I was lucky enough to be included in a trade trip to some of Australia?s best-known regions and hope I can use my experiences to bring the regions alive and to offer a few tips from an enthusiastic drinker?s perspective rather than as an expert, so please forgive any naivety.

Australian winemakers have revolutionised the wine world over the past three decades but probably don?t always get the respect they deserve for the quality of their wines. In labelling their wines varietally they demystified the category for swathes of consumers, but in doing so opened the door for the rest of the new world.

Today?s UK market is particularly tough for Australian wines as economic constraints tighten just as their prices are pushed up by a depreciating sterling exchange rate against a strong Aussie dollar. Despite this there is still great value to be found within the region as what these wines really deliver on is pleasure.

To my mind, where Australian wines really deliver their value is between £8-20, where they more than hold their own against the old world classics.

The first of these posts comes from Victoria, specifically the regions of Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley (Rutherglen will be covered in more detail in my next post).

I confess that my first shock when we visited these regions was just how pretty and green they were. Frankly, I was amazed at how wrong my perception of Australian was: I was expecting long horizons of dusty arid land rather than rolling countryside which wouldn?t have been out of place in the UK.

Mornington Peninsula

Mornington Peninsula - looking out over Kooyong vineyards from their cellar door

Surrounded by water, Mornington is one of Australia?s coolest climates. Historically, it?s known as Melbourne?s playground (a bit like The Hamptons to New Yorkers) and is definitely worth a visit if you?re in the area ? even if just for the wines as, sadly, few of them make it out of the country.

Production is tiny and unfortunately prices are high for these elegant and restrained wines. The region is famed for their Burgundian-style chardonnays and pinot noirs, but you can also find tight Alsatian-style riesling, pinot gris (I recommend Kooyong?s Beurrot Pinot Gris, 2010 at £18), excellent sparkling wines and very trendy shiraz.

The Kooyong wines stood out for us, and the difference in terroir between the soft elegant Meres Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the much more muscular Ferres (whose soil contains much more iron) was incredible.

The prices of Mornington Peninsula’s wines are an obstacle for your average wine lover, but the excellent Blind Spot Chardonnay (£8.50) is a great bottle to try to see if it?s a style that works for you.

Yarra Valley

The trend for cooler-climate wines in Australia means that Yarra, which funnels the coastal breeze from Mornington, is thriving. The winemakers here are all about minimum intervention, allowing the vintage to make itself with their role being to maintain the vineyards to give nature a fighting chance and to judge when the time is right for picking. It?s also well worth noting that, across Australia, winemakers have pulled back on the amount of oak used with their chardonnays. If like me you?ve been put off by the heady chardonnays of days gone by, do try again.

Whole-bunch fermentation

In both Yarra and Mornington, the winemakers are experimenting using a proportion of whole-bunch fermentation with their reds, which as the name suggests includes the whole grape bunch, stems and all. In the right hands, this adds herbal notes to the bouquet, brighter tannins and greater complexity to the wines; however, if not well judged it can add a nasty green stalky quality to the wines. This is far less common in the warmer regions of South Australia.

I usually think that new world cabernets are just too big but it was these that really stood out for me in the Yarra: they had more fruit than you would find in a standard claret but they were in no way fruit-bombs and the alcohol levels were reasonable. For pinot fans, when talking to the winemakers re who they were impressed by the same names kept coming up: Timo Mayer of Gembrook Hills in Yarra and Dirk Meure from Tasmania.

Louisa Peskett

Categories : Australia
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Earlier this month seemed the right time for evaluating older vintages of Hermitage, and so it proved to be. There were a few reds to start of with, some from unfancied vintages like 2008 and 2002 (delicious wines in both cases).

The main event however was to look at the whites, especially those from Jean-Louis Chave, whose wines we have been fortunate enough to buy since 1971.

Hermitage is a special place and in recent years the reds have been much lauded. The whites are just as special but are less well known. More complicated too as they need patience and the right dishes, for these are definitely food wines. Both Gérard Chave and his son Jean-Louis are passionate about food and are keenly involved in the slow food movement and that to our minds is where white Hermitage belongs.

The wines tasted were mostly from Chave and mostly whites, but what a line up and what wonderful wines.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer


Saint-Joseph, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2009
To get us in the mood. Incredible youth and vigour. Still firm but with lots of fruit and promise. Real polish here and lovely fruit. Concentrated with a touch of oak still present. Drink 2013 to 2024 but back end of 2013 at least. 13.5%

Hermitage, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2008
A revelation. Real finesse here. Lovely fruit. Very fine and nearly ready. Could be enjoyed now with a ragout of lamb. 2015-2028. No hurry. 14%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2007
More closed, more Mediterranean, herby, black olive. Has concentration and middle palate. Will be wonderful. Tasted the next day, this was a very pleasant surprise, more open, still fresh. 2015 to 2028. 14%. (Limited stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2004
Textbook Hermitage. Everything in place. Balanced, fine and long. Fruit has clarity and depth. To drink with roast pigeon or maybe pheasant. Perfect now + 10 years. 14%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage, La Chapelle, Jaboulet, 2003
More shiraz than syrah. Rich, sweet, full-bodied and with the taste of slightly burnt blackberry jam. Splendid nonetheless but saying more about the vintage than about Hermitage maybe. Would serve with roast haunch of venison. 2013 to 2025. 14.5%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2002
Has finesse and delicacy and obviously speaks from a great terroir in a difficult vintage. Great effort and would work really well with roast lamb. Perfect now but would keep to 2020. 13%.

Hermitage, La Chapelle, Jaboulet, 2001
Still closed. Has weight and depth and length too but dormant. Drink from 2014. 13.5%. (Stock available; telephone for details)


Hermitage, Chante Alouette, Chapoutier, 2009
A whopping 15% here and in this baby it shows. Don?t touch! Much better on day 2: citrus and liquid honey and better integrated too. 2014 to 2022. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage Blanc, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2008
Very lovely, fresh. There?s honey and some weight but also a touch of herbs as well. The next day, still fresh and clean but more mineral, even salty. Can drink now, perhaps with salt-baked sea bass. Now to 2021. 14.5%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage, Chevalier de Sterimberg, Jaboulet, 2007
Real joy here. A lovely white Rhône, the first vintage made by Caroline Frey and Jacques Desvernois. This has weight and fruit and a lovely balance. Lemon and honey, long and with good persistent grip on the finish. Seafood risotto. Now to 2020. 14%. (Very limited availability; telephone for details)

Hermitage, Rocoules, Marc Sorrel, 2006
More rustic maybe. Very full-bodied and with bags of character in flavour. Not at all unbalanced despite high alcohol. Good grip. Desperate for food too. More closed on day 2 but enjoyable already. Quenelle de brochet sauce Nantua, with extra sauce probably. Now to 2020 but will probably live longer. 15.5%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage Blanc, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2006
Textbook white Hermitage. Perfect and lovely now. 2006, a great northern Rhône vintage to boot. Achingly fine, full-flavoured with just enough oiliness and a heavenly finish. Gigot de lotte, purée de pomme de terre a l?ail. Now to 2026. 14.5%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage Blanc, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2004
A more old-fashioned Hermitage maybe. Very full, waxy, honeyed with just a hint of austerity. Opened up well on the second day. Decant before serving maybe. Poulet a l?ail. Now to 2018. 14.5%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage Blanc, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2003
Remarkable. Stupendous even. Great white Hermitage from the heatwave vintage of 2003. Very powerful but also very fine and fresh. Sensation of sweetness on the palate. Liquid honey but there?s some citrus too. Very youthful. Ris de veau, purée de pomme de terre. Now to 2025. 15%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage, Rocoules, Marc Sorrel, 2003
Old-fashioned, very full and flavoursome. Weighty but carries its strength well. Not the finesse of the Chave maybe but still very good and very authentic. Almost meaty. Mushroom risotto with a glass in the stock. Now to 2018. 14.5%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage Blanc, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2002
More Burgundian in style, very fine with some delicacy and a touch of honey. Savoury the following day with some tension. Baked sea bass maybe or fish pie. Now to 2017. 13%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage Blanc, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 2002
Closed. Lots there but nothing giving much away. Less good the following day. Previously tasted last year when it was fabulously good. Will retaste. 13%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage Blanc, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 1999
Lovely example of mature Hermitage. In very good shape and better than when tasted this time last year. Full flavour, oily with lots of weight and great length. Monkfish, or maybe a decent hard cheese. Now to 2020. 13%. (Stock available; telephone for details)

Hermitage Blanc, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, 1989
Like old riesling at first! Whiff of petrol which then dissipates. Very fine, complex, mature. Exquisite. The finest cheddar money can buy. Another five years? 13%. (Very limited availability; telephone for details)

Wed 15 Aug 2012

Prosecco Treviso. Looking Good.

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Our recent tastings with Italian growers were huge fun for the members who attended (as many told us) and for the growers who enjoyed meeting so many who drink their wines.

Every one of the wines that were shown ? from the inexpensive and excellent Society?s Verdicchio to the highly classy Allegrini La Poja ? received orders after the tasting.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most ordered wine was the new shipment of Prosecco.


Now with Champagne cork and at higher pressure, it retains its effervescence extremely well. More importantly, it still comes from the Adami family?s estate in the heart of the Valdobbiadene hills unlike many inferior

wines that use fruit grown on the plains. This means it has more bouquet and delicacy.

We ship it as Prosecco Treviso because Italian law means we and you can pay less, and ?Valdobbiadene? (stress the second ?a?) is a bit of a mouthful. It is equally delicious in the pouring rain, as we proved today.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

Categories : Italy
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Earlier this year I was treated to a mesmerising tasting by Maximilian Riedel of the Riedel glass company which has totally transformed my perception of the wine glass. When tasting professionally, and drinking properly, I always take great care in selecting the appropriate glass: usually the versatile ?Chianti? glass (which is what we use in the tasting room here at The Wine Society).

But what baffled me at the Riedel tasting is just how different shapes of glass can maximise wine intensity and enjoyment. The right glass can boost a wine?s quality features just like a loudspeaker can for music. And it?s all down to the flow pattern and rim shape, apparently.

Maxmilian explains: ?The shape of the glass is responsible for the flow of the wine and consequently where it touches various taste zones on the tongue. The initial point of contact depends on the shape and the volume of the glass, the diameter of the rim and its finish (whether it is cut and polished or rolled edge) as well as the thickness of the crystal.?

So with these principles in mind Riedel got together with winemakers, sommeliers and consumers to design a glass for each grape variety. We looked at four wines – a sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon – with four different glasses.

The wider bowl of the chardonnay glass focused the wine across the palate, improving its lovely broad quality, while the sauvignon was tasted with a narrow rim glass which targets the wine to the tip of the tongue, highlighting the grape?s precise, elegant structure. The pinot noir glass has a special lip on the rim, ?the acidity bumper?, which minimises acidity, thus amplifying the delicious succulence of this fine grape. Finally, the gigantic Vinum XL for cabernet sauvignon is as big and bold as this muscular grape variety.

A loudspeaker is electronically engineered to provide the purest expression of sound. It seems Maximilian and his family have applied the same intricate detail to their glasses.

Pierre Mansour
Society Buyer

The Wine Society stocks a number of Riedel glasses.

Fri 10 Aug 2012

Traditional Winemaking in Rioja

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The Cooperage at Muga

A recent visit to Rioja, my first since joining The Society in March, brought home to me just how gloriously traditional some of the “big names” of the region have remained in their approach to winemaking.

No producer encapsulates this winemaking philosophy more clearly than Bodegas Muga, based in the charming town of Haro in the Rioja Alta, where the Muga family’s adherence to long-standing, tried and tested production techniques was proudly explained to me by Jorge Muga, chief winemaker.

Little has changed here since the late 19th century, when the fortunes of the company, and indeed the region of Rioja, were transformed following the devastation of the vineyards of Bordeaux through phylloxera and the resulting influx of thirsty wine buyers from over the border in France.

Barrel-making tools at Muga

There are no stainless steel tanks in this winery, nor indeed any of the ubiquitous concrete vats that characterise many of the cellars in the region. All you will find on a tour of Bodegas Muga is oak, and lots of it.

The winery displays an almost obsessive attention to detail. Rather than purchase oak barrels and vats, Muga employs no fewer than 5 coopers to make their own barrels. There are the “cuberos” making the larger vats, and the “tonneleros” making the smaller oak barrels (up to 10 per day during busy periods). And not content with buying mature oak staves from their oak suppliers, the family selects and purchases young planks and seasons them outside the winery for between 2 and 4 years. According to Jorge the standard practice of heating the oak in ovens to remove the natural humidity does not get rid of the harsh tannins within the wood; this can only be achieved with extended exposure to the elements.

Despite the 37C temperature during my visit to Rioja, Jorge insists that the Rioja Alta is “a cold place”, with the harvest often extending into November. He installed a cooling system for the wooden tanks in the winery a number of years ago but has not needed to employ the temperature control system for almost 10 years. In fact in some years the alcoholic fermentation has to be kick-started by heating the vats.

I have visited many wineries over the years but my visit to Muga revealed a contraption I have certainly never come across before. In line with its traditional approach to winemaking, egg white is used to fine (clarify) the wines before bottling. The Heath-Robinson inspired device pictured provides an effective, if painstakingly slow, way of separating the white from the yolk. You need 3 egg whites per 100 litres of wine to achieve crystal clear results, so you can imagine how busy the Muga egg separator is kept in the run up to bottling. For those curious to know what happens to the yolks, they are sold off and used for baking the tasty local cakes sold in the town!

Try the delicious 2007 Muga Rioja Reserva for a taste of unashamedly classic Rioja.

Tim Sykes
Head of Buying

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Thu 09 Aug 2012

Postcard from Chile No.4: Ferreterias

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Ironmongers, or ferreterias, sound more fun in Chile!

Toby Morrhall
Society Buyer

Categories : Chile
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Wed 08 Aug 2012

Last Day In The Loire

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Less fairytale than the view from across the Loire, the Château de Saumur up close is nevertheless one of the Loire’s most striking and romantic attractions.

Château de Saumur

The few ‘show’ vines that add context here admirably demonstrate the mixed picture that is the Loire in 2012:

Lovers of Loire wines will need to keep fingers crossed for more favourable conditions from now to harvest.

Joanna Locke MW
Society Buyer

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