Tasting To Kalon Soil With Mondavi’s Genevieve Janssens

Ξ September 30th, 2010 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

In one of the most interesting wine events I’ve yet attended, local Bay Area artist Laura Parker teamed up with Robert Mondavi Winery and the elegant Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking, for what was billed A Taste of Place Tuesday night at Saison Restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. Not since the Wine As Liquid Music event has my brain been so engaged by a tasting. It began with the innovative invitation I received in the mail, a boxed soil sample from Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Vineyard (ancient Greek for the highest beauty), and this mysterious phrase, “Please join us for an interactive soil ‘tasting’”…. Interactive soil tasting? What could this possibly mean? Well, it turns out to mean quite a lot, especially for those of us interested in deepening our understanding of terroir. For conceptual artist Laura Parker, I believe, is really on to something. I shall begin with her.
 
Laura Parker “It started out when I used to do really large-scale drawings of food, and people would say, ‘That’s a beautiful peach.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, it was’, meaning that I had eaten that very piece of fruit. So I began bringing the farm into the gallery. I didn’t want them to only see what I do, but also how beautiful I think the food is. Because I believe that what the farmers do is as much art as what I do, if not more. I wanted to see that recognized. Further along, when looking at soils, we came up with these crazy tasting notes for those we were collecting; they were just kind of tongue in cheek, like wine tasting notes. That’s when we came up with the idea, well, why not do a soil tasting? We then figured out how to do just that without having to actually taste the soil. The idea was to smell the soil and then eat the food from that exact soil. So far we’ve done 65 farms, and we’re not going to stop!”
 
Having collecting dozens of soil samples solely from organically certified farms, most certified for well over ten years, Ms. Parker’s many public presentations involve placing about an ounce of dirt by volume into a wine glass and add sufficient purified water, (filtered water was used at our dinner) to create a mud; disarmingly simple, something all children are familiar with! She then swirls the concoction vigorously. First noted is the muds’ glass-coating characteristics, its color, the rate of water absorption, organic, vegetative matter content, and the ratio of rock to clay, silt etc. (Traditionally, a farmer might add a bicarbonate solution etc. to induce a diagnostic reaction.) The ‘tasting’ begins with a few deep whiffs followed immediately by eating produce generated directly from the soil source. The idea she is attempting to get across is twofold: on a cultural level, it is to remind and deepen a participant’s appreciation of the origins of their foods and, more to my interests, to seriously explore the possibility of a connection between a soil’s multiple traits, most importantly aroma, with the produce itself.
 
Ms. Parker has collected soils from all over California, mostly coastal regions. Santa Cruz and Watsonville farm dirt is particularly well represented. At the Mondavi event three soils were ‘tasted’, all from well-established California agricultural lands: topsoil from J.E. Perry Farms in Fremont; a pasturage sample from Bodega Artisan Cheese; and the To Kalon Vineyard from Oakville. From the first farm we tasted peas grown in the very row from which the soil was sourced. The second product, a goat cheese, was from the animal’s Bodega pasturage; the third, Cabernet raisins from To Kalon.
 
Whether peas, goat cheese or grapes, I worked diligently to locate some gustatory connection. (Having been an organic gardener for years, I have a special, desperate affection for my small plot of soil, its fragility, how easy it is to lose it to erosion and airborne contaminants.) And I can report that it is difficult! The power of suggestion is strong. However, I cannot discount the possibility that something is going on. After all, it is well established that the surrounding environs, the biodiversity within a farm, can and does impart detectable flavors to fruits and vegetables when eaten raw. This is true of pine and eucalyptus trees, sage, thyme, even the creosote bush. There are dozens of examples, some negative, such as car exhaust, fire smoke and pesticides and fungicides. Quite recently I tasted wine grapes approaching harvest, and the Bordeaux Mixture, a fungicide I have worked with in the past, was particularly evident on the palate. Needless to say, I stopped at a single grape!
 
The soils showcased Tuesday evening were themselves extraordinarily distinct. Perry Farms’ soil was bright, the clay clearly evident, with few deeper humus notes. A very light brown, the uniform sheeting along the sides of the wine glass clearly evidenced clay owing to its microscopic platy character. (Think of the rainbow of colors from spilled gasoline. This effect is due to its molecular structure, the sheeting of which results in differences in refracted light visible to the naked eye. Hence, the rainbow.) Bodega’s was very earthy and dark, with plainly visible plant material and finely ground rocks. Unlike the Perry soil, Bodega’s hardly coated the glass at all, leaving clumps, an irregular pattern of mud around vegetative nucleating sites. The To Kalon soil (pictured with the ‘07 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon) was darker than the Perry, but with an equally uniform glass coating, though a much heavier layer was deposited. The result was a completely opaque glass. The aroma was heady, richly humid, almost as though freshly tilled. Puzzled by To Kalon’s aroma profile, Ms. Parker informed me that the sample was actually taken from a deeper horizon, from lower in the soil’s profile. This made sense. Clearly, sample depth has a significant olfactory impact. Samples from Perry and Bodega farms were taken nearer or at the surface.
 
Ms. Parker’s brief tasting notes:
 
Laura Parker “With the peas, I can almost taste, just at the end, the minerally clay… And this one with the goat cheese is really direct for me. It is all her own milk. She has twenty-five goats. The land has not been tilled for over 20 years. We chose this feta because it is a very fresh, young cheese. So it will have the most immediate flavor of the pasture and goat’s milk. For the To Kalon I dehydrated the grapes because of their otherwise overpowering sweetness. But this soil is musty.”
 
I asked whether she has ever done blind soil tastings. She said that was the next step.
 
Laura Parker “Usually the people I’m doing this with are not wine people. So you don’t really know where people are coming in with their palate. Its just to have a place to stop for five minutes and think about different places having a different taste. That itself is extraordinary for people because they are so far away from that. I would actually love to do carrots; they are amazingly articulate. And beet greens. And do them from very different soils, like maybe something coastal; something in the Central Valley and maybe Healdsburg. But you’d have to have a pretty sophisticated palate.
“Sometimes at a gallery opening we’ll have anywhere from 100 to 300 people come to the bar. All of a sudden my little heart starts going crazy! I have a 100 people standing around smelling dirt. It’s just the best!”

 
While not Proust’s madeline, one is immediately transported back to the smells of sliding into second base, the odor of a grandmother’s gardening gloves, the rainstorms and forest explores of youth. Ms. Parker has hit upon what I hope will become a popular public activity. Leave it to the artist to breathe new life into so overlooked and common a material, soil. And, yes, it is amusing her name is Parker. I can well imagine her publishing the Soil Advocate periodical!
 
Once seated in the dining room, Ms. Janssens introduced herself to the learnéd crowd, which included Steve Heimoff, Charlie Oiken, W. Blake Gray, Patty Burness, among many others. In her charming accent, an expression of her terroir she insisted, her sense of place, she declared her love of the soil, spoke passionately of living the life of the vineyard since 1978 when her participation with Mondavi began. She recounted the pleasure of walking the vineyards before phylloxera, the pain felt during phylloxera, and the joys of replanting. Now entering a new era, her love is undiminished. With her toast to humble dirt, the meal began.
 
The dinner itself was very pleasing in the main, each course paired with a Mondavi wine. The menu in italics:
 
Garden beans in various forms, river vegetables. This was paired with a 2008 Fumé Blanc about which Mondavi’s Director of Winemaking, Genevieve Janssens, a tall, elegant woman with all the French affectations I find absolutely beguiling, said this:
 
“We bring the fruit in very cold, in the morning. Direct press, no skin contact; and then in barrels it is fermented very slowly. We use all French oak, 35 to 45 percent new. We do battonage to give that richness to the mouthfeel, depending on the year. Every year we taste and then decide; if it is a year with a lot of acidity then we will do battonage much more. If it is a year which is balanced, we will do less so it is not too fat. When finished it is bottled in August. That’s it. We don’t rack. It’s on lees for the entire nine months.”
 
Chicken liver mousseline, shinli pear, huckleberry and rosebud. This was paired with a well-made, balanced 2008 Pinot Noir.
 
Sonoma lamb roasted with vadouvan spices, wild greens. Two wines came along, the 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a very lovely, bright 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. About the 2007 Ms. Janssens said,
 
“This is 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon into which we have blended 7 percent of Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot. Again, here is very traditional winemaking. We bring the fruit to the winery for fermentation in our oak tanks. We remodeled the winery in 2000, extended it to support mainly the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Our best blocks are fermented in oak tanks. The fruit is brought to the first level, at the top of the tanks, and then by gravity, when we de-stem and crush, the juice goes directly into the tanks. We try not to brutalize the grapes. Fermentation is for 10 days, not too warm, 30-31 celsius. And then we do our pump-over. We extract as much as we can depending on the potential of the fruit. The winemakers are very close to each tank, detail oriented. Brix is usually around 26; in the wine, maybe 14.8. We cannot be lower than that. It’s the nature of Napa Valley. At To Kalon the vines are quite old, some planted in 1975. Phylloxera came in 1989… so 20 years. And we also have younger, 10 year-old plantings.”
 
Summer berries in their consummé, yuzu ice cream. The 2009 Moscato D’Oro was paired. The combination was far too sweet for my liking. I kept thinking of trying another soil sample, so hooked was I on Ms. Parker’s concept!
 
Evening brought a cooling breeze. The animated voices of the crowd began to lessen. Talk at many tables was punctuated by laughter, now more personal to fewer ears. The energetic waitstaff could take a breather from their prompt, efficient service. I had to return to Santa Cruz, an 80 mile drive, or I surely would have closed the place. A lovely night.
 
For those interested in Laura Parker’s project, please visit the Laura Parker Studio at 1890 Bryant Street, 206 San Francisco, at the corner of Mariposa & Bryant Streets.
 
Great thanks to Laura Shear of Folsom & Associates for inviting this writer to so fine an event.
 
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Portuguese Wines, The Gifts Of Friends

Ξ September 27th, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

Upon the completion of principle filming of a documentary on historical wines, when back in Lisbon I found myself with more than a case of remarkable wines given to me by winemakers from across the country and the Azores. What sublime, halcyon days! Up at 6 a.m. each morning to prepare to film the sunrise across the plains of the Alentejo and the first light on Pico volcano, or to feel the warmth, hardly lost overnight, again gathering in the stones of the Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel. Paying attention to the soundtrack, I was also to record on these mornings distant dogs barking and children’s voices, trees rustling in an occasional miraculous breeze, small scooters puttering down narrow village streets, lowing cattle and complaining sheep filling in between the strikes of a somber church bell; this is some of what I heard, each often in exquisite isolation, sounds rising against the overwhelming silence of the countryside. Never more than in Portugal have I heard less, yet heard more, if you get my meaning.
 
Another familiar sound was when handling the bottles of wine given to me. A morning ritual was to rethink, reflect, on all of my yesterdays here, the hard work now metamorphosed into a bottle. But the bottles may also be outright cyphers of tangled speech and sensory overload, mine. For the wines are not, in the main, rare. They are not trophies. They are not wines subject to the noisy, quasi-commercial blather of internet-based critics and bloggers, however necessary might be their breathless voices elsewhere. No. These wines are the stories of a place made liquid by an anonymous farmer’s hand. And even the word terroir seems quaint to describe them, ever the naive ur-concept marking thought’s surrender to mere commerce. No. These wines, in the main, are scoreless non-entities, and all the better for it. Portugal, with nearly 300 varieties under cultivation, is among a very, very small number of countries left on the planet where the wine writer, however accomplished, is left struggling for understanding.
 
A Jeropiga made by the Colares oenologist (and friend), Francisco Figueirdo. Every year he makes this fortified drink as a holiday gift for the Colares Collective workers, some of them volunteers. As folks may know, certainly readers of this space, Colares is under threat from expansive development, principally second homes of well-to-do Lisbonites and expats. Its rough grape, Ramisco, is out of step with an increasingly globalized palate, less the case with its Malvasia. Standing four-square against the combined forces of an indifferent EU, touristic and vacation developments, and the international palate, Colares growers face the opposition with courage, which is to say, they labor.
 
This is the famed ‘black wine’ from the Vinho Verde, here from outside of Braga, specifically Basto. Made of the Espadeiro grape in very limited quantities, in part by the august Dr. Pedro Malheiro, this wine is locally famed for its harsh, rustic flavor and deeply pigmented color. Other tintas grown include, depending on the sub-region, Amaral, Alvarelhão, Borraçal, Padeiro, Pedral, Rabo de Ovelha Tinto and Rabo de Ovelha (Anho), and Vinhão grapes. Whites… another time! The Minho overall? The grapes grown there are yet another story! In any case, the alcohol for this wine tops out at 9.5%. The Espadeiro grape makes the staining qualities of Petite Sirah positively negligible!
 
Ah, the frustrations of translation! Though I’ve been to Sr. António Miguel’s adega twice, still the full complement of his patrimonial lines escape me. Located in Vila Alva, the adega, as with many others in the town and, quite frankly, the region, is filled with cement jars and a few of clay. I shall not go into the wherefores and whys of the clay jar tradition (I shall let my film do that), I will volunteer that I felt a moment of near-disabling humility. At the end of our adega shoot, Sr. António appeared with this bottle in his hand. It was from a competition he’d recently entered. He did not win. I don’t think his effort even placed. But this is a bottle I will treasure. When on our film scout in February, Sr. António told us he was looking to sell his adega. I am happy to report a young relative has since stepped up and has pledged to keep the winery operational for another generation.
 
Lastly, I offer a 1963 Dão wine. Rather than write the gloss, I prefer to let my friend, Mario Rui Ferreira, associated with the adega, tell the story.
 
“The vineyard: Single vineyard, very old. As Carlos’ father Elisário (1899-1997), used to say : ‘vines from our parents and olive trees from our grandparents’. This, and the manual work done in very hard conditions, made the land owners keep the plants as long they would produce, respecting the life cycles.
 
Varieties: Touriga Nacional (65%), and 30 grapes varieties officially approved in the region, including a bit of white, following the saying ‘a bunch of flowers is made of every flower’.
 
The story: This was the last wine the family produced before coming back to its own label in 1999 [Quinta Vale Das Escadinhas & Quinta da Falorca]; nut it dates back further, to 1964, to the founding of the Adega Cooperativa de Silgueiros; it was then that Carlos’ father decided to go along with the other farmers. So, leading by example, the family started to sell the grapes to the coop. As this ‘63 would be the last wine ever, there was a big effort to make it an excellent wine, one that would evolve very well, that the family could drink it in the following years; and, most importantly, they kept several bottles to revisit every once and a while on special family occasions. The funny thing is that Carlos’ father, preferred young wines! That’s the main reason why there are a few bottles left.
 
The wine making: As we all know, 1963 was a great year for wine in Portugal, and this wine one is no exception. It really shows the ageing potential that especially Touriga Nacional has. That is linked with the purity of the wine making process, picking the bunches, taking them to the lagar, having them crushed with feet, and letting a natural fermentation start and be finished naturally. Several days later, the juice would finish fermentation and be stored in neutral wood. This was so as to not have the wood influence the wine, but to simply act as a container. The wine would have been sold in the same year.
 
The wine, when bottled in ‘64, had 12,5% alcohol, full of fruit, good acidity, fresh, with minerality, and with a not too dark color.”

 
These are just four of the dozen remarkable wines I brought back. How I wondered whether Customs in Newark would allow me to pass! The officer I confronted watched me closely as I explained why I had so many bottles over the limit. Declining to stammer, insisting the case of wine was only for personal use (how could I ever hope to draw him into my dense narrative in the moment of our encounter?), he relented. I am grateful for this gentleman’s generous interpretation of the restrictions.
 
A final note: The blogosphere finds itself, no less than the established press, shattered into specialities. This is a necessary division of commercial, but not intellectual labor. The strength of the specialist is also their most profound weakness. As I move through the wine world deepening my appreciation of even the most well travelled regions, I discover again and again the limits of expertise. The question remains: For whom does one write?
 
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Saving Robert Parker, A Mexican Adventure, pt. 1

Ξ September 24th, 2010 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time |

A couple of years ago, before the creation of this site, I wrote a serial on a highly respected wine blog forum. Much time has passed since those innocent days. After much reflection (and a substantial rewrite), I thought it might be nothing but fun to post it here. The tale is what I call ‘enhanced fiction’. In an effort to keep it short, and with a vigilant eye to my serious work, only ever so often I will post additional parts, five in all, I think. I hope it is received in the same playful spirit in which it was written.
 
PREFACE
 
One summer Robert Parker and I went wine tasting on islands scattered in the Indian Ocean. I was to become the official Wine Advocate correspondent for what he called A-list Atolls, and he was showing me the ropes.
I have known him all my life, but owing to our competitive natures many were the angry breaks we took from one another, some years long. Worst was the bloody boil-over one cool Tasmanian evening while philosophizing about Nature’s feminine caress, whether of grapes or the driftwood, the generous curves of which were burning in our beach fire.
 
Perhaps the moonlight was to blame, perhaps it was his realization that Zanzibar Cellars was actually headquartered in Oregon; to this day, I do not know. But suddenly there emerged a violent disagreement over a Christmas Island 2001 ‘Tattoo’ we were then sipping. He claimed its color was luxurious, a dense ruby/purple/inky-saturated powerhouse, best drunk when in a bathrobe or toga; while I thought it irrefutably modernest, marginally literate, a simple shirt-stainer, besides, the sun had set. On the nose he detected gravel repeatedly trod upon by dirty horse hooves, a bonfire of mushroom and new Las Vegas Bacarrat felt. No! I had to disagree. All I got was Miracle-Grow-infused rutabagas, empty promises, a fruit to-be-determined, and just a hint of bitter clown tears. But it was disagreement over the palate that we turned to fisticuffs. Believe it or not (and I hoped a few bottles of the four cases produced made it to American shores; damn those British collectors), he thought the finish like a broth of dusty snake, enobled by crushed insect aromatics, smoking loons, flamboyant espresso, and (this is when I hit him) bloody socks. Smoking loons? Bloody socks? Are you kidding!? Robert, you have lost your mind, I yelled. It finished like a flat Sprite, compost tea, lead-contaminated Chinese candies and unwashed sex toys.
 
He hit me back, and screamed, “Cassis notes! Loads of personality!”
 
“Yeah, sure, old man. You may be impressively endowed but you need 5-7 years of cold cellaring!”
 
We parted that night. I made it back to the US somehow (funny story, another time). We went our separate ways. He deepened his career in gustatory deceit, I went into film. I guess we’re even.
 
Years pass…
 
Episode 1 RECONNECTING
 
The 4 a.m. stillness of the Barcelona nunnery was broken by a phone call from RP. “What? RP?!” “I need your help, Ken….” The voice was beaten, resigned, yet supple, super-ripe. Desperation at 96 points. So many years had passed since the Tattoo tasting had shaken the wine world that I hardly recognized his cutting-edge vocals. “If you’re RP what’s the password?” “Sea Smoke”. “Well, right. How did you get my private cell #?” “My miracles are many”. I remember it differently. I hung up, shocked at the call. You see, I was fruit-forward, so to speak, in a rusty bride of christ; yet I soon came to a bright sense: Was so a rare friend really in need? What if Yes? Regrets, recriminations of old flew out the door, flowed away like water under the proverbial bridge. Sweet RP! Was that really you? Think so! Metaphors freely mixed in my simple brain. His boisterous, grilled-meat personality, so concentrated on the phone, sought my firm structure. A no finer grip of friendship have I never known! My soul toughened. I turned to my pale flower, my cloistered game, “Dear, please forgive me. Let go.” I let her go. “RP called”, I whispered. Muscles loosened. She understood.
 
RP and I, we’ve both long been wandering under hostile stars. A friend in need…
 
I silently leapt up from the bed, no more than a hard cedar board. I took gentle care to break Sister Teresa’s sleepy hold on my ankle from the next cot. Anxious, was I. The room full of God’s betrothed stirred, their dreams of concubinage disturbed. I placed a modest stack of Euros topped with chocolates, my usual, near the door. Bless the tortured beauties.
 
But RP, only RP is on my mind. I checked my phone. The International area code recorded was that of Mexico. I’m on my way, RP! I’ll find you!
 
Episode 2 TRAVEL
 
There is nothing wrong with a case of Clape, I try to tell myself. Old joke freshly squirming in a medicated body, mine. I’m 20,000 feet over the Atlantic on a Lufthansa flight J2347 to Mexico City. Got to find RP. But, can I? I’m as nervous as a baby in a crack house. I call repeatedly the number RP left until, frustrated by the plane’s erratic flight path blamed on my phone, the co-pilot himself, a muscular, dry ‘58 wafting more than a hint of Axe, hair stained green from too many lay-over swims in chlorinated Ramada pools, slaps the cell phone from my ear. OK, ok! Humiliating. I then remember what an intimate friend, M. Rolland, once told me in the depths of Pavie’s ‘other’ tasting room back in ‘82, “Never stop flying. Ever.” Yes. I find a clearing in my panicky forest of exclamation points, and breath deeply. Feel better. M. Rolland was right (although turns out he uses the same line with everybody. And I mean everybody. Never calls).
 
The penicillin forbids me drinking. But I have a look at the wine list anyway. Jeez! You’d think the German’s had won the war! Bullying consonants were everywhere and stuck sideways in my throat: Mittelrhein, Hessische Bergstrasse, Saale Unstrut, Ahr (?) The French followed on the list, hardly surprising, and with vowels to spare. Where do the French find all those vowels? I think they’ve been stealing letters of the alphabet from each other for centuries. The spoils of war. Cointreau vrs Bock. Bordeaux vrs Pfaltz. What madness!
 
Then came a couple of Italians, Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano Antica Chiusina and Brunello Di Montalcino Riserva Le Due Sorelle. The smaller the typeface the better the wine, I guess. But I am not in my right mind. I have only one thought, RP! Wait, there are California wines rounding out the list. Couldn’t hurt to take a peek. Dominus, Araujo, Egelhoff, Duckhorn, Grace (seems they’ve a) Family, among others. Well… health can wait. I order two small plastic bottles (post 9-11 world), a 1999 Chateau Beaux Mals, a 2002 Trokensmashmouthin Shrieksbaden, and a very pretty Staglin ‘Nam’ from Cali. And…
 
Peeled from my seat upon touchdown in Mexico City, I stumble through the airport toward Customs…
 
END OF PART 1
 
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Spotted Wing Drosophila Update, Sept. 23

Ξ September 22nd, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, PORTUGAL, Wine News |

While on the Açores Island of San Miguel, I came across a vineyard clearly afflicted by the Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD). As far as I know, San Miguel has not hitherto been recognized as a site of infestation. Indeed, there I saw entire bunches of grapes destroyed by the pest. A grape was chosen at random and cut open revealing a single writhing maggot within (though, as we now know, multiple females may infect the same grape). The local winegrower was very familiar with the fruit fly and referred to it by its English name, a name given it by my friend Dr. Martin Hauser of the Plant Pest Diagnostics Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. For full details, at least of my qualified reporting on this emergent threat, please see my April, 2010 update. There readers may find links on this subject, including one to my account of the very first cane fruit grower gathering, held in Watsonville, California, concerning the field work to finally properly identify the pest.
 
On September 16th I received an email from Dr. Hauser containing new pictures of the SWD. For the greater purpose of this update, I post them here. It is important to note that Dr. Hauser granted permission for use of the images here.
 
Ovipositor Tip
 
Ovipositor Tip, close up
 
Ovipositor, extreme close up
 
suzukii wing
 
suzukii ovipositor (visible spectrum)
 
Great thanks to Dr. Martin Hauser for the information reported here.
 
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Greybeard’s Corner, Aug-Sept 2010

Ξ September 19th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Greybeard's Corner |

The ubiquitous Randal Graham seemed to be everywhere last month as a barrage of tweets, articles and interviews hit the ‘net. Decanter.com posted an interview by Adam Lechmere (including a brief Bio for those few of you not familiar with this eclectic giant of the business) referencing his new project of growing a vineyard from seed, which was also discussed on Decanter.com but given more in-depth exposure by Jon Bonné over at SFGate – who then followed up with a set of tasting notes a few days later.
 
Grahm’s genetic plans were put into context with the news of militants in France destroying a crop of genetically modified vines in Colmar, Alsace. Unlike GMO crops previously targeted by activists around the world these vines were part of a government funded project set up by the National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) to investigate resistance to the Grape Fanleaf Virus. Ironically it was only a couple of months after a detailed article in the Washington Post explaining the Colmar situation. As someone trained as a geneticist I know I have a more “relaxed” view of genetic manipulation of plants and animals, but even after several re-reads of this story I just find myself sad and angry that a project with so much potential for good was destroyed for a principle which is tenuous at the best of times.
 
On a lighter note August also saw data showing that US wine consumption has risen for the 16th year running to the highest ever levels. Looking a little deeper at the statistics I found it interesting that the current levels are only marginally higher than the peak seen in 1985 & ’86 – feel free to drop a comment if you know why the mid 80s seemed to be a boom period for wine drinking in America?
 
Closer to home and I found myself reading a lot by British wine writer and critic Tim Atkin, including his amusing article on novelty wine labels and then a to-the-point piece on Wine, Social Media & the power of the internet. Tim is a no-nonsense character and has made a few enemies along the way (mostly in South Africa, which is strange since that’s his wife’s nationality) but he is also a concise and clear writer who I enjoy reading and usually end up agreeing with. He is also a writer for The Times newspaper, the first UK on-line media website to go behind a subscription wall, but luckily he uploads his pieces on his own website shortly afterwards.
 
August is the month where many Europeans take their main summer vacation – in France many take the entire month as holiday – but this year factors have conspired against me so that I was work-bound with no sign of any R&R on the horizon. It was also a quiet month for wine events in the N.E. of England with only the regular NEWTS meeting as a beacon of light, this time a South African themed tasting hosted by local retailer Tony Raven, of Proteas Wines. Although I’ve tasted some of his range before the theme this time round was Chenin Blanc plus his Umkhulu range of aged reds. As I have a soft spot for Chenin and am trying to expand my experiences of reds with bottle-age then this promised to be an enlightening meeting.
First was the Beaumont 2009 Chenin Blanc from Walker Bay (although the winery at Bot River is a few miles inland from the main region near Hermanus). This was a well made wine with creamy fruit on the nose and a fresh acidity, not overly complex but easy drinking. One step up was the Hope Marguerite 2009 Barrel Fermented Chenin, also from Beaumont. Grapes from 30 year old vines were fermented in large French barrels to produce a rich, oaky nose and a floral taste. The mid-palate was a little soft and the oak a touch extreme, but this creamy, long finishing wine was still delicious and should improve with age.
2 Chenin blends were next, with the complex, spicy Lammershoek 2008 Roulette Blanc (Chenin, Chardonnay & Viognier) from Swartland and the chemistry experiment that is the Miles Mossop 2007 “Saskia” ; a blend of 67% Chenin (including some Botrytised grapes) and 33% Vioginer fermented on the lees. This was a wine you could sit back and contemplate on with an unusual nose (probably the botrytis grapes) with an rich oiliness – not cheap at £17 but unique and therefore worthy, for me at least.
 
We then moved onto the Umkhulu wines covering the ’03 Shiraz, the ’02 Malbec, ’02 Pinotage and the ‘01 Akira – a 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Pinotage blend. Umkhulu is Zulu for “The Big One” and the brand plays on African heritage with the traditional Zulu warrior shield on the labels, although the wine is actually made at Bellevue Wine Estates in Bottelary.
The Umkhulu wines Proteas stocks are mature and all the better for it; the Shiraz had a beautiful earthy nose with some liquorice and smooth, integrated tannins with a touch of menthol and toffee; the Malbec was big on liquorice but a bit flabby and short on the finish; the Pinotage was herbal with noticeable acidity, quite youthful relative to the others; while the Akira leaned towards barnyard on the nose with a blueberry and herb undertone, with a chewy attack on the palate, mixing fine tannins which were the main feature of the finish – although its short mid-palate detracted somewhat.
It is rare to find affordable bottle-aged wines but all these reds were retailing at just over £10 and each one showed enough integration and secondary complexity (as well as tasting damn fine) to easily justify the price.
 
The evening finished with a return to Chenin Blanc, this time with a sweet offering by Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards and their “Vin Pi 2”. I couldn’t find out much background information for the producer or the wine, other than that it was made from naturally dried grapes using the Solera method more typical of fine Sherry. The nose suggested a sour freshness with some honeysuckle, and the first sip coated the mouth with a lusciously sweet floral toffee flavour, although there was no mid-palate as such. At £25 a bottle it’s not cheap, but this smooth, moreish delight is one of the better dessert wines I’ve had this year.
 
And so to conclude this month’s diary post with the round up of wines I’ve bought and drank for myself (well, Sarah helps me with the whites!).
It would have been a pure Old World purchasing month – with 3 Italians, 3 French and a German – were it not for the last minute impulse buy of two Australians in the bargain bin at a local supermarket; the 2002 and 2003 Rosemount Estate Show Reserve Shiraz from the McLaren Vale. For $10 each I couldn’t resist and they set me off thinking of a Shiraz tasting with the 1997 St. Henri Shiraz I bought in July…more on that next month. The old world contingent was a mix of the traditional and the unusual; a Saint-Estephe, Barbera d’Asti and Riesling in the former camp and a Pecorino, Picpoul de Pinet and Raboso Piave in the latter (I’m not sure where a Côtes du Luberon Rosé fits in!). As you can see I am firmly resisting any attempt to focus my buying on a particular style or country (and doubt I ever will, there’s always something new to try!).
 
Of the wines I opened during August all but one were enjoyable 3-star wines including a quaffable Portuguese Vinho Tinto, two very good Austrian Grüner Veltliner (Huber’s 2007 “Berg” and The Wine Societies’ Exhibition 2008, made by Willi Bründlmayer) and a surprisingly good 10 year old Condrieu from Guigal.

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However, it was the “one” that stood head & shoulders above the rest; Jim Clendenen’s entry level offering, the Au Bon Climat 2006 Santa Maria Valley, which I bought for £18 ($28) about a year ago. I guess many reading this post will be wondering what I’m smoking, getting so enthusiastic about a wine that may not be the best of what California has to offer, but remember that good Californian Pinot is a style I have limited exposure to here in the North of England and for me this was a superb 4-star example compared to the cheaper supermarket labels I’ve tried before.
The wine had a slightly dirty nose (that’s good by the way) with some smoky ash and as you drank it was sweet at first, with some savoury fruit, then a touch of dryness and a gentle warming at the back of the throat. It was deliciously smooth with enough character to keep interest as you poured another glass and took another sip, and another, and another….OK, you get the picture. The last couple of glasses went perfectly with pan-fried duck breast and, as I put down the empty bottle, I thought to myself that this is what food and wine is all about.
 
On that contented note (even the memory as I write this is satisfying) I bid you farewell for another month, Slainte!
 
Greybeard

 

From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech

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