One for the road……

As we come to the end of the festive season and peoples thoughts turn to a ‘dry’ January to counter-balance the over indulgences, it seems an apt time that the Government re-states its guidelines for what it views as responsible alcohol intake.  The full report will be published later this month, but the heavy speculation suggests that the suggested maximum acceptable levels will be reduced (of course) from previous guides, and there will be a clear recommendation to have at least 2 alcohol free days per week.  It has also been suggested that the report will state that there is in fact no safe amount of alcohol that can be drunk at all – especially for those people in middle-age.  Even the smallest intake per day/week could lead to several illnesses, including many cancers.

My article today isn’t to discuss these revised guidelines as I believe that responsible levels vs. potential risk cannot be done on anything other than a case by case basis.  Indeed there are many things that can cut short a healthy young life, whilst the heaviest of imbibers can live to the ripest of old age.  Indeed the chief medical officer doesn’t mention at all the fun that responsible (as defined by the individual) drinking can have in perhaps prolonging life, and certainly enjoying it along the way.

The link between alcohol and death does, however, lead me nicely to what I found to be one of the more obscure, but extremely interesting, wine-related stories from over the festive period, which I thought I would share with you.

Westerleigh Crematorium in the south-west of England has become the first funeral home to be granted an alcohol licence, enabling them to conduct both a funeral service and the post-service wake.  The idea was brought about due to the slightly remote location of the chapel which meant that guests would need to make onward arrangements with pubs or hotels in the wider area, and then arrange the necessary travel from one venue to another.

Westerleigh is currently in the middle of a full redevelopment which will include a full bar and a new hospitality suite capable of facilitating up to 150 guests.  There will also be the necessary segregation of areas for funeral services and celebrations of life, to ensure that service only funerals can continue to be served.

The provision of a licence has been largely welcomed by the local community, and Richard Evans, managing director at the crematorium was quoted as saying: “For many families a wake or celebration after the service is a necessary event and it is not always convenient for them to set off again to meet in a hotel or pub. The provision of a new hospitality suite will therefore cater for funeral parties who are looking for a simple, dignified event after the funeral”

This ‘one-stop-shop’ does actually seem to be a sensible idea (one of those ‘why don’t we do that already?’ moments), and something that I think will spread to other crematoriums in the not-so distant future.  Mindful of the view that it is perhaps a further commercialisation of death, and in respect of the sadness of the overall occasion, it does take a certain step out and simplify the process, which can be very welcome at a tough time.  As long as the alcohol drunk on the occasion does not increase, either due to the ease of availability, pricing (currently to be advised) or having the extra ‘one for the road’ as the focus on driving to a venue is removed, then it is a logical step and a bigger story that the mild ripples that it caused in the run up to Christmas.

It’s interesting to note that the application went unchallenged by the local authorities and was even endorsed by the local clergy.  It seems it’s only the new Government guidelines that won’t allow us a guilt-free drink to toast our recently departed loved ones.

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Answers – Winter Wine Word Search

Here’s the answers to the wine word search posted just before Christmas.  In addition to the answers supplied below, I’ll also accept the the variety ‘cot’, which appears on the top row purely by chance!

Wordsearch answers

Happy New Year!

Christmas Wine Word Search

The festive season is upon us and what better way to while away the hours than with a good quiz.

Even better than that, how about a Christmas wine quiz!?

My good friend Clare over at http://aimetus.blogspot.co.uk/ has graciously allowed me to share her ‘Winter Wine Word-Search’, and a good deal of fun it is too.

All you have to do is find 24 different wine grape words (as an example, Cabernet and Sauvignon will be two distinct words).  Have fun with the Word-Search (the answers will be revealed in January), and please do visit Clare’s blog for more lovely wine stuff.

Crossword

Seasons Greetings!

Wine Epiphany – MWWC#17

mwwc logo

I read earlier in the week that wine blogging is dead.

This is bad news as my wine blog is only 5 months old, but happily, it seems the average time for a wine blog to operate before fatigue sets in can be something like 6 years, so I’ve still got a little way to go. A quick Google, initially to rediscover the article that I had misplaced, filled the page with a slurry of articles all predicting in equality the promising future or the sad demise of the wine blog. Some even offered up an obituary for the medium.

When faced with the question of Epiphany in wine from the MWWC I’m going to take it at face value – a standout moment of clarity that changed me from that point on. As a long time imbiber, I’m going to have to think way back. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back. There’s been so many over so long a time that really only the watersheds from yesteryear still stick out. So sit back, and let me weave you on a tour that rides from 2007 to the present day.

In terms of a standout moment for red wine, I recall the time in 2010 that I found a bottle of Chateau Latour 2001, vaguely reduced at the Berry Bros outlet in Berkshire. Flush from a work bonus I snapped it up and kept it for as long as I could, which in reality was only a further year or two, before I savoured its contents and then deified the cork and empty bottle. I personally got a lot out of the experience; not least tasting the wine, but the full majesty of opening and decanting the bottle, and taking notes. Then tasting and re-tasting. The experience was somewhat marred at a wine dinner some time later in 2012, when I was openly lambasted by a fellow guest for pre-empting the experience, and wasting the opportunity of keeping the bottle cellared for another ten years.

Oops.

Sparkling (or should I clarify, Champagne) is still my alma mater for wine, and I remember at a job interview for a wine role, they asked me for my wine epiphany moment. I took them back to the glamorous location of Gatwick airport and my purchase of the Dom Pérignon 1995. I asked myself how something so priceless could have a price tag. £70 later, I had purchased the un-purchaseable but made a storage faux-pas by standing the bottle in my front room in direct sunlight on a shelf acting as some sort of make-shift shrine to that unique experience. On pouring, the bottle was OK (it was no 1996, let’s face it) but simply part of an experience that, in hindsight, was only available to me and only about 5 million other purchasers of DP 1995.

For whites and Rosé I have no real idea. My first Orange wine experience came last month at Selfridges in London, at my request. It wasn’t notable, and I was glad I had requested a sample as opposed to just blindly paying out for a bottle.

No, I think my real wine epiphany lies elsewhere. Was it when my wife bought me the birthday present of an internet only course for wine? A cheap, non-recognised qualification from an internet course provider that has since gone bust, rendering my qualification void. Whilst a waste of her £36, this did however, spur me on to sign up to the courses provided by the WSET (Wines & Spirits Education Trust) in London and, as an outsider to the trade, self-fund my way through to the Level 4 Diploma. This is probably the one wine moment more than any other that leads me to where I am today, which is looking to inspire others through the popularisation of wine education. And this is also the moment that brings me back to my initial point about wine blogging.

In what is already quite a crowded niche, I set up my site, and launched many a wine opinion on the world. Slowly but surely, my site has been not only building in content, but also building in subscribers, feedback and, inadvertently, the quality of what I write. Importantly, I feel that I have something valuable to say that others will enjoy reading. I try to keep my subject matter as broad as possible. This runs the gamut from what wine I have tried today, to nuggets of wine history, as well as giving hints and tips to those taking wine exams through organisations such as the WSET.

This has led to a good following on Twitter, to tweeting and conversing with many unknown fellow wine lovers around the globe. It is a direct result of this that has led me to contribute to websites such as the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge.

My wine epiphany? Well, you’re reading this aren’t you……?!

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Your place or mine?

Be it a short burst of promotion, or a fun excuse to open the next bottle of wine, many grape varieties have a day of celebration devoted over to them each year. You can celebrate Chardonnay day on the 23rd May, Merlot day on the 7th November or, in case you were not aware, today is Malbec day! Time to pop to the shops for some Argentinian Malbec!

Argentina is Malbec’s adopted home, where the consistently long warm days allow the grapes to ripen more evenly than it’s frosty French origin, and whilst French plantings of the grape are decreasing, Argentine plantings are on the increase. The reason it does so well away from its homeland is that the Malbec grapes are susceptible to frost, and in France’s cold marginal climate, that is an ever present threat. Whilst it is still grown in parts of south-west France, it’s primarily found in their Bordeaux-style blends as opposed to varietal wines. Malbec is a grape that produces a tannic wine, and these bitter notes can come to the fore when the grapes are not fully ripened, thus it makes sense to blend it with other grapes that can perform well in these climatic conditions. This ensures that all flavours are rounded out in to a smooth and drinkable wine.

Argentina is of course much warmer than France, and higher altitude plantings (where it gets up to 1 ºC cooler for every 100 metres you ascend) can deliver grapes that see cool conditions, but with the added advantage of warm consistent sunshine throughout the growing season. In a nice bit of serendipity, the fuller flavour of Malbec happily pairs well with steak, which is an Argentine food staple. It therefore doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to decide that tonight’s dinner for me will be steak paired with an Argentinian Malbec. Job done.

Or is it? Am I simply taking the lazy option? The day is organised by Wines of Argentina, and placed on the anniversary of the day when the first Malbec plantings were recognised in Mendoza, but the day is all about the grape, and not the location. It’s not Argentinian Malbec day, after all.

When planning any celebration it’s natural to want the best experience, which in this case could well be Argentinian Malbec and steak, but in planning for success, do you also plan to fail? By safeguarding our choices do we also miss out on what can make an event unique? Surely there can be as much fun in playing away from type, as there can be in getting it spot on? And you don’t even need to worry if things don’t go to plan, as there’s only another 365 days to go until the next opportunity!

With these thoughts in mind I might just do things a little different today, and pop my Argentinian Malbec back in the rack, and nip out for some French Malbec instead.

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Wine and crisps

My Friday night tipple tonight is a lovely 10 year old Ermita de San Lorenzo 2005 from Spain. In typical style for a Spanish Gran Reserva, the nose and the palate fill with velvet black cherry, mature wood, vanilla, spice and chocolate notes (my definition of divine!).

The addition of chocolate to the palate had me recalling a comment I recently made on a wine forum. With this weekend being Easter, much discussion in the wine world is being given over to what wines to match with either your lamb or with your chocolate treats. Maybe I’m weird but I’ve never had the urge to pair a wine with chocolate. At this point it’s worth mentioning that I’m no more than a (very) casual eater of chocolate in the first place, and that it doesn’t excite me in the way that other foods do (indeed, I still have a lot of odd chocolate still hanging around from Christmas). Thinking about it though, I don’t think the lack of pairing excitement comes from my passing liking of chocolate (I’ve considered and executed wine pairings with odd fish varieties that I’ve perhaps only had once in my life), I think it’s more about how we tend to eat chocolate, and why people would actually want to drink wine at the same time.

Now of course wine isn’t exclusively meant to be drunk at mealtimes (I’m very guilty of this!), but a lot of the point in creating a food and wine pairing as I see it, is to compliment the liquid with the food. This can help to bring out diverse characteristics in each by either matching, or by off-setting flavour components. This makes sense when thinking about how to augment starters, main courses, desserts, and cheese boards, for which wine is a potential liquid accompaniment. Obviously some puddings do feature chocolate as a partial or core ingredient, but the only place that chocolate will likely feature as a key place in a meal is with the coffee, and that’s clearly been catered for – the sweetness of the chocolate is there to juxtapose the bitterness of the coffee. After all, we don’t find ourselves expecting a wine and chocolate course at the end of dinner, do we?

In order to have a fully rounded appreciation of wine, with all the full facets and potential unearthed, I have no problem with others enjoying merging the two experiences, I’m just not sure how necessary it is. For instance, I’d be interested to know if anyone would go so far as to base their evening wine choice around such a small aspect of any menu (or treat before bedtime), or even to heading out to buy a specific chocolate because it pairs well with their Spanish Reserva?

It feels like people are trying to find the perfect wine match for any food. Take, for example, a popular food like crisps (although my wife correctly informs me that Walkers/Jacobs Creek did in fact run a crisps/wine match promo a few years back). OK, so no one has described a wine of tasting like one flavour of crisps that needs to be compared to another, as you could potentially do with chocolate characters, but it feels like you would only need to conduct such an experiment from a challenge or experience perspective. In terms of how wine will actually be drunk of an evening, is the match key?

Maybe I’m wrong, I’m missing out and I need to arrange a tasting? As a UK consumer I only own/get gifted/buy regular milk chocolate (as I suspect the majority of UK people do), rather than artisanal blends from far flung corners of the chocolate making world, each out-doing the other with increasing amounts of pure cocoa. From an academia point of view, a full range of differing chocolate versus differing wine would make an interesting piece – for example, does Argentinian chocolate go with Argentinian Malbec? Personally I don’t think it’s of any use for everyday drinking.

Perhaps the question is being asked wrong? Maybe, instead of the wine world asking “which chocolate would you pair with your wine, it should be left to the chocolate critics to ask “what wine would you pair with your chocolate?”

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There’s no bad wine……?

Talking to a Master of Wine (MW) a while back, I mentioned that recently I had tasted a wine that I could only describe as horrible. His retort still sticks with me – “There are no bad wines, just wines that you wouldn’t buy”. It’s actually quite a sound statement – a wine may not to be to my liking, but there will be merit in there somewhere, be it identifying that the producer has cut corners using oak chips, or they’ve picked the grapes too early.  Good critique should be along these lines as opposed to a simple like/dislike.

With this in mind, I have been mulling over an article that was published last month in various media outlets (Google 75% Wine Based Drinks for a selection), exposing what essentially amounted to rogue wines being sold in supermarkets alongside normal wine. Cue a certain amount of shock/horror along with cries that someone somewhere (be it the supermarkets, the producers) were trying to get one over on us. The exposé originated from online supermarket sommelier wotwine? who are a team of wine experts (including several MWs) who taste through wines sold in supermarkets to give advice on what to buy. This is a good website, given the sheer volume of wine available in our combined supermarkets.

During their regular tastings some wines were noted as ‘lacking genuine character and dilute’. On closer inspection they noticed that some were actually subtlety described on the back label as being ‘wine based drinks’ (WBDs) – in other words, only 75% of the drink was actually wine, topped up with either grape juice or, more likely, water. And yet here they were, in similar shaped bottles, adorned by labels that made them look every inch like a wine, on the same shelves as all the other bottles. I definitely agree that it was a good call by wotwine? to bring these bottles up for debate, but find myself disagreeing, or certainly thinking that they were being unfair to these WBDs, and I’ll explain why.

Within a supermarket environment, strangely my whole attitude to wine changes. I watch food & wine matching sections on programmes like Saturday Kitchen and think “yes, this afternoon I’m going to rummage around my local store and pick up 6 really cool bottles” but when I get there, without fail I always slip in to supermarket mode. I become less the wine lover picking out select bottles and immediately flip to someone looking for bargains – weekday wines, being drawn (albeit consciously) to the little red labels that denote discounts or offers, looking at the bin-ends and maybe being a little daunted (or time conscious) by the aisles of wine available. Something about that supermarket environment just seems to focus my mentality to how I buy food or household goods, or how-much-other-stuff-could-I-buy-for-the-same-price logic, rather than the luxury, spontaneity, and indulgence in a merchant. I go there to buy supermarket wine, and my expectations are set accordingly.

The focus of concern in the article centred on two issues  – firstly, that the wine shouldn’t be on the shelves with normal wine as it was a pale imitation, and secondly, that it generally tasted foul. Indeed wotwine? were quoted as saying they wouldn’t pay a penny for it. Regarding its placing on the shelf, I offer a similar example – supermarket own Cola. These cheaper products sit on the shelves alongside market leaders Pepsi and Coke, but there is no call to segregate these less intense products, even though the taste of own brand cola is streets away from them. It’s not that the own brands are not real cola or that they are bad (many people are happy with them).  There’s just some cola you wouldn’t regularly buy.

Invariably it comes down to either brand and/or price, and that’s no different to these WBDs. Most supermarkets split wine sections in to red/white, and then in to country of origin. That’s it. When shopping (for example) in the Australian reds section, if you want something lighter in alcohol (unusual for Oz as the sun fully ripens the grapes), and are looking in the budget range of £4.50 per bottle (as these WBDs are), what’s the point in having them split away somewhere else? The customer makes the choice as to what they want.

To move on to the quality of the wine itself, there was no other way for me to decide other than to seek out a bottle for myself. I opted for the Australian ‘Copper’ red wine, 12.5% abv from Sainsbury’s. The pricing is a worry – £4.50 per bottle is entry level, but this was priced at £6.25 a bottle – only available for £4.50 when buying 2 for £9. At £6.25 we’re well in to my tried-and-trusted everyday wine drinking price bracket, and you can get more for your money.

In colour it looked no different to any other youthful red. On the nose it was sweet confectionate black cherry and sweet spices, some vanilla and, more worryingly, something that smelt like furniture polish. The palate hits straight away with upfront cherry, but dissipates fairly immediately, leaving a hollow middle. Any length is solely sustained by cloying sugars. In its favour it does have good acidity. My review generally concurs with wotwine? who list it as ‘sweet’ and ‘thin’, but it is still a wine (12.5% abv) albeit a little suspect at the recommended price point

I don’t agree though that the supermarkets are to blame for tricking customers in to buying it, or that it’s undrinkable. In the end the proof will of course be in the sales figures, but it was not a wine I would recommend to others, or buy again.

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It’s all Greek for me

Last weekend saw Decanter magazine put on their usual March Fine Wine Encounter, but for the first time the event was completely devoted over to wines from the Mediterranean. Looking specifically at these wines threw up quite a few firsts for me and is a well-timed move by Decanter. Merchants and even some supermarkets are already starting to stock or broaden their ranges from countries such as Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, and this in turn means that customers are able to start trying these wines without specifically hunting them out. A quick look at the awards being dished out further paints the picture – In the 2009 Decanter World Wine Awards (picked purely as it was the nearest historic Awards catalogue to me as I write) Turkey won only one bronze medal – In the 2014 awards they won over 40 medals. Obviously producers need to be entering their wines in the competition in the first place, and the number of those entered certainly has gone up, but you get the picture.

Wine enthusiasts are always looking for the next thing – I think it’s an inherent part of being interested in wine (it certainly is for me). With prices pushing certain wines out of reach on the one hand and the glut of commercially successful variety wines on the other, the time seems right to delve in to what’s been going on in these hitherto unembraced countries. Hand in hand with this is the education piece – I mentioned the tasting to a worldly-wise family member and their reply was that they didn’t even know wine was made in some of these countries.

There’s also good news for the casual wine drinker and that is, as well as becoming more widely available, the wines are pretty darn good too. It’s easy to forget that these countries having been honing their craft for years, and constitute the oldest places on earth to have been making wine (Old-Old World Wine, if you like). Like anywhere, I’m sure there are still many works-in-progress to be found, but for those shown at the Decanter event I’d be happy to pay the same price as I pay for my regular bottles. I’d certainly get a renewed vigour in sharing them with others to spread the word.

My top takeaways from the day, in no particular order:

  • Moschofilero – a Greek white grape – makes a deliciously peachy and floral Sparkling.  I tasted the Amalia Brut NV from Ktima Tselepos.  I’ll be looking more at this variety.
  • Slovenia are making Sparkling wines (the Slovenian term is Penina), so you may soon be drinking Penina alongside your Cava’s and your Prosecco’s.  The wines tasted on the day were in large part Chardonnay, blended with smaller amounts of Rebula (AKA Ribolla Gialla from Friuli).
  • Rapsani is a small high altitude Greek village making smooth jammy reds.  Having tasted the offerings on the day, I now have the badge to prove I am a #rapsanilover.  Greece showed really well on the day for me, definitely proving that (and I’m sure that they’d agree with me here) some of the uninspiring wines that they were quite famous for, are now a thing of the past.
  • And finally, honourable mention for the lovely chap pouring at the Villa Conchi stand, who admitted to me that they were new to the show circuit and launching a new range of Cava’s.  This was the first stand I went to on the day as I like to start with Sparkling, and I don’t think he had his pour levels quite sorted out.  They were as big as you’d get when buying a glass of wine in a restaurant!  Too good to spit though and a lovely creamy Brut Imperial NV.

Overall, producers seem to have found a good balance of producing wines from indigenous grapes to create their own regional USPs (unique selling points) and the more internationally recognised varieties, so as not to scare off traditionalists. It remains to be seen whether drinkers will take to obscure grape varieties such as Krassato or Kalecik Karasi as they have to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. I was thoroughly happy with the day though – a lot of new avenues to discover and over 20 new grape varieties tasted. Having been to many Decanter events in the past it did feel a little quieter than previous ones focusing on more established regions so, with my above enthusiasm noted, there is definitely more inroads to go to get the masses excited about these wines.

The good news is that they are now clearly on the agenda. For me, I was actually happy this time around with less attendees (the flagship November event can be quite rowdy with thirsty tasters three deep at particular producers!) as it gave more chance to have lengthy chats with the winemakers (whose first language is not necessarily English), and to taste through their whole offerings rather than just picking highlights.

Yamas!

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Oldies and Goldies

The world of wine moves fast.

Sure, there’s nothing ground-breaking about that statement, but just recently I’ve reached the point where I’ve started re-buying books for my wine library. Books I kind of already own. Even many published as recently as the 1990’s are now only useful when drawing historical companions, or accessing information that gets dropped from newer texts.   Grape varieties mentioned have long since been pulled to the whims of fashion, and locations and even countries not talked about, are now merrily creating great wines.

It was whilst reading a book on the USA, studying up for an article, that I finally took pause for thought. The book was a weighty tome, ‘fully revised’, but authored in the late 1980’s, so wasn’t new, but still within the lifetime of someone yet to reach 30. Whilst delving through a wealth of detailed statistics, it dawned on me that I was, basically, wasting my time. The USA to all intents and purposes went through a wine reboot in the early 1990’s when Phylloxera came back for another crack. Plantings on a compromised rootstock (AxR1) left them susceptible to a new strain of the killer louse, and what came after – the grape varieties, the vine densities, the sites – were now being started from scratch. I’d need to buy a newer book.

At around the same time, I managed to pick up the first edition of the leading UK wine magazine Decanter. Although the cover price was a mere 40p, I managed to purchase it for just £4 thanks to a leading online auction site – Inflation aside, that’s less than the cover price of an issue today. For a publication first hitting the shelves in 1975, I was expecting to view the 40-year old content with a mild curiosity. What struck me was that a number of things still remained true to this day. Articles answering the question “How can I drink good Bordeaux without paying too much per bottle”? Wine loving celebrities (in this case, Michael Caine) putting their money in to wine futures. Regional profiles, the latest auction news. Even Hugh Johnson was there! Aside of the current vogue for extensive tasting notes, scoring systems, and good deals for weekday wine drinking (did such a concept exist in the 1970’s?) the spread of articles was very similar to today. Maybe not so much has changed after all?

To tie these two anecdotes together, I’ll move on to the Decanter Book review page – another publication stalwart. Within the titles listed one stood out, mainly as it had a half page and picture devoted to it. The book – ‘The Great Wine Blight’, the subject – Phylloxera. Using my internet purchasing skills again it wasn’t long before a cheaply purchased copy came through the letterbox, and a thoroughly enjoyable read it was too, sparking all sorts of ideas on a future article on Phylloxera. For all the bad that it has done, costing vast sums of monies to prevent and putting smaller growers out of business, surely it must achieved some good things too? Vignerons were no longer tied to the crops that they had, and could potentially turn to fashionable grape varieties. Replanting could also take in some of the newer ideas such as density planting, vine training, and site/aspect location.

It was pleasing to me that a publication from 1975 was still bringing new knowledge and insight to this reader some 40 years later. The final irony is that I have since had to buy a newer book on Phylloxera, as the older one didn’t have the details of the 1990’s invasion. I’d need to buy a newer book.

n.b. An abridged version of this post was published in Decanter magazine in September 2014

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Hindsight, from Vinesight

Welcome to Vinesight!

These pages are intended as somewhere to store my musings on wine.

As well as documenting any interesting new wine experiences I have, I’ll also be looking back at history, attempting to bring it back to life through informative and simple short bursts.  I’ll also be serialising an extensive piece of research I carried out on Dom Pérignon champagne, and offering advice to anyone sitting exams in wine, through my own experiences of being a WSET student.

Although they will inevitably crop up every now and again, I won’t be spending too much time on tasting notes and scoring systems, as that’s more fun to do on your own!

I Hope you enjoy reading these pages, and please leave me feedback for any article that you find interesting.

Cheers!

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