Brief Bottle Notes

The importance of equilibrium

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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In our fast paced world it can be hard to find the equilibrium that we know we all need in our lives. Balance is also an important attribute found in wine, and often cited along with intensity, concentration and length. Together, these quality markers can set a wine apart from the crowd. In the north island of New Zealand, Hawke’s Bay producer, Bilancia, has undoubtedly achieved this particular trait with the Bilancia Syrah 2013.

As well as being the Italian word for balance, harmony and equilibrium, ‘Bilancia’ is also the Italian translation of the zodiac sign of Libra under which its winemakers, Lorraine Leheny and Warren Gibson were born. With winemaking experience gained around the globe, Leheny and Gibson established their small production wine label in 1997 when they returned to New Zealand. Gibson also took on, and continues to fulfill, the role of winemaker at Trinity Hill, one of the more famous Hawke’s Bay wineries.

Celebrated for its Mediterranean climate and diversity of topography with an array of over 25 different soil types, Hawke’s Bay is less windy than many other coastal regions as it is sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds by high country. Few consumers realize that Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s oldest wine region; it boasts a history that dates back to the mid 19th Century with the establishment of vineyards by Marist missionaries. The region remains the second largest wine producing area from where 80 percent of New Zealand’s red wine originates. However, it is the poor soils of the Gimblett Gravels sub-region that has garnered most of the attention in the Hawke’s Bay region. More recently, the spotlight has been focusing particularly brightly on the quality of the Syrahs produced from the area whilst not forgetting the top quality of the Bordeaux varietals, and their blends, that have long been the region’s flagship.

Initially tasted whilst on a trip to Wellington last year, Bilancia Syrah 2013 struck me not only as a delicious wine, but also as a bargain at its modest price point. Apart from the obvious pedigree of its terroir, the hand harvested fruit has been treated more like that of Pinot Noir with hand plunging and 14 months in French oak of which only about 15 percent was new. Nothing is overdone or out-of-kilter in the wine. Dense crimson in colour with a vibrant deep, pinky-purple the inviting nose displayed black pepper and blueberry aromas together with a savoury, slightly spicy complexity. The medium bodied palate exhibited fine, yet fleshy, rounded tannins with a juicy, black fruit freshness alongside lovely dark chocolate, coffee and licorice flavours. It is, as its name suggests, in balance, meaning that this fellow Libran had no problem reaching out for another mouthful. ****

 

From little acorns

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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I thought that catching up with an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen in ages, on her birthday might prove a little tricky gift-wise. It would be difficult to go wrong offering a bottle of wine but would it be risky to give one of my favourite Aussie Chardonnays? Regardless of all the recent commentary that the majority of Australian Chardonnay has undergone a transformation away from the ‘Sunshine in a bottle’ guise, there are still wine consumers who are forthright about their desire for ‘Anything But Chardonnay’. Certainly most producers have moved far away from the deeply coloured, buttery-nosed, overly ripe, flamboyant style that put Australian dry white wine on the global wine map 30 years ago. Some Chardonnays can now be the complete reverse – so watery pale and intensely tight that they are virtually austere in character. They can be singular in profile, but at the opposite end of the fruit spectrum to their famous predecessors.

What is so exciting about Australian Chardonnay is that winemakers who are producing the more understated, yet not austere, styles are crafting wines that more readily reflect their origins and the high quality of the fruit grown there. Resolutely in this group is David Bicknell, co-owner and winemaker at Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley of Victoria. Oakridge was established in 1978 and has been able to source fruit from its own vineyards as well as other, well-established growers within the region. The diversity of vineyards has resulted in a range of altitudes, soils and general topography. With time, improved matching of grape variety (even specific clone) to suitable terroir has produced some impressive offerings.

 The Oakridge portfolio of Chardonnays may be broad but the focus on quality is very strict. There is a ‘Local Vineyard Series’ with, depending on the vintage, offerings from the Guerin Vineyard, Lusatia Park Vineyard and Willowlake Vineyard. Amongst the flagship wines there are also the ‘864 Single Block Release’ Chardonnays from the aforementioned vineyards and more. The diversity of wines made by one winemaker, from a single variety, within such a small area is fascinating.

From the ‘Local Vineyard Series’ Lusatia Park is a north-facing vineyard with red volcanic soils that produced a delicious Chardonnay in 2014. The fruit was all hand-picked and whole-bunch pressed into 500-litre puncheons where it underwent a natural fermentation and then matured for 10 months on lees. The resulting wine is immediately savoury and slightly nutty on the nose with hints of white peach evident. It is the purity and taut structure of the palate that really make it mouthwatering. White peach and zesty citrus intensity, together with the underlying savoury note, produce a wine of balance and elegance. ****

P.S. My friend loved the wine too.

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Respect for Riesling

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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Early on in conversation with Andrew Hoadley, winemaker at La Violetta in the Great Southern region of Western Australia, it becomes apparent that little will be discussed about his own wines. Softly spoken with a quiet, but confident, assurance in his own winemaking skills, Hoadley’s enthusiasm for the idiosyncratic is infectious. A glance at his wine labels, with eye-catching logos and unusual names, hint at an unpredictable approach to everything Hoadley does.

With winemaking experience in various prime locations of the wine-producing world, Hoadley returned to Western Australia to take up a position at Castelli Wines. An insider’s knowledge of the diversity of the Great Southern where he was located gave him the opportunity to pinpoint high quality vineyards and thus exceptional fruit. So it was that La Violetta’s first Riesling labeled ‘Das Sakrileg’ was born as a side project in 2008.

There is certainly no irreverence for the Riesling grape when it comes to the result that Hoadley has achieved with ‘Das Sakrileg’, it is more in the way in which it has been vinified. Contrary to most Australian Riesling production ‘Das Sakrileg’ was barrel fermented using wild yeasts. A few hours of skin contact with some deliberate oxidation the fruit was pressed directly to large (mainly 7-10 year old puncheons of 450 – 500 litres) with some of the pressings retained until racking the next day but reserving some of the lees for an ongoing gentle fermentation. The result is a stunning wine.

Das Sakrileg 2016 is intensely pale in colour with a pretty nose displaying delicate white floral and mineral aromatics. The texture has a wonderful depth to it, undoubtedly achieved by the skin and lees contact during production. The wine slides across the tongue in a silk-like, almost creamy fashion then there is an explosion of ginger, lime and citrus zestiness that builds to an amazing concentration with an extended length of flavour showing its power and finesse simultaneously. *****

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Transfixed by beautiful bubbles

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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As someone with a special interest in champagne and who thoroughly enjoys snorkeling, I’m always thrilled when I get a chance to swim through a plume of scuba diver’s bubbles as they swim below. As the fine bubbles of air burst against my hands and face, I imagine this is what it could be like swimming around in a vast glass of champagne. Completely whimsical, of course! Yet bubbles are one of the most essential joys of good champagne.

It is always magical to watch a tiny, consistent bead dash in a sparkling column up to the top of a glass and gently release fine aromas as it reaches the surface. The recent trend to bring back coupe style glasses is, as you can imagine, not one supported by me. I can certainly understand using a more traditionally-shaped white wine glass for very mature champagne when bubbles are still part of the fundamental experience, although it is the complex aged aromas and flavours that remain of prime importance.

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I have been buying and drinking Pol Roger champagnes for many years. Not only do I admire the quality and consistency of their wines butalso the precision and finesse of every single wine in their portfolio. If I had to choose one category over all the others, it would be the vintage Blanc de Blancs – but the whole range is impressive. Although the millennium vintage is certainly not classed as highly as years such as 1996, 2004 or 2008, it did deliver some fabulous champagnes. Not only was it a warm year but there was also widespread hailstorm damage across 114 communes. Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs Brut 2000 was sourced from 100 percent grand cru villages across the Cote des Blancs. The wine is aged on lees for at least eight years prior to disgorgement. Drinking this wine at 16 years old was a pure delight. The tiny bubbles sparkled in the pale golden liquid, so I was glad I had chosen a traditional flute to admire them. Hints of honey nougat and biscuity, brioche aromas gently emerged from the glass. The palate displayed generous pear and nectarine flavours, but these were all reined in by the wonderful finesse, precision and citrus intensity that are the hallmarks of the house of Pol Roger.****

Boundless Kiwi creativity

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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New Zealand has been at the forefront of my thoughts recently. Not only because I recently returned from seeing my extended family in Wellington, but also due to the latest enormous earthquake in Kaikoura, which was followed by endless aftershocks. Add to this a visit by Two Paddocks’ General Manager, Jacqui Murphy, then follow it up with a viewing of the film ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and there really was no escaping a New Zealand focus. Wine producer Two Paddocks, which was established in 1993 by actor Sam Neill, is based near Alexandra in Central Otago. ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is a wonderful Kiwi production by director Taika Waititi. It is a big-hearted film set in New Zealand’s great outdoors where Neill and his young ‘nephew’ try to escape the establishment together, surviving on their wits and ‘the knack’.

Ms Murphy explained that previously Two Paddocks often garnered attention because of Neill’s status as a Hollywood movie star. More recently, increased focus is being placed on the quality of the wines being produced, in particular the single vineyard Pinot Noirs. Neill must be extremely proud of this achievement, as his father’s family ran a wine and spirits import company, so he was familiar with wine but in cardboard box format, rather than bottles. Neill’s real wine epiphany and subsequent long-term obsession with Pinot Noir occurred when, the now late, distinguished British actor, James Mason, introduced Neill to something a little more upmarket. Struck by the greatness of the contents in his glass, Neill asked what the wine was and Mason replied, ‘This, my boy, is Burgundy and don’t forget it’.

Under the humble label ‘Two Paddocks’, Neill now proudly produces Pinot Noir and Riesling from his own vineyards in breathtaking Central Otago, New Zealand. The first plantings took place in 1993 – the aptly named ‘First Paddock’ vineyard producing its debut wine with the 1997 vintage. Planting of additional vineyards took place at Alex and Redbank Paddocks. These acquisitions have enabled the release of single vineyard wines since 2002 together with the Two Paddocks Picnic range that exudes charm and freshness in its ‘drink now’ capacity as well as the benchmark, blended Two Paddocks Pinot Noir.

Having previously purchased land and then planted vines, in January 2014 Neill bought an existing 5.6 hectare Pinot Noir vineyard that had been established in 2000 at the end of Felton Road in Bannockburn. The 2014 is the début release under the Two Paddocks label – a single vineyard bottling named ‘The Fusilier’. The name pays tribute to Neill’s father who was a soldier in the Royal Irish Fusilier Regiment for 20 years before returning to New Zealand to run his family wine and spirit business, Neill & Co. Displaying a medium density crimson/garnet colour, the nose proffered attractive black cherry and summer pudding aromas. The palate was particularly well balanced with an excellent concentration of black cherries and coffee, along with beautiful fine tannins giving a lovely persistence to the intense flavours. *****

 

Italian Poise

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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Any mention of Tuscany immediately recalls scenes from one of E. M. Forster’s novels, beautifully brought to life in the film productions of the Merchant-Ivory duo. Intimate piazzas and cool, dark, secluded cloisters contrast with the open countryside made up of undulating hills of olive groves and vineyards. The scenes are thoughtfully balanced. Just like wonderful literature, music or film, wonderful wines also have innate balance.

It is this poise that I recently discovered in one particular wine during a tasting of wines from the designated area of Brunello di Montalcino in Tuscany. This year the association that controls and safeguards the wine quality of this tiny area, the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) designation. When the DOC was assigned there were a mere 11 producers, of which Biondi Santi is considered as the original home of Brunello di Montalcino. Today there are 258 producers of Brunello di Montalcino and exports have reached 70 percent of total production. Although the region’s reputation has experienced some untoward challenges in recent years, the standing of the vast majority of producers remains intact and the DOC continues to be at the high end of Italian appellations. Such has been the high quality of production recently that producers (namely Allegrini and Bottega) from elsewhere have been investing in the region’s vineyards, which was the first Italian region in 1980 to become a DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) – Italy’s highest quality designation.

Regulations require that all Brunello di Montalcino undergo a minimum of four years ageing, of which two must be in wood prior to bottling. An additional 12 months is necessary for wines labeled ‘Riserva’. Inevitably this results in a significant hiatus between actual vintage and market release of the wine. There has been such a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the 2010 that I was more than eager to try producer Campogiovanni’s 2010 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Riserva ‘Il Quercione’. Riserva wines from the 2.5 hectare Quercione vineyard are only produced in exceptional years, such as the excellent 2010. The wine spent two years in 500 litre French ‘tonneaux’, followed by 36 months in bottle prior to its release. It was worth the wait, as my tasting notes attest. High density crimson in colour, the nose displayed concentrated, pure black fruit aromas. The palate showed an incredible precision with glorious black and blue berry fruit, fabulous dusty tannins and delicious freshness. Above all, the wine had poise and elegance, utterly superb. *****

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Steadfast amongst other aspirants

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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England has been receiving a lot of attention in the media recently – sadly little of the news has been worth celebrating. Nonetheless, there are certainly many things England should be proud of and, in the wine world, English sparkling wine has been garnering numerous international accolades. English viticulture has taken place for centuries and has always been on a small scale, with a high percentage of vineyards in the southern counties where the climate is more conducive to grape growing. In 1988 an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, became trailblazers by planting the three classic grape varieties that are used in the production of Champagne – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Their first ‘traditional method’ wine was launched under the Nyetimber label in 1996. Twenty years later, the name Nyetimber is synonymous with fine English sparkling wine made from 100 percent estate-grown grapes.

I attended the London Wine Fair in May, where I was delighted to see a pale turquoise, converted double-decker bus standing amongst hundreds of wine stands proudly marketing Nyetimber’s portfolio, which I was able to taste for the first time. Five sparkling wines are produced under the Nyetimber label, of which the Classic Cuvée is most well known. With a total estate production of only 700,000 bottles per annum the wines do not have wide distribution outside the UK. Although the current owner of Nyetimber has recently purchased an adjacent golf course so production will increase eventually, it is unlikely that volumes will ever be large. thumb_IMG_8764_1024

Amongst the five labels – Classic Cuvée, Blanc de Blancs, Rosé, Single-Vineyard Tillington and Demi-Sec – it was the Blanc de Blancs 2009 that impressed me particularly. Only recently released the 2009 was extremely pale in colour with a tiny, but persistent, bead. The one hundred percent Chardonnay wine spent five years ageing on lees, which imbued it with a fabulous toasty, brioche nose and lovely red apple characters on the palate but with plenty of citrus intensity to give a very attractive, harmonious wine. With its long length and overall finesse, it would be difficult to tell this apart from Champagne itself. ****(*)

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Pinot Proposition

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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Entering any wine store, no matter where it is located, I’m always immediately drawn to the Pinot Noir section. I could be accused of being a creature of habit, even boring to some extent looking at the same variety. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As winemakers around the world strive to produce better and finer wines from ‘The Heartbreak Grape’, there is always something new and interesting to taste. This sentiment is, no doubt, true of any grape variety but Pinot Noir seems to attract more attention than other grape varieties. Its capricious nature ensures it as one of the most challenging varieties to produce well. Careful site selection, together with correct clonal matching and sensitive winemaking are imperative, although a fine outcome still isn’t guaranteed due to Pinot’s fickleness. All these factors add to the variety’s charm and intrigue.

Mornington Peninsula, in Australia’s state of Victoria, is a wine region with a very long association with Pinot Noir. It has built its international reputation on the production of small amounts of high quality wine. Prices are not cheap but good Pinot Noir never is. Nonetheless, most of the Pinots from the Mornington Peninsula offer excellent quality for their price. Kooyong, Moorooduc Estate, Ten Minutes by Tractor and Yabby Lake are all wines I admire from the Mornington. My most recent visit into the Pinot Noir corner of a regular haunt of mine resulted in a wonderful surprise and also a realization that I had previously overlooked a really delicious wine from this well-established region. Port Phillip Estate Red Hill Pinot Noir 2012 was produced from a single site of just over 5 hectares where the average age of the vines is a very respectable 16 years. The wine displayed a medium density ruby colour with a distinct garnet, slightly watery rim. The nose was immediately fragrant and lifted with layers of spice and crushed red berries, even a hint of ‘sous-bois’ to add to the surprising complexity of aromas. A dense core of black fruit balanced very fine, slightly stalky tannins with a delightful freshness and purity of raspberries and dark cherries. This is an extremely attractive wine that is drinking well now. ***(*)

 

The best seat in the house

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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Misha Wilkinson, of New Zealand Central Otago producer Misha’s Vineyard, advises that the Dress Circle is the best place to sit in the theatre. Wilkinson’s mother was an opera singer so she should know, having virtually been brought up in the theatre. Established in the Central Otago sub-region of Bendigo in 2004 by Misha and her husband, Andy, following a protracted search for the right location, Misha’s Vineyard quickly gained attention for the quality of its early wines. Ingeniously the producer’s first release was labeled ‘The Audition’. Along with a theatrical theme, the Wilkinsons have also incorporated some noteworthy Chinese associations on their labels and packaging to pay homage to the 16 years they spent working and living in Singapore. Gold mining carried out by Chinese immigrants is a prominent feature of Central Otago’s 19th century history. The Wilkinsons were keen to respect this local heritage, thus eight gold coins are featured hanging from the vine branches on the label, denoting the first eight vines, which were each planted with a gold Chinese coin.

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As a region, Central Otago, is strongly associated with high-quality Pinot Noir production. With the majority of the vineyard successfully planted to this capricious variety Misha’s Vineyard makes three – rising up the scale (no pun intended!) are Pinot Noir ‘Impromptu’, ‘The High Note’, and ‘Verismo’. Nonetheless, the region’s cool climate provides an ideal environment for the cultivation of aromatic and semi-aromatic white varieties. The long ripening season allows the slow build up of flavours and enticing aromas, whilst the cool climate ensures the retention of high natural acidity resulting in beautifully balanced wines. Misha’s Vineyard Dress Circle Pinot Gris is one such example that just seems to get better and better with each new release. Highly experienced winemaker, Olly Masters (formerly of famous New Zealand Pinot Noir producer Ata Rangi) firmly believes in respecting the fruit that has been carefully nurtured in the vineyard. The result is high-quality grapes that, once fermented into wine, really show a strong sense of pedigree. The 2014 Dress Circle Pinot Gris has enticing, delicate ripe pear aromas. Whole bunch pressed, approximately a third of the wine was fermented in old French oak using only natural yeast, adding a wonderful texture to the ripe, concentrated richness of the wine. This mouth-filling, off-dry palate is then tightly harnessed and reigned in by a fabulous citrus core of acidity lifting the wine, giving it plenty of freshness and length.

As the producer prepares to celebrate its 10th vintage, it is certain that it will continue to attract well-deserved attention. The very fact that in 2010, during its infancy, the prestigious UK Decanter magazine named Misha’s Vineyard ‘One of New Zealand’s Top 20 Wine Producers’ bodes extremely well for the future. *****

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The Smiling Angel of Champagne

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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The Champagne house of Henri Abelé is not particularly well known on the international market as, up until now, only 30 per cent of production has been exported. Nonetheless, having been founded in 1757, it is one of the oldest houses and prides itself on its boutique status with annual production at less than 500,000 bottles. The house has a very close link with its local heritage, particularly with the renovations that were required for the restoration of Reims’ impressive cathedral following the destruction caused during the Second World War. This involvement included the repair of the ‘Smiling Angel’ statue found above the entrance to this inspiring structure. Not only are Henri Abelé’s top cuvees named ‘Sourire de Reims’, but the house is also in the exclusive position of using the ‘Smiling Angel’ emblem to adorn all its labels and packaging.

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The Champagne house underwent its own form of refurbishment when, in 1985, it was purchased by the Freixenet Group. It was a watershed for the producer. Financial investment went into new winemaking equipment and practices, including a greater focus by the new Chef de Caves on vineyard parcel selection from the house’s long-standing growers. Strong regional and historical associations have not blinkered the house to the need to move with the times.

In general, Champagne labeling is one of the most traditional in the world. Henri Abelé sought to have some fun with the production of their Limited Edition Brut 2007 of which only 5,000 bottles were released. Produced to celebrate its 250th anniversary the house also recognized the need to attract new, younger consumers. The all-encompassing wrapping of the bottle is done as a fun ‘take’ on the extremely traditional ‘Toile de Jouy’ – a white or cream cloth (‘toile’) from the Parisian suburb of Jouy, which features a single repeated pattern of one colour. Lively, eye-catching motifs feature romantic Parisian scenes of the Eiffel Tower, cafés, a Citroen DC and Ladurée macaroons along with references to the Champagne region including vineyards and Reims Cathedral. The wine within this novel bottle is made from 60 per cent Chardonnay and 40 per cent Pinot Noir. Only disgorged in 2015 this Champagne is currently drinking very well. A little hint of straw colour and a very fine, persistent bubble are delivered in the glass with a gently creamy nose of classic brioche aromas. 2007 is not considered an outstanding vintage in Champagne, however it did produce wines of finesse and elegance. Henri Abelé Limited Edition Brut 2007 is one Champagne that fits that description completely. ****

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