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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Laithwaites Premiere Tasting – May 2016

Maybe it’s because the sun has finally arrived here in the UK or maybe it is just good labelling, but both the wines supplied as part of the May offering from Laithwaites Premier looked absolutely inviting and ready to drink.  Added to which they are two wines that I’ve never heard of before, let alone tried, so it’s another great opportunity.

Belle Saison

La Belle Saison Sauvignon Blanc 2015, France, 11.5%, £8.99

Unusually for this scheme, this white wine is on the low alcohol side clocking in at just 11.5%, but the price-point is still where you’d expect for a good quality Sauvignon Blanc.  The question is: can it deliver on the palate?

French Sauvignon Blanc traditionally hails from the Loire, but this wine is labelled simply as a ‘Vin de France’ and so no identifiable geographic indication is clearly given.  In fact, this wine hails from various vineyards across the south-west of the country, allowing the winemakers to create a consistent blend.  To me, £8.99 seems a little on the high side for a wine that is sourced from such a wide arena, but at least we can applaud the efforts to craft a typical French Sauvignon Blanc.

From the hands of winemaker Hervé Sabardeil (who also makes Laithwaites favourite Chante-Clair), this wine is bottled under a nice green screw-cap which well accentuates the lemon yellow wine.  The label, as mentioned above, speaks clearly of a summery floral wine, which is exactly what you get.

In the glass, the pale lemon yellow is joined by green tints to the rim.  A good intense nose is filled with the light fresh green fruits of apple and pears along with a touch of honey and peach.  There are also the signature fragrant notes of cut grass to add to the fresh lemon.

The palate dances between yellow and green fruits, delivering the flesh of green apples and pears and then jumps towards tropical yellow melon.  The varied fruit salad notes continue with both traces of banana and dried pineapple discernible.  Overall this is a zesty, slightly tart, mouth-watering wine.  The medium weight is balanced well against the lip-smacking acids, with the fruits delivering a good long satisfying length.

Refreshing, utterly drinkable without food, and a good example of a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc.  What isn’t noticeable, but you can raise a glass to, is the lower alcohol level.  This allows you to feel just that bit better about the next glass, even if the bottle price won’t.

Mulberry Bush

The Mulberry Bush Shiraz Merlot 2015, Robertson, South Africa, 14%, £8.99

I seem to be trying more and more South African wines recently which is probably testament to how much more accessible they have become.  In addition, in my continual bid to stay away from the well beaten track and broaden my horizons, I find myself trying less and less Shiraz and Merlot and so this is something of a homecoming.

This bottle (55% Shiraz, 45% Merlot) comes from third generation winemaker Jacques Bruwer and, with famed wine writer Hugh Johnson extolling the virtues of the Cape for quality and value, we should be in for a treat.

We’re in the south-west of the south-western tip of South Africa here, nestled between the mountain ranges of Langeberg and Riversonderend in the Robertson region.  Long sunny days are tempered with the cool misty nights and coastal breezes rolling in from the Indian Ocean, which allows the grapes to have an elongated hang time throughout the season, and fully ripen to maturity.

In colour this is an inky-dark youthful purple in colour.  On the nose there are dark plummy notes alongside redcurrant, damson and raisin, and the tertiary characters of fruitcake and coffee.  Overall it’s a winter warming scent with sweet spices and varnished wood.

As you would expect from the Syrah and Merlot grapes, the palate of this wine is heavy on the fruitcake and spice characters, alongside further notes of wood and brambles.  There’s redcurrants, black cherry, plums, damson, figs, all providing a well weighted body.  I’d also say, given the name of the wine that there’s some mulberry in there too!

The fruit is full, ripe and crunchy in character, and a medium acid draws the cherry and warmth from the relatively high alcohol (14%) in to the end palate.  Overall this is a smooth and mellow wine, perfect with meats or stews, or even on its own, and it was nice to reacquaint myself with these grape varieties after what has probably been too long.

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Yalumba ‘Butcher, Baker & Winemaker’ dinner

Yalumba Dinner 1

Australian wine producer Yalumba were in London this week for their ‘Butcher, Baker and Winemaker’ dinner, and I was one of those lucky enough to have tickets. Bringing a touch of Barossa magic (and sunshine, as it happens) to Maida Vale gastropub The Truscott Arms, was Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose, who has worked for the company for 22 years and has been chief winemaker since 2006.

The evening was scheduled to begin with canapés in the private garden terrace but, due to the waiters focusing on serving the Yalumba Y Series 2014 Riesling (no problems for me here!) and the growing number of people arriving (there were circa 40 in total) the goats cheese nibbles had only just arrived by the time we were all to be seated in their first floor private dining area.

Following greetings from Andrew Fishwick (owner of the Truscott Arms), Head Chef Aidan McGee (who regaled us with a strangely bizarre lecture on creating authentic bread), Louisa welcomed us to the evening, gave us an overview of Yalumba, and also provided an on-going rundown of the wines that were being poured for us. As an aside, I’ve written about Yalumba wines recently following a tasting panel, which you can find here.

The dinner itself consisted of 4 courses and 6 further wines to try. First up was a charcuterie plate (image, below left) consisting of pressed pork, potted duck, smoked pork, cured beef, celeriac, gherkins, capers and crispy sourdough. With this we were served a white wine and a red wine – respectively Eden Valley Viognier 2013 and Old Bush Vine Grenache 2013. Due to the sheer amount of different foods to be matched either with the white or the red wine, and trying to remain in the conversation with other guests, I must admit my tasting notes rather escaped me at this early point. Louisa was also still giving us an on-going dialogue, but what I do recall is her commenting on how Viognier is a great food wine, and that there isn’t really a bad pairing for it. Judging by the myriad of food that was quickly cleared from my plate, I’d have to agree.

Yalumba Dinner 2

It was then quickly on to the fish course (image above right, sorry – I started before I remembered to take a photo), and we were served Halibut in a Yalumba Roussanne reduction, with grapes, spinach and salsify. Naturally the wine served here was the Eden Valley Roussanne 2013. Like the Riesling and Viognier before it, the colour of the Roussanne was a vibrant green and yellow, almost luminous. The palate here was creamy fleshy green fruit, with a spice that really perked up the fish, and a great length. It’s lucky that I enjoyed the pairing, as my +1 sprang on me that they didn’t eat fish and so I ended up with two portions.

Yalumba Dinner 3

Next up was the main course (image, above left) of Beef cheek, carrots, spring greens and smoked mash. Paired with this we had two red wines; the Patchwork Barossa Shiraz 2013 and the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2010. There were two standout food and wine pairings in the evening for me, and the Beef cheek, smoked mash and Cabernet Sauvignon was the first of these. The cheek was cooked to perfection and the creamy mash melded with both to create a rich and textured whole. On its own, this was the best wine of the evening (and probably not coincidentally, the most expensive at £30 a bottle)

The final course of the evening (image, above right) was English strawberries, lemon verbena curd, strawberry jam and ice cream. Paired with this we had the FSW8b Botrytis Viognier 2014 (FSW stands for Fine Sweet Wine). This was the second excellent food-wine match of the night for me, and the strawberries worked amazingly well with the luscious tropical sweetness. I was slightly miffed to see that our table mat (if you like) was a fill-in-form to be able to order any of the wines featured in the evening, which for me commercialises what is meant to be a social gathering, but it was extremely hard not to fill it in and buy some of this luscious sticky.

Although there were too many people in attendance to make this an intimate affair, the sheer unknown of your dinner companions was actually a great element, and I spent the evening happily chatting away with two chaps who worked behind the scenes at Majestic wine, learning a few things, and passing other knowledge back. Louisa did ask the gathered crowd on several occasions if they had any questions, but as is typical, very few put themselves out there to ask anything in front of that many people, and I did come away missing the one-on-one winemaker aspect that I felt this dinner had promised. That said, once dinner was over our hosts invited everyone downstairs to the main bar area to continue the drinking, but alas, my carriage awaited and I had to leave.

All in all a memorable night with great food, great wine and great company.

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Water in to wine

In my modest but fairly sizeable wine rack sit 6 bottles which I’m not touching. This isn’t because they are rare vintages, are valuable, or even because they need ageing to reach their peak.

No, it’s simply because they contain 15% alcohol and having had a bottle or two before I found it to be too overpowering. I do like a ‘big’ red wine and subscribe with Laithwaites to receive their ‘Big Reds’ mixed case, but the clue to the huge body is in the name of the wine. ‘The Heavyweight’ is a blockbuster Shiraz from South Australia and packs a punch that (judging by the reviews online) is loved and loathed in equal measure.

Heavy wine  Punching above its’ weight?

Occasionally this particular bottle pops in to a mixed case, and when I forget to replace it, adds to my growing collection. I started thinking of gifting the bottles, but with the high level of alcohol I felt it would need to go to a serious wine lover rather than slipped in to the mix at a party. If I couldn’t vouch for the wine though, how would I be able to pass it off to a friend?

I was interested to read a letter in this months’ Decanter magazine from a Professor Herbert who clearly has a similar problem. I must admit that I had never considered his solution of adding water to a wine to dilute the alcohol (indeed, in an upcoming review, I’m even baffled by a red wine meant to be served over ice cubes). The idea of watering down wine seems almost an abomination of all the hard work that the producer has put in, and it was only a few months ago that I wrote about the outrage caused by ‘Wine Based Drinks’ where exactly this practice was happening (in this case by the winery, rather than at home). My split-second shock and disdain was quickly transformed in to one of absolute curiosity. Could this be the answer I was looking for?

Professor Herbert makes mention of an article in the New York Times which talks about the effects of dilution across a range of beverages from Cocktails to Coffee. Adding water to high alcohol spirits is an accepted norm, and when doing the tasting exams for Spirits at the WSET you need to dilute them with water. This isn’t merely to stop you getting hilariously drunk in the exam, but is because the dilution effect of the water can bring out subtler tastes and aromas that you may not notice through the alcohol burn (which will occur in any alcoholic beverage with an abv of more than about 14%).

As always the best way is to find out for yourself, and so I popped to my wine rack and picked out the Heavyweight for a taste test.

The unadulterated wine was a youthful vibrant purple indicating a clean and fruit forward wine, with a clear view of the tears in the glass highlighting the alcohol level. The nose was of deep dark red cherry with jammy notes (from the high alcohol), a biting spice, and also floral notes, particularly vanilla. The palate was an initial huge warm fruit-bomb explosion, but then with nowhere else to go I was left with a hollow mid-palate. In addition, the initial fruit explosion meant that the palate quickly dissipated and I registered the length as medium (mostly made up of a sickly sweet taste and warmth from alcohol, as opposed to fruit). To be fair to this wine, I think it may have needed food (it is Australian, so a BBQ may not have been far from mind when creating the blend), but I tried both versions without.

For the second tasting I decanted the bottle contents with an additional 20% mineral water (Evian), taking the abv down by the same 20%, ergo 15% down to 12%. The colour of the wine was still a youthful purple with less visible tears and the rim clearly now water-white. The nose, instead of a fruit bomb, was more restrained with more tertiary characteristics coming through. In place of the overt fruit I was hit by black cherry mocha, cigar smoke and older spices (a varied combination) blending in to a warm whole. The palate was very smooth, if still a little sweet, but without the fruit bomb the length became at least twice as long and all about the warmth of the tertiary characters instead of the hit of primary fruit. Like the first wine the acidity is refreshing and carries the wine through the palate, and both had a hint of finer-grained tannins in the mix.

There’s no doubt that this is a well-made wine, but there is something fundamentally smoother and longer lasting about this ‘watered-down’ example, and something which pushes back the overt jammy fruits and draws towards tertiary characters of coffee, chocolate and wood. With a rising number of wines clocking in at more than the traditional norm of 12.5%, perhaps now is a good time to get familiar with the potential of adding water to wine?

My response to Professor Herbert can be found in the August 2015 edition of Decanter magazine.

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Yalumba panel tasting

Time for another Tesco taste panel submission now, and this month it’s a double-whammy of two wines from respected South Australian producer Yalumba. Based in the Barossa Valley, Yalumba are a rarity in the wine world as they are still in the hands of the original family and are now run by the 5th generation descendants of founder Samuel Smith. Founded in 1879, they are notable for their commitment to the sustainability of the surrounding environment, and parts of their estate are farmed both bio-dynamically and organically. South Australia is fortunate to have some of oldest vines in the world, and Yalumba have made a clear commitment to their care and cultivation by establishing the Old Vine Charter – a guarantee that consumers have clear age provenance of the vines used to produce the wine, and to act as a barometer as to both the quantity and quality. The charter tracks vine age from 35 years to those that can be said to have been alive in 3 different centuries, and so there is some serious heritage to understand and protect. Yalumba also get bonus points from me as a producer leading the way preserving the Viognier grape (which I reference in my earlier article Missing in action).

Anyway, on to the tasting!

Yalumba Two

Yalumba Old Vine Bush Grenache 2013, South Australia – 14.5% abv – £11.99

The bush vines in the ‘Old’ category span between 35-80 years old and, due to both the nature of a bush (as opposed to larger trellised vines) and the reduced vigour of old age, crops are small but full of flavour.

The nose gives off clean deep fruit notes pairing rich red cherry with vanilla and violets from subtle oak influence. In conjunction with both the deep colour of the wine and the visible tears on the glass (betraying the alcohol level which clocks in at 14.5%), it prepares you for what could be a huge wine. What actually transpires is a full, rounded body, paired with an appealing acidity which glides the wine through your palate with such smoothness that it’s a pleasure to drink. In the mouth, the red fruits are now more towards berry and currants, with a little spice and warmth from the alcohol helping the fine tannins.

This is all at once juicy, chunky, subtle and extremely precise with its concentrated fruits. For me it truly melted over the palate and if tasted blind, I’m not sure I would have had the alcohol as high as it is. That said, there is a warmth from the alcohol that allows this wine to linger in the mouth for some time after. Delicious.

Yalumba Y Series Shiraz/Viognier 2012, South Australia – 14% abv – £9.99

On opening the bottle, there is an immediate hit to the nose of ripe dark red cherry, clean fruits and spice. In the glass, this opens out and again we have vanilla and violets from wood influences. The palate is medium bodied with medium acidity and minimal tannin, and all about the primary fruit blend of cherries and berries which, for me, jumps between both black and red fruit.  The refreshment comes from the inclusion of Viognier in the blend, which both compliments and juxtaposes the Shiraz. Overall this is a pleasant everyday wine to drink with or without food, which is exactly what I think Yalumba were intending it to be according to their literature.

Comparing both of these wines side by side (bottles were served in Riedel glasses, un-decanted, and tasted over 2 separate days), I personally think it is definitely worth trading up from the Y series to the Old Vine. As pleasant as the Y series is, for just £2 extra per bottle you are in to a whole different world of quality, and from an everyday drinking wine to a wine that you would want to keep for those nights when you want to guarantee a good bottle.

Many thanks to both Tesco and Yalumba for providing the bottles used in this tasting.

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