Discover wine regions, winemakers and wines as we travel around the world in 80 harvests. Articles, videos and photography on global wine regions in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa.
Year-round tropical weather, mountain and ocean views, and great wine. Madeira, Portugal, might just have it all, says meteorologist Michael Fagin. This volcanic island is one of several islands, an archipelago, that rises over 6,000 metres from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean (over two-thirds of which is under water) and is almost 500km off the west coast of Africa. Fagin looks at the history of this unique wine region, its weather patterns and what holds for the future.
Volcanic islands in the African sea: Madeira’s rise from the Little Ice Age
The Little Ice Age took place back in the Middle Ages from about 1300 to 1850. Why am I talking about an ice age while we are currently faced with continuing raising global temperatures? Just bear with me as we take a journey into the past.
It is well documented that temperatures over this period were much cooler than recent times. Snow storms were common in Lisbon, Portugal, many rivers froze in Great Britain, and the list goes on. Many areas experienced cold and wet summers and cold winters, which greatly impacted agriculture. The Great Famine of 1315-1317 was one result.
The production of wine was impacted due to vineyards vanishing in some locations. We do not have any climate data for Madeira for that period, but we can assume they did not get the harsh cold temperatures like the inland areas to their north. It takes a long time to change the temperature the ocean. Thus the Atlantic Ocean moderated the temperature of Madeira island.
Madeira steps out as a wine island
Winemaking dates back to the late 1400s in Madeira. King Charles II of England, in the 1600s, helped give Madeira a big boost when he banned all exports from Europe to English colonies, with the exception of exports from Madeira. This gave Madeira a monopoly on trade to the Americas and West Indies almost overnight and gave birth to the Vinho da Roda phenomena (Round Trip Wine.)
The wine barrels were picked up in Madeira for the long journey, causing the wine to become heated while in the holds. It was reported that on one trip to India, the shipment was refused – so back to Madeira it went. Wine producers in Madeira found that the extra time in the warm holds of the ship greatly transformed the flavour and characteristics of the wine. The caramel and toffee aromas we so readily associate with Madeira today are a result of this process of oxidation and heat.
Today this transformation process is more sophisticated using the estufagem or the canteiro methods (along with fortification). Madeira wine flourished until 1850’s when the odium mildew destroyed most of the crop, followed by phylloxera 20 years later. The good news was that new vines were replanted and the industry has been flourishing since although a key to understanding Madeira’s wines is understanding its climate.
The climate of Madeira today
Today the island boasts of typical weather found in the tropics, which are warm year around. Madeira benefits greatly from the warm ocean currents, the North Atlantic Gyre (the warm Gulf Stream and Canary Current are part of this). This transports warm water from the equator north to Madeira and, of course, beyond.
Source: Sail Magazine
During the summer the water is 24°C and still pleasant in the winter 18°C. For the coastal city of Funchal, on the south side of the island, they have mild winter temperatures with average temperatures of 16.7°C and warm summers with average temperatures of 23.2°C. However, temperatures are slightly cooler on the north side of the island and for the vineyards at 800 metres altitude. These higher vineyards would generally be about 4.5°C cooler than coastal areas. Also of note, the higher terrain has wider diurnal temperature swings than coastal areas. The result is better wine structure for the higher terrain.
Funchal yearly rainfall is 627 mm while the north side of the island is the windward side of the island and tends to get higher rainfall than Funchal. The higher terrain also gets higher rainfall. All locations get close to 75% of their rainfall in the fall and winter with the summer being much drier.
The wines of Madeira
There are four main styles of white wine produced on Madeira Island:
Verdelho (medium dry)
Boal/Bual (medium rich)
There are less than 500 hectares of vines planted in Madeira and the main regions, in order of size, are Câmara de Lobos on the south coast, followed by São Vicente on the north coast, then Santana also on the north coast.
The soils are volcanic and much of the land is steep. To accommodate the steep slopes, a construction of terraced benches called poios is used.
Being sweet and fortified, many consider Madeira wines great as aperitifs just before the meal, or for dessert. But pairings shouldn’t just be limited to desserts, I found that Serial pairs very well with grilled salmon for example.
Madeira and the day after tomorrow
This 14 year old movie is based on the theme of climate change (global warming) bringing on a new ice age with extreme temperatures of -101°C and sea levels that rise by 7 metres. In the movie all of this happens in a terrifyingly short period of time. Meteorologists claim this movie took “artistic license” which is an understatement! Although, it was entertaining.
However, one of the basic theme of the movie has some credence in the scientific community. The premise is that global warming will melt much of the glaciers and snowfields, which will add a substantial amount of freshwater into the oceans. Some scientists suggest the result of this would be to greatly reduce the circulation of the warm North Atlantic Gyre (Gulf Stream is part of this) that goes from equator northward. Thus, if these warm waters are cut off, many locations in the northern latitudes would experience cooler conditions. (If you are a weather geek you can check this scientific study on shutting down the gulf stream.)
However for the future climate it is best to look at recent trends and you can see from the graph below that Funchal has had a steady increase in temperature since 1890. Just from 1950 to 2015 there has been an increase close to 1°C.
It would certainly be fair to assume that this trend will continue, so by 2100 we would see another 1°C increase. In fact, many models suggest the rate of heating will accelerate, showing a possible increase of temperatures by 2°C by 2100. It is difficult to assess the impacts that this might bring. If these temperatures are too warm for some of the varietals, planting at the cooler higher elevations is a possible solution.
Another concern about this warming is that we will have more extreme heat events. Some researchers are suggesting more heat events exceeding 37.8°C, which recently occurred for the coast town of Funchal. The summer of 2018 certainly brought major concerns in Lisbon, Portugal, which recorded a high of 46.4°C. Will this be the new normal?
How about rainfall? Many of the models for this region are suggesting a 30% reduction in rainfall over the next 60+ years. The recent trend has been a minor reduction over the last 30 years, so it is difficult to explain why some researchers are predicting a 30% reduction. Perhaps the Azores High Pressure, which tends to bring dry conditions, will shift from the current position of west of Madeira to the island, steering wet weather systems away. This would in fact be a positive attribute for winemaking in Madeira, especially in the northern side of the island and vineyards at altitude, and reduce the constant risks of mildew.
It is always difficult to predict exact future weather patterns. However, as an island that has been continuously adapting to viticulture over the last 600 years, Madeira is hopefully up to the challenge.
Guest post by Michael Fagin
Michael is a freelance wine writer and meteorologist who travels different wine regions around the US with his wife, and fellow wine writer, Elizabeth. He is operational meteorologist for West Coast Weather and provides weather forecasts for the U.S. West Coast which includes agricultural forecasts for some of the major wine regions in California and Oregon.
PFamily-run wineries are part of the charm of the Waipara wine region, and Pegasus Bay is the perfect case in point. Started by Ivan and Christine Donaldson in the 1980s, and continued by their four sons (Matthew, Ed, Paul and Michael) today, Pegasus Bay not only has an award-winning wine production but also one of the top winery restaurant’s in New Zealand. The beginnings of this impressive family business were in fact rather more humble… Pegasus Bay was the vinous pipe dream of a successful neurologist.
“A medic gone AWOL” is how Ed describes his father’s first wine ambitions, when he planted an acre of experimental vines in his garden in Christchurch in 1975. “He planted every type of variety at the beginning!”
In 1985 the experimental expanded to a 40 hectare estate in the Waipara Valley when there were less than a handful of producers there. Ivan had studied the different climate patterns in Canterbury and discovered that Waipara had the ideal combination of less rain, more sunshine and more protection from the cold and maritime fronts that can often come off the Pacific.
He continued to plant his favourite varieties from his experimental vine garden, including the red Bordeaux varieties many other producers scoffed at (they said Waipara was too cold to ripen varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon).
Pegasus Bay, so named for the large horse-shaped bay behind the coastal range, continues to make its Bordeaux blends today but the flagship of the family winery is in fact Riesling – a variety that Christine begged her husband to plant.
The location on the hills has enough air movement and slope exposure to ripen the Bordeaux reds but also has the cool temperatures for Pinot Noir and the entire white wine spectrum. What makes it an ideal spot for Riesling is the long hang time that they can achieve in the vineyard (as budding starts quite early). Another interesting element to their Riesling is that they can achieve an element of botrytis each year due to their positioning close to the river.
“We tend to get botrystis in our Riesling most years as we are able to leave it on the vines a bit longer,” explains Ed over our extensive tasting of Pegasus Bay’s portfolio. “Even in our dry Riesling Matt [his brother, the winemaker] likes to leave around 20% botrytis infected bunches.”
The result is a selection of Riesling wines with a strong personality, aromatic concentration and a rich acidity. Pegasus Bay has helped put Waipara Riesling on the map, alongside top Pinot Noir and – much to the discernment of the scoffing producers – Bordeaux red varieties from Waipara too.
The potential of Waipara Riesling & what to pair it with
Recommended Pegasus Bay wines & tasting notes
Pegasus Bay Sauvignon-Semillon 2007
The colour of this hasn’t moved at all – it has flecks of green and silver and is very youthful in the glass and also in the nose. Bright yellow fruit notes with just a touch of the kerosine that only hints at its decade of bottle age. Vibrant and delicious.
Pegasus Bay Virtuoso 2016
A barrel selection of their top Chardonnay, Virtuoso shares the same struck match aroma you find on the estate Chardonnay but it is more open with fruit and blossom notes. Fresh and bright acidity underpins the structure of this wine and it has the complexity of a barrel-aged Chardonnay. Great length and fullness.
Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2015
This Pinot Noir is a blend of 12 different clones and different blocks of their vineyards. It is a crunchy, bright Pinot Noir with vibrant red fruit aromas and spicy black pepper notes.
Pegasus Bay Prima Donna 2015
Christine is an opera singer and this is an ode to her passion but also to the temperamental nature of Pinot Noir… This, their top, Pinot Noir is only made on the best years and usually comes from their oldest ungrafted vines. This is a wine of finesse and length with silky tannins.
Pegasus Bay Maestro 2015
This is their top Bordeaux blend, in this case with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It’s surprising for this region that you can ripen these varieties here but this wine has no trace of greenness – instead it is filled with aromas of fruit and spice, with peppery tannins to finish. It doesn’t get released every year, but in a great vintage like 2015 this wine really stands out as a fresh Bordeaux style.
Pegasus Bay Bel Canto 2015
Probably the most memorable of all their wines to me, Bel Canto is a dry Riesling made with 20-30% botrytis (with some sun exposure). On the nose you would completely believe this is a sweet wine – it has waxy orange peel, ripe apricot and honeysuckle aromas, but in the palate it is dry with a fullness and richness that lends it wonderfully for food pairing. Standout Riesling.
Pegasus Bay Encore 2016
There are several Pegasus Bay Rieslings, and this is their most concentrated which only gets made a couple times a decade when they can achieve 100% botrytis. Almonds, orange marmalade and ripe fruit notes make this intensely aromatic but Encore still has a freshness on the finish and vibrancy. Top stuff.
Pegasus Bay Finale 2014
This is a botryised Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes with a splash of Semillon) which has been barrel fermented. Luscious and long with complex aromas of nuts, honey and fruit peel.
Full interview with Ed Donaldson, Pegasus Bay
The full in-depth interview is for subscribers only:
Dom Maxwell has kicked off a trend without realising it. “My wife told me not to do it,” says the Greystone winemaker. “Her exact words were ‘Aren’t you worried about the Possums?'” Yes, possums are a problem in New Zealand. They are actually a blight, and have a tendency to take advantage of delicious hanging fruit. But Dom’s wife wasn’t worried about the possums attacking the grapes – but the wine. Dom ferments his Waipara Pinot Noir in the vineyard.
Six years ago, Dom decided he wanted to try fermenting his Pinot Noir not in the winery (like 99.9% of winemakers in the world) but out in the vineyard. He figured it was only really in the vineyard where no other ambient yeasts could impact the spontaneous fermentation. Although the winemaking team tried to do everything the same as the did in the winery, the character of their Pinot Noir stood out as remarkably different. It was intriguing enough the first year and ever since then he continues to ferment a few lots of Pinot Noir in their respective vineyard blocks.
“It was 2014 which really opened our eyes,” Dom says of his third vintage doing a vineyard ferment. “There was a period of a week or so when we could only get out to the vineyard once a day to wet the cap [they had been wetting the cap twice a day previously]. There was a lot less extraction that year, and we found the wine carried its own beauty and so gradually we’ve adopted that for the winery ferments too.”
The vineyard ferments, where the weather dictates the temperature and length of the ferment, has also encouraged Dom to lower ferment temperatures in the winery. He says cooler temperatures gives “a better picture of the place and hangs onto those lighter details”. These are just a couple of the lessons learnt from fermenting out in the vineyard and his learning curve has proved an inspiration for other winemakers in New Zealand who are taking their ferments out into the vineyard too.
“It’s providing some interest to winemakers because strange things can happen out there! But also it is about getting the rest of the vineyard and winery crew enthusiastic about working again.”
While the knock-on effect of increased enthusiasm is definitely a plus, there is evidence in the glass of the effect of vineyard fermentation. Maceration is generally lighter which gives a lighter colour in their Waipara Pinot Noir and more gentle extraction of tannins. Most exciting of all is the many layers of aromas and flavours which reveal themselves in an etherial manner – at least in the 2016 I tasted.
Vintage variation (you aren’t only reflecting the weather during the growing season but also during the weeks after harvest where the juice ferments into wine out in the elements) is part of the particularity of vineyard ferments. For Dom that is an exciting snapshot of the year in a glass. I couldn’t agree more.
This barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc has lively notes of lemon peel with a brightness of tropical fruit and fresh herbs on the nose. In the palate it has some structure, lending it to food pairing.
Sand Dollar Pinot Gris 2016
Referring to one of the fossils, this single block Pinot Gris on one of the lower plots around 60m above sealevel. Two clones of Pinot Gris are used, which Dom says gives it complexity, and after two years in the bottle it shows aromatic richness with bright fruit notes and exotic spice and is full-bodied.
Sea Star Riesling 2016
This Riesling comes from a single block from a limestone plot at the vineyard’s highest elevation. It has bright lemon sherbet and citrus zest notes with aromas of flowers, garden herbs and a hint of kerosine. Bright and long with mouthwatering acidity.
This Chardonnay comes from two blocks, one block at the bottom of the terrace made with the B95 clone (which typically gives stone fruit character, and Dom vinifies in tank) and one block with the Mendoza clone (which typically gives more power and concentration, which Dom vinifies in barrel). The result is a Chardonnay an appealing richness and structure among notes of ripe stone fruits and wet stone. There’s a long, chalky finish.
This Waipara Pinot Noir comes from the higher elevation limestone blocks of their vineyard. Although Dom doesn’t make every year when he does he vinifies it separately to make a special single lot wine. Compared to the estate Pinot Noir, this is much more savoury with dark fruit notes but also forest floor and herbal aromas. It has texture and fine tannins, showing finesse.
This is a selection of their best barrels from their vineyard ferment lots. The wines is so much lighter in colour (compared to the estate or single block Pinot Noir) but has many layers to it. Floral, red fruit and earthy nuances. Elegant and quite etherial.
Greystone Syrah 2016
There’s a lovely, bright red berry fruit note on the nose of this Syrah with a spicy, meaty undertone. The vineyard block is quite a steep one and from limestone soils.
Full interview with Dom Maxwell on Waipara terroir & Greystone wines
The full in-depth interview with Dom Maxwell is for subscribers only:
Michael Fagin looks at the weather trends in Walla Walla and how climate change might impact wine production in the future.
After a four hour drive over the Cascades Mountains, coming from Seattle, you arrive to Walla Walla passing Washington’s other wine regions of Yakima, Tri-Cites (Richland-Hanford-Pasco), and Prosser. Surrounded by mountains, this is the dry part of Washington state which makes it an ideal spot for vine growing.
Parts of Walla Walla have desert-like conditions with just 170 mm of rain a year. However, there are many areas near the foothills of the Blue Mountains that get closer to 560 mm. Fortunately, much of the precipitation is in winter so there are no mildew issues during the growing season (April to October) and generally a good supply of water.
Summer brings great growing conditions in Walla Walla. Because it is so far north the region gets over 15 hours of sunlight and average growing season temperatures of 17.2 C which is the sweet spot for Cabernet Sauvignon production.
Source of table: Greg Jones, “Climate Grapes and Wine.”
Revisiting the historical climate of Walla Walla
While chatting with winemakers and vineyard managers I always ask about weather trends and impacts on their grapes. More often than not I get a response of: “weather patterns seem extreme every season.” I decided to take the scientific approach and look at some historic weather data.
The goal is to find official weather stations within the Walla Walla AVA that have a long record of weather data. We picked the Walla Walla Airport and Milton-Freewater, Oregon, which is 22 miles south of Walla Walla town and in The Rocks AVA, which is part of the Walla Walla AVA. We also used a relatively new site in Walla Walla, the Ag. Met station. The data we reviewed and all the graphs can be found here.
The goal is to review key weather trends since 1949 and some cases since 1928. We are looking at these weather variables: yearly temperature trends, temperature trends during growing season (April through October), yearly precipitation trends, changes in frost free days, looking at changes in extreme conditions- days over 100 F (38 C) and days under 32 F (0 C).
Temperature trends growing season
In Milton-Freewater, the mean temperature for the April to October growing season has risen 1.2 to 1.8 C since 1928, with more recent years averaging around 18 C. The lowest recorded mean temperatures haven’t dipped lower than 16 C. In the next few years, the mean temperature may surpass the past ninety years of records. Walla Walla has shown similar trends in terms of a steady increase.
Frost Free Days in Walla Walla
Walla Walla Ag. Met station over the past 25 years annual count of frost-free days has declined in the late-1990s but has more than rebounded since the mid-2010s, climbing over 240. The count of frost-free days is a meteorological parameter for measuring the length of a growth season.
Growing Degree Days in Walla Walla
When determining whether a particular crop will grow in a particular area, agriculturalists use a heat index known as Growing Degree Days or GGD. The GGD units are calculated by a formula that subtracts that specific crop’s reference temperature from the daily mean temperature of the area. This formula provides a GGD number for the region. In our data we used 50 degrees Fahrenheit as the base.
Despite a slight decline since three years ago, the count of growing degree days at the Walla Walla Ag Met site from 2008-2017 has steadily increased with an average of 2,794.
The Milton-Freewater station, has, on average, been increasing slightly over the past ninety years, up around 500. The Walla Walla station on average increased slightly from 1949-2017, up around 300.
Days at or below 32 F (0 C)
At Walla Walla the count of days at or below freezing from 1947-2017 has declined sharply, especially since the late-1990s, with most years seeing none. Before then, two to 13 frozen days were typical and years seeing none were much more uncommon. In Milton-Freewater, the count of days at or below freezing over the past ninety years has declined sharply, especially since the late-1990s, with most years seeing none. Before then, two to 14 frozen days were typical and years seeing none were rare.
Rainfall trends in Walla Walla
Milton-Freewater’s average rainfall has risen since the late-1930s, but the spread of the data makes it difficult to accurately define a true trend. There was around 76 mm more rainfall in the mid-1980s to early-2000s comparatively, but the late-2000s to present day has consistently been only an 25 mm higher than the pre-1980s average.
Walla Walla average rainfall since 1959 tells a different story from Milton-Freewater. While the average also rose around 76 mm in the mid-1980s, it fell sharply in the late-1990s to around 51 mm lower than the consistent pre-mid-1980s average of 457 to 483 mm. Other than a slight decline in the 2000s, an average of around 445 mm has been maintained.
Future trends and what climate change in Walla Walla means for wine
For climate change, most experts look at temperature trends since 1880. Best estimates are that worldwide temperatures have increased about 0.8 C since 1880.
The recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that unless major changes are implemented to reduce greenhouse emissions temperatures will continue to increase, even as much as 3 C by 2100. We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns The Guardian.
An upward trend in temperatures and plantings
The million dollar question is what temperature trends can Walla Walla area expect? If we take the data from Milton-Freewater the temperature increased close 1.2 C over the last 80 years. Walla Walla has had a similar increase over the last 60 years. So if we assume over the next 80 years we are looking at an additional increase of 1.2 C. Thus the average temperature for the growing season increases from the current estimate of 18 C to 19 C by 2100. This temperature is well within the range for Cabernet Sauvignon, which is good news for any producers of this popular variety!
However, some climate experts would expect greater temperature increases than we have listed and many significant impacts beyond just our wine regions.
Fortunately water is in good supply in Walla Walla however winemakers are beginning to make adjustments for higher temperatures – managing the canopy climate and vineyard management systems.
The wine industry is also already making adjustments by planting at cooler locations on north facing hills and at higher elevations, likely a trend set to continue in the future.
Guest post by Michael Fagin
Michael is a freelance wine writer and meteorologist who travels different wine regions around the US with his wife, and fellow wine writer, Elizabeth. He is operational meteorologist for West Coast Weather and provides weather forecasts for the U.S. West Coast which includes agricultural forecasts for some of the major wine regions in California and Oregon. He was attending Walla Walla recently for the Wine Bloggers Conference.
Main photo of Walla Walla by Richard Duval, Walla Walla Wine Alliance
Take a look at some of our winemaker interviews from Washington to get their perspective on the region:
There are over 200 different varieties of Muscat in the world and it is one of the oldest and widespread family of grape varieties in the book. Some believe the origins of Muscat can be dated back to the Ancient Egyptians circa 3000BC. In the last two thousand years at least, Muscat has become ubiquitous in wine regions around the world.
Despite its long history, Muscat is rarely put on a pedal stool as a remarkable grape variety, nor is it hailed as one of the ‘terroir-transparent’ varieties. Muscat, whichever sibling, always smells like Muscat.
‘Smelling like Muscat’ means it actually smells like the very grapes. Muscat wines are some of the few that seem to smell of fresh grapes. This gives it an obvious appeal for the wine novice, and its fruity, flowery character makes it a pretty easy wine to swallow too in most cases. Although Muscat is probably the world’s best-travelled grape variety, I’ve never found myself thinking of Muscat as a ‘terroir wine’. I’ve, admittedly, been a bit of a wine snob about Muscat. My trip to Colli Euganei last week changed that.
Colli Euganei in the DNA of Fior d’Arancio
Fior d’Arancio is the only DOCG in the Euganean hills, and it is for Muscat. Yellow Muscat (or Moscato Giallo) can be used to make still, sparkling and sweet wines according to the DOCG rules.
It was likely one of the early grape varieties in the region and locals believe it has been growing here since the Middle Ages – brought from Greece by the Venetian merchants. How it got here is of little consequence but its suitability to the terrain and its unique expression in these volcanic hills is what makes it stand out.
“Moscato Giallo grown on our volcanic soils and with our climate has this particular orange flower scent, it isn’t like Moscato Giallo from anyone else,” Alessandro Facchin from Ca’del Colle told me last week.
It’s certain that of the two dozen Fior d’Arancio wines that I tasted (dry white wines, sweet passito wines and sweet sparkling) there’s a common – quite pervasive – note of orange blossom.
There’s also a higher acidity than commonly found in Yellow Muscat, which leaves a freshness on the finish, balancing out even 100 grams of sugar per litre commonly found in the Fior d’Arancio sparkling wine. “Our soils give white wines with acidity, even in the sweeter styles,” explained Franco Zanovello from Ca Lustra on my observation.
Fior d’Arancio was quite unlike any of the other Moscato wines I’ve tasted before. It’s a no-brainer as to why the DOCG for Moscato Giallo took the name of orange blossom (Fior d’Arancio DOCG).
But Fior d’Arancio isn’t one dimensional on the nose. It is also abundant in notes of apricot and sometimes elderflower, mountain herbs and citrus peel depending on the site/vineyard. It offers an exuberant and aromatic wine which is unsurprisingly popular at local weddings.
Fior d’Arancio is a new DOCG, established in 2010. But the vines in Colli Euganei are old (most well over 50 years) and the tradition runs deep. At first, it struck me as unusual to permit almost any style of wine to be made under the same DOCG name. Fior d’Arancio wines can range from about 200 grams of sugar per litre for a passito sweet wine to a bone-dry white wine, and includes sparkling wine. However, on tasting over 20 different Fior d’Arancio wines of different styles, it became clear that there is an aromatic consistency and identity across the styles.
With just 230 hectares of Fior d’Arancio (Moscato Giallo) planted in Colli Euganei, it’s a small and local production, but one which is worth hunting down. Especially at this time of Christmas, when a glass of sparkling, sweet, refreshing and aromatic Fior d’Arancio spumante doesn’t go amiss with a slice of locally-made panettone.
A simple, delicious and festive terroir pairing which would still the tongues and warm the souls of even the Ebenezer Scrooge of wine snobs.
There has never been a more exciting time for English wine. After the UK’s long and glorious summer of 2018, the harvest was a storming success and the vintage is already set to be a classic, meaning that even more eyes are going to be on English wine in the very near future. If these warmer summers are a sign of things to come, English vineyards will be able to start producing wines that we’d sooner associate with Spain and Portugal. In fact, one winery in England is growing Albariño already.
An English terroir at Chapel Down
Despite all of the comparisons made with Champagne – the climate, the soils, the grape varieties that can be grown – Chapel Down is unmistakably English. Looking across at the vast swathes of lush green vines in Tenterden, Kent, it is (with the exception of a field filled with Andean alpacas blithely munching on the grass) the image of the Garden of England, the land of picnics and cricket. ‘Englishness’ is key to Chapel Down’s charm. It isn’t France and it isn’t pretending to be. Being ‘different’ is what Chapel Down CEO Frazer Thompson attributes their success to.
But, we’ll start with the comparisons, for those who still grimace at the thought of English wine. Like Champagne, Chapel Down is just on the northern cusp of 50 degrees latitude, just 90 miles north of Champagne. Both regions possess those iconic chalk soils and a similar climate which can grow the same grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. The grapes are hand harvested and are fermented using the Traditional Method and winemaking practices such as cool fermentation, malolactic fermentation and lees treatment are employed. It’s no surprise that some more established producers in France are buying land here.
Yet, as Frazer says, there’s pride in being different – Chapel Down don’t simply want to make English Champagne. There are factors that make the wine here unique, like the sea minerals from deep down in the soil. This area used to be called Smallhythe, meaning Small Harbour, and not too many centuries ago, the land here would have been underwater. The area was turned into a vineyard in 1977, when Stephen Skelton planted around five and a half acres of Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Gutenborner and Seyval Blanc, vines that were originally from Germany.
Since then, Bacchus has become the grape king of English wine, as it can create wines that can reach powerfully pungent levels of aroma that have distinct tropical fruit elements. Thought to be a crossing of Müller-Thurgau and a Silvaner x Riesling cross, it is incredibly characterful when able to ripen fully, taking English wine to new heights of flavour and complexity. However Bacchus and the Champagne grapes aren’t the only varieties doing well in Chapel Down’s vineyards – Albariño, Regent and Rondo are staples in their wine portfolio now too.
Working with the British weather
There’s also another aspect to the Englishness that makes it an industry you feel compelled to rally behind. A bit like the loveable fop played by Hugh Grant in the film Notting Hill, winemaking in England can only be done with a hopeful heart each spring and there’s a real chance of heartbreak if the weather takes a turn for the worst. Most English winemakers will probably want to erase all memories of 2012, when the rain made for a miserable harvest, jeopardising profits for the coming years and throwing an entire year of work down the drain.
Of course, there are measures taken to stay ahead of the good old British weather, including sourcing fruit from a wider geographical area that stretches beyond Kent and into Essex and Hampshire, which reduces the risks of crop failure and allows consistency to be maintained. Team these practicalities with the British sense of humour, hardiness and innovation, and you’ve got an industry that can not only survive but can thrive into the future.
Case in point was in 2017 when the Chapel Down Three Graces 2010 vintage received the highest award at the Ultimate Wine Challenge, beating many top Champagnes to the Chairman’s Trophy. Leading figureheads in the US wine industry judged the sparkling wine to be worthy of 94 points, commenting, ‘Beautiful fruit is magnified by classic flavours of brioche and brown spice with incredible minerality and structure.’
But the good news is that the English wine industry is growing, and Chapel Down is one of the many English wineries that is acquiring more vineyards. The company plans to have access to 385 hectares of grapes by 2021. And, as the vines mature, they expect to be doubling their production. After this year’s bumper harvest, I don’t doubt they will – and then some.
Chapel Down wine tasting notes
Chapel Down Bacchus 2017
Their signature still white wine. Pale lemon in colour and highly aromatic, reminiscent of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Notes of gooseberry and elderflower hit the nose and it is clean, fresh and zesty on the palate. There are tropical fruits, but not overbearingly so – I get some zippy kiwi – and there’s some grassiness too. It all ends on a crisp, dry finish.
Kits Coty Bacchus 2016 North Downs Kent
2016 was a warm, sunny, dry vintage which produced high quality fruit in the Kits Coty vineyards. The result is a very ripe style of Bacchus, expressing guava, melon, white peach and passionfruit. The grapes were whole-bunch pressed before wild fermentation in 3rd and 4th fill barrels where the wine stayed for nine months, and this wonderful complexity comes through on the palate, showing the oak influence and creamy, brioche notes, finishing with exceptional length.
Chapel Down Vintage 2017 English Rose
This still, salmon-pink rosé is the English summer in a bottle. A blend of Bacchus,Pinot Noir, Regent, Rondo and Pinot Meuniert, it’s all about the strawberries and cream on the nose. There’s a good, juicy acidity on the palate, where citrus fruits and white peach come through pleasantly.
Kits Coty Blanc de Blancs 2013
A sparkling Chardonnay, the Blanc de Blancs from Kits Coty shows typical aromas of cool climate wines in this style – green apple and freshly baked bread. The palate shows development from maturation on the lees and a toasty character from partial barrel fermentation, also bringing out some notes of dried apricots and raisins. The finish is savoury with fine persistent bubbles.
Chapel Down Three Graces 2014
The classic Champagne blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, Three Graces has benefitted from cool fermentation in stainless steel, then full malolactic fermentation, then further maturation on fine lees for six months before bottling. It has had a minimum of three further years ageing on lees in bottle, resulting in a deep, complex wine. Aromas of ripe apple, red berries, blossom and brioche fill the nose and follow through to the palate, creating a sensation of richness with fantastic length and fine persistent bubbles.
Chapel Down Union Red 2016
This blend of Rondo, Pinot Noir and Regent benefitted from a dry, warm and sunny growing season which produced extremely high quality fruit. The result is a spicy, full-bodied wine, brimming with cherries and blackcurrants. Smooth and rounded on the palate, it’s juicy, meaty and very tasty – a complete revelation to me!
Written by Sophia Longhi
Sophia Longhi blogs at skinandpulp.com. She has just completed her WSET 3 and is looking forward to a lifetime of learning and writing about wine.
A clos is a common concept in France but rarely seen in the New World. Historically a clos referred to an enclosed vineyard, or vineyards, which might have been owned by one person or several. The vineyard owners worked together to build the surrounding wall to protect the clos from thirsty thieves. Although thievery isn’t the main concern today, the concept of Clos de los Siete in Mendoza was inspired by this historic practice of creating a wine community and has resulted in the world’s largest clos.
There’s no brick wall around Clos de los Siete in Vista Flores but it is easy to see the boundary. A dirt road separates the property to the east, there is scrubland with wild horses to the south and north, and if you look to the west you have a wall of mountains. From a bird’s eye view, it looks like someone has laid down a colourful rug in the middle of nowhere. Which isn’t far from the truth.
Devising Clos de los Siete: A patchwork of vineyards
The story of Clos de los Siete starts with the arrival of Michel Rolland in Argentina. The French flying winemaker started consulting in Argentina in the late 80s. The more he came to Argentina, the more he saw the potential for great wine – especially in the relatively unexplored territories of the Uco Valley in Mendoza. The economic crash at the turn of the century made prices cheap and Rolland saw an opportunity to invest in what he was convinced was prime vine-growing territory.
“He realised the huge potential of the foothills of the Andes to produce high end wines and how Malbec played a key role on those terroirs,” Clos de los Siete CEO Ramiro Barrios explains. “He wanted a virgin land and high elevation, and he discovered the perfect place two kilometers west of Vista Flores town. There was virgin land placed among two alluvial funnels: Campo Los Andes and Chacayes. Poor soil with sand, clay and large pebbles and a proper slope to East/North-East were the perfect conditions for growing vines.”
Rolland knew that this was where he wanted to lay his hat, or plant his patchwork of vines in Argentina. He convinced six other wine families in Bordeaux to invest in a large 850-hectare property with him, and Clos de los Siete (clos of the seven families) was born.
The power of working together as a clos enabled the families to build roads and irrigation channels in the vineyard, and open up marketplaces and distribution channels abroad. The collaboration of everyone working together is celebrated in one wine – the Clos de los Siete red blend which is made from grapes from each different family vineyard.
The diversity within one estate
While the Clos de los Siete blend shows the unity of the project, there are also very different identities of the family wineries within the clos. Today Monteviejo (owned by the Péré Vergé family from Pommerol’s Chateau Le Gay and Chateau La Violette), Cuvelier Los Andes (owned by the Cuvelier family from St Julien’s Leoville Poy Ferret), DiamAndes (owned by the Bonnie family from Pessacc Leognan’s Malartic La Graviere) and Bodega Rolland (owned by the Rolland Family) all have their own wineries in the clos and make their own very different portfolios of wine.
Part of the diversity within the clos is because of the different people. Each winery has their own winemaker with distinct vision and taste, reflected in the wines. There is also a diversity within the 850-hectare territory.
“Every parcel tastes different,” explains Marcelo Pelleriti, who has been making wine for Bodega Monteviejo since its first harvest in 2002. “We have two different soils here but every parcel is also different. You can see it in the vines and then in the wine.”
The main soils in Vista Flores are poor, rocky soils with varying proportions of sand and clay, however, each plot has its own different compositions and microclimate. “We have lots of petite terroirs,” says Adriàn Manchòn, the winemaker at Cuvelier los Andes (who has also been there since the very beginning). “That’s why we vinify everything separately. When it comes to picking each different lot we go by our senses, tasting the grapes. The winemaking and blending is the same, all done by tasting each individual barrel.”
Each winery uses their blocks of vines as diverse ingredients for making their own wines – whether it be a single variety or blend. In many ways, what each winemaker does in their own winery is a microcosm for what happens when together they make the Clos de los Siete blend.
Visiting a village
A visit to Clos de los Siete feels like visiting a village. To put it in scale, the Clos de los Siete estate is bigger than the Pomerol appellation in Bordeaux. You need a car (or horse) to get between the wineries.
It’s easy to spend a whole day here visiting the four different wineries as they each offer different experiences and outlooks. Cuvelier los Andes is understated and minimalist-chic, while Bodega Rolland is purely practical and functional. DiamAndes and Monteviejo are the most flamboyant of the quartet: DiamAndes has a metal sculpture diamond as its central showpiece and a mesmerising cellar beneath its deluxe restaurant, while Monteviejo has vines carpeted up its side leading to a rooftop terrace and restaurant where rock concerts and art exhibitions are a regular occurrence.
The differences aren’t only in the architecture of the wineries, but also the wines. It’s perhaps surprising that there are such differences as on paper you might make a different assumption. You have four French families from Bordeaux, who have all worked with the same consultant winemaker (Michel Rolland), use very similar winemaking techniques and have vineyards in the same place. However, each wine and each winery has quite a distinct personality. And that’s what makes this clos interesting to visit.
My visit to Clos de los Siete was in association with Wine Paths: offering luxury and exclusive wine tours and experiences in wine regions around the world. You can book your own Mendoza wine experience online here.