Aldi Wine Club 16th Tasting Panel – Note #3

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Having proudly been part of several of Aldi’s previous tasting panels it was inevitable that at some point I would come across a wine previously tasted.  The last tasting note was prepared a full year and a half ago in April 2016 and so we’re a couple of vintages further forward and any assessment is far from a regurgitation of my earlier thoughts.

The Limestone Coast in the south eastern part of South Australia is clearly named after its Limestone base, which is exactly the right ground on which to grow Chardonnay.  The free draining soil allows the vines easy access to water whilst not allowing them to become water-logged or damp, therefore keeping a low PH level and a fresh vibrant acidity.  It is the same combination that gives us both the world famous wines of Burgundy and Champagne.

The magic is clearly working here too as both Decanter and the IWSC have bestowed awards upon the wine’s 2014 vintage.  With the ‘Exquisite Collection’ a flagship in the Aldi wine range, the bottle comes smartly presented with a royal blue neck brace and screw cap, nicely off-setting the green glass colouring.

Aldi Chard 1

The label is printed on nicely textured paper and is clear and well-presented, although it does contain my pet-peeve; the signature ‘approval’ from ‘someone somewhere’, in this case chief winemaker Adam Eggins.

The wine was bottled in South Australia by well-respected family run winery Taylors, and imported in to the UK by a subsidiary of Burgundian wine royalty, Louis Latour.

Exquisite Collection Chardonnay 2016, Limestone Coast, South Australia, 13.5%, £5.79

The backlash days of ABC (anything but Chardonnay!) are long gone but, as if still weary of the burden, the first word that the back label summary says is ‘unoaked’ and it did get me wondering if makers of Aussie Chardonnay still feel the need to distance their product from the cheaper, mass-produced offerings of the past.

Aldi Chard 2

In colour this is a pleasing medium yellow with golden tints, but the real fun starts with the nose which is rich and full with an almost gloopy quality.  Led by the clean, well ripened tropical pineapple, there’s a whiff of stony apricot to back it up.

As suggested by the nose, the palate is rich and full with an oily texture, well balanced by an upfront mouth-watering acidity.  The fresh fruit seesaws between the yellow notes of tropical pineapple and honeysuckle, over to pippy green apple and freshly squeezed lime.

In terms of weight the palate has a nice creamy, buttery, peppery spiciness and I can imagine it being a wonderful match for a similarly weighted dish such as pasta carbonara.  The pepper gives way to some white grapefruit on the end palate which adds a drying, bitter tone which frankly, overstays its welcome.

Not recalling any bitterness in the 2014 vintage I decided to check my notes and, sure enough, the end palate was fruit driven and long-lived, and was something I raved about in terms of quality.

A quick check on the vintage reports for both 2014 and 2016 for the region show that 2014 was the better of the two years with good sunshine fully ripening the fruit.  2016 would therefore naturally have fruit that wasn’t as bright as before and would contain trace elements of unripe characters such as apple pips and bitter grapefruit.  I also noted with interest that a fellow customer review on the Aldi website called it out for being drier and not as ‘outstanding’ as the previous vintage.

Followers of biodynamics believe that certain days are better than others for tasting a wine, and I did ponder whether the time of year may have something to do with the overall success of the tasting.  Tasting the 2014 on a bright and sunny day in early springtime yielded a wine that I fancifully described as reminiscent of ‘blue skies’ and yet this tasting left an impression as brooding as the dusky autumnal evening I conducted it on.

In summary, whilst not as immediately satisfying as the 2014, this is still a rich, ripe wine that will pay dividends when matching up to food.  Another thing definitely worth a highlight is that, in the time between the two tastings the UK has seen an increased level of wine duty as well as pricing fluctuations from the uncertainty of Brexit, yet there has been no price change for this wine.

That on its own is frankly remarkable.

A customer favourite scoring 4.6 out of 5 on the Aldi website, my thanks go to AldiUK for supplying the bottle used in this tasting.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #6 – September

The last blog piece written about the progress of my vines through the 2017 season lamented the less than stunning weather seen in August and hoped for a warmer September to compensate.

Any summer renaissance however (which was promised by several forecasters) never materialised and we are now fully in to the cooler temperatures and visibly shorter days of autumn.

Here’s an update as to how things are progressing in the final run up to the harvest.

Ortega

Ortega Sept 17

Furthest along in terms of maturity, this variety is there or thereabouts ready for picking.  The leaves are already starting to change colour to autumnal brown, and I measured the Brix level of the grapes as 19 (giving a potential alcohol of 10.8%).

As a short explanation for those not familiar with growing/picking grapes, a refractometer is an essential tool for a winemaker.  You simply squeeze a small amount of the grape’s juice on to the clear end plate, seal it in and look through the viewing lens.  As light refracts through the trapped juice, the angle of refraction measures the volume of sugars present, ergo the potential alcohol.

Refractometer

10.8% potential alcohol is fair for a white wine produced in the southern UK climate.  11.5% would be perfect so I’ll try to hang on just a little bit longer for now.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay Sept 17

Probably about 2-3 weeks behind my Ortega is my Chardonnay, with a current Brix level of 16 (potential alcohol of 8.8%).  The leaves here have also just started to change colour but, unlike my Ortega, the last couple of weeks have seen the vine continuing to grow, not so much in length/height, but in density.

MVN3

MVN3 Sept 17

As mentioned last month I have seen a very poor yield this year.  This last week has seen veraison (the changing colour of the berries) start to kick in, but the Brix is still tracking at a lowly 11, which is not even on the conversion chart!

You would expect a red grape to be trailing behind the whites, and this one looks like it will need every single remaining day of the harvest if the poorer crop is to come to anything at all.

Summing up, there is once again a slight resurgence in the temperatures forecasted for next week but, as this change has been on the horizon for a good few weeks now, I will believe it when I see it.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #5 – August

As suspected, the weather this last month has been variable and pretty typical of an English summer.  Whilst it hasn’t been overly cold (temperatures have been anywhere between 16-23°C) it has been generally overcast and cloudy, and fairly muggy.

Heavy bouts of rain have punctuated throughout, with at least 2 short hailstorms here in Newbury, so the grapes have been well watered.  Only one final trim of the vine length has been needed which hopefully means that all their energy is going towards swelling the grapes.

Chard Aug17

The Chardonnay and Ortega continue to track pretty evenly with a pleasing number of good sized bunches each.

Ortega Aug17

Conversely my MVN3, which is the more established of my varieties, is having a lean year this year (perhaps due to less keen attention on my part in taming its vigour).

MVN3 Aug17

Usually if we see such wash-out weather in August we get a late summer renaissance in September.  Initial forecasts look like this may be the case but, with a Bank Holiday weekend coming up, we can never be too sure!

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Vineyards of Hampshire 5th Wine Festival & Cottonworth Vineyard Tour

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The 5th annual ‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ wine festival was held recently and, welcoming the opportunity to try a whole host of local wines not too far from my doorstep, I popped along.

‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ is an umbrella name for 8 producers:   Danebury, Exton Park, Cottonworth, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Jenkyn Place, Meonhill and Raimes.  With each site taking it in turn to play host, the festivities this time were held at the Decanter and IWSC award-winning Cottonworth Vineyard, located in the heart of the Test Valley.

The wineries, alongside a line-up of local food producers, were set up in a marquee surrounded by the delightful installation of a vine maze.  Especially planted at the site as a focal point for events, the circular maze has some light-hearted obstacles to keep you searching for the exit, or perhaps to keep you trapped within with a glass of something nice.

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I wasn’t able to spend too long investigating though as, true to form, the late July weather was marked with grey clouds and some very heavy downpours.  This forced pretty much all of the attendees in to the central marquee causing much difficulty when trying to spend some quality time with each producer.  The deep queues also made further sense when I heard our host saying that attendance this year was something like 50% increased on last year.

Breaking free of the festival crowd I took a tour of the site with owner Hugh Liddell, who came across not just as knowledgeable, but also incredibly passionate about the vines and land itself.

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Having started out in the vineyards of Burgundy, his own personal winemaking philosophy is based around an intense relationship with the land.  Multiple times in conversation he was keen to point out how he aimed to harness and celebrate the chalky aspects of his south facing slopes.

A humorous moment came as he described the effect of the free-draining chalk soil on the vine roots, leaving them ‘stressed’ and searching for nutrients.  He mused that, like the best artists and poets, this stress brought about the best results.  Later on at the festival we were able to taste his Classic Cuvée and Rosé and both were notable for their pale colouring and soft and uplifting qualities on the palate.

With a terroir reminiscent of the Cóte des Blancs, Cottonworth are naturally growing the 3 classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier along with a tiny amount of Pinot Précoce.  Since the first plantings went in to the ground just over a decade ago they have been carving out their own corner of the growing UK sparkling wine market.

Forming part of the larger family farm, the grazing land once used for cows has been transformed plot by plot.  Covering some 30 acres, Hugh has specifically chosen individual sites where he believes the grapes will grow to the best of their ability.

We discussed the recent frosts that hit the UK (as well as many of the grape growing parts of northern Europe) and Cottonworth was badly affected, losing between 50-70% of their crop dependent on the plot.  Whilst they don’t currently produce a Vintage wine, 2017 will see them dipping in to their wine reserves to maintain a decent level of bottles available to market.

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The badly hit 2017 harvest wasn’t Hugh’s first brush with frost and the crippling crop losses that can occur.  He explained that the family had sold off some of their land to well-known UK producer Nyetimber allowing him to buy two vineyards in Beaune, France, taking him back to his winemaking beginnings.

The first year they suffered 90% crop losses due to frost and, adamant that the same thing wouldn’t happen again, worked in collaboration with other local vintners to burn wet bales of hay to form a protective layer of smoke above the vines.  Hugh recalled how the widespread smoke made it almost impossible to breathe in the vineyards, but the vines remained safe!

The conversation then moved on to pruning which, as a grower of vines myself, I found extremely interesting.  Hearing his views on how best to trim, canopy manage and prepare the vines for the following year will definitely affect how I look after mine.

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Following the tour it was then back to the festival to try some more wine, and thankfully the sun had appeared meaning that there was a bit more space to manoeuvre around the stands.  All in all, this was a very interesting and informative event, and I look forward to returning in 2018 to see who the next host will be.

Technical Info

Cottonworth Classic Cuvée NV – 45% Chardonnay / 46% Pinot Noir / 9% Pinot Meunier, Alc 12.5%, Dosage – 6g/l, RRP £28

Cottonworth Sparkling Rosé – 43% Pinot Meunier / 32% Pinot Noir / 18% Chardonnay / 7% Pinot Précoce, Alc 12%, Dosage 9g/l, RRP £30

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #4 – July

The recent weather, interspersed as it has been with some of the hottest days on record and most days hovering around the 21-22° mark, has a lot of similarity to the start of the 2016 harvest.  In terms of the progress of my vines, it couldn’t be more different.

A good portion of the reason I keep these short weather and growth diaries is to cross-check their performance year on year, and this month versus last July is a good case in point.

The 2016 vintage, although beginning with early warm weather, failed to produce a yield of any substantial size.  The temperatures pulled back somewhat in July and August and the potential crop never filled out, leaving slim pickings come October.

Back to 2017, and now that any risk of frost has been mitigated against, I’m blessed with numerous healthy and blooming bunches on both my Chardonnay and Ortega vines.

UK July17 Chard.jpg

UK July17 Ortega

My MVN3, which is usually quite a large producer (having been established slightly longer than the other vines) is actually the poorest performer at this point.

UK July17 MVN3

There’s been a good deal of cropping this month in the naturally extending length in all vine varieties, as well as significant leaf cropping in the Ortega due to the recurring issue with mite blistering to the leaves (Colomerus Vitis).  Although these mites are not harmful to the overall crop, I’m attempting to keep the soils and vines as uncompromised as possible.

UK July17 Mites.jpg

The last few days have brought significant rain, including one serious overnight storm, and damp conditions are forecasted for the next couple of weeks.  Hopefully this will serve to feed and swell the grapes just enough, without them being overpowered or diluted.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #3 – June

Once the late May frost had passed without too much incident to my vines I wrote of the promise of warm weather.  The warmth we’ve ultimately seen has been both a blessing and a curse, culminating in 2 of the warmest June days for some 40 years.

Post any minor loss of leaves to the frost I’ve been more blighted by strong winds, with both my more exposed Chardonnay and Ortega vines taking a hit and losing some potential new canes.

With a further eye on controlling the impressive early vigour of the vines I’ve cut back a good length of the extreme growth and am now thankfully in a position where I have a good number of healthy bunches beginning to form.   Potential yields for both the Chardonnay and Ortega are on a par with each other, with the MVN3 only a short way behind.

Chardonnay June17

Chardonnay

Ortega June17

Ortega

MVN3 June17

MVN3

A further month of extremely pleasant and warm weather is forecasted, but I shall be glad when the current heat of 30°C drops down to a more bearable 22-24°C.  Careful watering over the next few weeks will be key to ensuring that all progresses to plan.

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Wyfold Vineyard Visit – June 2017

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I recently had the pleasure of doing a little working stint at Oxfordshire based Wyfold Vineyard, helping to re-trellis just a few of their 9000 vines as they look towards their summer growth spurt.

Trellising

Not open to the public, and well hidden-away down some very tiny country lanes, the two hectare Wyfold site is part of the empire of Barbara and Tony Laithwaite, the couple behind leading mail order wine merchant Laithwaites.

Roots and Soil

Planted in the early part of the century on stone and gravel soils at an altitude of 100 metres, the cool climate site is home to just the classic Champagne grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).

Buds

Used to create an exceptional multi-award winning sparkling wine since 2009, the range has now expanded to add a sparkling Rosé from the 2014 vintage for the first time.

Son Henry Laithwaite now runs the show on a daily basis alongside his business partner Ben Postlethwaite and all were present on the day to guide us through our tasks which, on the page, didn’t sound too taxing.

Merely being required to adjust several different trellis wire heights to direct the vines skyward, the generous springtime summer sun heat was both a blessing and a curse.

Like most vineyard work in the UK, payment came at the end in the form of a wonderful home-cooked meal supported by copious amounts of wine.

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In addition there was the provision of musical entertainment in the form of ukulele based band Pure Fluke as well as the genial conversation of vineyard friends both old and new.

The Band

To top it all off we were basking in the late eveing sun in the lovely surrounds of a vineyard, and any heat fatigue and other aches and pains instantly disappeared.  All in all this was an insightful and rare visit to a vineyard not readily accessible, and another chance to directly help towards the success of English wine.

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With thanks to Laithwaites for arranging this vineyard visit.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #2 – May

My previous growers blog left off with the expectation of a possible bad frost heading my way and, sure enough, the end of April saw low temperatures arrive in the UK.  Like most French wine regions, the south of England saw much destruction with some producers having as much as 75% of their crop affected.

Although France suffered a slower, week-long grip of bad weather, the pain-point here was the night of the 27th/28th of April, and the specific hours of 3am to 5am.  To try and curb any destruction of the early flowering I was one of those lighting small fires around my vines to bring the temperatures up even just one or two degrees.

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Creating this small micro-climate could well have made the difference to this year’s yields, and thankfully (very much due to this precaution), my losses were only small.  The leaves and buds that were destroyed were in between the various heat sources I had laid out and therefore at the mercy of the natural temperatures which dipped down to about -6°C.

Since then the weather has been fair with occasional rain and temperatures in the low teens, and all three of my varieties are now showing good signs of growth with clusters forming.

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This week has seen me start adding some additional trellising to begin to control the vine growth which, as usual, is led by my Chardonnay vines.

Forecasted for the next two weeks ahead are some glorious clear and sunny skies with temperatures in the range of 20-26°C.  Happily this means we are beyond the worst of the weather and can now look forward to a good growing season.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #1 – April

As usual, one month after the first signs of life in my Chardonnay, Ortega and mystery vines I like to kick of the yearly document of their progress.

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Compared to last year we have more leaf and new stem growth in all varieties, with the Chardonnay taking the lead as usual.  The weather has been very pleasant, with one early April weekend warmer than many parts of Europe, and temperatures of circa 26°c gave us one of the warmest April days on UK record.

UK17 Chardonnay

                                                                                      Chardonnay

UK17 Ortega

                                                                                          Ortega

Generally the weather has been hovering around the mid-teens celsius with patchy cloud, and there’s only been a handful of days with rain but, as I write, the vignerons of Champagne are reporting crop loss due to bad frosts.

UK17 MVN3

                                                                               Mystery Variety #3

I’ve noted at least one English wine producer worried about this hitting the south of the UK, and the forecast for the week ahead does seem to be punctuated with overnight temperatures around O°c and more rain than we’ve seen up to this point.

Here’s hoping that the good progress so far isn’t spoiled early on.

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Australia Day 2017 Wine Tasting London

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This week saw the best of the Australian wine scene hit London to celebrate Australia Day with a spectacular and expansive tasting event. In a new venue for the biggest show ever, many producers flew in exclusively to show off around 1100 wines from 230 wineries in what is the largest trade tasting of Australian wine outside of Australia.

As well as the winemaker talent, circulating the tasting tables were some of the most prominent figures from the world of wine including Steven Spurrier, Victoria Moore, Oz Clarke, Matthew Jukes, Olly Smith, Joe Fattorini, as well as a double-digit number of MW’s.  Their attendance further drew you to the conclusion that this was entirely the place to be on a cold Tuesday in January.

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With such quality on offer the show catalogue was as thick as a novel and I can honestly say that after several hours of tasting my arm ached from holding it.  With it clearly impossible to taste anywhere near all of the wines my strategy was to seek out my favourite producers and use the opportunity to taste higher up their ranges, or their exclusive bottles only available through specific merchants.  The event truly ran the gamut of what Australia has on offer, with the cheapest wine on show retailing for £3.50 and the most expensive for £200 (The ‘Vanya’ Cabernet Sauvignon from Cullen, which sadly I didn’t get around to trying).

What follows is a brief rundown of my top producers of the day in no particular order:

Peter Lehmann

The Chardonnay on offer here was a particular standout, and perhaps even the best in show for me.  The ‘Wildcard’ Riverland 2016 Chardonnay was so pure and expressive it was hard to believe it could deliver such quality at just £8.99 a bottle.  Soft and creamy as I like my Chardonnay, it just pipped the slightly more expensive (£14) ‘Hill & Valley’ Eden Valley Chardonnay 2016, which was almost equally as lusciously rounded and vibrant.

Wakefield

Majestic stock two bottles of the entry level range from Wakefield and they are constantly on my recommend list.  Tasting up, the single vineyard ‘St Andrews’ Clare Valley Chardonnay 2015 (£25) delivered intense blossomed fragrance and cream and white pepper spice.  Both the ‘Visionary’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 and the ‘Pioneer’ Clare Valley Shiraz 2012 were extremely limited bottlings (especially shipped for the event, we were trying the very low bottle numbers of 11 and 19).  My notes contain descriptors such as concentrated black fruit, damson, stewed fruit, smoke, confection and spice.

Jim Barry

Whilst not the most expensive wine of theirs on show (£143), I noted the 2016 Assyrtiko making its debut at the show.  This Greek variety, championed by Peter Barry since he first tasted the variety back in 2006, makes an appearance ten years later and marks a unique departure for the ‘Riesling heavy’ Clare Valley wine scene.  A good medium acid carries the lemon and fleshy green apple fruit through to a smooth and creamy finish.

Apparently Assyrtiko is a labour intensive grape to farm and will remain something of a Jim Barry curio as opposed to the next big thing in Clare Valley.  Only a limited number of cases of the 2016 are being released making this a real treat to try.

Tahbilk

The iconic Tahbilk winery boasts the largest plantings of Marsanne anywhere in the world and the two examples on display (£11-14) were finely fragranced and delivered an almost melt in the mouth quality.  The ESP Shiraz from Nagambie Lakes (£35) which I simply listed as ‘beautiful’ was crammed full of vanilla, black cherry, pepper spice and a medium grainy tannin.  Their flagship ‘1860 Vines’ Shiraz 2006 (£73, also Nagambie Lakes), whilst garnet in colour, was still fresh and vibrant with the fruit more towards prune and raisin and the tannins still grainy yet softened by time.

d’Arenberg

With the famous red stripe across their labelling, d’Arenberg are well known for their oddly named wines.  Their ‘The Coppermine Road’ McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, exuded beautiful fragrance and distinct liquorice tones, but was still very austere with very evident tannins and needs a while to mellow down.  ‘The Dead Arm’ Shiraz 2012 (£29.50) carried on in the same vein.

athazagoraphobic-cat

With possibly the best wine label I have ever seen (and one of the most bizarre names) ‘The Athazagoraphobic Cat’ Sagrantino Cinsault 2011 (£65) was full of tertiary character and rich chocolate mocha flavours.  The name of the wine refers to a fear of being forgotten and, as such, when twisting the wine bottle, the cat appears to follow the pair of legs around.  Awesome and delicious.

Honourable mention should also go to:

Ten Minutes by Tractor Featured recently in ITV1’s The Wine Show, I tasted through a good selection of their Pinot Noir (£34-42), all showing a lighter character whilst keeping brambled redcurrant and cherry fruit to the fore.

Leeuwin Its always a pleasure to taste through the Leeuwin range, especially their Art Series wines.  The Margaret River 2012 Chardonnay had waxy citrus on the nose and rich, creamy smoky green apple flesh on the palate.  With the addition of pepper spice to the end palate, this was well blended and very good indeed.  The Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (£47) and 2012 (£50) both contained grippy tannins, concentrated and crunchy fruit.  The definition of intensity whilst retaining elegant silky composure.

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Yalumba A seriously good display of over 20 wines from this well-known producer, I took time to re-acquaint myself with their excellent ‘The Signature’ Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2013 (£38), which is rich, spicy and meaty like a good broth, and their ‘The Octavius’ Barossa Shiraz 2009 (£68) which was still wonderfully youthful and fresh whilst retaining the power to stand up to a strong meaty meal.

Wirra Wirra I reviewed the entry level Scrubby Rise Chardonnay back in 2015 so was interested to taste upwards.  Things really started getting interesting at around the £40 mark, with their ‘Absconder’ 2014 Grenache delivering silky cherry fruit whilst remaining lighter in body at 14.5% alcohol, and the ‘RSW’ Shiraz 2013 giving a candied confectionate parma violet florality with the body that could stand up to serious food.

With thanks to Wine Australia for providing the ticket to this fascinating masterclass

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