Grapevine Archive for December, 2015

Thu 31 Dec 2015

Rioja Harvest 2015: Sights and Sounds

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Read part one here, which includes news from Viña Amézola and Bodegas Palacio.

Laguardía at sunset with the granite slopes of the Cantabrian mountains behind - the point at which the Alevasa vineyards stop

Laguardía at sunset with the granite slopes of the Cantabrian mountains behind – the point at which the Alevasa vineyards stop

While they are used to dramatic temperature differences in Rioja, such heat as we experienced during our visit in October was not usual.

How had this affected the vintage?
You might assume that the winemakers we visited would be ecstatic about an early vintage of ripe healthy grapes. Yes, it’s fair to say that there were plenty of smiles on faces – but these are wines that are crafted for the long haul and the winemaking men and women behind them are a pragmatic lot… and these were early days.

María José of López de Heredía told us, ‘we don’t like to judge our harvest straight away. Our grandmother told us you must always wait until after the second fermentation’ (that is the malolactic fermentation – you can read more about that in our series of winemaking articles.)

The general feeling is pretty positive though: the summer was continuously hot and dry and the tempranillo grape – the main constituent of Rioja – was picked in good health and full ripeness. Small grapes (the result of evaporation caused by the heat) may result in lower quantities, however.

María said that having a mix of grapes gives Rioja producers a distinct advantage and that in 2015 at López de Heredía they will reduce the amount of garnacha they use (a variety that tends towards high alcohol levels) and will increase the amount of graciano and mazuelo, two grapes that give highish acidity to the wine. In the face of a changing climate these grapes might become more important, she suggested.

The railway quarter in Haro
López de Heredía, together with La Rioja Alta, Muga and several other well-known names, are all in Haro’s historic railway station quarter. Here the harvest was still in full flow, with tractors trundling in and out of their impossibly picturesque wineries.

The view from Haro town of the historic railway station quarter, where so many famous bodegas are based in a tiny area

The view from Haro town of the historic railway station quarter, where so many famous bodegas are based in a tiny area

Of all of these, López de Heredía’s is the most surreally romantic.

López de Heredía

López de Heredía

López de Heredía

Grapes are brought in to the winery in poplar wood crates in the way that they have been for centuries. The technique hasn’t been retained for any reasons of sentimentality; María tells us that they have discovered that the unusual shape of the crates and the poplar wood from which they are made are ideal for their wines. ‘The wood harbours the indigenous yeasts that we want for fermentation. We have experimented with other methods over the year, but we have come to realise that our predecessors knew what they were doing!’

Across the road at Bodegas Muga, we were treated to the full spectacle of the harvest being brought in. Trucks were unloading and grapes weighed and analysed (15% of grapes come from a network of small family growers as was traditional in Rioja); an optical sorting machine ensured only the best berries made it through to be made into wine, and the barrels were being made and toasted to just the right levels in Muga’s own cooperage. Muga is one of the few wineries in the world whose barrels and casks are made by their own coopers.

La Rioja Alta – ageing the wine and the effects of climate change
The other bodega we visited in the station quarter was La Rioja Alta – home of our Exhibition Rioja Reserva. Here, too we were treated to a tour of the cellars but the wines are not made here (fermentation, bottling and labelling all now takes place at Labastida a new winery some five minutes away).

José Féliz racking our Exhibition Reserva Rioja

José Féliz racking our Exhibition Reserva Rioja

So no sights and sounds of vintage here, just the row upon row of barrels gently ageing and La Rioja Alta’s classically styled reservas and gran reservas are given considerable ageing and are only released when fully ready. For example, the gran reservas are aged for on average 11 years (the minimum is five) – five or six years in barrel and at least five in bottle.

What sets the wines apart from other traditional producers and the reason we chose them for our Exhibition wine is that their wines still retain vigour and feel alive. This is attributed partly to the skilled job of racking the wine (moving it from one barrel to the next to remove sediment and clean the barrel). At La Rioja Alta this is done traditionally and it is only after five years’ training that a new cellar hand will be allowed to do this skilled job on their own.

The rackers get to know their barrels intimately and notice when things aren’t quite right. Interestingly our guide told us that they usually rack every six months but climate change is having an effect on this part of the winemaking process too. They are starting to notice as humidity levels have dropped slightly the wine is maturing more quickly, the pores in the wood presumably widening ever so slightly. Now they check the barrels more often and top up the barrels every month.

Brave new world at Viña Real
On our last day in the region and in complete contrast to the wonderful historic cobwebby cellars of López de Heredia, we found ourselves witnessing state-of-the-art winemaking in Viña Real’s purpose-built winery dug into the hillside in the Rioja Alavesa. Designed by Bordeaux’s Philippe Mazières, the architecture is as stunning as it is practical, the winery looking like a vast barrel on top of the hillside.

Viña Rea

The operation is vast here and highly ergonomic. Tunnels carved out of the hillside were built by the same company that constructed the underground system in Bilbão and took three years to make and were a considerable investment for the company. 25 thousand barrels and three million bottles are housed here, but only nine people are employed.

But the most impressive aspect of this circular bodega is the vat room where the design allows for the vast fermentation vats to be filled automatically using a robotic crane. Gravity alone is used to move the grapes and juice around the bodega avoiding the need for any pumping which has a negative effect on quality.

Grapes for Viña Real wines are hand-harvested then sorted by both a visual inspection and automated hoppers before falling into mini stainless-steel vats which are then slowly hoisted by a crane and moved around the circular fermentation hall by a huge electronic arm. We were lucky enough to see this in action.

You can watch the process in this short but noisy video!

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

• If you’re interested in buying wines from the Rioja region, including those from some of the bodegas mentioned above, visit our website.

• There’s more on the effects of climate change and its influence (or not) on rising alcohol levels in wine in our article by Caroline Gilby MW here.

Categories : Spain
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Wed 30 Dec 2015

Rioja Harvest 2015: In The Thick of It

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2015 was the earliest vintage on record in Rioja and inadvertently we were there to capture some of the hustle and bustle of harvest time.

On a recent study tour of Rioja, timed to take place just before the vintage, we found ourselves instead, right in the middle of the harvest – the earliest on record and three weeks earlier than usual.

Grapes in transit (not to one of our bodegas!)

Grapes in transit (not to one of our bodegas!)

Harvest is usually the busiest time of year for wineries and not the best time to visit, generally. But it is an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good and for us it was a fantastic opportunity to see for ourselves what actually happens when the grapes come in.

Visit a winery at just about any other time of the year and you’ll be struck by how empty it is. You’ll be lucky if you see another person as you are shown around vast echo-y galleries with serried ranks of tanks and barrels, perhaps with a bit of pumping over or racking going on if you’re lucky. It always makes me think that being a winemaker must be quite a lonely profession!

But seeing a winery in full flood (as it were) is to see it in its true colours, in full operational mode. All those things you’ve heard about or read in textbooks are happening before your eyes, and the wonderful thing about Rioja in particular, is there is such as contrast between the old, highly traditional and the bright, shiny new.

Tempranillo grapes arriving in good health at Amézola

Tempranillo grapes arriving in good health at Amézola

The whole region is in action and it’s quite exciting. In Rioja grapes are quite often brought some distances to the wineries and the roads are busy with tractors and trailors trundling back and forth with their load of grapes. Special road signs are put out to warn motorists of slow-moving grape carriers.

Extreme weather
At Viña Amézola, sisters Cristina and María said that normally they would start harvesting around 6th October. This year, they had pretty much finished by 1st October; the last of the grapes were coming in while we were there (theirs is only one of three bodegas in Rioja who don’t buy in any grapes) and Amézola were breathing a sigh of relief. Just up the road, some bodegas had lost their entire crop, and even the vines themselves, the result of freak, highly localised hail storms in August.

Tasting the new wine
Arriving at the bodega when we did provided another unforeseen opportunity – the chance to taste wine straight from vat just before fermentation had started (when the grape juice is referred to as ‘must’ and still tastes sweet), at a day old and then at two days old. It was fascinating to taste the work of the yeast on the juice in progress.

Tasting the new wine from the 2015 vintage at Viña Amézola

Tasting the new wine from the 2015 vintage at Viña Amézola

During our winery visits, we couldn’t help but remark upon the bundles of sticks that were often seen amongst the vats of fermenting wine. Apparently these are placed into the vats as a way of filtering the wine. Fresh reeds are harvested each year and from specific plots of trees; a traditional method that I for one had not come across anywhere else.

Bunches of reeds used to help filter the wine

Bunches of reeds used to help filter the wine

Bodegas Palacio, home of The Society’s Rioja Crianza, had already finished picking bringing everything in (from some 500 different plots) in a record 10 days. Every single vat in its vast cellar was full. Winemaker Roberto Rodriguez looked pretty exhausted when we arrived at the bodega on the outskirts of picture-postcard perfect Laguardía at early evening.

Feel the fermentation! The dense CO2-laden air and hum of the ventilating fans made the process of fermentation palpable.

Feel the fermentation! The dense CO2-laden air and hum of the ventilating fans made the process of fermentation palpable.

Opening up the enormous gates of the winery we were hit by a new sensation… enormous fans, resembling those you see on jumbo jets, were circulating the CO2-laden air. The noise and the lack of oxygen were quite overpowering. Roberto was anxious to check that we were all ok and that nobody had asthma – it is not unusual for people to suffocate in wineries and removing the CO2 safely is a challenge in the winemaking process.

Feeling a little light headed, we were taken to Roberto’s control centre. Looking like something out of a James Bond film, the array of dials and computer screens enable Roberto to monitor what is happening in every single vat, from temperature control to alcohol levels, wine densities, pumping over, micro-oxygenation etc. It makes it sound simple, as though with the press of a button all can be viewed and controlled, but clearly, there’s a lot more to it than that!

…back to talk of the weather
The medieval hill-top town of Laguardía is in the Rioja Alavesa region which produces grapes that according to Roberto are ‘the soul of Rioja.’ From the town you can look out over the surrounding vineyards and appreciate why this might be so. South-facing and protected by the Cantabrian mountain range, the unique soils and cool nights all contribute to producing grapes with finesse and crucially, the vital acidity that’s required to allow Rioja to age.

We were all too aware of this large diurnal temperature variation. In the day the temperature had got up to 28°C, now that the sun had gone down and we were taking an evening stroll around Laguardía we were all freezing.

These are just the conditions that the tempranillo grape loves.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Read part 2 here, including reports from López de Heredía, Muga, La Rioja Alta and Viña Real.

• If you’re interested in buying wines from the Rioja region, including those from some of the bodegas mentioned above, visit our website.

• There’s more on the effects of climate change and its influence (or not) on rising alcohol levels in wine in our article by Caroline Gilby MW here.

Categories : Spain
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Mon 21 Dec 2015

Champagne low-down: a new infographic

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To the un-initiated Champagne is just another fizzy wine with little to distinguish it from all the rest. However, for such a fascinating and beguiling wine this is an incalculable under-estimation. Bond-esque product placement and over-zealous sportsmen spraying should be ignored! These do nothing to help the image of one of the world’s greatest fine wines.

The first thing to know about Champagne is that it must come from, surprise, surprise … Champagne! Centred around the towns of Reims and Epernay approximately 90 miles east of Paris, this is one of the most northerly appellations in France and the grapes grown here on chalky soils (principally chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) are therefore high in acidity – essential for the making of sparkling wine.

The other important characteristic which defines Champagne is that traditionally it is a blended wine – not just blends of different grape varieties from different villages throughout the region, but often blends from several vintages too.

These non-vintage wines are amazing in their consistency to house styles, expunging any evidence of poorer vintages in the blend and making a reliable product year in, year out. Made only in top years, vintage and prestige cuvées can age beautifully, developing complexity and displaying the heights that sparkling wines, just like any other fine wine, can reach.

But the principal reason Champagne is such an icon in terms of sparkling wine really stems from its production method. The méthode traditionnelle, as it must be referred to when adopted elsewhere is used to make other sparkling wines (for cava and many English and new world sparklers for example) but was developed in Champagne and is where it is executed best.

The actual process is fairly complex with two fermentations taking place to produce the bubbles (importantly, the second one taking place in the bottle that the wine is sold in); lees ageing to develop interesting flavour characteristics; the addition of more wine and grape must at the end of the process to determine the final sweetness levels.

However, as always there is far more to it, and to make the process easier to understand and more digestible we have produced a helpful infographic to illustrate the individual steps the wine takes.

More than just laying out the production process our Champagne infographic features a handy flavour map that plots the style of the different Champagne houses so that you can see what other wines you might like based on those you have tried before. Whilst this isn’t an exact science and there will be a slight variation based on how much bottle age a particular wine has had, it has the blessing of our buyers Marcel Orford-Williams and Pierre Mansour and we feel it gives members a good basis for understanding the different flavour profiles available.


Alternatively, you can view the infographic in PDF format here.

Members’ response to previous infographics has been very positive and we hope that you find this equally useful. There’s no better time to explore new wines or perhaps stock up on an old favourite than now, with our Festive Deals on Champagne offer slowly drawing to a close, there are fantastic deals to be had on some terrific Champagnes!

Hugo Fountain
Campaign Manager

There’s more on the making of sparkling wine in our article by Master of Wine Caroline Gilby MW – A Sparkling Transformation

Categories : Champagne
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Fri 18 Dec 2015

Christmas Order Deadline Extension

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We have extended our UK Christmas order deadline to midnight, Sunday 20th December for most addresses.*

By former Society Committee member Peter Probyn

By former Society Committee member Peter Probyn

As you might imagine, Christmas is by some distance The Society’s busiest time of the year, and, thanks to your support, 2015 has been our busiest to date. Despite this our nationwide delivery network has been operating efficiently with no backlog thanks to the recent good weather and our streamlined processes. So much so that we can now accept Christmas orders until midnight on Sunday.

Member Services available until 5pm on Sunday
Please be aware that although we can accept online orders until midnight, Member Services will only be available to take telephone orders (01438 740222) between 10am and 5pm on Sunday.

View all latest offers

Visit The Society’s online Christmas Shop

Thank you very much to all our members for your continued support. Merry Christmas!

*Unfortunately, a number of postcodes can’t be accommodated in this extended deadline; Highlands, Islands & remote areas are excluded.

Categories : Miscellaneous
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A bottle of port is seldom far away from most Christmas dining tables, usually savoured after dinner with a piece of Stilton. The French and Spanish, however, enjoy port throughout the year, offering as it does an array of styles and food-matching possibilities. Like sherry and Madeira, port is, we believe, not just for Christmas.

Port drinkers have access to a wealth of flavours, complexity and diversity, thanks to a number of different styles. A drink with a rich history, port’s story is a complicated one.

At the time of year when most of us reach for it, therefore, we thought it would be a good idea to demystify as much as possible. Alongside our How To Buy Port guide, we now have a new infographic.


View the infographic in full size
(You may need to click the image once again to magnify it, depending on your browser)

Alternatively, you can view the infographic in PDF format here.

In it you’ll find a basic rundown of the different types of port and how their ageing differs from one style to the other, as well as the main criteria for ports’ different classifications and what they mean.

For those members that are wanting to pick up some ports especially for Christmas we also include ratings of the best recent vintages. We hope you find it useful.

Hugo Fountain
Trainee Campaign Manager

You can view our range of ports under fortified wines on our website.

Categories : Port
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Fri 04 Dec 2015

Painted Wolf: Cape Wines With a Conscience

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African Wild Dogs, also known as Cape Hunting Dogs, Painted Dogs or Painted Wolves are canids, but are only distantly related to domestic dogs and wolves due to a split in the evolutionary tree about 3 million years ago.

It may seem strange to create a wine company and develop a range of wines based on an animal like the African Wild Dog, but they have many characteristics that I admire and appreciate. They are charismatic, fierce, compassionate, organised, altruistic, fun loving, energetic and sadly highly endangered.

It is a bit of a tale, or should we say a tail…

Jeremy & Emma Borg

Jeremy & Emma Borg

I was born in South Africa, grew up in Malawi and at 10 years old, was sent to boarding school in the bush in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). This was a special place for a young fellow to grow up. I loved to be out in the bush and was lucky enough to attend a school where we had the freedom to explore whenever we were not engaged in other compulsory activities. I spent countless hours fishing, exploring and looking for snakes to catch. Our family loved to spend holidays in game reserves and I grew up loving the bush, nature and the wildlife of Africa.

I left Africa when I was 18 to attend university in UK. At that time I was strongly averse to the political situation in South Africa, where my family was now living. I therefore only returned to visit three times in the 16 years I lived abroad.

I moved from UK to the USA, had a career as a chef and then had moved into wine. At the end of 1994 I came out to South Africa to work the harvest in the Cape, fully intending to go back to California to my cellar job and viticulture course. A massive curveball was tossed in my direction when my wildlife-filmmaking sister Amanda met Emma (my wife) and her employers, Lloyd and June Wilmot. Lloyd’s Camp in Savuti Botswana was looking for a cook and my sister suggested that I would be a good candidate for the job. By accepting this job and going to work in Botswana, I realised that I had always felt slightly alien in the USA.

But back in the bush, I was home… Africa had reclaimed me.

Life took on a very different complexion and I was transported back into the space which had made my teen years so exciting and adventurous. I worked closely with Emma, and we were able to go out into the bush almost every day, spending hours in nature, watching wild animals or playing with Lloyd and June’s children.

'Pedals4Paws': a fundraising bike ride in Africa, 2013

‘Pedals4Paws’: a fundraising bike ride in Africa, 2013

A favourite game was “bush cricket”: we would use any handy piece of wood (usually a tree branch) for a bat, and dried out elephant dung as our ball. There was always a supply handy and we never had to worry about losing any expensive sports kit.

It was during one of these afternoon cricket games, played on a particularly good wicket at a spot called Harvey Pan where we had an intimate and interesting wild dog encounter. I was bowling to Alistair who was about 5 years old at that time and was startled to see three wild dogs run past me and within a yard or two of Alistair, paying no attention to him at all (which was fortunate). Within a few seconds a female kudu ran past followed by a number of other dogs. We rushed to our Land Rover and followed the hunt. The level of co-operation amongst pack members as they course and dispatch their prey is amazing. They chased the tiring kudu into a muddy pan where she stood her ground. The mud was thick but not too deep and the dogs waded in, up to their bellies. As they closed in on her, the kudu kicked our frantically with one of her back legs, connecting with a dog. This violent blow sent the dog cart wheeling away. A kudu is roughly 5 -6 times the weight of a dog. We were amazed to see a number of pack members break away from the attack and rally around the injured dog twittering (which is the name of their main call) and muzzle-rubbing it. One lone dog, probably the alpha male, was left to stare down the kudu and keep her occupied till the rest of the pack returned. The kudu was soon dispatched and hastily eaten by the 15 or 16 dogs in the pack.

The co-operation and organisation displayed by these dogs was impressive, but it was that instinct to care for an injured individual that stayed with us. It makes them very rare in the animal world, especially amongst predators.

Wild dog relocation to Somkhanda reserve

Wild dog relocation to Somkhanda reserve

Wild Dogs are very effective hunters with seven out of ten hunts ending in success (lions, by comparison, are only successful three times out of every ten attempts). Their communication is very highly developed, using vocalisation, vision and smell as tools to convey meaning. Within the dens, only the alpha male and alpha female produce puppies, but all of the young are raised and nurtured by the whole pack, which means that life in the den is geared towards the survival of the pack as a single entity. This co-operative social structure makes for a very relaxed and congenial den life.

In spite of their hunting prowess and social proficiency, Wild Dogs are highly endangered. In fact, only one African carnivore is more endangered: the Ethiopian Wolf. The whole Wild Dog population in Africa is under 6,000 dogs, split into fragmented populations. Very few countries have truly sustainable Wild Dog populations, and their numbers are slowly slipping away.

South Africa had roughly 400 dogs left. They were once prolific throughout South Africa. The Kruger Park, an area the size of Wales, only supports 200 or so dogs. When the area making up the park was first hunted by white people in the mid to late 1800s the Wild Dog population was huge. A bounty was put on Wild Dogs and they were shot to the point of virtual extinction, and they have never recovered those numbers.

Wild Dogs need space, the more pristine the better. Management strategies that benefit dogs are those best suited to the sustainable conservation of an area. An area the size of greater London (with a normal density of antelope and other prey species) could support a lion population of 300, but only 30 wild dogs.

wild dogs stomping grapes

When Emma and I decided to start our wine company, back in 2007, we made a commitment to support conservation as well. While considering what to call our label, we thought back on all the wonderful Wild Dog encounters we had had in Botswana and how much we admired them, and the decision was made.

Our admiration of their co-operation and social structure was turned into a working model for the company. We work as a pack. As the alpha pair we lead the pack, but every other pack member works with us for the long term flourishing of the whole pack. Each pack member is as unique as each Wild Dog. They sport completely different markings on their painted coats, our pack members each contribute completely different talents, strengths and abilities. The only difference is that we lack the huge ears, prefer to savour our food, especially if it’s accompanied by one of our wines.

We endeavour to make wines that are as interesting and individual as the Wild Dogs that they are named after. Our population of enthusiastic fans is growing which is fortunate, because we are hoping that our donations from sales will help to stop the depletion of Wild Dog ranges and populations and put more paws on the ground in the bush.

Jeremy Borg
Painted Wolf Wines

Find Jeremy and Emma’s wines here

Categories : South Africa
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Thu 03 Dec 2015

Enoturismo: Porto, Port & Graham’s

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I am reminded on my latest visit in glorious winter sunshine how Porto would make a wonderful destination for a grown-up city break, not least as it is so steeped in the history of port production (with plenty of tasting opportunities too).

The old lodges across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia, where port wines have been stored and matured for generations, have all been spruced up to receive visitors, none more so than Graham’s.

Grahams Port

Grahams Port

Graham's has a long association with boats & shipping, as evidenced by some wonderful records including this menu from The Queen Mary.

Graham’s has a long association with boats & shipping, as evidenced by some wonderful records including this menu from The Queen Mary.

Tawny ports mature in wooden 'pipes', around 30,000 of which are maintained by the Symingtons' coopers, all of whom are now based at the larger Cockburn's lodge.

Tawny ports mature in wooden ‘pipes’, around 30,000 of which are maintained by the Symingtons’ coopers, all of whom are now based at the larger Cockburn’s lodge.

There is a welcoming tasting room, where a selection of wines can be tasted for a modest fee (usually not quite as many as those lined up for my colleague David & myself!).

There is a welcoming tasting room, where a selection of wines can be tasted for a modest fee (usually not quite as many as those lined up for my colleague David & myself!).

Jo Locke MW
Society Buyer