Saturday 25 January 2014

The Pedebernade vineyard at Sarragachies, France

PĂ©debernade vines planted in Gers 200 years ago declared French historic monument

We stumbled across something of immense interest when interrogating the internet the other day. There is a vineyard in the St. Mont appellation not far from Lourdes with 190 year old vines still producing grapes in the care of the same family. As well as known varieties there are 7 unknown ones all planted next to eachother in squares so that ox ploughs could cultivate the soil.

The 6 ha. vineyard has become a Unesco World Heritage site: the first to be created from living vegetable matter as opposed to mineral (stone).

The unknown varieties and the remarkable layout are survivors from the pre-Phylloxera era - the only living examples to be recognised although more may come to light one day. Chance and luck have played a major part in the survival of this vineyard. The soil is sandy enough to have prevented Phylloxera from having taken a hold and the fact that there has been unbroken ownership for so many generations meant that when the French government offered a deal to grub up such local vines (Arrachage), M. Pedebernard preferred to keep the old vines rather than take the money. The 87 year old had been born in the house outside whose door the vines are situated and his grandmother had told him that her grandmother had told her the vines were "very old".

The vines in this plot are so diverse as to include no less than seven previously unknown varieties. The familiar ones include Tannat and fer Servadou. The unknown varieties have been christened Pedebernade 1 - 7. The respected local Co-operative, le Cooperative de Plaiemeont may even make an experimental cuvee of these one day.

Thursday 9 January 2014

A tale of two Frappati

We have welcomed a lighter style of Frappato in the past, particularly that of Santa Tresa which we encountered first at Wine Fairs in London and at Vinitaly. The difference between Santa Tresa and other Frappati of our acquaintance is that it is 12% as opposed to 13% or more. As with Grignolino, this small percentage difference makes all the difference. There are other grapes which we think would benefit from being reduced a point or two on the Richter scale; Pinot Noir being one.

So all hail to the lovely Beccaria Frappato above, available from more than one good stockist in London and Lo! Marks and Spencer have the Santa Tresa itself in their own bottling. We warmly recommend these wines!

Thursday 2 January 2014

And a Happy blooming Christmas to you too!

As anyone reading this blog will have realised (presuming anyone reads this blog), it doesn't take much of a pretext for us to buy a bottle of wine (or twelve). So although we can't stand Christmas, it does give us the excuse to acquire even more than usual. With hints of the impending festive season being dropped around late July, thought processes start along the lines 'what would go well with the Turkey.'

Experience has taught us that people drink less than we imagine but we still overdo it. This is not a terrible thing as there are inevitably further occasions over the period when we are called to bring out more wine impromptu and presents to be conjured out of thin air unexpectedly.

From September (or so it seems) wine writers start to make their recommendations. These get increasingly strident and bizarre as Thanksgiving (just a rehearsal for the main event) gets closer. We can't get too exercised about this. The poor wine trade barely ticks over 11 months in the year and so relies heavily on Xmas sales to make anything at all.

We always get something wrong in our buying and planning. This time we found ourselves in Tesco on New Year's Eve having realised we had only semi-sweet bubbly and the two hugely expensive bottles of red we had so carefully chosen to go with Christmas dinner fell as flat as a fart as they say.

Let's start with them. On our trip to Australia in November/December we fondled a bottle of Wendouree Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec on more than one visit to the Australian Wine Centre in Sydney. There was a choice between that and at A$10 less, Wendouree's straight Malbec. Getting into the 'Why pay less' spirit, we went for the more expensive alternative. Now we are Wendouree fans and have just loved the wines on the extremely rare occasions we have tasted them. This time, our bottle seemed to have gone into a deep sulk and no one around the table would have given it another thought. Subsequently we read James Halliday's injunction to "wait 20 years before drinking." Oops!

Nil desperandum, we had another beauty up our sleeve; a 1992 Colares from Bottle Apostle in London; the Hackney branch to be precise. With the closure of 259 Hackney Road, we just had to call on Bottle Apostle to restore our faith in the London wine scene and life in general.

We were glad we did. Having heard about Bottle Apostle it was a glaring lacuna in our wine travels not to have paid them a visit: and the one of the only shops outside Portugal to stock Colares.

Again, after much to-ing and fro-ing, we took the plunge, so it was with excruciating pain that we discovered that this bottle too had decided not to show itself as it could and should have done. What was going on? Had we not let either of these wines breath enough? Should we have decanted them? Again, the bottle could have come from the bottom shelf in a supermarket for all the pleasure it gave.

This wasn't Bottle Apostle's fault. We applaud them for selling Colares. Our experience has been that Colares is  not as age-worthy as it's supposed to be and one is playing Russian Roulette with older bottles. This was also a producer we hadn't tried before and it is dawning on us that our taste in Colares is perhaps rather particular.

In San Francisco earlier in the year we had laid out a similar amount of cash for a highly recommended Colares from a new venture, Monte Cascas. That bottle was disappointing indeed but we have seen a positive review of this wine from Julia Harding MW no less so we seem to have been unlucky with this particular example.

There were compensations. A surprise hit was the Bianco d'Alessano so kindly provided by our new friend from Melbourne, Darby Higgs proving that lightening can strike twice in exactly the same place. By this we mean that it was as sensationally good as its fellow Puglian white we discovered in a tasting 'South' - the Minutolo from Polvanera.

This was joined by the first Australian Natural Wine we had ever encountered, a very un-sulphured Patrick Sullivan Britannia Creek co-fermented Semillon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc field blend from the Yarra Valley, Victoria. As good as anything Europe has to offer of that kind. Classed as an Orange Wine, it was indeed an excellent food wine.

This wasn't the only Orange wine; Forlorn Hope's Kirschenmann Pinot Gris was a surprise as the remarkable deep gold colour couldn't be seen in the brown glass bottle. We enjoyed this immensely once we had adjusted out taste buds to suit.

As an aperitif we had planned also went off half-cock; a Joseph sparkling red from Joseph Grillo's Primo Estate, South Austraila. This was another bottle we had brought back from Australia. A handsome tall bottle with a stylish label and interesting back story. The wine is made in a kind of Solera in which there is Shiraz fom many vintages going back many years together with a hogshead of Joseph 'Moda Amarone' Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, some Australian Fortified wines and even wines bought at auction The label continues "Don't ask any questions, the answer is in the bottle. This we loved but again, public recognition was minimal.

Sparkling wine fared better over the days of indulgence. The secret is to avoid Champagne and Prosecco we reckon.

Our surrogates were a sparkling Famoso, 'Divo' from La Sabbiona, Ravenna. As we have seen in this blog. An obscur-issimo variety despite its hopeful name. Fortunately it is so wonderfully perfumed and delicious that it might well live up to its aspirations. We also enjoyed the non-sparkling Famoso (entitled VIP) from La Sabbiona.

To this we added Tesco's Finest Pignoletto. Whoever had the inspiration and courage to put this out deserves an honorary MW, if they don't have an actual one already. We have admired a natural Pignoletto before and even bought a case of it but that was perhaps too much of a good thing. This is not a natural wine and so is less cider-y. Perhaps a good thing as it allows the grape to express itself more naturally as it were.

A couple of Melbourne bottle shops

Bottle Shops (Australian for Wine Merchants): we love it. So down to earth and no-nonsense.Yet inside, there's plenty of sophistication and lots of thought behind the selection.

Our guide, the indispensable Darby Higgs recommended Cloudwine on (Wynyard St!)

and Prince just around the corner. Both are excellent in different ways; Prince a bit more up-market with a more international selection

and at least a few Hunter Valley Semillons

tasting and event room,

amazing chandelier made of wine glasses, Cloudwine with more reasonably-priced bottles almost exclusively Australian but plenty of choice. It is difficult to leave either shop without a bottle or two.

Cloudwine also sells Muscat on draft from a barrel - a touch of which we approve.

There are of course other Bottle Shops in Melbourne. We liked at least one other on Toorak Road: The Bottle House. We didn't go into any supermarkets but from what we saw in the basement of David Jones (equivalent of John Lewis) the independents have it.

A day in the Hunter Valley

After Melbourne it was Sydney and the opportunity, finally to visit our beloved Hunter Valley; Australia's oldest-established wine region and the nearest to Sydney. Why beloved? Because we adore and admire Australia's truly original contribution to the great wines of the world, Hunter Valley Semillon. Still amazingly little known and under-appreciated (although almost never underpriced), Hunter Valley Semillon has unexplained magical properties which distinguish it from all other wines. For starters it is light and low in alcohol (the vast majority are of 10% and 11%) and yet it is astonishingly age-worthy. The older the better really.

As if that was not enough, it never, ever sees wood and yet has a component which makes it taste as if just the right amount of oak has been used. A felicitous illusion.

We learned from Andrew Jefford that it is grown on the 'wrong' East-facing side of the valley. It must be tricky to produce. Whoever evolved this style of wine should have their name elevated to immortality some how (perhaps in the same way as the Germans call Pinot Gris Ruelander). In fact it is not known who this pioneer might have been. Semillon was planted in the Hunter Valley in the 19th century and is still the second most planted white grape after Chardonnay. It seems that what we know as distinctive Hunter Valley Semillon has been evolving over a long time from what Jancis Robinson calls 'a conjunction of quirks of nature.'

We expected there to be a wider selection of Hunter Valley Semillon in Bottle Shops but were consoled to see reasonable representation on hotel and restaurant winelists. These were not always the most famous marques: we came across the excellent small producers Margan and Andrew Thomas in this way.

The drive from Sydney is about 2 hours. After plying through many a suburb comes an attractive if uneventful freeway. Things get a bit more picturesque after turning off and passing through Cessnok (do they know their town has the same name as the word for Garlic in Russian?). Suddenly there are signs to wineries, wine trails and suchlike - all rather well organised.

We had no particular itinerary. Our plan was to head for McWilliams as it is their 2006 Sainsbury's 'Taste the difference' Hunter Valley Semillon which is Slotovino's house white (even we never tire of it).

The McWilliams place has the air of an American ranch and is set in lovelier countryside than we had been led to expect.

Someone had said the Hunter Valley was not very attractive as it had been an important coalmining area (we didn't see a single slag heap all day).

The McWilliams clan were gathering for a family wedding which made an interesting show while we took a snack at the Cellar Door Cafe and then it was to the tasting room where a couple of seasoned representatives led us through the menu.

We didn't want to taste too many wines as this was just the first of the day so we zeroed in on one at the top of the range we hadn't heard of, Phil Ryan limited release. This was a 2009 from young vines. Phil Ryan is McWilliams's Chief Winemaker from their Mount Pleasant vineyard.

Very good, as was another Mount Pleasant offering called Lovedale (2007, 11,5%).

The other speciality of Hunter Valley is Shiraz but we are at a loss to understand how producers could imagine this will ever be as interesting as the Semillon. It has no particular magical properties for a start!

Another destination was Briar Ridge if only because they have a Winemaker and Consultant there called Karl Stockhausen.

Thanks to James Halliday's 'Australian Wine Companion' we had alighted on this interesting fact and so we set our SatNav for Briar Ridge hoping to meet the famous composer's 'Namensvetter'.


Of course Mr. Stockhausen wasn't there but we were able to buy both the Semillon and Shiraz bearing his name.

 We later sent photos of these labels to Stockhausen Verlag - the composer's publishing house and they were very interested to see them. Even more strange was the fact the staff at Briar Ridge had never heard of the composer!

Properties were now coming thick and fast. Next was Lindemans, predictably big and corporate

Please wait to be seated
with facilities for the largest coach parties,

Poole's Rock (home of Cockfighter's Ghost - not a name to inspire a whole lot of sales, surely?). Berry Bros. and Rudd stock Poole's Rock at over £40 a punt. Nice tasting room; pretty view.

Next up, Brokenwood whose wines are familiar to us from the UK,

 McGuigan, just as big as Lehmann although this didn't prevent them from winning prizes such as International Winemaker of the Year, Australian Producer of the Year and International White Winemaker of the Year.

Sadly the top McGuigan wines are not available in the UK. The entry level wines are not as good as some of their rivals' and their low-alcohol wines we have found disappointing.

After such big-scale operations it was interesting to enter a compound devoted to small producers.

These included Andrew Thomas, Little Wine Co,

Margan, Hart and Hunter, David Hook, Talga, Highgate, Triggerfish and Keith Tulloch. Only this last name was familiar to us from the UK. Together, as well as Semillon and Shiraz, these producers make wine with Sauvignon, Verdelho, Vermentino, Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, Traminer, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Barbera, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Moscato.

Our last tasting stop was at Tamburlaine which is Certified Organic. This was a nice and cozy operation with some interesting wines including a Chambourcin.

We snapped this up immediately having once enjoyed an Australian Chambourcin but  never seeing it anywhere again. One taste and we were convinced anew of this hybrid's worth.

Lake's Folly is also in the area. This was one of the Icon wineries chosen by Oz Clarke in his book 'New Classic Wines.'

Dr. Max Lake had once tasted an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon with some Petit Verdot and in 1963, decided to start a winery devoted to these grapes and Chardonnay. He was a pioneer at that time. It was the first boutique winery in the Hunter Valley and his achievements put the Hunter back on the map. His Cabernet/Petit Verdot was at one time the most expensive wine in Australia.

They no longer grow much Petit Verdot but the winery thrives on its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. We hadn't remembered that it was in the Hunter Valley. Our trip was full of surprises like that. There was even a De Bortoli winery over the road from Lake's Folly.

Many of these wineries have Pokolbin as their address abut there is no actual town or even village of that name. The nearest is a little collection of shops and eateries we stumbled on when making our way back to Sydney. We couldn't resist taking a look at the wares in the Winemakers' Outlet. Here we met a very nice lady who had worked in the wine world in various capacities for many years and who warmly recommended a sparkling Malbec/Shiraz from Audrey Wilkinson, one of the oldest establishments of the area (founded 1866). Audrey was a bloke by the way. The Audrey Wilkinson website introduces this fact with "What were his parents thinking?"

 We bought this to give to friends in Sydney in the expectation it was something they may not have come across before.

This was one of those days which will remain in the memory. We very much hope to return and spend more time in this fascinating and beautiful area.