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Essay Writing for the Master of Wine Examination

Philip Reedman MW will lead a weekend course designed specifically to help you develop the essential skill of essay writing for the  Master of Wine Exam

When and Where?

Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th January 2017

(Arrive Friday Evening)

The Chestnuts, Shilton, Nr. Burford, OX18 4AB, UK

www.thechestnuts.net

“To develop a proper essay writing technique should be part of the preparation for the MW exam.”     Arne Ronold MW, 2014 Examiners’ Report

Effective communication is key to passing the Master of Wine exam.  Learning to write essays, in the style demanded by the examiners, is therefore essential for MW exam success. 

The two day course will cover a range of essential-to-understand areas: question selection, understanding the question, essay planning, essay structures, time management, critical thinking and analysis, writing style, collecting and using examples.  

All of these skills will help you towards success in the MW theory exam.

Places are limited to just seven attendees.

Fee: £650 per person

Fee includes luxury accommodation, lunches, morning and afternoon refreshments.

Course attendees are each entitled to submit two essays for review and feedback following the course.

 

Philip Reedman is an experienced MW mentor and MW seminar presenter.  Since passing the MW in 1996 Philip has mentored a great many students and taught at MW seminars in Australia, France, the UK and Austria. With 20 years experience working with MW students Philip understands the student experience and how to guide and inspire. 

 

Student feedback from Phil’s “Approaches to the Master of Wine” Course

       “Phil’s lecture amazing- very helpful, relevant. Would highly recommend.”

       All seven students said that they would recommend the course to other MW students.

 

What MW students say about Phil’s help and study support.

       “Thank you so much for getting me to this stage, without your confidence in me there would have been times it would have been too easy to give up.”

       “You really do great work for us students!” 

       “You were an inspiration in Rust and one of the reasons I didn’t pack up”.

       “I would like to thank you so much for all your help over the years. Of all the supervision I have received, and there has been a lot, yours was the best by far - nurturing, authoritative and to the point.”

 

The course commences on Saturday at 9am and finish at 4pm on Sunday. 

Friday and Saturday dinners are an optional extra at local foodie-pubs.

The course is based at The Chestnuts and accommodation is at The Chestnuts and its sister cottage, Culls Cottage, situated ten minutes away in the village of Southrop. Transfers from Culls Cottage to The Chestnuts can be provided.

Book your place on this course by emailing Philip at phil@philreedman.net

 

 

 

Wine Tasting for Master of Wine Examination

Philip Reedman MW will lead an intensive two day tasting course helping you to understand how to pass the MW practical exams

 

When and Where?

Thursday 12th and Friday 13th January 2017

The Chestnuts, Shilton, Nr. Burford, OX18 4AB, UK

www.thechestnuts.net

Places are limited to just six students.

Fee: £650 per person

Fee Includes: Luxury Accommodation, breakfast, lunches, morning and afternoon refreshments.

Bring your own Glasses.

 

Philip Reedman is an experienced MW mentor and MW seminar presenter.  Since passing the MW in 1996 Philip has mentored a great many students and taught at MW seminars in Australia, France, the UK and Austria. With 20 years experience working with MW students Philip understands the student experience and how to guide and inspire. 

 

Join this intimate and collaborative two day tasting course to prepare you for the 2017 study year and allow you to make the most of the MW residential seminar. 

 

  

What MW students say about Phil’s help and study support.

       “I would like to thank you so much for all your help over the years. Of all the supervision I have received, and there has been a lot, yours was the best by far - nurturing, authoritative and to the point.”

 

       “Thank you so much for getting me to this stage, without your confidence in me there would have been times it would have been too easy to give up.”

       “You really do great work for us students!” 

 

       “You were an inspiration in Rust and one of the reasons I didn’t pack up”.

 

Arrive Wednesday evening: The course commences on Thursday at 9am and finish at 4pm on Friday.

Wednesday and Thursday dinners are an optional extra at local foodie-pubs.

 

The course is based at The Chestnuts and accommodation is at The Chestnuts and its sister cottage, Culls Cottage located ten minutes away in Southrop. Transfers from Culls Cottage to The Chestnuts can be provided.

Book your place on this course by emailing Philip at phil@philreedman.net

 

 

***

 

Marlborough in High Definition

May 2015

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has, broadly speaking, a couple of taste profiles: there’s the fruity, straightforward and easily enjoyed version and then there’s the more ‘complex’ thiol-monster style which can stray into the ‘too much of a good thing’ area which polarises opinion....and for the record it’s not a style I enjoy.

Brancott Estate, the artist formerly known as Montana Wines, and a pioneer of Marlborough has developed a wine which has been christened Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc, it’s their best of the best of the best.

The packaging is outstanding: the label is understated, textured and satisfying to hold. A weighty, punted Burgundy bottle, screwcap of course, is presented in a sleek presentation carton and an elegantly designed booklet (lifting a leaf from Krug?) explains the genesis of the wine, the vineyards from which the grapes were chosen, every aspect of vinification and four food pairing suggestions.

The 2010 vintage confounds conventional thinking about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc which says it should be drunk within a year, or three if you’re stretching a point and talking about a really smart wine. While I have drunk the occasional Marlborough Sauvignon which defies this wisdom none of them have possessed the qualities of this wine. It’s not typically Marlborough in style for a start; the aroma lacks that pungency and opulence which so characterises the region’s wines. Restraint is the watchword, restraint and elegance combine to suggest an origin more Loire than Marlborough but then not entirely Loire either. The palate has texture, angelica and blackcurrant-leaf with a wholly integrated seam of acidity with keeps it fresh and tidy right to the end of its very long finish.

Chosen Rows is an exceptional wine and provides a Marlborough benchmark which would make for a fascinating tasting with other icon Sauvignon Blancs; the likes of Dagueneau’s Le Mont Damne Sancerre, Mondavi To Kalon Fume Blanc, and Casa Marin from San Antonio Chile.

 

                                     

Suppose they gave a War (oops,…. a conference) and nobody came.

October 2014

Last week saw the WFA Wine Outlook Conference in Adelaide.  I didn’t attend.

One of the reasons I didn’t attend is that I didn’t know it was on.  Doesn’t that say something?  The Outlook Conference.  In my back yard.  I live in the CBD and that means it couldn’t have been more than a kilometre from my front door.  I’ve not changed my email address for at least 10 years, I check the junk mail file periodically, I subscribe to the gamut of industry publications.  Indeed I edit one of them. I read the daily wine news feeds on email.  Thank goodness an associate in NZ tipped me off to the conference’s existence

 But I suspect I’m not alone, Wine Business Magazine’s TWTW reported on Friday that:

“There looked to be more speakers than delegates at the Outlook Conference. Didn't get there; couldn't afford the $1,400. Who can afford that, by the way?”

Isn’t that true?  Not the delegate to speaker ratio.  The $1,400 ticket to ride.....and we’re in times of unparallelled business stress.  I can get to London for that, OK, down the back of the plane but I still get there:  24 email-free hours of joyously sleeping, watching plotless Jennifer Anniston movies and reading.

Had I known that the conference was on, I’d have thought pretty hard about committing so much money to a two day talk-fest, and from all I’ve heard of the conference’s content  $1,400 looks fully-priced.

The in-the-room delegate to speaker ratio could be a viewed as metric of success.  At least it could if the organisers chose to offer a streamed version of the conference to a logged-on, paying audience.  For an attendee $1,400 is just the start of run on the bank account. If you’re from say, the Hunter Valley, you’ve got to factor in three nights in a hotel and a return airfare.  Let’s not even think about the cost of parking at Sydney airport or, heaven forbid, the opportunity cost of time and money. 

How about streaming the conference to paying cyber-delegates? The technology is out there and it is easy to use...I use it to present lectures to MSc students in France: full interaction, the whole works...even the sarcastic backchat when they forget to mute their mikes and all for next to no cost and certainly no airport car-parking usury.  Come on WFA, join us in the 21st century. 

The Australian wine industry and its servants/guardians need to be careful to engage the whole wine community and avoid talking to a select few.  Using web-based platforms to host a conference for those who can’t attend in-person is surely the way forward; it should help attract more delegates to the event and spread the messages more widely....isn’t that what it’s all about?

 

Legacy Grocers Vs The Discounters

The Implications for wine

July 2014

UK legacy retailers, The Big Five: Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrisons, Asda and Waitrose are fighting for their lives.  Where once they ‘parked their tanks’ on each other’s lawns in a bid to grow market share, now they find if not tanks then a lighter, more agile but no less threatening enemy parked on their own lawns.

I refer of course to the continental discounters.  Aldi and Lidl, the guerrilla force which has taken hold of the prevailing zeitgeist: thrift and low consumer confidence, and household by household is diverting money away from the Big Five’s tills.  The IGD reports that 50% of UK shoppers visited a discounter in June 2014 and Lidl attracts as many as 5 million customers each week, a staggering 51% of them the key ABC1 demographic.

So what does this new environment mean for wine?

Wine is not a high margin category and the costs of doing business are high for the legacy retailers. Until recently wine has enjoyed a special status in these retailers, it brings a halo-effect which few, if any, other categories create.  Wine brings positive press coverage and attracts high spending, affluent customers.  But in a time of unprecedented drive to cut costs can retailers afford to indulge wine’s protected status?  I fear they can’t.

Stocking the traditional range of wines, anywhere between 400 and 700 SKUs is expensive in a multitude of ways for the grocers.  Sourcing and managing such massive ranges requires large teams in head offices, warehousing the stock, often under bond, is expensive and complex. Providing in-store shelf space for a low margin, low or even negative growth category hardly makes sense. Ronny Gottschlich the CEO of Lidl UK, insists that Lidl’s low prices are “down to simplicity and efficiency” in the way they operate the business.  Legacy grocer wine retailing doesn’t fit this description when you consider that at least one of them has a BWS team numbered in the high 30s.

None of this would be so bad if the whole range sold at a respectable rate but in reality only a small percentage of the range moves off the shelf at the velocity hoped for by the retailers.  Those SKUs on promotion dominate the sales and while they probably deliver a respectable margin percentage the cash yield is low.

The on-shelf lesson from Aldi and Lidl is clear and it is this: many customers are content to buy from a highly edited range of wines provided that those wines deliver for them. Delivering means offering good quality at a reasonable price.

I’m not suggesting that when you walk into a Tesco or a Sainsbury next month you’ll be offered a choice of only 60 or so wines but at some point in the foreseeable you’ll be choosing from a much reduced range. On-line the offer may of course stay the same. Probably they’ll taper the range down over a year or two to make the change appear less dramatic; 400 next year and down to 250 the following year.  With Tesco having appointed a new CEO, a man whose previous retail experience is confined to the other side of the counter, you can bet on new thinking when Dave Lewis takes the reins in October.  As with any radical change in retailing once one of the Big Five creates a step change the others invariably follow.

Retailers know from their loyalty card data which SKUs are really important to their customers and which of them are simply window dressing.  This detailed insight will guide the cull and brands not relevant to consumers will struggle to keep their listings.

Wine, as a category has been generally poor at developing strong brands.  Is there a ‘Must Stock Brand’ in wine? If there is I have a nagging suspicion that it is Retailer Own Brand.  After all, if a retailer is going to put energy into a zero-growth category with thin margins why not control as much of the value chain as possible and create as much differentiation from competitors as possible?

I’m a wine drinker, not a punter.

March 2014

I’ve noticed, with increasing dismay, the return of the word ‘punter’ when referring to wine drinkers, especially those who spend less on a bottle of wine than the speaker or writer spends on the glass to drink it from.  Even WMB, usually a haven of considered vocabulary, used punter in its March edition.

Yes, punter does refer to a customer but in this use it has slightly pejorative overtones.  Punter, in one of its least offensive uses means one who bets on horse, one who gambles. (Look on urbandictionary.com for its current uses, none of which you’d take kindly to if used of yourself.)

When used of wine drinkers it seems to me that it is too often used with thinly disguised disdain, implying a consumer who won’t afford (rather than understanding that perhaps they can’t afford) to spend more than say $10 on a bottle of wine or one who buys a well known branded product,  or a variety considered out of vogue or perhaps a wine of a style not in accordance with the writer’s own tastes. Rampant snobbism manifested as disdain.

But let’s get back to punter, as in one who gambles, and the essence of what a brand is. A brand is a signal to the consumer that the product is going to be good, that if they buy it today it will be pretty close or identical to the one they purchased last week/month/year.  It is an assurance and we all use brands to navigate and help us when purchasing.  So, if a brand offers certainty what then does it have in common with a bet?

A study conducted by three academics* at Charles Sturt University and reported in Wine and Viticulture Journal  (September October 2013) found that only around 31% of adult Australians consume wine compared with over 60% in the UK.  This shocking shortfall (imagine how the industry would be buoyed if we recruited even half of those MIA drinkers) is accounted for by a range of reasons from taste to cultural factors.  Generation X participants in the study, those between the ages of 31 and 44 years old, and who should surely be the heartland of newly recruited wine drinkers, “associated wine with sophistication and classiness (snobbish) which they believed was ‘not them’.” No big surprise perhaps but what can the industry expect when it calls these drinkers “punters”?

*Saliba, Ovington and Gunaratne

 

July 2013

“Not bad for a supermarket Wine”

The above words were uttered by a fellow judge at a wine show a few years ago in reference to a wine I’d taken to the pre-show get-to-know-you dinner. It was a comment that didn’t go down well with me at the time, exhibiting as it does all the ignorant prejudices that some sections of the media have against own label wines. But the comment came back to me recently, and gave me a wry smile, when I opened a bottle of wine I’d blended in 2007 for the US retailer Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Market

The bottle in question was a Hilltown Vineyards Monterey County Pinot Noir 2006, a wine which sold at a modest price point, US$8.99. I seem to recall it winning a medal or two in California wine shows and my blending notes from the time suggest that I was quite excited about the wine

The back label advises that the wine is best consumed within three years of purchase so 2010 or 2011 would be about the peak for the wine. I opened the bottle (closed with a Twintop technical cork) with little expectation of anything other than it being a “tip it down the sink job”; to my delight the wine was drinking really well; great varietal typicity and some complex bottle-evolved characters too. The colour was still red, admittedly fading from garnet red to brick red at the rim but there was no browning and this is of course Pinot Noir so never the deepest or darkest coloured wine. The aroma is classic Pinot Noir: brambles, earth and a hint of sweet spice. Palate-wise it’s smooth, elegant and poised with fine tannins and bright, linear acidity wrapped up in bramble and raspberry fruit.

Not only “not bad for a supermarket wine”, not bad at all.

Ransome’s Dock Restaurant London

Ransome’s Dock Restaurant in Battersea is set to close next month; after 21 years running and cheffing a busy restaurant Martin and Vanessa Lam are closing the doors on 11th August. I’m not sure if there’s any truth in the idea that this will allow them to shoot grouse on the opening day of the season but I await their denial of this rumour.

The closure of Ransome’s Dock is a sad day for the wine trade, wine scribes and the regular clientele. It is a sad day for me; Ransome’s Dock was the scene of many a memorable meal. I celebrated the passing of the Master of Wine exam there and Martin, having previously patiently answered my numerous questions on the use of saffron in risotto generously presented me with an industrial-sized box of new season Spanish saffron. What a magnificent gift. I seem to recall some glasses of Champagne being donated too.

Martin is one of the few chefs with whom I’ve had dealings who is as fascinated by wine as he is by food. As a consequence the wine list at Ransome’s Dock casts a wide net, is thoughtful and relevant to the menu, it runs to about 20 pages and is arranged by styles rather than origin. A disgrace to the restaurant trade Martin also has the peculiar habit of paying his wine bills on time.

 

April 2013

How to Produce Three iPhones and a Samsung Galaxy.

Last night I dined with four fund managers at Adelaide’s Press Food and Wine. Handed the wine list, given a budget and asked to select a couple of bottles I chose a Howard Park Chardonnay and a Best’s Great Western Pinot Meunier; the latter went brilliantly with my Mixed Offal Grill and was thoroughly enjoyed by all but it was the Chardonnay which caused the excitement among my hosts.

Howard Park consistently produces one of Australia’s great Chardonnays; a vein of tight acidity runs through the wine which has a delightful balance of fruit and barrel-ferment derived complexity. Classy in an understated fashion it represents where cool-climate Australian Chardonnay is at these days (and has been for a year or two now). I was surprised at the excited reception the wine got from my hosts, it was a revelation to them; the clarity of the fruit, the pristine acidity and the harmonious oak...the sheer drinkability. One by one the phones were produced and the label photographed to make life easier when they drop into Dan Murphy’s labyrinth of wine to pick up a case.

Which got me thinking that if four well-healed, regular restaurant goers haven’t been made aware of just how smart our best Chardonnays are; who else doesn’t know? With Chardonnay sales still in the doldrums there’s some education and selling to be done.

Chardonnay: It’s there to be sold.

March 2013

Is less really more? Or can the savvy winery prosper by appearing to make ‘less’?

These are questions I pondered after a recent visit to a First Growth château in the Medoc.  The château proudly declared that they only use between a third and a half of the wine they produce in their “Grand Vin”...the wine which bears the château’s name, the wine by which they are judged.

On the face of it this seemed like a straightforward and logical thing to do: harvest your grapes, make your wine, mature it for 18 months, cull out the lots which, for whatever reason, aren’t quite up to the mark and create the assemblage from those tip-top barriques remaining.

But then it occurred to me that if I’d ever tried to explain to any manager of mine that two thirds of the production was a “failure” I might have been looking for a new job smartish.  Keep in mind that these are no ordinary vineyards; these are hallowed tracts of land, recognised for close on 200 years as being exceptional vineyards producing the very best wine grapes in the region, and therefore the world’s finest wine.  In that context a two thirds no-show looks a bit ordinary. You might excuse it in a difficult year but there haven’t been too many of those of late and anyway that wasn’t what was being discussed at the château.  You might argue that there will always be a portion of vineyard which is young vines, vines not yet able to produce wine of the structure and complexity required for a Grand Vin.  True enough, but estates generally re-plant only a small portion of the vineyard each year which leaves the vast majority of the estate at optimum maturity.

So what is going on?  Are the vignerons at First Growth châteaux so complacent that they don’t produce the quality of grapes required?  I doubt it; they really would be looking for another job were that the case.  Ditto the team responsible for overseeing the winemaking and maturation of these precious wines.   No, there isn’t complacency in either vineyard or chais but it seems to me that the châteaux are crafting the wine market to their shape and size; in doing so they create additional value.

Let’s generously assume that of a given château’s vineyard a full 10% is not of the age at which it can produce Grand Vin and that another 10% of the terroir is good but experience over dozens of vintages has shown that it doesn’t have the carrying power to produce Grand Vin.  So now we’re down to 80%. 

Of the 80% remaining you’ve still got a good margin of error.  Sure there will be the odd cuve which, for some reason known only to nature, didn’t ferment quite as you’d have intended and barriques being barriques you’ll have some variation which might mean that they don’t make the cut.  Let’s say that of the wine that could be Grand Vin, a full one third doesn’t make the grade; difficult ferment, over-charred barrels, Friday afternoon gremlins, who knows.  This still leaves you with just over half the wine you started out with.  Why isn’t that all Grand Vin selling at circa €600 per bottle en primeur ex château?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that there are only so many individuals around the world who can afford to purchase wine, sight unseen, for cash, two years up-front, at these prices.  Certainly the château could make more Grand Vin, of the same quality, if they wished to do so but it would be a quantity that the market simply could not absorb without the price sliding south.  And price, let’s note, is the proxy measure of quality in Bordeaux...Parker points are good but, as ever, money doesn’t talk, it screams (apologies Bob Dylan).

But fear not for the châteaux’s liquidity.  The Grand Vin that doesn’t get bottled as Grand Vin doesn’t go to waste.  Blended with the other discards it makes a very acceptable Second Wine, the sort of wine which you can sell for a good price to eager, but less well-heeled, drinkers.  Indeed, it might be second wine which is drunk by drinkers rather than collected by investors. At least one of the First Growths doesn’t stop at making two wines; they select further and then further again to produce a third and a fourth wine.  Each one subtly bears the château’s imprimatur but of course isn’t the real deal.  Pricing naturally reflects this and drinkers can bathe in the knowledge that the wine in their decanter once shared a chais with the Grand Vin.

This all adds up to some serious economic return: adroitly matching supply with demand at a given price, or perhaps just under-supplying it, the Grand Vin’s critical en primeur price is maintained or even enhanced.  The Second Wine, by virtue of its sheer quality and its association with the château commands an en primeur price which doesn’t disgrace the main label and which would in fact be the envy of many a lesser Classed Growth.  And because it is the Second Wine, no matter how good it actually is, it isn’t going to cannibalise sales of the Grand Vin: investors know where to allocate their cash and it isn’t into Second Wines.

So this is how I think it works: make a Second Wine as good as is possible and sell it for as much as possible to a market which is by definition much larger than the market for the Grand Vin at the investor price it attains.  By attaining the investor price for the Grand Vin you maintain or develop your prestige, which means that the Second Wine can in turn sell for more as it basks in the reflected glory of the unattainable Grand Vin, while reaching a wider market.  The château has maximised its returns from the original quantity of wine by differentiating it into two levels (qualities) and reaching a wider audience while maintaining its reputation for premium wine.  Extend this principle a couple more steps, and produce a third and fourth level wine, and you’re getting a pretty decent share of the available market.  In doing so, and this is the really clever bit, you haven’t cheapened the icon that got you there in the first place.

Now that’s shrewd marketing and perhaps even shrewder economics.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Dr Nicola Chandler, Wine Industry Economics Researcher, and James Davis, BMW, for their assistance with this blog.

 

March 2013

If Marlborough was a celebrity.....

If Marlborough was a celebrity it might be River Phoenix:

 

The loss and pain of it

Crime and the shame of it

You were gone

It was such a nightmare raving,

“how could we save him from himself?”

(River, Natalie Merchant)

The final line of Natalie Merchant’s memorial to River Phoenix came to me as I read the Regional Viewpoint article in the February/March edition of New Zealand Grapegrower.

Take for example these lines: “Many growers are now feeling more confident about the future as well........Fertiliser sales are increasing, as growers strive to produce the best fruit possible this year.. And given it is likely to be just an average crop, yield caps are not as dominant as they have been.”

Since when did a more liberal use of fertiliser lead to higher quality in wine grapes?

My concern in all of this is that growers risk marginalising themselves; it is well documented that some of the larger companies in the region have been acquiring vineyards, at depressed prices, in recent times. Should this not be a “Stop and Think” moment? If contract growers want to have a future selling to genuine branded wine companies who have a long term market opportunity they must keep themselves relevant to their customers. Cropping the living daylights out of a vineyard doesn’t sound like the right approach to me. And lest anyone be in doubt, just look across the Tasman to see how many contract growers are no longer in business.

 

January 2013

Wine Advertising Vs. Advertising whine

I’ve been watching the Australia Open Tennis on Channel 7 TV over the last couple  of weeks; Jacob's Creek is sponsoring the tournament, one of only four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, so quite a coup to be associated with such a rarefied event. I know that Jacob’s Creek is sponsoring the event because their name is all around the arena and various “infotainment” spots in the TV coverage have the JC pre-fix.

KIA, Steggles, Australian Super and Berlei Sports Bras are also supporting the event and its television coverage. While KIA has its name around the Rod Laver Arena, just like Jacobs Creek they have also chosen to show their adverts on high rotation. Ditto Steggles, ditto Berlie, ditto Australian Super. Some of these adverts are rather good and on first few viewings engaging and entertaining. By the time you’ve seen the Djokovic vs Wawrinka five setter over the course of five hours the novelty of the advertisements has worn off and antipathy or worse towards the offending brands has set in.

Jacob’s Creek is taking TV time, promoting its Cool Harvest brand, but they’re using so called Blipverts; essentially a still with a voice over which lasts perhaps 10 seconds and they’re not on high rotation.

So why do advertisers advertise at a frequency which risks turning one off the brand? It’s not too often that wine shows the way with advertising but in this instance it is. Perhaps it’s the lack of cash compared with their rival sponsors that has driven this approach. If it is, it is clearly a case of less delivering more.

 

Season update from the Adelaide Hills’ Murdoch Hills Vineyard

There’s been a lot of media-focus in the last couple of weeks on the apparent havoc wreaked on vines by the heat wave that many parts of Australia have been experiencing. But, as ever when you’re dealing with vineyards spread across an entire continent, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ story to this situation.

Yesterday (Friday 18th January) it was struggling to reach the mid-twenties in the Adelaide Hills, the previous day it had reached the 40s. So how badly damaged are the vineyards? Hardly at all if my vineyard tour around Murdoch Hill’s vines is anything to judge by. Their vines are planted on pretty bony ground, what ‘soil’ there is, is shallow and free draining and then it’s straight into the bedrock. Charlie Downer said he’d been watering the vines since late October and consequently the vines have good canopies which create shade for the pre-veraison, nascent grapes (currently pea-sized and bracingly fresh in acidity). Some of the vines, on top of a ridge where the soil is so thin as to be almost non-existent, had slightly curled leaves indicating a bit of heat stress but Charlie was confident that with the next watering they’d pick up without problem.

Cool climate viticulture produces the best wines in the years when the temperatures are that bit higher, ensuring fully ripened grapes. It looks like 2013 could well be heading that way; though there’s scope for many a slip between now and vintage the prospects for at least one vineyard in the Adelaide Hills look terrific...a far cry from the tales of doom circulating.

(Murdoch Hill Wines is a client of Philip Reedman Master of Wine PTY LTD)

Charlie and Michael Downer in amongst the vines

Recommended Reading

A browse along the shelves of a typical book shop reveals much about the consumers' view of wine compared with say, food or celebrity autobiographies. While shelves groan under the weight of the latter two categories, the wine section is a slim-volume indeed. A strange state of affairs perhaps, certainly a sad one but it does say a lot about the public’s interest in wine (as distinct from the interest in drinking it) and the wine industry’s (in)ability to engage and excite readers.

But a lack of authoritative, up to date books is a real hurdle for students of wine. And there are a lot of wine students around the world; the Wine and Spirit Education Trust taught over 43,000 students in 2012. So, it is excellent news indeed that a major gap in the wine book market has been plugged with the publication of Richard Mayson’s Port and the Douro. (Infinite Ideas 2013).

Port and the Douro is a substantial re-working of Richard’s earlier work on the Douro; it brings the material right up to date covering the significant changes in port production methods of the last decade, a chapter assessing vintages, a chapter covering the unfortified wines of the region and a series of vignettes on key figures in the Douro’s history. The Douro’s beauty is captured with the inclusion of some wonderful colour photographs and the addition of a series of maps adds much to the understanding of the region.

For anyone interested in port this is a terrific read and for those studying for the WSET Diploma or for the Master of Wine this is essential reading.

Port and the Douro is likely to be something of a specialist read I agree, it’s not for the casual reader. But here’s one that will be. Don’t be misled by the title, Helen McGinn has a wealth of wine knowledge and is a great communicator to boot, as her award-winning blog shows http://knackeredmotherswineclub.blogspot.com.au/

 

       

Bringing a fresh voice and approach to wine writing, this book will engage and excite readers. Helen’s iconoclastic take on wine should be read by the most casual of wine drinkers as well as the Decanter readers amongst us. We’ll all learn something and have a laugh too. Publishing on February 14th.

 

 

 

“Whether we shall ever arrive at anything so exquisitely delicate as Chateau Laffite [sic], or Romanée Conti, time will show.”   AC Kelly, The Vine in Australia, 1862

Perhaps we’ve answered the case for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Lafite (in the affirmative, I might add) but whether Australia has yet produced a Romanée Conti is still more of a moot point.  Most regions have tried their hand at making Pinot Noir but there’s a degree of consensus about which regions are able to elicit the best from the variety and which regions are simply ill-suited to meeting its needs.

Of all the world’s classic grape varieties I’d doubt that any evoke the passion that Pinot Noir brings bubbling to the surface.  Pinot Noir is commonly described by winemakers using many adjectives; none of them words you’d be pleased to hear used of your significant other.  Pinot Noir is a difficult variety to grow and make but rather than turn to the language of misogyny to describe this variety I default to analogies with spin bowling; cricket’s finest art form.  Pinot Noir is akin to one of Shane Warne’s great deliveries; apparently straightforward but ultimately beguiling.

At its best, no, in fact when it’s merely only “good”, Pinot Noir is lithe and supple, taking unexpected turns in bouquet and structure.  At its very best Pinot Noir is indeed the ball which spins the width of Mike Gatting, delivering surprise and delight.  From the luminous yet pale hued garnet colour that entrances, the bouquet (and be sure that we are talking “bouquet” here and not simple “aroma”) which delights and intrigues and the palate which surprises by combining enormous texture and richness with a finesse and lightness of touch with a sheer intensity of experience.  Great Pinot Noir is a rare and beautiful thing, born of a confluence of site, climate, weather of the year and experience on the part of the winemaking team.

The world’s best Pinot Noir vineyards have been understood for at least 500 years.  Burgundians, and there can be little dispute that Burgundy is home to the finest Pinot Noirs, have been tending their plots of Pinot Noir since the 14th century  when the monks of the province’s  abbeys began to understand the differences in the wines as a product of the site from which they came. 

There’s more to Pinot Noir than red wine though, Champagne around 300 km north of Burgundy has long cultivated Pinot Noir but with the small exception of the wonderfully named Bouzy Rouge, Champagne’s crop of Pinot Noir is of course used for sparkling wine.  Generally Pinot Noir forms part of a blend with its co-conspirators Pinot Meunier (a close relative of Noir and one almost exclusively used for sparkling wines though Bests at Great Western has long made an exciting red table wine from Meunier) and Chardonnay.  A number of Champagne houses make Blanc de Noirs Champagnes though only rarely are these 100% Pinot Noir.  Australian producers of sparkling wines have long followed Champagne’s example and used Pinot Noir to produce white base wines for their sparkling cuvees.

It is doubtful that James Busby, the so-called “Father of Australian winemaking”, visited Champagne on his 1828 tour of Europe’s wine regions eagerly collecting grape vine cuttings to bring to Australia.  But Busby certainly did visit Burgundy’s Clos Vougeot on his tour giving rise to the tantalising question; did Australia’s first Pinot Noir cuttings originate in this legendary Grand Cru site?  If as seems plausible they did, the nascent Australian wine industry was rather slow to appreciate Pinot’s noble lineage. But who can blame those early grapegrowers; as is the case today, consumers apparently value a deeply coloured red wine and it is one of Pinot Noir’s traits that its colour is rarely dark and inky. In an essay on winemaking in the “Colony of Victoria” published in 1859, John Belperroud comments of “Black Burgundy”, as Pinot Noir was called, that “As this Grape gives a wine of a light colour in this Colony, I would advise any Vinedresser to plant some Tinto grapes in his Vineyard, to mix them into his vintage for the purpose of increasing the colour of his wine.”  He goes on to comment that Pinot Noir “bears pretty well” and produces “good wine”.  Today, Australia has around 5000 hectares of Pinot Noir in production, much of it used for making sparkling wine and the regions capable of producing high quality table wine from Pinot Noir are if not fully understood then at least recognised.  I suspect that there’s another generation or two’s worth of work to isolate the best sites within these regions; it’s an exciting prospect.

The Hunter Valley, through Busby’s connection with the region, was home to many  of the early Pinot Noir plantings in Australia and as if following Belperroud’s advice it was used to produce many famous vintages of “Pinot Hermitage” (Pinot Noir and Shiraz blends) most notably by Maurice O’Shea at Mount Pleasant.  Pinot Noir is a scarcity in the Hunter these days although McWilliams, at their Mount Pleasant winery has a nationally important “source block” of the MV6 clone of Pinot Noir.  Today McWilliams produce Mount Pleasant “The Mothervine” Pinot Noir from this small block; it is a deeply flavoured wine with a classic line of acidity and fine-grained tannins and shows what can be achieved with a low yield and mature vines.  As a nod to their heritage Mount Pleasant also produces a small quantity of Mount Henry Shiraz Pinot Noir from their Hunter Valley vineyards; it is a medium-bodied wine with a strong vein of acidity buoyed up with bright aromatic fruits. Is this what O’Shea’s famous vintages tasted like at 2 years old?  With Pinot Noir so scarce in the Hunter few producers can make this once famous style; Neil McGuigan is one of the other produces reinventing the blend though having to use from other regions.  The 2010 Neil McGuigan Signature “Pinot H” (as in Pinot Hermitage but you can’t use the H word) is made for domestic sale only and combines to excellent effect Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir with Barossa Shiraz.

In the 1980s as the cult of “cool-climate” winemaking arose and Pinot Noir was planted, or to be more accurate, replanted in several areas around Melbourne.  The Yarra Valley was perhaps the hottest cool-climate region but the Mornington Peninsula and Geelong each found favour with professionals wanting to turn a wine hobby in a lifestyle.  Geelong and the Yarra Valley had been important wine growing districts prior to the arrival of phylloxera  in Victoria from the mid 1870s, which in tandem with a deep economic depression during the 1890s served to kill off a great deal of the Victorian wine industry.   Today these areas together with Macedon and Gippsland produce many of the country’s most renowned Pinot Noirs with names including: Moorooduc, Paradigm Hill, Coldstream Hills, Clyde Park, Stonier, Cannibal Creek worthy of seeking out.  These regions’ wines are hallmarked by a fine line of acidity and bright berry fruit flavours; classically Pinot Noir in structure.

The Adelaide Hills, which I’d suggest is South Australia’s premier Pinot Noir region struggled for some years to produce convincing Pinot Noir table wines although a small number of sites gave an indication of what might be.  Ashton Hills Vineyard, an erstwhile brussel sprout paddock, near Summertown in the Piccadilly Valley has long been the Pinot Noir beacon in the region with Stephen George seemingly on an eternal quest to find the best mix of clones for this precious, but tiny, site.  Ashton Hills is now joined by a select band of others including Tim Knappstein’s  Riposte, Shaw and Smith and Parracombe. Peter Gago at Penfolds has quietly picked the eyes out of The Hills’ Pinot Noir vineyards and produces small quantities of exciting Pinot under the Cellar Reserve label. The Adelaide Hills shows perhaps better than any other region of Australia just how site-centric Pinot Noir really is; high altitude and cool climate on their own are not sufficient to ensure exciting wines. 

As if to endorse the case that a cool-climate alone is not sufficient to produce great Pinot Noir, Margaret River’s track record with Pinot Noir is patchy.  Move just a little further south in Western Australia and the regions around Denmark and Albany have a long and glorious track record with Pinot Noir.  Clearly the right sort of cool-climate is what Pinot Noir wants. Harewood Estate, Marchand & Burch, Quarram Rocks, Wignalls and Plantagenet are names to look for with wines characterised by pristine fruit, crisp acidity and in the best wines an ability to develop well in bottle.

A highly continental climate defines Pinot Noir’s homeland of Burgundy and that of Canberra district too.  Warm days followed by cool nights are said to produce the best Pinot Noir wines, a balance of red fruits and a fine vein of acidity.  Canberra District certainly produces wines which have these characteristics.  Lark Hill, a bio-dynamic producer exemplifies the region’s wines with poised, elegant Pinot Noir displaying violet-led aromas and strawberry and raspberry fruit. 

And finally to Tasmania, whose wine industry got off to a false start in the 1820s but was resurrected as a vineyard in the early 1970s. Dr Andrew Pirie at Pipers Brook led the revival in the island’s north-east while in the south Moorilla and Meadowbank were busy planting their vineyards in the early years of the 1970s.  Subsequent decades have seen an explosion of vineyard planting with Pinot Noir the lead variety in Tasmania’s second coming.  Tasmanian Pinot Noir is in high demand from winemakers for use in both premium quality sparkling wines and still reds.  Styles of wine range from the light and ethereal Stefano Lubiana ‘Primavera’ through to the more full-bodied and serious Heemskerk Derwent Valley wine or Pooley from the Coal River Valley. 

Tasmania is unarguably The Pinot Noir region of Australia and the prospects for the region are exciting given the youthfulness of the island’s vineyards.  In Burgundian terms Tasmania has barely been through one planting cycle and many vineyards are only just beginning to reach maturity; with the new clones of Pinot Noir that have become available in the intervening years one has to wonder what undiscovered terroirs there are masquerading as grazing paddocks for cows which will in another thirty years’ time be vineyards producing world class Pinot Noir.  Perhaps these will be the vineyard which answer Kelly’s challenge to Romanée Conti and consistently produce exquisitely delicate wines.

Original published in Wine Showcase Magazine July 2012. 

In 1988 Philip Reedman was the winner of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Burgundy Scholarship and spent some time in Busby’s footsteps in the Clos Vougeot

 

August 30th 2012

“....recently spotted in Blenheim”

Eight out of ten cats.....

It is a truism of marketing that the route to profitability lies in locking in the consumer to your product.  Allow them a plausible alternative product and profitability inevitably falls off; keep the consumer engaged and profits flow.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are, on the face of it, plausibly interchangeable products, but each brand has locked in consumers who ignore the rational offer of a substitute. Instead, they faithfully stick to their brand of choice.  One has only to see the fierce loyalty and rivalry in Australia between Ford and Holden to recognise the cash value that emotion, not function, can deliver.

So where does this take us with wine?  Marlborough put New World Sauvignon Blanc on the world’s palate, introducing a generation of drinkers to the variety and its flavours as expressed in this seemingly unique terroir.  New Zealand had a great run, and international businesses, attracted by the river of gold flowing down the Wairau Valley, moved in.

International competitors set forth to produce their own Sauvignon Blanc in the Marlborough style.  Casablanca in Chile, Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills, even the Loire Valley in France got in on the act, but what they made wasn’t labelled Marlborough and that seemed to be their Achilles’ Heel (although one French producer cheekily named their wine Kiwi Cuvee to ensure that no one needed to guess at the style).  As fast as Marlborough could plant it, UK drinkers would drink it. For many years, New Zealand’s drinkers had to make do with Australian Sauvignon Blanc shipped in to substitute for the local product – which had been exported.  The market was Marlborough’s for the taking; Marlborough was convinced that it had a unique proposition, but what if it didn’t, what if they were wrong?

What if eight out of ten cats (apologies to Whiskas) can’t, in fact, spot the difference?  At a tasting in Blenheim recently, as part of the 2012 Romeo Bragato Conference, it wasn’t eight out of ten, but a reported 50% (Marlborough Express) of wine industry tasters who couldn’t tell a Marlborough Sauvignon from a Chilean Sauvignon of equal price.  Hardly a scientific evaluation I agree, but a tasting the previous day using the same wines produced an even more dramatic result.

If industry professionals can’t identify their own product, should the consumer, halfway around the world, be expected to recognise and appreciate the unique offer that is Marlborough?

Does Marlborough actually have a unique offer?  Should we be concerned that Marlborough’s growers and winemakers can mistake a Leyda Valley Sauvignon Blanc for one of their own?

Well, “yes” is my answer to both questions. To address the second question first: we should be concerned that Marlborough’s wine community is able to claim Leyda as their own; it suggests a certain complacency. My reading of the tasting room’s reaction to the news that they’d got it wrong was one of amazement – not amazement that they’d got it wrong, but rather that Leyda could make a wine quite so smart. 

Times have been tough, but winemakers and marketers still need to get out there and see what the world is drinking. Get on the plane to Santiago to see what they’re up to ... they’ll show you round, they’re a friendly bunch.  Maybe New Zealand Winegrowers should organise an Away Day? 

Marlborough does have a unique offer, though it’s not the wine style, it’s the words: Marlborough, Wairau, Awatere and New Zealand. Leyda can use Sauvignon Blanc on its labels but just as Pepsi ain’t Coca-Cola, Leyda can never be Marlborough.  Let’s forget about wine styles and their interchangeability; give or take, it’s an inevitability.  Time it is to focus on the words and build the brand. Coke isn’t so different from Pepsi. But as Richard Branson learned, even if you do use the same recipe as Coke (for which, see Mark Pendergrast’s For God, Country and Coca-Cola a great read on brand development disguised as a history of Coca-Cola), if you don’t have the words “Coca-Cola” on your bottle, you’re a long way from consumers’ hearts.  Virgin Cola didn’t sell that well even if it tasted just like the “Real Thing.” 

So, besides keeping up with the competitors’ latest vintages, Marlborough needs to build its brand in a consistent and long-term manner.  Yes, this means spending money, money from all sectors of the interdependent industry and spending it forever; Coca-Cola doesn’t have marketing moratoria, neither should Marlborough.  Failure to invest means being overtaken by others; a death by a hundred vintages.  But if you reinforce to the consumer that Marlborough is the real deal, market leadership is there to be taken.

    

Views of Vineyards in Marlborough and The San Antonio Valley, Chile.

 

Savagnin: just say Sa-van-yin

August 2012

The misidentification of Savagnin as Albarino has caused pain to many of the growers who planted it and plenty of soul searching among winemakers producing and marketing it. Albarino, on its pedestal as some sort of Iberian conquistador, was unmasked as a French pretender.

Yesterday I took part in what is probably the largest tasting of Australian Savagnin for Australia’s Wine and Viticulture Journal. Results are embargoed until the September issue is published.

What can be said now however, without a shadow of doubt, is that while we haven’t got what we thought we had, we have got something better, something much better; a classic, if esoteric variety which on the basis of this tasting performs well in many districts and produces exciting and distinctive wines which have the ability to mature brilliantly in bottle.

We’ve got a unique resource of, as Neil Young might phrase it “an unknown legend”....surely that’s something to celebrate and make the legend known.

Tesco Finest* Ten Years After.

April 2012

Back in the days when I blended wines for Tesco, the Finest* Denman Vineyard Semillon was one of my pride and joys. One vintage won the International Wine Challenge Great Value White Wine Trophy and you could pretty much be assured of a good write-up in the press whenever you showed it to the wine writers. Commercially it wasn’t nearly as successful as its Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc counterpart but it certainly earned its keep in terms of halo-effect and column inches; it was a terrific wine; fresh, vibrant and unoaked in the classic Hunter style. It sold for a modest £7.99.

I was reminded of this recently when a bottle of the 2002 unexpectedly arrived in the post direct from the supplier who had diligently kept the holdback samples for rather longer than the seven years suggested. Thanks Neil, and thanks too to Peter Hall, the laconic Kiwi winemaker who made the wine for McGuigan.

So how does it taste now? The two word description is: a cracker. But the wine warrants a bit more than that

Honey gold colour with a luminous green tinge. The aroma is lemons and limes with those ethereal toast and nuts overtones that Hunter Semillon develops with a few years in bottle. The palate is crisp and zesty, medium-bodied (it’s only 11% alcohol, so here’s one for the drinker who wants a little less alcohol), very textured and bone dry. It all builds to a glorious, fine long finish with savoury notes and a zesty lemon focus. It cut through the richness of a chicken risotto beautifully. Probably at its peak now but if I had another bottle or two I’d happily leave them in the cellar for a couple of years more; it isn’t going to fall over immediately.

Seppeltsfield: The Revival Continues

March 2012

Fi Donald, who this year was voted Barossa Winemaker of the Year is one of the Valley’s quiet achievers. As Senior Winemaker at Seppeltsfield Winery Fi is in charge of an impressive cellar holding barrels of liquid history the likes of which you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the world.

A key part of the Seppeltsfield revival, Fi has produced a range of impressive table wines and continues the winery’s tradition of bottling fortified wines of truly world class quality. Singling out a favourite to enjoy over Easter is an invidious task so I’ve bottled it, so to speak, and have selected two. Both will thrill you with their astonishing quality; they are wines which will change your mind about fortified wine.

DP90 Para Rare Tawny:

Deep mahogany brown with green tinge to rim signifying age. A vibrant, room-filling aroma: rancio, dried apricots, tea leaves. A bouquet to longer over.

The palate is poised, elegant, superbly fine, luscious but with a line of lemony acidity that cuts and cleanses. Lingering caramel toffee flavours follow and lead into a finish which blossoms and persists for minutes.

Achieving such freshness and vibrancy while showcasing the wine’s incredible age characters is a feat of winemaking to behold.

Paramount Collection XO Dry Amontillado:

This is a wine which demands your attention. The brand “sherry” has been devalued in recent decades but this is a wine which can put sherry back where it belongs: if there was justice in the world this bottle would be standing alongside the likes of Krug, Grange and DRC in the pantheon of wines to drink before you die.

Luminous tawny green colour with a dried apricot and gentle aldehyde bouquet. Running right through this wine is a pristine vein of acidity off which hangs a full-bodied but dry and delicate wine. It seems to be a wine of contradictions; the bouquet implies that there will be richness, the palate is weighty and full as though there’s sugar but this it is dry and spritely with savoury notes and a finish which will go all the way to next Easter.

December 16th December 2011

AWRI: The Wines of France Tutorial: An Embarrassment of Riches

Last week the AWRI, under the auspices of Con Simos, ran two, one day tasting workshops on the wines of France. Over the course of a packed but highly enjoyable day 80 wines were tasted covering pretty much the full gamut of what France has to offer.

From Champagne and a solitary sparkler at 8.30am (always a great way to tickle the taste buds awake) via Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhone and the Loire along with sundry other regions, we concluded eleven hours later with eight dessert wines including three great Sauternes. Most of the wines had been imported specifically for the tasting and their great provenance showed particularly in the older vintages, all of which were tasting very well and showed a high level of consistency over the two days.

The tasting was conducted blind, the wines scored out of 20 using the standard wine show system and after each bracket the wines were discussed by the group with David Le Mire MW and me acting as moderators

There were some obvious highlights, the Mouton 1983 and the La Chapelle 1980 amongst them, and yes, those two really do deserve their reputation and price, but there were also many wines which are worthy of highlighting.

My picks are:

Gossett Grand Rosé, NV: A superbly textured and savoury Champagne.

Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut NV. We tasted many a grower Champagne but the class of this stood out for its complexity and layers of flavour: surely what good Champagne is all about.

Chablis Grand Cru 2007 Valmur. Domaine Christian Moreau. Chablis’ reputation is all too often ahead of the quality of the wine in bottle. Not so in this case: a wine with a pure, direct line and focus. Good drinking now but will develop for at least another five years.

Hautes-Côtes de Nuits 2009 Domaine Hudelot Baillet. Not a fashionable appellation this but the wine speaks for itself and was an easy Gold medal for me and David Le Mire (which just goes to show that two MWs can agree on a Burgundy after all.)

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec 2007 Chateau Montus. It goes without saying that this is a blend of Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng. What is less well known is that this is a spectacular wine cut through with a vein of acid and balanced by some wonderful floral and green apple fruit. Brilliant.

Crozes-Hermitage “quinoxe” 2010 Maxime Graillot. Some wines you just have to give a Gold; anything less is denial of natural justice. This is one such wine which from its exuberant, almost surreal purple colour to its exotic, ethereal and seamless fruit is joyful. But don’t let the playfulness of this wine deceive you into thinking it isn’t a serious wine; it most certainly is.

For sheer weirdness that works, albeit on a knife-edge, Domaine Benoît Badoz, Vin de Paille, Jura. Savagnin like we’ve never seen it before.....confronting but brilliant.

David Le Mire’s picks (with my comments in italics) are below:

Gosset Grand Rosé NV

Bonneau du Martray 2008 Corton Charlemagne. Hard to argue with this one. Minerality, intensity and grace. Very classy indeed.

Ch d'Issan 2008. Plenty of oak in this classy Margaux but the depth of fruit to balance it.

And a special mention for the Picpoul de Pinet.

 

November 28th 2011

In late August I blogged about the Sommeliers Australia Madeira Madness tasting which I co-hosted with James Godfrey. I’ve subsequently discovered a much fuller write up of the tasting on the Eating Adelaide blog. Well worth a read both for the Madeira tasting commentary and for the latest on eating out in Adelaide.

http://eatingadelaide.com/madeira-madness/

November 1st 2011

Chile blog

I’ve just returned from a three week adventure travelling around South America.  Firstly in Argentina presenting a couple of seminars on Carbon Neutral and the Wine Market and then to Chile with fifteen fellow Masters of Wine on a trip hosted by Wines of Chile.  I finished my visit to Chile visiting a dozen or so wineries with GreenSolutions Chile to discuss the low carbon future and of course taste a few more wines.

Over the course of the ten day Masters of Wine trip we visited almost twenty wineries spread across nine regions and tasted the best part of four hundred wines  (which when you think about it is a pretty relaxed pace but did give a strong representation of the state-of-the-wine-nation).  I lost track of how many kilometres we drove up and down the Pan Americano but safe to say it was in the thousands.

Here’s the first in a series of blogs reflecting on what I saw, tasted and concluded about the Chilean wine industry.

 

The seeds of downfall? 

Chilean wineries are off and running in the race to plant vineyards in ever cooler sites, sites at higher altitude, sites closer to the sea, sites which are windier than any other, sites with more calcium carbonate in the soil (long story), sites on limestone and though they know it not, to flood the market with “terroir-driven” Sauvignon Blanc from coastal valleys.

It started when Casablanca got full and the water ran out, next came Leyda and then Limari and now Aconcagua Costa, lest we forget Colchagua Costa.  Water is always a limiting factor near to the coast, rainfall is sparse and the Andean snow melt flowing down the rivers has to be pumped some distance and in many instances quite some height too to keep the vineyards flourishing.

These coastal valleys are making some wonderful wines, Pinot Noir as well as Sauvignon Blanc, but I question just how much Sauvignon Blanc the world will pay for.  We’ve seen deflation in the price of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and the prices quoted for many of these coastal wines appears to be modest while volumes sold, in many instances, are equally modest.  Something doesn’t stack up.  Chile wants to raise its average price but maybe the Lemming-like pursuit of Marlborough to become the world’s supplier of bargain basement cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc isn’t the way to go.  Maybe all that water west of the coastal range could be used for things other than grapes; environmental flow perhaps?

So how to raise the average price? Let’s first face some facts: the world is under-supplied with wine drinkers and by developing an ever increasing number of wine regions are we helping the consumer or confusing them?  My bottle of Leyda Sauvignon Blanc says we’re confusing consumers and as we all know confused consumers don’t buy; they stick with their Pisco Sours and their Bacardi Breezers®. A slowdown in sales creates an oversupply and before you know it the world’s wine drinkers are enjoying even more terrific prices. 

Back to raising prices.  It turns out that Chile has a fair bit of old vine Carignan planted in Maule, a region previously regarded as a viticultural backwater.  This old vine Carignan turns out to be not only dry grown but damned good too.  Just the sort of thing to make wine drinkers sit up and think that there’s something special , interesting and indeed worth paying a bit more than £4.35 for (Chile’s current average price in the UK market). And it’s not only Carignan, there’s Cinsault and Cabernet Franc too.  In Elqui, Pedro Ximenez previously used to make Pisco (a noble use I have to agree) is being used by Falernia to make table wine for the international market.  I’d suggest that these wines open up whole new market segments to Chile, segments that aren’t too fussed by Sauvignon Blanc from no matter where but who certainly are interested in unique wines with a great back story.

Why do I love these wines?  There are a number of reasons: firstly Chile’s precious water in the coastal strip is not used in the making of these wines; by and large they are dry grown.  Secondly there’s a huge social benefit if the spoils of the victory can be shared reasonably equally between grower and winemaker.  It looks as though this is happening, growers in Maule who used to receive 20c per kilo for these grapes  now  get a $1 a kilo.  Fairtrade, with due respect, eat your heart out.

MOVI( Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes) is a collection of Chile’s non-corporate wine producers and it’s these fringe winemakers, plus a small number of corporates (De Martino,  Valdivieso,  Odfjell  and O. Fournier) who are discovering the old vineyards and realising their potential......think what Messrs Ringland, Binder and Powell did for the Barossa’s reputation.  Could this be Maule’s future?  Why not?  MOVI might have to move on from their knit your own chaos thinking and embrace just a modicum of organisation but that’s relatively straightforward and quick to achieve....it’s growing 100 year old Cabernet Franc vines that takes time.

Discussing this line of thought with a producer I picked up that the Miguel Torres winery has made a breakthrough with Pais; they’d made a decent drink from it.  In fact, as it turned out, a stunning sparkling wine.  Santa Digna Estralado Rosé is a bottle fermented rosé with a light hint of muscat perfume.  Refreshing and crisp with berry fruit and citrus flavours.  It is a great drink.  Production is set to expand dramatically and with plenty, and I mean plenty, of dry grown, old vine Pais already in the ground Torres won’t be running out of grapes anytime soon. 

Leonard Cohen sang “I’ve have seen the future brother: it is murder”.  Well, I’ve seen the future and it is Pais. And Cinsault. And Carignan. And PX. And Cabernet Franc. 

 

October 7th 2011

I had the great pleasure of being the keynote speaker at this year’s Wine Press Club of SA Royal Adelaide Wine Show Awards Luncheon.  I chose to speak about the opportunities to export Australian wine to the UK market and how we might re-invent the past to capture the future.

Here’s the speech I delivered

Adelaide Wine Press Club, Wine Show Lunch speech: 7th October 2011

A Brief history of wine export to the UK

My theme for today is that exporting wine has never been easy, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we think it has been; today’s travails are different to yesterday’s but the net result is much the same, you work hard, you make great wine, you find a way to overcome the obstacles and you sell it.

In 1987, I told my then employer that I was going to Australia to learn about wine. He bluntly stated: “Why? Australia won’t ever amount to anything as a wine producer.”

 A few months later I arrived in the Barossa and it seemed that much of the valley believed what my erstwhile-boss had told me.

Yet just months later Australian wine was in the UK High Street and, thanks in part to the fallout from the Austrian, di-ethylene glycol scandal, Jacobs Creek had at last, and I stress “at last” found a distributor in the UK

Within a decade of my Barossa vintage everything had changed; Australia was full of self-belief, vineyards were being planted at breakneck speed to cope with growing demand and wine was on allocation.  A decade further on and things had changed again; we’d overshot on vineyard plantings and there was wine in surplus but we still knew that she’d be right..... “It’s only a temporary over-supply.”

The difficulties persisted; droughts and over-allocated water-rights stressed both the vines and the industry.  Yet amongst all this the stirrings of great things to come were to be found; desperate grape growers in the Riverland stopped bemoaning the hand they’d been dealt and went out and researched which of the newly imported “Mediterranean” varieties might suit a hotter, drier climate of the not too distant future.  And now we’re seeing the fruits of their gamble in the bottles of some of our biggest companies

So how did it all happen?  How did it all come about that Australia, from way out of left field become the overnight success and number one supplier to the UK market?

Well of course, the overnight success that we all think about actually took ten or more years to achieve.  And a lot of hard work by a lot of people.

Think about Hazel Murphy at The Australian Wine Bureau and all the occasions when she politely sat through a buyer’s rendition of Monty Python’s Australian wine sketch.  And it wasn’t just the buyers who knew two things about Australian wine in those days: wine drinkers also knew Monty Python and Chateau Rod Laver.  So spare a thought for Hazel and her team at mass consumer events such as The Ideal Home Show and assorted golf tournaments around the country. 

But spare a thought too for the wine producers of Europe who didn’t see this slow build as anything much to worry about.

In 1992 I began my MW studies and by then the only wines I was selling were Australian. It’s fair to say that amongst my fellow students Australian wine was a curiosity at best and a feeble joke at worst.  Yes, they too had studied Monty Python.

A couple of my Budding Master of Wine friends didn’t take Monty Python too seriously though,  and lo and behold the wine buyer for Fortnum and Mason, the Piccadilly Grocer to the Queen, and the buyer for Bibendum Restaurant were at least prepared to taste the wines I was importing.  If either of them had realised at that stage that their interest in the wines of St Hallett would result in regular visits from Bob McLean they might have thought twice; though Bob probably wouldn’t have been deterred.  It was hard work to get the sales moving to a broad audience although by that stage most of the wine writers were on board with Australia and some were visiting Coonawarra almost as often as they visited the Bordeaux.   We got a lot of great press.

The foundations of Australia’s success had been built and the heavy lifting was beginning to get some structure in place.  No longer was Australian wine available only in Oddbins, Ostlers and The Drunken Mouse (there’s three names to conjure with) but the supermarkets had taken notice of their Nielsen data and the requests which kept coming from in-store Customer Service departments from customers asking why they couldn’t buy that Australian wine they’d tried at the British Open Golf tournament or the Ideal Home Exhibition.

The Australian presence at the London Wine Trade Fair began to grow and the trade was taking notice.  But Australia’s stroke of genius was in creating the consumer demand by providing countless opportunities for wine drinkers to taste the wines.  Get the consumer on board: retailers listen to them.

And how did Australia engage with the consumer?  By going to the UK en-masse.  Those mid ‘90s Malaysian Airlines flights from Adelaide to London in mid May make Booney’s in-flight drinking escapades look tame.  It wasn’t always pretty meeting the flight at Heathrow but you knew you’d got an interesting couple of weeks ahead of you. 

Ask wine drinkers in England if they’ve met a winemaker and the chances are that they have.  Odds-on says that the winemaker they met is an Australian.  One year it was the Barossa that descended on London, the next it was Coonawarra.  Margaret River requisitioned Selfridges on Oxford Street.  It was like a revolving door: no sooner had you put one winemaker on the plane at Heathrow you were back collecting the next.  But boy, didn’t it work! 

No importer could afford to have a list without an Australian agency, even the most conservative retailers weren’t  brave enough to resist stocking at least a modest range of Australian wines and a very few forward thinking restaurants were adding Australia to the curio page at the back of their wine lists.

But it was damned hard work; it wasn’t simply a case of putting the wine into a list, sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the Qantas in-flight entertainment: no, it was a lot of slog.  Around about 1996 Bob McLean’s tornado arrived in London on a selling mission.  One day went like this:

7am: Collect Bob from hotel and get to GLR radio studio in Marylebone High Street

8am: Radio interview with Matthew Jukes

9.30am: training session for the front of house team at Conran Group’s  Zinc restaurant

11.00: Fortnum and Mason, meeting with buyer to finalise volumes of Old Block Shiraz for the F&M Christmas hamper

1pm: Bluebird restaurant for lunch and post lunch service training session 

4pm: Harvey Nicholls meeting with buyer

5pm: training session for Harvey Nichols restaurant staff

And between all of those meeting,  each time we saw a Threshers store or a Winerack store Bob insisted on going in to talk with the staff and to impress upon them the importance of them selling lots of St Hallett wines.

And that was just one day, and not a particularly exceptional one.  And it wasn’t just Bob, it was a whole host of larger than life characters out there, building their brands and the brand Australia. I have an enduring memory  of the late Patricia Brown, who must by then have been in her seventies, standing all day long behind the Brown Brothers stand, pouring her wines, engaging with wine drinkers and winning their hearts and minds.  An adjacent, non-Australian wine stand staffed by twenty-something marketing folk had three changes of staff during the day and a rota of coffee breaks.

Australian wine became a firm fixture thanks to all that shoe leather, flesh pressing and the annual migration of winemakers to England.

By the early 2000s we’d had a decade or more of constant good press the inevitable happened and as brands got bigger and more visible on shelf the media lost interest or worse stopped being so nice to us.  We started to see words like “homogeneous” and “bland” replacing “reliable” and “fruit-laden”.

With respect to any media who might be here today, journalists writing stories is one thing, but most people don’t read the wine column of a newspaper, let alone buy Decanter Magazine and against all the better advice consumers continued to like our wines.  Retailers continued to offer them and wineries were only too happy to supply.  Australia even had the audacity to become the biggest supplier in the market.  How dare we?  How did we.......with what competitor nations referred to as  “industrial” wines which lacked any trace of “terroir”.....oh yes, that’s right; the consumers loved them.

But we, as an industry, seemed to waiver in our faith, the doubts crept in, we didn’t visit London quite so often, we rationalised that the market didn’t justify it; it was established, it was a mature market, Maryland and Parkerville were much shinier ball bawls and they really needed our time.  Fair enough, on the last point, but they need our time “as well” rather than “instead of”.

Here we are, 2 dozen years on from the start of the current export boom and Australia is still the number one category in the UK market.  Our closest competitor has only 2/3 our market share. We must be doing something right.  During my nine years of working for Tesco I bought wine from other countries besides Australia and keen as I might have been to put them on gondola end the truth is that nothing worked quite like Australia.  Consumers like our wines and you need to believe that.

So here’s the call to arms: on the 25th anniversary of the re-birth of Australian wine in the UK market let’s get out there again.

Let’s re-engage with the wine drinkers of the UK.  Let’s re-energise the market.

 Book one extra flight to London, get out there and make it count.  Because you can, there is space in the market. Yes, exchange rates don’t make it easy but hey, you won’t encounter a single reference to Monty Python. There’s strong consumer demand already developed so you’re preaching to the converted and you’ve got new and exciting wines just waiting to be discovered by an eager audience.  You’ve got new stories to tell, new varieties to explain; get out there and tell people about your sustainable vineyard practices, your environmentally responsible approach to winemaking and the hundred and one other stories which give richness to Australian wine.

The media has given us a hard time in recent years but I sense the tide is turning and the re-invasion of the UK should include a few drinks with journalists as well as wine drinkers and the trade

The UK is more than the supermarkets, vital to us that they are. Consider other channels:  restaurants are increasingly open to Australian wines, pubs increasingly serving Australian wines by the bottle and by the glass and there are a host of independent merchants who can help you if you can help them.  I’ve recently helped place a premium wine agency with a UK importer and in the next few weeks the winemaker is hosting a dinner at a Michelin-starred London restaurant for paying guests. 

I won’t be easy. But then it never, ever was.

 

September 2011

Ata Rangi, Martinborough Pinot Noir 2007

New Zealand Pinot Noir is one of the great treats of life; never inexpensive but usually good value particularly when compared with Burgundy of equivalent quality.  And if you’re comparing this wine with a Burgundy you’re reaching quite high up into the tree: certainly to a Premier Cru, arguably higher.

Drunk over three consecutive nights (I know, I know, such immodest restraint but they were ‘school nights’ and it is interesting to see the wine evolve) the wine really blossomed both aromatically and on the palate.  What started off life as a pretty robust, tight, self-contained kind of wine slowly opened to offer an opulent, headily aromatic bouquet with an elegant, fine line of acid off which hangs supple tannins and ripe berry fruits.  Without doubt the wine was better on day three than on day one but I reckon if I’d had the wit to buy a magnum and drunk it at the same rate it would have been really hitting its straps around the end of the bottle.  Staying power like that; it’s a class act.

 

August 2011

Millton Vineyard’s Crazy by Nature Cosmo Red 2010.

Annie and James Millton have been growing grapes organically in Gisborne since 1984.  In the early days people thought that they were crazy and you can see why; Gisborne has rather a lot of rain during the growing season.   Undeterred by sceptics or the weather the Milltons persisted and are today New Zealand’s leading organic and indeed biodynamic vignerons producing a range of wines which apparently straddles all climatic classification and defies the lores of terroir: a deeply classy Pinot Noir, an elegant Chardonnay, a noteworthy Chenin Blanc, an exotic Viognier and a heady Muscat.

Made from certified organic grapes, Crazy by Nature Cosmo Red combines, oddly yet very effectively, Malbec with Syrah and Viognier to produce a garnet coloured, medium-bodied red (a much neglected style in itself) with a fresh, vibrant aroma of cracked black pepper, florals and leather.  The crisp palate has juicy, bitter raspberry fruit melded around a core of mellow tannins and spices.

Great value at NZ$19.95

image courtesy Millton Vineyards

 

Sommeliers Australia “Madeira Madness” Tasting 22nd August

Sommeliers Australia invited me to co-host a tasting of Madeiras with renowned fortified winemaker James Godfrey.  I was able to source some outstanding vintage and colheita Maderias from the Halifax Wine Company, www.halifaxwinecompany.com in the UK for the tasting. 

We tasted the standard four “noble” varieties, of which the Blandy’s Malmsey 1964 and the Barbieto Sercial 1971 were my picks but the wine which really shone for me was the D’Oliveira Colheita Terrantez 1988.  To my recollection I’ve never previously tasted a Terrantez, a grape variety which pre-phylloxera was prized on the island but was disease prone and yielded little.  In the difficult years following phylloxera little Terrantez was replanted and today it appears that the total plantings on Madeira are in the low single digit hectares.

An old Portuguese verse urges that Terrantez grapes should not be eaten or given away for God made them for wine making.  A pity then that He didn’t make the variety a little more resistant to mildew and a little more prolific in its yield. 

The 1988 D’Oliveira Colheita Terrantez justifies the variety’s reputation for quality. It is  an intense wine with beautiful aromatics; nuts and candied citrus. Off dry with the hallmark line of acidity coursing through it surrounded by dried fruit and dark coffee-like flavours.  The finish is pristine with amazing persistence.

Stellar value at £62 (approx A$100)

MAY 2011

Refreshing Changes

Innovation in the wine sector is not something we see a lot of; an industry steeped in tradition with long lead times and a deeply conservative mindset. So it’s great to see that one of Australia’s major brands has had the courage to do something beyond changing the label or blend.  Rosemount’s Botanicals is real innovation. 

John Arlott once said that Beaujolais is the only wine that quenches thirst. John was on to something and it explains why at any given wine industry talk-fest more Coopers Ale than wine is drunk.  And while Rosemount Botanicals is technically not “wine” (to reinforce the fact, the empty bottle just like the empty Coopers bottle is worth 10c) it is  “Carbonated Wine Product”.  Presented like wine, made of wine, looks like wine and you can drink it like wine, except that it is a very refreshing 8.5% abv: move over and make way Beaujolais. 

Each of the three wines has added botanical flavourings which complement the varietal characters of the wine; Sauvignon Blanc has Lemon and Elderflower, Pinot Grigio plays up its aromatic credentials to the max with Blood Orange and Rosewater while the Chardonnay, perhaps referencing the popularity of Hendrick’s Gin, combines Green Apple and Cucumber.  All are 8.5% alcohol, lightly carbonated and extremely refreshing. 

There’s a time and place for such wine drinks in many wine drinker’s repertoires, hopefully it can get new drinkers into the category too, and the entire industry should be rejoicing...either that or wishing that they’d done it first. 

A further encouraging innovation in Rosemount Botanicals is in the margin which they appear to give to both producer and retailer.  Dan Murphy’s sells the range for $14.99 a bottle.  Alongside them on the shelf is Rosemount Semillon Sauvignon Blanc at $8.99; no cash margin for Dan, next to no margin for Rosemount/Treasury.  And yes, $14.99 is fair value for the Botanicals. 

PS: An early nomination for the drink world’s most annoying website: Hendrick’s Gin.  A total triumph of designer whimsy over functionality.  It’s going to be a hard one to beat come Oscars Night.

 

 April 2011

Bouchard Père & Fils and Stella Bella On-Line Tasting with Burgundy School of Business

As part of my first ever on-line wine tasting for the Burgundy School of Business in Dijon (see associated links) I tasted four 2008 Premier Cru wines from the domaine vineyards of Bouchard Père & Fils and three from Margaret River’s Stella Bella.  Seven exciting, contrasting and fascinating wines

The quartet from Burgundy was made up of a pair of Meursault, a Monthelie and a Volnay.  Four wines which revealed the importance of site, slope and aspect in what was a very difficult, but in the case of these wines at least, a very successful vintage.   A caveat to that is this; these are wines laden with acidity, a feature by all accounts of vintage.  As a self-confessed lover of that fiendishly “crisp” white wine Gros Plant I found these wines pretty challenging and really they all need some time in bottle to fatten up a little before we start enjoying them.  That acidity though will help ensure that their lives are long and ultimately rewarding to the drinker.

Monthelie Clos Les Champs Fulliot, Premier Cru 2008 and Volnay Caillerets Premier Cru 2008

Monthelie, the oft overlooked village sandwiched between the two superstar villages of Volnay and Meursault produces some very attractive and modestly-priced reds for which I’ve long had an affection; Domaine Parent produce one which in the mists of time I used to sell and drink with enthusiasm.

The Clos Les Champs Fulliot 2008, of which Bouchard Père & Fils own just under a hectare, is currently showing pristine strawberry fruit bolstered by the bracing acidity of the vintage and fine but rather firm tannins.  The wine is balanced but I’d rather it had a couple more years in the cellar before drinking it.  Bouchard has chosen to close this wine with a DIAM cork to preserve its integrity.

Lower down the slope, across a small road and into the village of Volnay lies the Premier Cru Caillerets vineyard.  Contiguous with Clos Les Champs Fulliot, Volnay Caillerets it has a slightly more south easterly aspect which helps to explain the extra degree of fruit ripeness which was apparent in this wine.  The colour is deeper than in the Monthelie and the aroma much more layered and complex with briar, spice and berry fruits.  Medium-bodied with fine tannins and a touch of evident oak.   The riper style of this wine means that it could be drunk immediately but in reality it would improve greatly over the next two years and would certainly benefit from between five and ten years in the cellar.

Meursault Genevriéres, Premier Cru 2008 and Meursault Perrières, Premier Cru 2008

Two renowned vineyards with the Perrières being considered the better of the two by many authorities who suggest that it is of Grand Cru standing and therefore Meursault’s finest site.

The Genevriéres walks the tight-rope of acidity and fruit with great success; it is a wine to keep for several more years before starting to drink it but the spine of acidity is complemented and balanced by flinty and nutty citrus fruit characters. The wine is very tight and closed but cellar time will allow it to open. Drink 2014 to 2020.

The Grand cru pretender Perrières is a step up in fineness and depth from the already excellent Genevriéres. Piercing acidity is backed up by a deep minerality, a rich creaminess and an umami character.  The oak is already completely subsumed by the wine giving a seamless wine with a persistence on the finish which is astonishing.  Drink from 2014 to 2024. 

A postscript to these four wines is that even after being opened for four days (and decanted before the tasting to open them up a bit ) they all still drank wonderfully.  Acidity has its benefits. 

Stella Bella’s trio of wines demonstrated that Margaret River justifies its reputation for world class Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. It also suggested that Sangiovese deserves to be taken seriously in this part of the world.  Burgundy has had, give or take, two millennia to sort this kind of thing out, fast track Margaret River is yet to finish its fifth decade.

Stella Bella Chardonnay 2009 

Like the Meursault Perrières, Stella Bella’s Chardonnay 2009 is a seamless wine; it seems to effortlessly balance structural acidity with fruit.  Figs, nashi pear and a creamy MLF character meld with subdued and classy French oak and lead to a graceful, long finish.  I decanted this wine prior to the tasting and that certainly helped open it up but it is a very youthful wine with a long future ahead of it for those with the will power to resist.  Drink now (and yes, white though it be, decant it and see how it blossoms) or stash away for five to eight years.

Stella Bella Sangiovese Cabernet 2008

What really impresses about this wine is that the Sangiovese drives the blend and hasn’t lost its varietal signature into an amorphous dry red; something that can easily happen with this sort of blend.  Cabernet plays a seriously junior role while the Sangiovese sets about giving structure, in both acid and tannin, and hallmark bitter cherry fruit; Cabernet slides into towards the finish to offer some juicy fruit notes.  The finish is classically Sangiovese; really fine tannins giving an inviting savoury end to the wine.   Drink now to 2020 but decant if drinking now to get those seductive aromas opened up. 

Stella Bella Serie Luminosa Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 

This wine is yet to be released, so thank you Stella Bella for supplying samples pre-release.  The good news is that from July we’ll all be able to get our hands on this magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend.  The bad news, such as it is, is that the wine really deserves to be kept for at least another three years before drinking.  When I tasted the wine I hadn’t read the technical spec so didn’t realise that there was a significant slug of Merlot in the blend. Even now, knowing that  there’s Merlot in there it is hard to spot such is the intensity of the Cabernet Sauvignon typicity. From the deep, brooding purple colour, through the intense cassis and tobacco leaf aromas to the cassis, leather and tomato leaf laden palate this wine sings out Cabernet.  Firm, rich tannins brace the richness of fruit and there’s bolstering French oak in there too.  Sensational. And every other bottle will be too because Stella Bella has used a screwcap to close this wine. 

My thanks to Bouchard Père & Fils and Stella Bella for generously providing the wines for this tasting, to Dr Damien Wilson at Burgundy School of Business Dijon for hosting the event and to his students for their participation in the tasting as a part of their MSc in Wine Business course.

 

Oddbins - Decline and fall

The impending demise of Oddbins is without doubt a sad day, most importantly of course for the 400 or so staff that face redundancy.  Oddbins has been an institution in British retailing for three decades and in its early years was a sort of cult-underground retailer which slaughtered the holy cows of the wine world.  A training ground for much of the winetrade and a place where many a wine aficionado’s hobby took off;  early Oddbins was as close as wine retailing ever got to Biba.  But fearless and democratic as it was, popular as it was with industry commentators, Oddbins’ financial success has always been moot.

It’s not the likely closure of the once almost 300 strong chain’s remaining branches and the loss of these vibrant if slightly manic store fronts from the High street that concerns me most in this entire debacle; what really worries me is the bizarre attitude taken by the winetrade itself, the suppliers who face huge loses as the receiver moves in.

The relationship between suppliers and multiple retailers in the UK wine market is often a tense one: each recognises that they need the other but neither party is particularly happy about the arrangement. With so few channels through which to sell volume, where else is there to sell your brands?  Oddbins presented an alternative, not as big as the supermarkets but big enough to matter and principals liked a listing at Oddbins almost as much as a restaurant listing.  But it comes as a surprise to me that so many of the suppliers/creditors, facing write-offs of hundreds of thousands in some cases, are apparently so keen to see Oddbins continue.  Truly the sort of Finance Directors who embody the sentiment that to make a small fortune in the wine trade, start with a large one.  Did they  learn no lessons from First Quench?  Did these Finance Directors continue to extend credit to an ailing business because, but for Oddbins, the supermarkets (and Majestic) would have market domination? It’s a fair enough conclusion to draw from the figures given the calibre of many of the businesses involved and their evident desire to see the CVA approved.  You might conclude that their collective loss, now rapidly crystallising to the tune of many millions, was an investment to allow them to have an alternative channel of distribution to the supermarkets and Majestic.   I suspect that this isn’t the case but it leaves me at a loss to understand how Oddbins persuaded suppliers to extend so much credit.

A healthy High Street wine trade is something that I am keen to see; one where knowledgeable staff can pilot customers through the maze that is wine.  I began my wine career in such businesses but I do recognise that the consumer has moved on and social changes have moved against High Street retailing.  The Guardian newspaper reported that it was the supermarkets that had done Oddbins in: I beg to differ, it was a combination of cultural and social changes and corporate self-harm.

Oddbins has been a troubled business before now; in its early days it teetered and was rescued by Seagram who used the business very successfully as a slotting channel for their numerous brands.  With a team of charismatic and brilliant buyers the chain was winning IWC High Street Specialist Wine Merchant of the Year Award year after year.  Coupling all that with some outstanding marketing using Ralph Steadman cartoons ensured a steady flow of customers; but even then Oddbins was hardly a cash cow.  The well-trained, enthusiastic store staff certainly built customer loyalty but they were no match for a High Street in long-term decline, spiralling rents and rates and perhaps worst of all; the Red Routes and customers with out of kilter work-life balances who chose to keep life simple and buy wine as part of their supermarket shop.   Red Routes, the “don’t even think about parking here” restrictions were designed to ease traffic flow along congested arterial roads; the collateral effect was to ensure that the park and dash in for a bottle or two became a thing of the past. Customer numbers had to suffer.  It is telling that Majestic has said that they might be interested in the one or two Oddbins’ sites which have parking on site.  We live in the age of the motor car and a business which doesn’t provide parking for its customers soon finds that it’s a business without customers.

Corporate self harm comes into the picture when you consider Oddbins’ late entry into the on-line wine market and the tortuous array of products they stocked.  How could a business of this size hold so much inventory when so much of it had to be slow moving?  Wine retail using this model is capital intensive (as the £8 million owed to HM Revenue and Customs shows) and, a slow Christmas or not, a range so large is hard, if not impossible, to manage when duty and VAT has already been paid on the stock lingering on your shelves.  With so many suppliers, I counted over one hundred wine suppliers by the time I was half way through the alphabet on the Deloitte’s list of creditors,  how could the buyers really get to grips with the supply base and negotiate better deals on what were mostly relatively small volumes?  A business of this scale simply cannot manage such a complex array of suppliers; to do so would need a back office bigger than the store staff.  Management it seems failed to recognise the inherent problems in the business and failed to initiate changes which could have eased their cash flow issues.  Red Routes have been in place since the early 1990s, why did Oddbins not react to this, evidently permanent, change by selecting more sites which had on-site parking?

There is a future for High Street wine retailing but it cannot be the current Oddbins model.  Rather, I see it as one which recognises that it is there to service distress purchases rather than as a Saturday morning playground for serious wine purchases.  The range will be edited, bought well and sold well; no more jumble-sale like stores stocked to the gunnels with something but not the something anyone wants.  Holland’s Grapedistrict presents as good a vision of High Street wine retailing as I’ve seen for a long time and a similar model could well work in the UK. Oddbins has been a romance but romance doesn’t pay its bills. 

 

January 2011

Major Award for Sydney airport duty free World of Wine

For the past year I’ve been working with The Nuance Group on their landmark store at Sydney airport; it’s been a great experience, we’ve developed some outstanding customer communication to help inform customers about the top of the range Australian wines on offer.

 Duty-Free News International has awarded Nuance’s Sydney airport store its Best New Store award in its 2010 awards. 

BEST NEW STORE

SYD Airport Tax & Duty Free, Sydney Airport Terminal One,

The Nuance Group

Billed as the “biggest duty-free store in the southern hemisphere”, Nuance’s giant flagship outlet at Sydney International

airport terminal one puts spirits and local wines at the core of its offer. The permanent tasting bar and excellent World of Malt Whisky are

excellent features, but for DFNI the highlight of this new shop from a liquor perspective is the World of Wine area, which features over 100

premium and super-premium Australian wines. Wine expert Phil Reedman was drafted in to help create the selection and provide

travellers with helpful tasting notes.

www.DFNIonline.com

    

Less is More: grapedistrict, Holland 

January 2011

In “It’s All Too Much”, one of Joe Jackson’s lesser known, but arguably finest, songs Joe rails against the proliferation of choice in supermarkets

I hate this supermarket/but I have to say it makes me think/A hundred mineral waters/It’s fun to guess which ones are safe to drink
Two hundred brands of cookies/87 kinds of chocolate chip/They say that choice is freedom/I’m so free it drives me to the brink

And you know why – it’s all too much

Wine in many retailers is just that: simply substitute Chardonnay for chocolate chip cookies. Too many choices. Except they’re not really choices, they’re unexplained variations on a theme. I’ve been developing a theory for some while now that the “choice” available to most wine drinkers is bewildering and the way customers are being asked to shop for wine no longer entirely appropriate.  Clearly I’m not alone in this thinking: a chain of stores in Holland called grapedistrict has built a thriving business listing around 130 skus.  Joe Jackson would surely approve. 

But it’s not just the small range that differentiates grapedistrict from the likes of more traditional Dutch wine retailers such as Gall &Gall, grapedistrict merchandises wine in a different way too.  In the none-wine producing countries of Europe the received wisdom is that the customer decision tree for wine buying goes like this: Colour first. Country second, Price third and Variety fourth.  Retailers therefore merchandise their wines split into colour, then country within each colour and group varieties together in ascending order of price.

How helpful is this approach for consumers who have only a little knowledge and even less time to wade through several dozen examples of an apparently identical wines differentiated only by price? For the wine enthusiast a wide range is exciting, for the vast majority of the population it is intimidating and a barrier to purchase.  grapedistrict merchandises its wines by style, nine in all covering everything from sparkling to dessert wines.  With categories such as “Bubbles”, “Easy”, “Smooth”, “Deep” and “Honey” the stores are easy to navigate and when the choice within in a category is restricted to no more than 20 making a decision to purchase is easily made.  Store staff are well trained and easy to approach,  and for those who don’t wish to seek advice in person shelf-edge labels provide information on each wine.

grapedistrict is a great model, with most wines below €15, they probably don’t appeal to wine hobbyists seeking out a particular vintage of a particular chateau but for the rest of the population they have a well chosen wine for every occasion.

www.grapedistrict.nl

Wednesday 3rd November 2010

MW Claret Tasting

MW Claret Tasting: The Annual Claret Tasting is quite an event on the MW calendar, coming as it does on the morning of the coronation ceremony for newly passed MWs. This year it was the turn of the 2006 vintage, a vintage described as “variable” in the tasting catalogue, aptly so as I discovered.  A number of wines, including the first growths Haut-Brion and Margaux, were clearly overly enthusiastic with their oak budgets that year. Chateaux showing more restraint and consequently rather more enjoyable wines include: Lafite-Rothschild (circa £850 a bottle) and Mouton-Rothschild. Palmer and d’Angludet both very classy. Léoville-Poyferré elegant and understated while Brainaire-Ducru combined richness with great poise. 

As to wines which can be reasonably afforded, the Chateau Talbot which Berry Bros have for £391 a case (yes, a case of 12) looks like a good drink to me.

Thursday 23rd September 2010

Classy Cabernet

Margaret River’s Cape Mentelle has carved out quite a reputation for itself as a producer of age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignon to rival anything from Australia.  A bottle of the 2001 opened recently justified the reputation: bright plumy red, clearly developed but not fading. The bouquet has developed in bottle into a rush of cassis backed up with leather, tobacco and cedar. Raspberry and cedar along with violets balance some fine, sandy tannins. A wine with great structure and easily another ten years of life in it.  If you see some, buy it.

Friday 27th August 2010

Hahndorf Hill Blaufränkisch 2008

As far as I recall Blaufränkisch (Austria), aka Lemberger (Germany) Gamé (Bulgaria) Kékfrankos (Hungary) Frankovka (Czech Republic) and Franconia (Friuli) [that is, according to Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine] didn’t crop up too many times in my MW studies.  Clearly an oversight.  This variety which seems to have more synonyms than Madonna has had incarnations, is now alive and thriving in the Adelaide Hills, where, thank goodness, they call it Blaufränkisch. Though even that requires you to go into ‘Symbols’ and find the umlaut...the joys of pedantry.

Hahndorf Hill has produced a stunning, and thus far Australia’s only, Blaufränkisch from the 2008 vintage: it’s a sort of stylistic cross between a sexy Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir, a Gimblett Gravels Syrah and an out-there Moulin-à-Vent. Deep ruby in colour, with tremendous concentration of flavour, some savoury tannins but a line of acid holding the thing together.  Odd as this may sound, but go with me anyway, try this with a seared tuna steak.

$35 a bottle from the cellar door which is great value for a wine of such quality and one with so many talking points.

 

Friday August 13th August 2010

A big week, with a couple of great tastings and one really sad one.  First off, a pair of wines from Brown Brother’s Patricia range; a special selection of wines which honours the memory of Patricia Brown, matriarch of the family and a women who, at a tasting  event I organised in London in the mid 1990s when she must have been in her 70s, put a roomful of wine sales people half her age to shame by working the stand all day long without a break or complaint.  Amazing energy and passion for her family’s wines.  What must she have been like in her youth?

Brown Brothers Patricia Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

The aroma is classic cigar-box and tomato leaf which leads into a rich, full-bodied yet smooth palate.  The juicy blackcurrant fruit is counterpointed by savoury tannins and notes of  coffee and dark chocolate.  The wine finishes with a persistent and pure, ripe fruit character.  Ideal with a roast leg of lamb it can be enjoyed now or at any time over the next 5 to 8 years.  Circa $60

Brown Brothers Patricia Shiraz 2006

The pick of the vintage and a worthy Shiraz for this label.  Vibrant garnet colour, no sign yet of any development. The bouquet is invitingly spicy and peppery and leads into a medium-bodied but extremely concentrated palate filled with plum and bramble fruit flavours which are supported by the most subtle oak.  Drink now to 2018 with mature cheese or rare-cooked beef.  Decant it if you can to allow it to open up.....or else abstemiously enjoy it over a couple of days.  Just a thought.   Circa $60

***

Prejudices linger, sad to say.  One quite widely held is that Penfolds doesn’t make whites of any great merit.  A couple of years ago a wine shop in Adelaide’s East End firmly advised me that the Penfolds whites weren’t worth bothering with. I was searching for a Penfolds Bin 00a Chardonnay which I’d recently tasted in a blind tasting where it had been unanimously voted top wine.  Fortunately views are changing and Penfolds’ whites increasingly get the recognition they merit.

I spent a morning at  Magill tasting some new releases, three of the highlights were:

2008 Bin 08a Adelaide Hills Chardonnay

A Chardonnay with attitude and one which takes no prisoners: a love it or hate it sort of wine but undeniably good.  I love it for it sheer, out-there funkiness which is backed up by layers and layers of exquisite mineral and fruit flavours concluding with a grapefruity refreshing finish which goes on and on. Search high, search low, but get some.

Penfolds Yattarna 2007

At the other end of the scale when it comes to funk, Yattarna is crisp, clean and as sharply focused as you could wish. One taste and it is instantly recognisable as a world class Chardonnay.  The crisp, bright colour has green glints betraying youthfulness and the aroma retains a lemon-meringue pie character touched with hazelnut and lemon zest.  The palate is taut and focused with grapefruit and a delicate nuttiness. A crisp and persistent finish leaves you wanting another glass. 

 Penfolds Grange 2005

Power, but power tempered by responsibility sums up Grange for me. The 2005 is a huge wine in all respects yet it has elegance and grace as opposed to sheer brute force. Saturated ruby in colour  and with an aroma which is layered with berries, bramble and hints of peppery spice.  The palate is a blockbuster but has ripened tannins seamlessly melded around the sumptuous fruit.  At five years old this is still an infant and needs a couple of decades to reveal its full depth and complexity of flavours. 

 

The Case of the Mournful Honking of a dead Golden Goose

Cleanskin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009

Proving the old adage that when something looks to be too good to be true it usually is, is a 2009 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from Woolworths, priced at $5.55 or if you purchase six bottles at just $5 a bottle.  Keep your money in your pocket. The real irony is that on the adjacent shelf a clean skin Australian Semillon Chardonnay was selling for $5.97.

 

Monday July 26th 2010

Lanson Noble Cuvée 1999

For reasons that only British Airways and Qantas can, but haven’t, explained Australian flights to and from London’s Heathrow are via the dismal T3 rather than the brand-spanking new T5.  Hey ho, BA has a rather pleasant lounge at T3 and, maybe as a consolation for having foisted  T3 upon us,  is good enough to serve Lanson’s Noble Cuvée 1999.  Let’s say it eases the pain.  There’s a bready/brioche character to the aroma and a still very fresh apple and citrus palate cut with layers of bottle developed flavour.  Crisp and refreshing with a savoury, very satisfying finish Noble Cuvée is a class act.  If you’re not transiting through Heathrow T3 it’s worth a detour to a bottle shop.

Tuesday 27th April 2010

Noteworthy Marlborough Sauvignon

You can’t argue with drinkers who are buying Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for $6 a bottle; after all it fulfils their perfectly reasonable need for a glass of dryish, crisp white wine at a decent price and it does carry the high kudos appellation of Marlborough on the label.  You might even contend that some of the Marlborough brands have rather taken their customers for granted over the last few years when wine was under-supplied and this is the free market squaring the circle.

But here’s a powerful argument for trading up: Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2009.  This is not a dryish, crisp white, it is a nuanced, layered wine with intensity and interest. Not a mid-week quaffer this is more a Saturday night special but for around $30 a bottle it is good value.

Wednesday 14th April 2010

Cullen’s Kevin John Chardonnay 2007

I can see a sub-blog emerging along the lines of Characterful Chardonnays or Chardonnays Which do the Variety Proud or some such snappy title.  Meanwhile I can strongly suggest that you hunt down a few bottles of the Cullen’s Kevin John Chardonnay 2007. 

A little leaner and a shade more polished than the Salo Yarra Valley Chardonnay I’ve been drinking of late, the Kevin John is from Margaret River and surely puts itself into the same bracket as Leeuwin Estate Art Series.   Piercing acidity of the most refreshing and structure-giving kind runs like an arrow through this wine allowing the lime and mineral flavours to hang off it giving a wine of distinction and length.  It drank beautifully with some Coffin Bay oysters.

Thursday 11th March 2010 - One Planet Wines

I’m delighted to announce that One planet Wines has launched two tetra packed premium wines on the Australian market.  An Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc and a McLaren Vale Shiraz are the launch varieties, packed in the environmentally friendly 75cl tetra pack.  I’ve been working with One Planet on this project for some time and have endorsed the wines and the packaging.    Weighing in at only 780g  which compares with 1260g for a lightweight glass bottle they’re friendlier on the arm muscles as well as your carbon footprint. 

And let’s face it, if someone invented the glass bottle today it would be a non starter........”sure it’s heavy. Yes it takes masses of energy to make them and recycle them and well, look, over time everyone will get used to handling them with care so as not to smash them”.  Apart from being inert and a reasonable sort of pressure vessel if you make them heavy enough, the glass bottle really has few advantages for most wines these days.  With bottle aging for most wines being defined as the length of time it takes to get home from the store why put wine into something that theoretically allows the stuff to develop for years when it’s going to be drunk within weeks?  www.oneplanetwine.com Check out Phil talking about this exciting new project on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swHH33uXkcA

 

Tuesday 23rd February 2010

It’s time to rediscover Chardonnay; put fashionable prejudices and feeble Sauvignon Blancs behind you to once again delight in this great variety.  And here’s a “starter for ten”, Salo Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2008 made by Steve Flamsteed and Dave Mackintosh as a side project from their day jobs.

Salo is French argot for “uncouth” or “dirty”  which sums up the winemaking philosophy behind the wine.  Wild ferment, wild malo, minimal handling and filtration have all added up to a richly textured, funky wine which thrills those, who like me, cut their wine drinking teeth on the less than squeaky clean wines of Burgundy.

salowines@gmail.com

Monday 9th November 2009

Attended the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show on the weekend.  The fabled Italian Long Lunch, cooked by Stefano de Pieri, is surely the finest meal connected with any wine show awards event: worth the drive from Adelaide that's for sure.
 
A new trophy this year for the Best Wine of the Show was the Dr Rod Bonfiglioli Trophy named in honour of the show's co-founder, the late and much lamented "Dr Rod".  Rod's widow, Ruby Andrew and show co-founder Bruce Chalmers presented the trophy to Steve Pannell for his S.C. Pannell 2007 Nebbiolo.
 
Best white wine went to McLaren Vale's Beach Road Wines for their Fiano 2009.  Beach Road also picked up one of the Chairman's Wine to Watch awards for their Greco di Tufo 2009.  I've never tasted an Australian Greco di Tufo but I'm off to McLaren Vale soon to buy some.
 
While reports of Chardonnay's death are greatly exaggerated it is wonderful to see so much interest and passion around these exotic-in-Australia varieties
 
Results of the show are at: www.aavws.com 

Friday 6th November 2009

I was a guest speaker at the Riverland Wine "Some Like it Hot" seminar in Remark this week.  I was invited to address the question "The Commodity Wine Market; Can the Riverland sustain its position?" and also take part in a panel discussion on Alternative grape varieties that might have a future in the Riverland. I spoke about the need for the need for a greater level of communication, trust and understanding to be developed along the value chain so that the industry can continue to supply the market with the wine it needs at the prices required.
 
It was great to hear that a number of growers and wineries are embracing the so-called Alternative Varieties; vermentino seems to be gathering quite a following. Watch this space. 
 
Perhaps the most thought provoking speaker of the day was James Parsons a New Zealand beef and sheep farmer who has recently completed a six month Nuffield Scholarship investigating the value chain for New Zealand meat.  James spoke on the highly relevant title of "Value Chains and industry restructure: can growers be more than price takers?"   James has drawn some conclusions which the wine industry should study.  See James' web site www.jamesparsons.co.nz and his value chain report.
 

 

 

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