New amphora at Clos du Caillou in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
In the 1990s, we drank Aussie Chardonnay. In the 2000s, it was Pinot Grigio. The 2010s have been mostly pink or sparkling. So what’s next? I’ve spoken to some wine industry trendsetters to build a picture of what we might be drinking in the 2020s.
At the start of the 2010s, we suddenly realised that we didn’t need a special occasion to drink sparkling wine. Who knows what caused it, but there’s no going back. February saw the opening of Prosecco House near Tower Bridge, London’s first bar dedicated to the ubiquitous Italian sparkling wine. Will we look back and realise this was peak Prosecco?
As more and more chancers jump on the Prosecco bandwagon, good quality bottles are getting harder to find; the cheapest supermarket stuff just tastes like sherbet lemons. Cava is waiting patiently on the bench, and it’s only a matter of time until we switch allegiance. Prosecco is fermented in large tanks, but Cava uses the more delicate Champagne method resulting in a richer flavour. It’s more reliably dry and often better value. The time is ripe for rediscovery.
On the other hand, Mark Andrew MW, founder and editor of Noble Rot restaurant and magazine, puts his money on English sparkling, which he predicts “will continue to gain worldwide recognition and the best estates will increasingly come to resemble the major Champagne houses in their marketing.”
Charlie Young, owner of Vinoteca wine bars, agrees that England will be one of the more successful wine producing countries of the 2020s, and not just for sparkling wines – still wines too. He admits they can be pricey for now, but he predicts quality will improve and prices will come down “as the public’s appetite for home-grown wine increases.” He tips Greek wine too, where he’s noticed “more consistently high-quality wines across different price points.”
The regions that flourish and those that wilt could well be connected to climate change. Jack Green at wine importer Roberson says “I genuinely believe that climate change will have a massive impact over the next 10 years. We’ve had forest fires wiping out acres of vineyards in California and Spain. We’ve seen unusually late frosts wiping out 40% of French vineyards… Something has to change!”
If temperatures continue to rise, the hottest wine regions could become inhospitable to vines – goodbye Barossa Shiraz. Conversely, cool climate areas will thrive. Expect to see exciting wines coming out of cooler European countries such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, and northerly US states such as Vermont.
Andrew at Noble Rot backs the emerging Chinese wine industry: “China could be the world’s biggest wine producer within ten years and will become the source of juice for a new set of global commercial wine brands.”
Organic, biodynamic and Natural wines represent a small but growing proportion of wine produced around the globe. Even supermarkets such as Aldi now have permanent listings for organic Pinot Grigio and organic Prosecco. Andrew thinks we might even see some local governments legislating to make sustainable and organic methods mandatory, but also raises the spectre of genetically modified grapes. “I have a feeling they might play a big role by the end of the 2020s if climate change continues apace,” he says.
Opinions on alcohol levels vary. Matt Harris, owner of Planet of the Grapes wine bars, predicts “more winemakers perfecting the art of lower alcohol wines. Beaujolais at 10% ABV, Moscato and Brachetto rather than Prosecco, and people falling in love with German Riesling all over again.” There are dissenting voices however; Stephen Finch, managing director of Vagabond wine hang-outs, predicts that “people will stop fussing over alcohol levels in wine. It’s wine, people. It has alcohol in it. If you want low ABV wine, try Fruit Shoot. It’ll be better.”
Lydia Worsey is wine category manager for Mitchells & Butlers, owner of mass-market restaurant and bar brands such as All Bar One and O’Neills, and she too expects to see an increase in organic, biodynamic and Natural wines on wine lists by the 2020s. To this, she would add alcohol-free, low calorie, low sugar and “wine in keg as the serve norm.”
Alternatives to glass bottles are gaining ground. Green at Roberson agrees that bag-in-box, cans and plastic PET bottles are all due a resurgence, and as the quality of what’s put inside them rises, I’m sure that some of these will catch on. Shipping individual heavy glass bottles stoppered with bits of wood half way across the world really doesn’t feel like the future, and it’s certainly not the most eco-friendly option. And anyway, your robot butler might find corkscrews a bit fiddly.
Eight wines to drink now for a taste of the future…
Gramona La Cuvée Gran Reserva Brut 2012 (Penedès, Spain)
Biodynamic. One of the greatest cava producers, this is characterful, authentic and delicious. Walks all over supermarket Champagnes at this price. £23.95, Berry Bros. & Rudd
Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2013 (Sussex, England)
One of England’s finest, this has richness and depth not found in its peers. Luxuriously textured with a keen, dry finish. £32.95, Lea & Sandeman
When London’s first urban winery opened in 2013, I was cynical. But London Cru is still going strong, having since won multiple awards for its wines and gained listings in Michelin-starred restaurants. A second winery, Renegade Wines, opened in Bethnal Green in 2016 and a further two are opening in the capital this year. With fruit being sourced from as far afield as Spain and Italy, it’s a phenomenon that raises questions about the practicalities of making wine in this way, but also about how understanding a wine’s origin and broader context can affect how much you enjoy it. They sound gimmicky, but urban wineries could represent a turning point in UK wine culture.
Urban wineries have been popping up in cities around the US for at least 30 years. Renting some cheap space on the outskirts of a city to make wine can make sense, especially if you don’t own vineyards. You might be further from your sources of fruit, but these might change from year to year. And you have a ready market of thirsty winelovers on your doorstep.
Over the past ten years they’ve been popping up internationally in cities like Cape Town, Sydney and Paris. Winemaker and architect Javier Arizcuren owns the only modern urban winery in Rioja, but points out it’s nothing new: “In the seventeenth century there were more than 50 wineries in Logroño city centre, most of them in underground spaces under the houses,” he says. Making wine in cities may not be a novel phenomenon – but shipping grapes from one country to make wine in another certainly is.
“The problems come week by week rather than all together, but they’re all tackle-able,” says Warwick Smith, founder of Renegade Wines. They set up their small London winery and bar in railway arches two years ago, making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown in Lombardy, Sauvignon Blanc grown in Bordeaux and Bacchus grown in Herefordshire. “The financial model is very tough to make work,” he says, blaming high rents, London salaries and low volumes, “but London is a good place to do it – we’re close to English fruit and close to France… and you can keep fruit fresh for longer than you’d think.”
The fruit they buy from Italy and France is hand-picked, stacked in small crates and transported at 2 ̊ C in a refrigerated truck for between 24 and 36 hours. I can’t imagine any winemakers would choose to truck their grapes across the length of France if they didn’t need to, but Smith is adamant that “the fruit loses almost nothing,” and they don’t even need to add sulphur at this stage to help preserve it.
Gavin Monery helped set up and made the wines at London Cru before recently moving to Vagabond to help establish their winemaking arm in the new Battersea Power Station development. “The biggest problem is getting fruit,” he says. “There’s a lot for sale but most of it is shit… There’s a lot of driving around involved. I go out and dig a hole in the vineyard to see what’s there.” During his years at wine merchant Roberson (owner of London Cru) he did a dozen vintages around the world and got to know many top winemakers who have proved invaluable by introducing him to diligent growers.
He admits “it’s definitely a bit more expensive” compared to making wine in-situ but he benefits from top-of-the-range equipment that many small domaines lack. “We were whole-bunch pressing Chardonnay in a basket press direct to barrel,” he says, and using premium Chassin oak from Burgundy. “It’s a world’s best practice operation,” he says with pride, “and the wines are £15, not £50… Hand on heart, I don’t think you could find a better wine from the country of origin cheaper.”
Having recently tasted a broad selection at 34 Mayfair (which has a side list dedicated to urban wines) it’s clear that it’s not just a gimmick: some urban wineries are making very good wines that are not overpriced. Those who have concentrated on the age-old combination of well-sourced fruit, talented winemaking and up-to-date equipment can still make excellent wine, even if it’s made a few hundred kilometres from the source of the fruit. But when I drink wines made in London from foreign fruit, no matter how delicious some of them are, it still feels like something is missing: they lack a consistent sense of origin and context.
The more you get into wine, the more you enjoy not just the liquid in your glass, but what’s around the wine. When I drink a Barbera from Piemonte, I enjoy the wine for itself, but it also shines a light on the other wines I’ve drunk from this region, it tells me about the producer’s style compared to their peers, about the country, region and perhaps even vineyard where it’s grown. When I drink a Barbera from Piemonte – but made in London – this context feels somehow diminished. Much as I can still enjoy the flavour, for me it still feels like an anomaly; a wine from AOC Nowhere.
But I’m not the average drinker, I’m a wine geek. In the UK we still suffer from a lot of anti-wine prejudice, and urban wineries might help us get over it. Removing a wine’s context might help people enjoy wine for what it is and start afresh. One man’s context is another man’s baggage.
Because of the high rents, another thing London wineries share is a need for some kind of hospitality side to the business, a bar or events space, to help them sell more wine and make ends meet. They also offer tours. For Monery it’s not just about making the stuff, “it’s about getting people into wine. For a lot of people, it connects a lot of dots; you can see the penny dropping when they get a fuller idea of how it’s made.”
It might be the wines made from foreign-sourced fruit that gets the headlines, but all three London wineries currently in production have dabbled with English grapes. In fact, London Cru won a silver medal at the International Wine Challenge last year for their 2016 Bacchus – the highest-scoring 2016 Bacchus in the competition. This accolade, coupled with an undersized 2017 vintage across Europe, has encouraged them to focus more on English still wines.
Vagabond will be making some wines in-situ under a Vagabond umbrella brand, but will also make wine in London – starting with an English zero sulphur Pét Nat Reichensteiner (“I know, I sound crazy,” says Monery), followed by a Bacchus. Renegade are about to release a £100 Blanc de Noirs from Suffolk Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – they claim to have sold 550 out of 800 already.
Concentrating on English wine is a smart move. English drinkers are often happy to pay a premium for English wine. Proximity to source and a shared culture will give the wines that crucial sense of context that wines made from foreign-sourced wines lack. And unlike making French Chardonnay, making English Bacchus is something London wineries have proved they can do better than anyone else. This might sound like faint praise to some, but the wines are increasingly impressive.
Monery suggests that eventually London could support around a dozen urban wineries. I suspect he’s right, and I also believe that as the quality of English wine increases, and more recently-planted vineyards start producing fruit, most urban wineries will specialise in English wine. No doubt they’ll also spread outside of the capital. And as increasing numbers of people in the UK work in their own home-grown wine industry, and the wines become ever more widespread, this too will aid the gradual rehabilitation of UK drinkers’ attitudes to wine.
That London ever made wine from fruit trucked in from France, Spain and Italy might one day feel like just another bizarre footnote in London’s rich wine history. But for now at least, London’s urban wineries still do, so enjoy the moment. “We’re making very good gear,” says Cliff Roberson at London Cru with relish. And they are.
Seven wines from urban wineries to try
London Cru Charlotte Street Chardonnay 2015 (12.0%; London)
Roberson, £14.99 (good value)
100% Chardonnay from near Carcassonne in southern France, wine made in London. Fermented in old French oak barrels, aged on lees.
A Chardonnay with real precision and finesse that is better than many a Mâcon at this price. Pale colour, retaining a hint of green. Discrete nose; cashew oak and lemon skins, apple and white peach. Medium-bodied, with ripe, bright acidity. Good flow, harmonious and balance. Mildly saline, mineral finish; fresh and moreish. Impressive, and really drinkable. 90 points
London Cru Sydney Street Syrah 2015 (13.5%; London)
100% Syrah from near Zaragoza in northwest Spain, wine made in London. Fermented with 30% whole bunches then aged in French oak barrels.
A harmonious, refreshing and drinkable Syrah that’s not pretending to be Rhône, but that’s the closest style of Syrah that comes to mind (or perhaps contemporary South Africa). Blackberry, a touch of charcoal and some underlying herbal aromas. Satisfyingly tannic, good structural acidity, all leading to a medium-length finish. 89 points
Renegade Wines Chardonnay 2016 (14%; London)
£20.00, Renegade Wines Also available at 34 Mayfair Restaurant, London
100% Chardonnay from Lombardy in northwest Italy, wine made in London. Fermented and aged in old French oak barrels.
Deeply coloured. Rich apricot and peach aromas and a hint of wet dog. An intense and full-bodied style, a little oily on the palate with balanced acidity and slightly raised alcohol. 87 points
Les Vignerons Parisiens ‘Haussmann’ Syrah 2015 (13.5%, Paris)
Available at 34 Mayfair Restaurant, London; £70 on the list
100% organic Syrah grown in Visan, Southern Rhône, wine made in Paris. One third aged in new French 600l oak barrels for 11 months.
Fresh, bright violet aromas, slightly funky too, but with good intensity and energy on the palate. Medium-bodied, balanced acidity, fine tannins and a brisk mineral finish. Less dense and extracted than you might expect from a 100% Syrah from this part of the Rhône. 90 points
Les Vignerons Parisiens ‘AN68’ Grenache Blanc 2015 (14%; Paris)
Available at 34 Mayfair Restaurant, London; £66 on the list
100% organic Grenache Blanc grown in Visan, Southern Rhône, wine made in Paris.
More successfully fresh and lively than many Southern Rhônes in this vintage. Light floral, quince and raw cream aromas. Slightly oily in texture, rich and generous but well balanced with noticeable, well-integrated oak. 89 points
The Red Hook Winery ‘Seneca Lake (Abe Schooner)’ Cabernet Franc 2013 (12.3%; New York)
£38.00, The Old Bridge Wine Shop Also available at 34 Mayfair Restaurant, London
100% Cabernet Franc grown in the Finger Lakes, New York State, wine made in Brooklyn, New York by Abe Schooner of the Scholium Project. Matured in 70% old wood, 15% new French oak and 15% new Hungarian oak.
Super fresh, detailed and delicious, this is an entirely successful and original expression of Cabernet Franc. Very fine in fruit and structure, mainly raspberry and redcurrant in aroma, with some strawberry, raspberry leaf and integrated oak spice. Light-bodied, balanced, sappy, and very, very drinkable. 93 points
Arizcuren Rioja Sologarnacha 2015 (15%; Rioja)
£25.00, Sommelier’s Choice
100% Garnacha (Grenache) made in Javier Arizcuren’s winery in Logroño. 8 months in old American oak, then 2 months in new French oak.
Such an elegant wine, real balance and class. Bright berry fruit on the nose with underlying vanilla, grilled toast and honey; aromatically this concentrates more on fruit than oak. Medium-bodied with a lovely sense of freshness, some dark plum notes on the palate and a refreshing saline edge. Firm acidity and sculpted superfine tannin. Medium length. A refreshingly drinkable and mineral Rioja than can be happily enjoyed without food. 92 points
The following is an article written for on-trade drinks magazine Imbibe.
In a world of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, floral whites are a tough sell. Matt Walls asks top somms which varieties might be ready for a summer of love…
The tastes of sommeliers are sometimes at odds with the wine-drinking public. I’m talking about what they wear, of course – formal monochrome went out with Kraftwerk – but also what they drink. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec are loved by consumers but often loathed by professionals. Conversely there is one category of wines that, for all their enthusiasm, somms can have trouble shifting. Floral whites such as Viognier, Gewurztraminer, dry Muscat and Torrontés are distinctive, food-friendly, great value and have a strong sense of place. But for your average wine drinker they’re as trendy as baggy jeans worn with platform shoes. We talked to some of the UK’s hippest sommeliers to see how best to work with this style of wine, and if any of them might make a comeback.
Viognier is the most widespread of our four grapes but there was a time when it nearly died out completely. The variety was once only found in Condrieu in the Northern Rhône, where in the 1950s plantings dwindled to just six hectares as growers abandoned the steep terraced vineyards in favour of an easier life. It has since made a comeback and can now be found planted from California to New Zealand.
Full-bodied and opulent with aromas of peach, jasmine and almond, it’s nothing if not distinctive. But it’s not the easiest grape to handle; less successful examples can be flabby, oily or overly pungent. As with all powerfully flavoured wines, it divides opinion. “Some people love it, some hate it,” says Jacopo Mazzeo, Head Sommelier at The Pig in Brockenhurst, Hampshire. “I don’t see many people actively looking for classic expressions of Viognier,” he says, but “Viognier from the New World appears to be a bit more popular” as it usually offers good value for money.
Neil Tabraham, owner of Wine Geeks Wine School, says there’s value to be had at the top end too with Viognier. “A good Viognier can compare to a good white Burgundy with broader pairing appeal,” he says, “but for a much smaller price tag. They can also age well which is a consideration at the top end that may not sell so quickly.”
How does it work with food?
Fish and shellfish are a common match for Viognier. Nacho Campo at London steak specialist Hawksmoor Borough suggests scallops, lobster and lemon sole, but would even match it with beef, such as “a lean steak, like a fillet, with béarnaise and cauliflower cheese”. Paul Amsellem of leading Condrieu estate Domaine Georges Vernay suggests asparagus, lobster, scallops and goats cheese with his wines but says it’s important to remember to avoid acidic sauces, which can show up the lack of acidity that is a calling card of the grape.
So, is it likely to make a comeback?
Support for Viognier seems to be strong. Jacopo Mazzeo believes “we’re going to see a lot more Viognier from the New World (e.g. South America and New Zealand) in the coming years”. But some sommeliers want to keep the good stuff to those in the know. “I do not wish Viognier and especially Condrieu to be fashionable!” says Stamatis Iseris of The Strathearn at The Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire: “I would like it to remain a diva.”
Fashion equivalent: floral maxi dress
Little black dress matchability score: 8
Next big thing comeback rating: 7
Often thought to be a German speciality, Gewurztraminer is much more common in France, specifically Alsace, and is growing in plantings worldwide. It’s another full-bodied, exuberantly aromatic grape, but this time the floral allusions are roses rather than jasmine, backed up by lychee, citrus and Indian spices.
Most sommeliers I spoke to love Gewurztraminer – with reservations. Valentin Radosav, Head Sommelier at Indian fine dining restaurant Gymkhana in Mayfair, London, describes it as “a tricky grape” that can lack balance. “Sometimes too floral, other times too heavy in texture, it lacks that ripe citrus element (orange, grapefruit) to balance the heavy or floral texture. But when you get all the elements right, you have an amazing experience ahead. It’s a grape that’s worth more attention.”
A major sticking point with Gewurztraminer is knowing how sweet it’s going to be – thankfully within a couple of years in Alsace it will be obligatory to state this on the label. Iseris admits it’s an unpopular grape, but blames this mostly on its name. “With or without an umlaut, it’s a tongue-twister,” he says. But he praises its versatility and diversity. Tabraham agrees. “I’m sure I could create a fantastic and varied tasting menu just using Gewurztaminer to pair with,” he says, “in fact, I may just try that one day. It’s also hugely appreciated by guests when served as a pairing wine.”
How does it work with food?
Its affinity with Indian and Asian dishes is well-known, and confirmed by Radosav. “It’s very good for Indian food, because it’s expressive in flavours and has the texture and the consistency on the palate. At Gymkhana we have various Gewurztraminer from France, Italy, Germany and Chile. My favourite is the 2008 Steingrubler Grand Cru from Barmes Buecher, Alsace, France. It’s very complex, well balanced, a great value wine that I recommend for rich and hot spicy dishes. An excellent choice for our Gilafi Quail seekh kebab, served with green chilli chutney.” Jean Boxler from Alsace legend Domaine Albert Boxler advises pairing it with cheese – but never dessert.
So, is it likely to make a comeback?
Gewurztraminer will continue to gain fans and detractors in equal measure, but it’s unlikely a grape with such eye-popping flamboyancy will ever seduce the mainstream. Iseris thinks it can, but “only if sommeliers acknowledge its astounding versatility and use its diversity of styles accordingly.” Now there’s a challenge.
Fashion equivalent: 1960s French haute couture
Little black dress matchability score: 7
Next big thing comeback rating: 4
Another Alsace speciality, but Alsatian Muscat is very different to Gewurz. It’s reliably dry, light-bodied and relatively low in alcohol, with aromas of orange, fresh grapes and a clean, grassy freshness. Dry Muscat can also be found in the Roussillon, Portugal, Hungary, Italy and Chile. ‘Muscat’ is a broad church, encompassing dozens of different grapes; in Alsace, however, Muscat can refer to either Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains or Muscat Ottonel.
Most wine lovers know Muscat as a sweet grape. “It’s so strongly associated with sweet wines,” says Mazzeo, “that consumers find it hard to change their perception of the grape” and this holds the dry style back. It’s a shame, as it can be a refreshing and versatile wine and from entry-level wines up to Grand Cru level it often represents good value. Tabraham is a fan. “It’s generally fresh, crisp and aromatic and not too challenging or alcoholic.”
But it’s not without its drawbacks. “I can’t help thinking,” Tabraham continues, “that it’s just too simple, even for less sophisticated palates.” Radosav agrees that it can lack complexity and length on the palate. But great wines need to be grown on great terroir, and all too often it’s Riesling that gets first dibs, as Muscat can be a hard sell. Marc Hugel of the Alsace producer that bears the family name says things were once very different. “In the 16th century,” he says, “it was the most popular and best variety.” Why things changed, he can’t say: fashion can be fickle.
How does it work with food?
Fuller-bodied floral whites often demand food, but Muscat works well both at the bar and at the table. Iseris finds the Vina Lauria ‘Solerte’ Zibbibo from Sicily (Zibbibo is the Sicilian name for Muscat of Alexandria) is a perfect match with a dish of heritage tomatoes, goat’s curd, basil leaves and garden shoots. “Just to break tradition and ‘take our revenge’ on Sauvignon Blanc!” he exclaims with glee. In fact, there is plenty of synergy between the two grapes and their natural partners; think asparagus, white fish and fresh herbs like basil and coriander.
So, is it likely to make a comeback?
Hugel says that in Alsace “Muscat was dying out fifty years ago, but it’s coming back.” It’s also gaining traction in Chile, where old vines and new approaches to vinification such as amphorae and skin contact are being combined to impressive effect, such as the De Martino ‘Viejas Tinajas’ Muscat from Itata. But until it’s really owned and cherished by a major wine region, it’s unlikely dry Muscat will ever really become fashionable – it’s just too niche.
Fashion equivalent: tie dye
Little black dress matchability score: 5
Next big thing comeback rating: 2
Argentina’s signature white grape Torrontés encompasses three varieties: Torrontés Riojano, Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendocino. The first is the most widely planted and considered the finest, but they’re rarely specified on the label. All three are natural field crossings with Muscat of Alexandria and other local varieties, which accounts for its aromatic profile, which tends towards rose, jasmine and citrus.
Torrontés performs ever more strongly at the Sommelier Wines Awards, and although feelings toward the variety among sommeliers is generally positive, it’s held back by a lack of consumer awareness. “It’s not as popular as it could be, says Mazzeo “if we take into account how popular Argentinian wine is. Most consumers still associate Argentina with Malbec, and as a consequence there’s little room left for anything else.”
Although uniformly praised for offering good value, buying with care is advisable as quality can be variable; some are overly oily in texture or lack acidity. Bodegas Colomé makes a superb example, and their export Manager Nicolás Cornejo Costas counters that times are changing. “A new generation of winemakers in the Valley have worked on a more elegant and fine style of Torrontés,” he says. “it’s linked to its floral style but also highlights the citrus, white flowers and peach notes.”
How does it work with food?
Like most floral wines, spice is a happy partner. Costas says that Torrontés has found a place “alongside the native spicy foods from Asia, Mexico, Peru & the Andes and India.” Radosav lists a 2015 Piattelli Vineyards Torrontés from Salta, and recommends “a dish with a light to medium level of sweet spice intensity (cardamom, ginger, nutmeg). In this way you can enjoy the flavours of the food and the wines at the same time…. something like Ajwaini scallops, mooli sabzi and achar.” Fish and shellfish seem to be where Torrontés performs best.
So, is it likely to make a comeback?
Could Argentina do for Torrontés what it’s done for Malbec? “If Argentinian producers manage to promote Argentina as a valuable wine-producing country,” says Mazzeo, “rather than simply associate its name to a single variety, then I see good potential for Torrontés.” Despite its current success with Malbec, it’s unwise for Argentina to keep all its eggs in one basket. If Torrontés producers can concentrate on lowering yields, increasing quality and reigning in the variety’s more extreme textural and aromatic tendencies, I wouldn’t rule it out.
Fashion equivalent: cowboy boots
Little black dress matchability score: 6
Next big thing comeback rating: 6
First published in Imbibe magazine, but this version is longer.
Last week I opened a bottle of 2010 Bordeaux. Nothing fancy – Château La Tour de By, a reliable Cru Bourgeois from the Médoc. Nope; still not ready. It hardly tasted of anything. It’s a ‘great vintage’ in the region, and eventually the wines will be wonderful; but in the meantime, nothing disappoints like a great vintage that’s not ready to drink. They might receive a 10/10 on vintage charts, but all too often I find a solid 8/10 vintage is a safer bet, costs less and ends up delivering far more pleasure.
A great vintage comes along when weather conditions for the year have been ideally suited to the region and grape variety in question. It begins with an unhurried harvest of grapes that are free from rot or degradation, ripe but not overripe, with concentrated flavours and good acidity. For reds, the quality and ripeness of tannins is also a key factor.
Speaking to winemakers, the salient characteristic of a great vintage is balance. Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape sums up a great vintage as “perfect weather, which leads to perfect balance in the wine”. He would add some other qualities, including freshness, length and complexity. Helen Masters at Ata Rangi in Martinborough, New Zealand, would add “energy, structure and concentration” to the list.
But a great vintage isn’t simply one that produces a crop of excellent wines; it needs to produce wines that speak of their origins. For Avril, this means “a real expression of the terroir and the domaine”. For Masters, “clear varietal expression” is part of the equation.
Along with balance and typicality, the other key attribute of a great vintage is longevity. It’s only in maturity that a wine can reach its full aromatic and textural potential. “It’s like a work of art,” says Albéric Mazoyer of Domaine Voge in Cornas, “it must be proved over time… it’s a landmark in history, something you talk about generation after generation.” As the years roll on, what wines lose in youthful exuberance, they gain in fascination.
A great wine can last for decades, but it’s a mayfly compared to great works of music or literature. A student of art can view ancient works and Old Masters in books, online, in museums. But if you’re learning to make fine wine, how do you explore the greatest bottles of the past? The farthest back you can look is a generation or two, from a dwindling and ever more dispersed supply of bottles. In the end it’s the great vintages that hold firm and act as batons for future generations, demonstrating what can – or at least has – been achieved before them.
It’s these great vintages – wines that everyone can agree on – that cement the reputation and fortunes of a domaine and a region over time. They prove that the wines are worth following and worth investing in.
The problem, however, is The Hole. Between youthful vibrancy and early maturity many fine wines go through a dumb period sometimes referred to as ‘a hole’. Like a chrysalis phase between writhing larva and beautiful butterfly, the wine closes down, it sheds its aromatics, its flavours become muted, it feels hard and gawky. It’s most common with tannic red wines and can last for many years in powerful vintages. Avril recommends that his wines are drunk within the first year or two of bottling, or after waiting seven to ten years – but not to touch it in between. It’s good advice for any ambitious Rhône wine, not just Clos des Papes.
Serving a wine that’s not showing its best would be an embarrassing error for any sommelier, so in restaurants great vintages are often sidestepped in favour of something more reliably open and enjoyable. Chris Delalonde MS is beverage manager for The Bleeding Heart restaurant group, and says what matters for him is “drinkability: a soft, gentle and precise expression in youth rather than having to wait a decade to soften the structure.” He’s a fan of under-the-radar vintages such as 2007 red Burgundy, 2011 red Bordeaux and 2013 Piemonte.
Laurent Richet MS is head sommelier at Restaurant Sat Bains and agrees that “some good vintages are hidden by what are called ‘Top Vintages’ and most of the time deliver great wines which, lucky for us, may come at a more affordable price.” He reminds us not to be blinded by famous vintages; not all producers or areas within a region will have been equally successful.
A great vintage is that rare year when the weather gives the winemaker all they need to reach their full potential; to make concentrated, structured, balanced wines that express their terroir and act as beacons for their region. When they are ready nothing beats their emotional impact. But this means decades of careful ageing during which they’re prone to extended closed periods when anything that’s ready to drink would bring more pleasure.
“Could you possibly imagine all Claret tasting like 2010?” asks Greg Sherwood MW of Handford Wines, “Or all Burgundy tasting like 2005 or 2015? We would never have anything to drink and the world of wines would certainly be a duller place… Some of the biggest collectors I know treasure off-vintages when you can actually get the allocations of the wines you want, often at cheaper prices. In the end, with a bit of age, they often end up tasting as good if not better sometimes than the great blockbuster vintages.”
That’s why rather than always aiming for the 10/10 vintages on a vintage chart, I often end up buying 8/10s instead; a balanced vintage that favours freshness and drinkability over the structure and concentration that can make a wine overpowering when young then liable to fall into a hole for a decade. Like my 2010 Tour de By.
If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you’ll know that I write an annual report on the wines of the Rhône Valley. It’s a huge region, split into various quality levels, from the regional AOC Côtes-du-Rhône, to AOC Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages, to AOC Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages with named village, then at the top are the Crus, such as AOC Châteauneuf-du-Pape. There are however seven ‘Other Rhône Valley Appellations’ as they’re known, satellites encircling the Southern Rhône. Here’s a map:
Much as I’d like to feature these in my report, the overall volume of wines to taste would be too large to manage as things currently stand, so I have to leave them out. It’s a shame, as these lesser-known regions have some really exciting wines. Ventoux in particular is one of the most exciting appellations in the whole of the Rhône Valley. Thankfully, two key producers have sent me their 2016s to taste – see below for tasting notes. Both Domaine de Fondrèche and Château Pesquié come highly recommended: you can read more about them here.
I’ve also recently tried the 2016s from Les Dauphins, a range of wines made by large co-operative Cellier des Dauphins and widely available in UK supermarkets, tasting notes also below (their Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages 2016 is particularly good value).
Domaine de Fondrèche Tasted September 2017
Domaine de Fondrèche Rouge 2016
50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 20% Mourvèdre
Tank sample. Clay limestone soils, 18 months on fine lees, 1/3 in stainless steel, 1/3 in foudres, 1/3 in oval tanks.
Vibrant dark colour. Gravelly, brambly fruit, good intensity, brooding style. Exceptionally smooth on the palate, with that tell-tale Ventoux needle of fresh acidity running through it. Lovely purity and depth of fruit. The overall impression is very dark fruit, very silky, then brisk freshness. A well made and stylish wine that clearly expresses its origins.
Usually around £15 in the UK; good value.
2018 to 2022
Domaine de Fondrèche ‘Nature’ 2016
30% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 30% Mourvèdre, 10% Cinsault
No added sulphites. Clay limestone soils, 6 months on full lies before release.
Clear, clean, expressive nose. Perhaps a touch gamier than the classic red but not in a bad or faulty way. Lighter in body, still with piercing acidity. Not quite as rich and round as their classic red, not quite as long either, but perhaps slightly fresher.
Usually around £16 in the UK; fair value.
2018 to 2022
Domaine de Fondrèche ‘Persia’ 2016
90% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre
Tank sample. Clay limestone soils, 12 months on fine lees in barriques and foudres.
Slightly more expressive than the classic red, with greater depth of aroma. Medium-bodied, with perfectly ripe tannins. Very well balanced, with intense fruit and bright acidity. The oak is perfectly balanced and integrated, just a touch of toastiness on the finish, but it’s barely there. Long finish. A sleek panther of a wine.
Usually around £21 in the UK; fair value.
2019 to 2024
Domaine de Fondrèche ‘Il était une fois…’ 2016
80% Grenache planted in 1936, 10% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre
Tank sample. Clay limestone soils, 12 months on fine lees in oval tanks and foudres.
An immediately enticing and already detailed nose of wild strawberry, raspberry and sage. A medium-bodied, very fresh and dynamic style of Grenache, thanks in part to the high acidity. A delicate mineral register adds to the texture and brightness. Powerful, and powerfully fresh. There is some evident oak in tannin and toast on the finish, and it’s well judged.
Usually around £30 in the UK; fair value.
2018 to 2026
Domaine de Fondrèche ‘Divergente’ 2016
Old vine Syrah (Sérine clone, planted 1955)
Tank sample. Clay limestone soils. 12 months on fine lees in a new foudre.
From its weight and subtle herbal liquorice aroma, this is clearly Southern Rhône Syrah. Aromatic and vibrant with violets in the background. Medium-bodied, brisk style with a mineral glint. Straight like an arrow, with the same dynamic thrust. The equal of some good Northern Rhônes, though different in style. Rapier-like freshness, a stone dagger.
Usually around £38 in the UK; fair value.
2019 to 2030
Château Pesquié Tasted September 2017
Château Pesquié ‘Quintessence’ Blanc 2016
Bright pale gold. Honeyed pear with yellow flowers and almond and a touch of shortcrust pastry. Full-bodied, but shot through with bright acidity, leading to a neat finish. A touch of positive bitterness on the finish, like celery. Powerful but fresh and measured; resplendent.
Usually around £23.50 in the UK; fair value.
2018 to 2021
Le Paradou Grenache 2016
Made by Château Pesquié.
Unexpectedly dark in colour for an inexpensive pure Grenache. Broad-brush strawberry and fresh herbs. Lush, juicy texture, all pulled together by some pretty strident acidity – almost too much. Young vine simplicity, young vine vibrancy, Ventoux energy.
Usually around £10 in the UK; very good value.
2018 to 2020
Château Pesquié ‘Terrasses’ 2016
60% Grenache, 40% Syrah
300 metres altitude, a blend of the various terroirs of the estate (gravelly soils covered with pebbles, limestone, sands and clays more or less rich in iron oxides). Crushed and destemmed.
Plenty of plum, strawberry and damson, the Grenache makes itself known. Medium weight on the palate, with a lovely smooth texture and ample ripe tannin. Drinkable, juicy and expressive, altogether a very well-balanced wine. Pleasurable and well made.
Usually around £12.50 in the UK; good value.
2018 to 2020
Château Pesquié ‘Edition 1912M’ 2016
70% Grenache, 30% Syrah
300 metres altitude on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, clay and limestone soils.
Aromatically lighter and breezier in style than the Terrasses. Light-bodied, very fresh, with very fine tannin. Piercing acidity – a bit too high for my taste but the quality here is nonetheless good. Pleasantly expressive, if not particularly complex.
2018 to 2020
Château Pesquié ‘Quintessence’ 2016
80% Syrah, 20% Grenache
Tank sample. Clay and limestone soils at an altitude of 250 to 350 metres, 50+ years old vines, low yields. Crushed, destemmed, aged 12 to 15 months in barrels: 40% new, 60% two to three years old.
Darkly coloured. Violets, blackberries; restrained nose. Almost minty. Medium- to full-bodied, with a gently rounded palate, but very fresh and lively still. Neatly structured, with generous fruit, but it’s not overly fat. Lovely texture, very ripe, plentiful tannins. It satisfies and quenches despite its size.
Usually around £25.50 in the UK; fair value.
2018 to 2024
Château Pesquié ‘Artemia’ 2016
50% Syrah, 50% Grenache
Tank sample. two single vineyards, one Grenache, one Syrah. The Grenache parcel is one of the most elevated of the estate, southeast oriented, an amphitheatre of pebbly limestone soils. The Syrah parcel is planted at 340 metres, southwest oriented, on old alluvial soils. Destemmed, malolactic in barrel. Aged 18 months in barrels, 50% new and 50% of second and third year.
Herbal nose – liquorice and sage. Full-bodied, slightly gummy in texture. Both parcels complement each other nicely. Ripe, balanced. Not overly full or extracted. Closed and hard to judge right now, but clearly a very good wine. I’d like to revisit this in a couple of years.
2020 to 2026
Château Pesquié ‘Ascensio’ 2015
95% Grenache, 5% Syrah
Finished wine. Single vineyard. Clay and limestone at 1000 feet altitude. Around 20% whole cluster, aged two years in cement tank (no oak at all). About 25 hl/ha.
Very appealing, deep, slightly gamey, very ripe nose. Black cherry compote and a hint of something resinous. Mouthfilling, juicy and round but not overly full-bodied or overripe, it remains bright and vibrant. Long finish. Full of life and energy. (Note that this is 2015, not 2016)
2019 to 2024
Les Dauphins Tasted January 2018
Les Dauphins Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc Réserve 2016
65% Grenache Blanc, 15% Marsanne, 10% Clairette, 10% Viognier
Quite oaky nose, not entirely convincing; a kind of smoky cashew, with a touch of reduction. Medium-bodied, the acidity is a touch on the low side. Ample on the finish, rich. Not terribly long in flavour. A bit lacking in energy and concentration, but not bad – just not terribly memorable.
£7.99 at Tesco; good value.
Drink by the end of 2018
Les Dauphins Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge Réserve 2016
70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre
Attractive, brambly, lightly spicy nose. The Syrah makes itself known. Medium-bodied, fairly fresh with good acidity. The finish is a little short considering the vintage. Definitely Côtes-du-Rhône though. Simple but fresh, juicy and drinkable.
£7.99 at Tesco; good value.
2018 to 2019
Les Dauphins Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Rouge 2016
60% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre, 5% Carignan
Slightly darker fruits than their Côtes-du-Rhône Réserve, the nose draws you in a bit more. Juicy, with good concentration of fruit and more of a noticeable tannic structure, which gives length to the fruit. More of a food wine this, but quite drinkable without. Well balanced, fresh, drinkable. Well worth the extra quid.
£8.99 at Waitrose; good value.
2018 to 2019
Les Dauphins Vinsobres 2016
50% Grenache, 50% Syrah
Deep, dark, spicy and smoky. Good intensity and grippy with ripe tannins. Fairly serious, dry, savoury style for a supermarket wine. This has real structure, and that fresh/spicy style that you’d expect from Vinsobres. Good freshness and tannic weight.
£11.99 at Waitrose; good value.
2018 to 2020
Today marks the publication of my top 300 Rhône wines of the 2016 vintage! Having whittled down my selection from nearly 1,500 wines tasted, it’s my most in-depth report to date and will be published this year by Decanter magazine. And what a vintage it is… Clearly one of the best years of the past few decades in the South; not as concentrated in the North, but beautifully fresh, drinkable and balanced. As usual, I’ve made a selection of the most notable wines of the vintage, across a range of styles, appellations and price levels (starting from under £10 per bottle – there is still amazing value to be found in the Rhône). It’s all available in Decanter Premium (£10 for a month’s pass; £75 for a year). It will also be published in the magazine in early 2018 in two parts, Southern Rhône and Northern Rhône.
In the meantime, here are two tasting articles on some top white Rhônes tasted blind for Decanter over the past few months. Enjoy!
What does success look like for the UK’s best wine bloggers? Gaining ever more readers? An endless stream of free samples? Or perhaps earning money from advertising? It’s different for everyone, but for many wine bloggers it turns out that real success is signified by going on to do something other than blogging.
In 2012, I helped organise a competition in conjunction with The Table, a restaurant in London Bridge where I advise on the wine list. The Wine Bloggers’ Cup pulled together twenty of the UK’s finest to test their wine knowledge, writing skills and tasting prowess to crown the UK’s top wine blogger. It was mostly an excuse to get together and drink some brilliant wines then crank up the sound system, dance outrageously (that’s you Christina Pickard) and belt out some tunes (yes you, Joe Wadsack). Five years on, I thought now would be a good time to get in touch with some of them to see where they are now and whether wine blogging helped them get there.
Paola Tich started blogging for reasons that will be familiar to many. “I was frustrated at the lack of interest my friends had in what they drank,” she explains “and needed an outlet for my wine obsession.” Like many wine bloggers, she didn’t come from a wine background. “I’d gone from news journalism to corporate communications and had just set up on my own when I started blogging. It opened up a whole new world to me.” After a year’s research, she took the plunge and opened a wine shop, Park & Bridge, in West London followed by a wine bar, Vindinista. “I wouldn’t have done this if I hadn’t started blogging,” she says. Updating her blog has taken a back seat since launching her business, and if she does return to blogging it will be with a professional, rather than consumer, viewpoint.
Natural wine expert Simon Woolf wrote his first blog post to enter a competition, but got sucked in to a whole new life. “Through writing my blog, I met loads of people in the London wine scene – and internationally – which got me on a plane to a bloggers conference. The networking was fantastic and eventually changed my life in many ways. Back then I had a career as an IT professional, now I have a (much less lucrative) career as a wine writer and journalist. But I’m having fun!” His first book, Amber Revolution – how the world learned to love orange wine, is now fully funded on Kickstarter. As for blogging, “I do still blog, but I’m not sure I’d call it blogging anymore. I was never very good at the daily/weekly discipline so I think really it’s just writing.”
Effi Tsournava started blogging about wine soon after arriving in London from Greece. Knowing nobody in her new home city who shared her love of wine, blogging helped her reach out to other wine lovers. “Back then I was looking for my next job,” she says “and I was trying to figure out my way in the wine industry. Now, I work as a Brand Manager for Maisons, Marques et Domaines. It doesn’t feel like five years ago, more like ten, as so much has changed in the meantime! I believe that blogging has played an important part in where I am today, not so much due to my actual blog per se, but due to the focus and drive it gave me to keep going.”
Tsournava admits she no longer posts as frequently as she once did. In fact, of the 20 contestants in the competition, less than half are still blogging, and only a quarter with any regularity. Woolf believes “we’re well past the golden age of blogging”. They both attribute it largely to the growth of social media and micro-blogging sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Vivino. Jamie Goode, who has been blogging about wine since 2001, does too – and he is even more damning: “Wine blogging is dead, I’m afraid. I’m not sure it was really alive.” It’s true that as more and more wine bloggers have stepped away from the discipline, the budding UK wine blogging scene has somewhat withered.
It didn’t help that the broader wine writing community wasn’t always welcoming; bloggers are often considered second-class citizens. “There’s a view amongst established wine critics,” says Woolf, “that bloggers are either stupid or dangerous – or both. Stupid because the quality of the content is highly variable or unreliable, and dangerous because they mostly give away content for free. I wouldn’t necessarily agree as there’s the same range of quality even in mainstream media – from tragically misinformed and poorly researched to amazing.” In certain circles, blogging has become a dirty word.
I spoke to the owner of a respected drinks PR company who gave me her perspective. “Certainly, there is a big change since it first started. You saw numerous people jumping on the bandwagon, many of whom had little in-depth wine knowledge. They were initially courted by brands and PRs, but this gradually fizzled out. I think those courting them began to question how much consumer reach and influence these bloggers actually had; and the bloggers realised that they couldn’t make a living from doing it.” It’s true that wine blogs motivated solely by money don’t last long; I’m aware of just one UK wine blog that generates any meaningful revenue.
Nevertheless, some bloggers press on regardless thanks to an undimmed enthusiasm in helping others find good wine, or simply for the love of writing. The rate of new wine blogs being launched over the past couple of years appears to have dropped but it hasn’t stalled completely. David Kermode launched his blog Vinosaurus 12 months ago “with the simple aim of sharing my enthusiasms and a little knowledge. The reality,” he goes on, “is that it was also a bit of a ‘mid-life crisis moment’ having burnt myself out in the broadcasting world.” The wine blogging scene may have largely disbanded, but publishing a blog is still one of the best ways to realise a change of careers. He now talks about wine regularly on BBC radio.
Blogs remain the perfect sandbox for creative expression and finding your voice without worrying about another platform’s house style or readership. They allow you to express your opinions in the kind of detail a tweet does not. Blogging proves your enthusiasm for your subject and demonstrates your desire to share it with others. It takes guts – your ideas are out there for anyone to pick apart, shoot down or ridicule. But if they stand up it gives you confidence. And all of this despite being labelled ‘just a blogger’.
Restaurant critic AA Gill once described blogging as “karaoke journalism” and there’s a kernel of truth in that. But most UK wine bloggers don’t aspire to be journalists. They are simply a collection of wine obsessives from disparate backgrounds using the web – which happens to be a text-based medium – to express and share their love of wine. Publishing a blog involves a considerable investment of time, money and effort, so it’s not surprising they are ephemeral. Most wine bloggers who attended the competition who wanted to move on and explore a successful career in wine have done exactly that. Their blogs were a springboard rather than an end in themselves. The patchwork of the UK wine blogging scene may be frayed, but I agree with Paola Tich when she says, “I would still encourage people to start a blog if they’re obsessed with wine – who knows where it could lead.”
In the car park on my street there is a rose bush. Every so often when walking past I pause to cup one of the red flowers in my hand, bring it to my nose and inhale. The scent of a rose in bloom is as universal a pleasure as birdsong. So why are floral whites so unfashionable? Having spoken to various professionals and wine-loving friends, it would appear it’s not just the aromatics that people take issue with, but floral styles of wine face a whole charge sheet of allegations. In our thirst for all things dry, lean and mineral, is it possible we’ve become unfairly prejudiced? I’ve been reacquainting myself with floral styles recently to see if these accusations hold water, or if the time is right for a reappraisal.
Countless white grape varieties invite floral allusions from time to time, but some, such as Argentinean Torrontés, Greek Moschofilero or Romanian Fetească Regală, are more innately and assertively perfumed than others. There are two that are both potentially great and widely available – Alsace Gewurztraminer and Rhône Viognier (namely Condrieu) – so I’ll focus on these.
Allegation No.1: They don’t work with food
If you want to play it safe when matching food and wine, a relatively neutral style of white is more prudent. It’s also more boring. Floral whites are trickier to get right, but no more so than aromatic varieties like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. And when it does work you can expect fireworks – floral wines bring an array of flavours and aromas to the table that you’re unlikely to find on your plate. Paul Amsellem of leading Condrieu estate Domaine Georges Vernay recommends asparagus, lobster, scallops, goats cheese and certain fish for his wines, but the important thing is to avoid highly acidic sauces as they draw attention to the naturally low acidity in the wine.
Colin Wills of London wine merchant Uncorked says “one of the main strengths of Gewurz is its exoticism… It can also have depths of flavour that make it so useful with aromatic foods, particularly from Asia.” Slightly sweeter styles of Gewurz go well with a broad range of cheeses – try it next time instead of your regular option. Whereas Viognier is almost always dry, Alsace Gewurztraminer can be anything from dry to medium dry or even sweeter. When there’s no advice on the label you can get caught out with a style you didn’t expect, which can throw a pairing out of whack. Thankfully within the next couple of years it will be obligatory to state the sweetness level on the bottle.
Verdict: when they work, they work brilliantly.
Allegation No.2: They don’t express terroir
Because floral grapes are strongly aromatic they are sometimes charged with expressing their variety rather than the site on which they’re grown. There is some truth in this. They are not quite as fluent as, say, Riesling, in expressing terroir. And when young, their natural exuberance can mask subtle differences in site. Floral styles love a sonorous terroir, and certainly can express it, as a tasting of various Alsace Grand Cru Gewurztraminers will show.
Viognier also needs a specific terroir to really shine. It reaches unrivalled peaks of quality when grown on the terraces of Condrieu in the Northern Rhône. In this sense, it’s not oxymoronic to dislike Viognier but to love Condrieu. The wines here have a freshness, precision and drinkability that other Viogniers can lack. Amsellem says it’s due to the granite soils, particularly those rich in black mica, that give the wines a saline, mineral edge.
Verdict: they do express terroir, especially when grown on powerfully assertive sites.
Allegation No.3: They lack drinkability
David Clawson is owner of The Remedy wine bar in London, where they list very few, if any, floral styles of wine. “The reason is both our preference but also that of our customers,” he says. “You can drink a glass, but it is very difficult to drink a bottle. First and foremost, we want to sell wines with great (and delicious) drinkability.” Gewurz and Viognier share certain characteristics: they typically have opulent textures and low acidity. It’s true these aren’t characteristics you’d typically associate with the most drinkable vin de soif.
The best are still balanced of course, with freshness, energy and salinity. But if you’re looking primarily for something to quench your thirst, you might be better off starting with a Chablis… or perhaps a light-bodied, low alcohol, lightly floral, dry Muscat?
Verdict: it’s a fair cop – there are more immediately drinkable styles out there.
Allegation No.4: They don’t age well
Inexpensive floral styles that have little more to offer than aromatics alone tend to be best drunk young. But floral styles from great terroirs can develop real complexity in bottle. In the words of Eric Kientzler from Domaine Kientzler in Ribeauvillé, Alsace, “it’s more the land that makes wines that can age, not the grape.” Jean Boxler of Domaine Albert Boxler proved the point by pulling the cork from a 1994 Alsace Grand Cru Brand Gewurztraminer. “If you like the Gewurztraminer aroma, try it young, he said; “if you like it complex, you have to wait a bit.” The bottle corroborated his claim with a cascade of honey, camomile, cumin, curry leaf and turmeric; a reminder that gewürz is German for spice.
Alsace Grand Cru Muscat can age just as well, building layers of spearmint, green tea and its signature aromas of grass and orange flower water fall away. Condrieu is the Dorian Gray of white wines. A 1996 Georges Vernay Condrieu ‘Coteau de Vernon’ tasted in 2014 was still full of fruit and verve. Many Condrieus can last without degrading, but whether they markedly improve with bottle age however is debatable.
Verdict: they can age well, Gewurztraminer in particular.
Allegation No.5: They are too intensely aromatic
When I hear this charge levelled at floral varieties, I’m reminded of the advert for Wychwood Brewery’s Hobgoblin dark ale: ‘What’s the matter Lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?’ Intensity of aroma is no drawback if that aroma is enjoyable. I suspect some wine drinkers shy away from floral styles through misplaced machismo.
Some wine lovers simply aren’t keen the aromas in question. Will Hargrove of London wine merchant Corney & Barrow says of Condrieu “the analogy I use is that it’s a bit like a flavour of ice cream someone doesn’t like (I love pistachio, lots of people don’t). I have liked some but they appear to have been ones that are atypically mineral (less Viognier flavour!)” He touches on an important point here – some of the best Condrieus, such as those of Domaines Georges Vernay, André Perret and René Rostaing, are relatively restrained examples. Not all floral wines are riotously aromatic.
Verdict: there is a range of aromatic intensity, from the subtle to the explosive.
It’s easy to be put off by floral styles. Often these varieties have other quirks; they can be prone to low acidity or oily textures and these need to be managed by strong terroirs and capable winemakers. At the cheaper end, it’s easy to find bad examples of these grapes. What’s more, a bad Viognier is memorably grotesque, whereas a bad Gavi is merely forgettably dull.
It’s not easy to put Gewurztraminer’s lengthy criminal record to one side and pluck up the courage to trust in a top bottle. But if you haven’t tasted one for a while, they can be hugely rewarding. These are extreme styles of wine, and therefore bound to divide people. Some drinkers won’t like them. But those that do, are likely to love them. Whatever your taste, it is a fact that these are some of the most distinctive white wines imaginable, with vivid aromatics, power, complexity and an unmistakable sense of place. And you can buy stellar examples from top producers for less than £40 a bottle. They might not be fashionable right now, but life is short – don’t forget to smell the roses.
Eight floral wines to try
Domaine Albert Boxler Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Brand 2015 (Alsace, France; 13.5%)
Lay & Wheeler, £45.80
Incredibly fresh and lifted, enlivening like a rose in bloom. Full-bodied, very rich, medium dry, balanced with firm acidity and ample fine ripe tannin. Wonderful perfume, with citrussy acidity throughout, ending on bitter orange. Exceptionally long. There is no question that this is one of the greatest producers in Alsace, I can’t recommend Jean Boxler’s wines highly enough. 2017-2030, 95 points.
Kientzler Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Osterberg 2016 (Alsace, France; 13.5%)
H2Vin has the 2015 for £29.25
12g/l residual sugar but the wine tastes dry. Flavours of fresh Muscat grapes and almonds with a touch of Turkish delight. Restrained aromatics: “that’s how the grand cru makes it,” says Eric Kientzler. Medium-bodied, mineral, straight style. Long and saline. Resonant finish. 2017-2025, 94 points.
Domaine André Perret Condrieu ‘Chéry’ 2015 (Northern Rhône, France; 13.5%)
JN Wine, £45.50
20% new oak. Pure perfumed apricot and a touch of peach. Slightly fuller and silkier that his Condrieu ‘Clos Chanson’, with more concentration of fruit. Deep, yet fresh and piercing. Beautifully balanced, combining fruit, acidity, oak and alcohol all in good measure. Very long finish. 2017-2021, 95 points.
Domaine Georges Vernay Condrieu ‘Terrasses de l’Empire’ 2015 (Northern Rhône, France; 13.5%)
Yapp Brothers, £52.00
Matured for 8 months in wooden tanks and barriques. Jasmine, peach and some integral citrus that brings some welcome sobriety to proceedings. Fairly full-bodied with green almond flavour and some tannic grip on the finish that really holds everything together and provides some genuine structure. Very long finish, with more almond and peach. A touch of saltiness keeps things refreshing. 2017-2020, 94 points.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Muscat Grand Cru Goldert 2002 (Alsace, France; 12.5%)
JN Wine has the 2008 for £28.99
Alsace Muscat is essentially always dry. It can be made from either Muscat d’Alsace (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) or Muscat Ottonel, or a blend. This is 95% Muscat d’Alsace, grown on an east-facing slope in Gueberschwihr on clay-rich Oolithic limestone. Dry – 3g/l residual sugar. Still beautifully citrussy, with orange zest, iodine, menthol and spearmint. Medium-bodied, but lovely intensity of fruit. Lovely light tannic structure with notes of pickled ginger and green tea on the finish. Perfectly balanced, still detailed and expressive. So young still. An exceptional wine. 2017-2025, 95 points.
Domaine Dirler-Cadé Muscat Grand Cru Saering 2015 (Alsace, France; 13.0%)
Vine Trail has the 2012 for £21.54
50% Muscat d’Alsace, 50% Muscat Ottonel. Grapey, grassy, with lemon verbena and mint though slightly reductive on the nose at this stage. Medium-bodied. Very fresh, good acidity. Elegant and fine. Touch of noble bitterness, elegant floral finish. 2018-2020, 91 points.
Colomé Estate Torrontés 2016 (Salta, Argentina; 13.5%)
Delicate rose, pink peppercorn and citrus, a restrained nose. Dry, light-bodied, but full of flavour, refreshing and drinkable thanks to the marked acidity and slightly salty tang. Tiny touch of sweetness to the fruit flavour makes it all the more drinkable. It’s not hugely complex, but it’s vibrant, well balanced and refreshing with a tiny touch of pleasant bitterness on the finish. An excellent example of Argentinean Torrontés. 2017-2018, 90 points
Semeli ‘Feast’ 2016 (Peloponnese, Greece; 12.0%)
100% Moschofilero. Gently floral pink peppercorn aroma. Medium-bodied, just a touch of oiliness to the texture giving it added weight and length, with ripe lychee fruit matched with taut acidity. A very well-balanced wine, made with precision, offering exceptional value for money. 2017-2018, 89 points.
Here’s an article that I wrote for Imbibe (drinks trade magazine) on New Zealand Pinot Noir…
Helen Masters, winemaker at Ata Rangi, Martinborough, February 2017
If red Burgundy were a car, it would probably be a handsome vintage Jaguar. New Zealand Pinot, by contrast, would be a souped-up VW Golf: desirable yet affordable, built to perform – and it moves fast. Considering the quality of some of the wines, it’s hard to believe that the first commercial vintage of Pinot Noir in New Zealand was as recent as 1987.
Adam Willis at the Michelin-starred Bath Priory describes himself as a big fan of New Zealand Pinot Noir. After spending some time there, he returned to find that “an understanding of these styles hasn’t fully made its way to the UK yet” – an impression shared by both Jess Kildetoft MS from MASH and the Providores’ Mel Brown.
But for professionals, understanding the distinct characteristics of each main region is invaluable when choosing the right wines to suit your cuisine and your customers’ budget. After all, no other country outside France has the stylistic diversity of Pinot Noir across such a range of prices.
Which is why, as it becomes increasingly difficult to find serviceable Bourgogne Rouge for less than £15 ex VAT, it’s worth keeping up-to-date on developments in Kiwi country to see which styles best suit your venue and who are the producers that need to be on your radar. After all, many of these wines are coming from young vines, and as they mature, they will only improve.
With 2,590 hectares, Marlborough has by far the most Pinot Noir of any region in New Zealand. Some would say too much. Following the explosion in popularity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir was planted with abandon – and not always in the right places.
As a result, Marlborough acquired a reputation for making light and simple Pinots – but does this still hold? “It’s a valid statement on Marlborough of old,” says Kurt Simcic, viticulturalist at Giesen, “but we’re moving away from those sites. We’re planting smaller blocks with better clones. You’ll see a change.”
Producers such as Seresin, Fromm and Giesen are looking to the Southern Valleys rather than the plains that are Sauvignon’s heartland. Instead of alluvial deposits, the soils here are rich in clay which gives deeper fruit and firmer structure.
Marlborough winemakers are pushing towards a more candid, textured style, too, thanks to less new oak and more whole bunch. Mike Paterson, former winemaker at Jackson Estate, started micro-negociant label Corofin in 2012 and makes three single vineyard wines from the Southern Valleys. He uses 20% whole bunch and no new oak, and the results embody Marlborough’s new wave. Instead of ‘light and simple’, think ‘pure and fine’. Things are changing here, and changing fast.
Established names: Dog Point (Fields, Morris & Verdin), Greywacke (Liberty Wines), Seresin (Louis Latour Agencies).
Under the radar: Clos Marguerite (Clark Foyster), Corofin (Flint Wines).
By comparison, Central Otago only has 1,500 hectares of Pinot Noir but it has an enviable reputation for its wines. Certainly, they’re hard to ignore: high sunshine, low rainfall and hot summers make for powerful Pinots.
Jess Kildetoft MS at MASH London says “We had a Central Otago Pinot by the glass over Christmas and it was spot on with the steaks and the guests really loved it… I would generally recommend the bigger more tannic styles from Otago or Nelson with meat and the simpler more feminine styles from Marlborough with poultry and fish.”
This boldness of style can lend itself to strongly flavoured dishes, but for all its vivid fruit it can sometimes lack the subtlety and savouriness that makes Pinot Noir such a food-friendly variety. Blair Walter, winemaker at Felton Road, explains that there’s a growing trend towards “toning things down” in Central Otago. “That kick of sweet fruit will be a thing of the past as vines age,” he says, “we’re starting to see wines with a lot more texture and subtlety, more of a sense of place.”
There is considerable stylistic diversity in Central Otago, sometimes derived from winemaking, sometimes from sub-regional terroir, but overall the trend is away from oak and extraction towards a more hands-off approach. As vineyards reach maturity the differences between sub-regions of Central Otago is becoming clearer and the wines are increasing in sophistication.
Established names: Felton Road (Cornish Point Wines), Two Paddocks (Negociants UK), Rippon (Lea & Sandeman).
Under the radar: Akitu (New Zealand Wine Cellar), Surveyor Thompson (Berry Bros. & Rudd).
Compared to Marlborough and Central Otago, Martinborough is relatively steady – it has the feel of a region that knows where its considerable strengths lie. The collection of small, mostly family-owned producers that inhabit the tiny town that gives the wine region its name make highly-regarded, structured Pinots that work particularly well with food.
They’re not cheap – you’ll struggle to get one on a wine list for less than £50 – but quality can be exceptional, and they can still rival or beat Burgundy at the same price. That said, if it’s cheapness rather than pedigree you’re after, Mel Brown, wine buyer at The Providores suggests targeting Marlborough.
Most New Zealand Pinots are not built for longevity. This has the benefit that they tend to be approachable on release. But Martinborough wines are an exception: they are good when they first come out, but can age beautifully as well. For Roger Jones at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, “succulent Welsh lamb with an aged Martinborough Pinot” is a classic match.
Established names: Ata Rangi (Liberty Wines), Kusuda (Fields, Morris & Verdin), Martinborough Vineyard (Negociants UK).
Under the radar: Julicher (Berkmann), Schubert (Berry Bros. & Rudd).
Compared to Marlborough, Martinborough and Central Otago, North Canterbury has less stylistic consistency when it comes to Pinot Noir. Shaun and Marcel Giesen came here specifically for the limestone, and in 1997 established their Bell Hill winery. They now produce some of the best, and most expensive, Pinot Noirs in New Zealand.
Biodynamic producer Pyramid Valley Vineyards are more ‘natural’ in style but also demonstrate the potential of North Canterbury. After working with some of Europe’s best winemakers (Vincent Dauvissat, Jean-Michel Deiss, Ernie Loosen…) Mike and Claudia Elze Weersing settled in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000. Mike attributes the quality of their wines to the diverse soil types and being at “the cultivable limit” of Pinot Noir production, meaning the vines struggle for ripeness.
North Canterbury is a close-knit community of small growers, which Penelope Nash, owner of Black Estate, calls “a wine geek’s region, we’re free to do what we like, we’re a bit more experimental”. It might be less well-known that its neighbours, but it’s home to some excellent Pinot producers who are pushing the boundaries.
Established Names: Pegasus Bay (New Generation McKinley), Bell Hill (H2Vin, Armit), Pyramid Valley (Caves de Pyrène).
Under the radar: Black Estate (Indigo), Waipara West (Waterloo Wines)
New Zealand red wine vintages at a glance
2010 Excellent quality, structured and ageworthy.
2011 Warm, damp year; large yields, average quality.
2012 One of the coolest years on record – some thin and green, some fine and fragrant.
2013 Excellent vintage, concentrated and structured wines.
2014 Very good to excellent vintage, particularly in Hawke’s Bay.
2015 Good warm vintage with concentrated wines, great in Canterbury.
2016 Good vintage, especially in Martinborough.
First published in Imbibe magazine.
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