Sunday, 24 October 2010

Kind hearts and tin roofs

The story may be apocryphal, but it’s said that someone sent Robert Parker a bottle of Rutherglen Muscat. He was so blown away that he awarded the wine 100 points. The next year a grower sent Parker a bottle of their top Rutherglen Muscat. His shocked response at having shot his bolt so early was to lament that ‘if I had more points to give’…..
Rutherglen is about 350km north of Melbourne and is to the west of the Victorian Alps region of the Great Dividing range. This is important for the regions macro climate as the winds come down from the mountains bringing cooling air.
The geology and topography of the region is due to the action of the Murray Darling river system. As the glaciers melted it worked its way down from the mountains bringing large amounts of gravel and alluvial matter, this was deposited across the Rutherglen in patches around the heavier clay mounds that are what pass for hills in the area.
There are only eight producers of Rutherglen Muscat in the region and all except Seppelt are family owned. The region was founded in the 1860’s and experienced a boom, fuelled by immigration and brought in labour from China. Prior to Phylloxera hitting the area it was the second largest viticultural area in the colony. The early half of the 19th century was not the happiest of times, several wars and a general decline in the market for fortified wines conspired to leave the region in danger of becoming a curio.
Colin Campbell and his brother arrived on the scene at around this time. Born into the 4th generation of the Campbell family, they were never given a choice as to what their career path was going to be. Colin had been sent to agricultural college and subsequently to Roseworthy, then returned to the Rutherglen to look after the wine making, his brother the vineyards. Their first task was to be saving the region.
John Campbell arrived in the Rutherglen from Scotland in 1860 on the Merchant Prince, initially he was attracted by gold prospecting, (un)fortunately the gold soon ran out. Inspired by a French vigneron who declaimed ‘dig gentlemen, dig, but no further than 6 inches down, for that is where the real gold will be found’. Soon the Campbell patriarch had assembled the 3rd largest estate in the colony, his son assumed the task of replanting the estate after the devastation of Phylloxera, and Colin Campbell’s father had to keep the estate running through the lean years, principally through expanding the other agricultural activities of the farm.
Early settlers would speak of ‘the tyranny of distance’, the Rutherglen was a long, long way from Melbourne, three weeks by cattle train. It was for this reason that the two Scottish settlers who built the All Saints Castle had to make all the bricks from local mud, all the early buildings were roofed with corrugated iron, the most economical material to transport over the long distances. This was to have a major impact on the style of wines produced.
Rutherglen Muscat, and Rutherglen Tokay are amongst the most distinctive wines produced in Australia, along with Hunter Valley aged Semillon and Sparkling Shiraz they have no analogue in the rest of the world.
Their wine making takes in aspects of Port, Madeira, Sherry, and Mistelle production. Produced respectively from Muscat a petit grains rouge, a local clone of the well known varietal, known with characteristic Australian elan as Brown Muscat, and Muscadelle, the varietal used in small amounts to add interest to dry whites from the Entre Deux Mers.
The grapes are left on the vine to become raisins, following their harvest (occasionally over several tries) they are left to macerate together. The purpose of this is to get the sugar and flavour out of the raisined grapes by steeping them in the juice of the non raisined grapes. Osmotic pressure across the grape skins causes the raisined grapes to swell and gradually the batch approaches homogeneity. There are stylistic differences across the houses over whether any fermentation is allowed to take place in the Brown Muscat (the lower sugar levels of the Muscadelle mean that everyone prohibits ferment with it), with some pressing at the first sign of activity and others leaving the grapes to bubble a bit. Adding the high proof (96 degrees) neutral alcohol to un-fermented juice retains more of the sugar and fresh aromatics, where as allowing up to a few degrees of natural alcohol darkens the resultant wine (higher phenolic extraction due to the solvent action of the alcohol) and adds a more vinous complexity. In this sense the start of the process has similarities with either Port production or that of a Mistelle.
Once the fortified juice has been transferred to the ancient ageing barrels the real magic can begin.
The Muscats and Tokays of the Rutherglen are defined by the architecture of their region. The tin roofed huts get hot, real hot. Once the early wine makers realised the beneficial effect the heat was having on their Muscats they started to build new shacks, angled north westerly to get all the days sun, with low roofs to concentrate the heat. At All Saints their Church Shed will regularly reach 55 degrees centigrade.
The maturation of the wines is another area where house styles differ, Morris work exclusively from barrels where as Campbells only work from their large Solera system. However regardless of the system used the wines are sent off into the sheds to drift off into a hot but peaceful slumber. By a strange quirk of geographical positioning the humidity/heat balance is such that the alcohol and water in the barrels evaporates at almost exactly the same rate, unlike in the Barossa, where Seppelt send their wines to mature and the alcohol creeps up year by year. This means that the 4-10% volume loss per annum merely concentrates the wine. With both sugar and acidity levels rising in tandem, this lends the finest most ancient wines a searing powerful acidity that balances the sugar levels (often as high as 280g per litre).
Stylistically Tokays are not quite as sweet as the Muscats, and show a different aroma palette. More savoury they have black tea, walnut, salt caramel, coffee and rancio characters, where as the Muscats initially have the fresh floral characters of the grape along with caramel, honey, and raisined notes but then develop all the gorgeous richness of oxidative ageing, the chocolate notes, the unctuous christmas cake characters, nutmeg, clove and candied orange peel accents.
Within each group there are four quality levels: Rutherglen Muscat/Tokay, Classic, Grand and Rare, however it is up to each different producer which wines he wishes to bottle in which category.
A note on nomenclature, due to EU trade agreements the region of Tokaji heglia has reclaimed rights to the usage of the Tokay name. The Rutherglen producers have been given until 2018 to phase out the usage of Tokay. Writing as someone who has an intimate knowledge of the region of Tokaji I have great sympathy for them, and I fully understand why they should wish to prohibit the use of their regions name for other wine styles. After all it is no longer considered acceptable to label your sweet wine a Sauternes. The producers of the Rutherglen are understandably aggrieved to have to stop using a name which they have used for well over a hundred years. However it was chosen in the first place because Tokaji was such an iconic wine, whose history dates back to the 1600s.
Despite all this I can’t help but feel that an exception should be made, Tokay is a drop in the ocean production wise and the quality can be exceptionally high
p.s. The name that was decided upon was Topaque, and yep it actually hurts to type it.

Majella issues

This afternoon I had the pleasure of discussion with Bruce Gregory the winemaker at Majella the effects that the last eight years of drought have had on the grape physiology that he sees in the Coonawara.
Bruce relates that the average pH has been steadily rising from a decade ago where the average Cabernet pH would have been 3.3. This has risen to a cool year average of 3.4 and in the warmer years edging up to 3.7.
Obviously this is problematic because it necessitates higher and higher levels of acidification. But things are complicated by the fact that the decrease in total acidity isn't a spread across the different naturally occurring grape acids. In fact it is overwhelmingly the Tartaric acid which is being lost. This means that the grapes arrive into the winery with proportionately raised Malic acid levels. Malic acid is not microbiologically stable, and is almost always lost after fermentation through the action of Malolactic bacteria. This has a knock on effect on the final acidity of the wine. Meaning that Bruce then has to decide whether to acidify the must to a pre malolactic fermentation level which is more suitable for fermentation, or to a post malolactic ferment goal.
Incidentally when it comes to correcting acidity, it's pretty much established practice across South Australia. 3.57 is the magic number, pH's above this figure leave a fermenting must wide open to oxidative problems, and will likely lead to heightened volatile acidity or worse. So obviously a must with a pH above 3.57 will need acidifying, but the other benefit of acidity is that it will balance the final wine, acting like a frame work for the fruit and tannin to hang upon. It is here where things get difficult because the wine maker needs to anticipate how much acidity will be needed, but there is always some acidity consumed during fermentation. The final complicating factor is that post fermentation acidity fixing never really integrates into the texture of the wine and often appears on the palette as a kind of disjoint between the fruit of the wine and the acidity alongside it.
There are several reasons why the average pH values could be increasing, however Bruce attributes it to increasing vine stress, which may be caused by any of several factors. Obviously, eight years of drought is almost certainly the main factor as the increased temperatures, accompanied by shortage of water put great stress on the vines, however the is evidence of concurrent draining of both sodium and potassium levels in the soil, which may very well impact on the vines ability to ripen in a slow and balanced fashion.
Because there was never any great problem with ripening grapes in the southern Australian vine regions, it fell to the Kiwi's to do most of the iconic work on canopy management. This suited them because being a cooler climate region there was an incentive to maximise the sunlight exposure the foliage received, and subsequently to ensure the most effective fruit:leaf ratio in each plant. It would appear that things now have swung in a different direction. We are now looking at warmer regions (though Coonawarra is regarded as a relatively cool climate in South Australian terms) that are in the grip of rising temperatures, so the focus gets completely spun on to its head. Majella converted to mechanical harvesting and pruning some time ago due to major problems sourcing labour. This gives the vines an odd looking tangle of branches, that brings to mind a birds nest. However this does lead to quite shaded canopies which in the hot sunny weather isn't such a bad thing.
There has been some research into Cabernet clones that are better able to cope with the hotter weather, however it appears that most of this was done some time ago, and really with vines planted in 1968 from cuttings taken from Jock Redman's vineyards, there is little that can be done on that front in the near future.
Hopefully the Lynn's will adapt to the new conditions, because a tasting of their wines showed some beautiful wines, their entry level Musician 08 came across as an excellent value example of Coonawarra fruit, more seriously their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon positively glowed with minty, eucalypt and cassis aromas, medium weight chewy tannins had me thinking naughty thoughts about serving it lightly chilled of a summers evening. Their 2006 Shiraz was showing slightly maturing red berried fruit,a delicate earthiness and boasted great drinkability. Of their top end wines the youngest, 2007 Malleea was a riot of sophisticated oak notes, balsamic vinegar, cassis, dark cherries and cream. The 2004 of the same wine was easing itself into its drinking window still prodigiously full bodied but with complex secondary notes, earthiness and lots of deep dark brooding fruit, though still balanced and drinkable.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Anatomy of a blend

'Must not structure have a genesis, and must not the origin, the point of genesis, be already structured, in order to be the genesis of something'
 Jacques Derrida, "'Genesis' and 'Structure' and Phenomenology," in Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 1978)

There is a paradox implicit in great blends, to succeed as a blend they must be the sum of many different parts. Each of the different parts is the product of man's intervention into the environment, and yet each part is also determined by the climatic conditions that preceded the harvest.
Certain elements of the blend may not be excellent by themselves but may shine when partnered with other complimentary elements.
In general we encounter these wines in their finished state and can only wonder as to what exactly each of the parts has contributed. On occasion one gets the chance to peek behind the curtain.

Best's Great Western is a small family winery in the Victorian region of the Grapions, now in their 5th generation they are blessed with some incredibly old stock of vines. Shiraz plantings going back to 1867. Their top two wines are respectively Bin no.0 and Thompson Family Shiraz. The Thompson family wine is a single vineyard expression of the 11 rows of 1967 stock and is made in quantities around 2400 bottles. The Bin no.0 is a blend of their other vineyards, with some of the old stock and is arguably more interesting.

I've long regarded the art of successful blending to be one of the dark arts of wine making. Wineries pay hundreds of thousands pounds to secure the assistance of a successful consultant to help ensure their blend is perfect, and yet after all the talk of soils, vineyards and cultivation methods it remains one of the most important elements in the outcome of the final blend. That and the date of picking, but we'll get onto that later.

This afternoon I had the pleasure of tasting a breakdown of the Bin no.0 blend components in the cellar at Best's with Adam Wadewitz their head winemaker. Fascinating it was.

All the wines were from the 2010 vintage

First pick off the hill vineyards – gravel and granitic soils so excellent drainage. This was given a 100% whole bunch fermentation a method that contributes aromatic complexity, adding a certain green herbal perfume, however it's quite important to get lignified (fully ripe and woody, not green) stems to avoid the green tannins that can result. Discussing what sort of characters the whole bunch pressing gives, Adam was of the opinion that there was a certain dill character that was present.
Indeed there was a fresh nose, some herbal and vegetal characters married to some meaty dark fruit, nicely fresh and perfumed, not too full bodied with a directness of intent and linearity of acidity and tannins.

2010 second hill pick and no whole bunches, the second picking was three days later. I was remarkable how the aromatics differed there was a blast of fabulously opulent cherry liquor, raspberry and red fruits – still very fresh and direct on the palette, showing dark red fruits and hints of dark fruit on the palette. Despite the difference in aromatics there was a noticeable similarity in structure on the palette.

Adam went on to explain that he doesn't crush very much, what they're looking for is integrity and anything other than a very soft crushing is detrimental to the final delicacy of the wines.

Moving onto the 1970 block, this section usually gives quite aromatic and floral wines so they have opted to leave it on the lees to develop more mid palette body. Personally I found it had a very floral and aromatic nose – rose petals and violets, blue fruits which was followed by an incredibly floral palette, rose water, violet love hearts, there was some mid palette structure, but this was a component that was almost overwhelmingly aromatic, certainly an interesting component to have for a blend, but not for a single vineyard wine.

Their 1966 block is usually divided into two picks, one of the area surrounding the gum tree as they like to be able to isolate the heavily eucalypt oil affected grapes. The first pick showed the expected eucalyptus, some meat, mint, and choc chip ice cream. It was quite creamy on the palette, more velvety and richer. Fuller on the palette, bright red fruit as well, twist of pepper at the back?
To quote 'tannin, acid and density are what this wine brings to the blend', though personally I felt that this was another wine that would be ading aromatic complexity and interest.

The 1966's second picking was on the following day and had some whole bunch (30%) ferment, to start with it was a bit reduced, toasty (due to more new oak), smoky (flinty?) and quite complex. On the palette it showed some hard to pin down red, with fullish rich velvety tannins, fruit and
lovely lip smacking acidity on the finish

The 1867 Shiraz plantings are divided into two plots, 4 rows and 11 rows, the 4 rows goues into the Bin no.1 blend, whilst the 11 rows are put into a separate wine if the year is good enough.

The Thompson family vines 4 rows from 1867, this had brooding raspberry and balsam notes, it was aromatic, full bodied with quite tight restrained tannins, great concentration and balance, (incidentally these are often the first shiraz vines to be picked).

The Thompson Family 11 rows, this is regarded as Best's best fruit and in good years it will be the Thompson family Shiraz wine, Adam was pretty certain that this would be one of those years. Indeed the wine was intense showing mint choc chip ice cream, raspberry, a perfumed aromatic nose. On the palette it was serious with both freshness and balance. Finally the tannins were chewy and powerful with great length.

To add some perspective to the tasting we then looked at the Bin no.0 and Thompson Family Shiraz 2008 wines.

Bin no0 2008, this had a gorgeous nose showing mint, balsam, some spice, creamy red fruit, raspberry and on the palette it was sweet and direct with great acidity, elegant tannins, Very, very good and still a baby.

Thompson family 08 – this was a bit closed with red berried fruits some hints of herbal characters, raspberry and spice. Some cigar box notes were on the finish, and it had a great consistency of palette depth. However it was still far to young and acting all coy.

To quote Michaelangelo 'True art is made noble and religious by the mind producing it. ... The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection. ... A man paints with his brains and not with his hands'. It is with this in mind that I often feel the better blends of a producer are the true works of vineous art. Single vineyard wines, whilst beautiful, fail to have the added intellectual depth of purpose that the great blends get to carry.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Nobless oblige?

Bodrogkeresztur is a smallish village on the Bodrog in the heart of the lower (Tokaj) end of the Tokajheglya, and it's home to Tokaj Nobilis. Sarolta Bardos is from a family with a long history in the region, and for this we should be grateful. When her and her husband, Peter Molnar of Patricius, were looking to buy up vineyard land, it was the good name of her Grand Father that pursuaded people that they could sell to her. The upshot is that they now have land in two of the cru vineyards around Bodrogkisfalud, Barakonyi and Csirke-ma. From their holdings they vinify a range of wines, which keep getting better.

I've visited Nobilis twice now, once in 2009 and again this year (2010), both times it's been a pleasure, not least because there are usually one or two little girls either in someone's arm or peeking shyly round the corner of a wall.

Sarolta is a charming host, who evidently loves her vineyards, and is equally passionate about the wines she's making. This is very much her winery, Peter has more than enough to do with Patricius, and being the president of Tokaji Renaissance..

We arrived at the winery earlyish on the Sunday morning following the festivities of the previous nights harvest party, and for once I was extremely glad that I'd gone to bed on return to the house the previous evening. No one else in the house was going to be raised for several hours more and on their reappearance there were sunglasses all around (that's you Gergley and Rita x).
Sarolta then took us out to visit the Barakonyi vineyard, unfortunately the Csirke-ma hasn't coped with the inclement weather so well and won't be providing much quality fruit this year, a story I've heard repeated all over the place, the vineyards are, helpfully, located just about the Patricius holdings and aren't too far from their house.

On return we got stuck into tasting..

Stylistically, the wines tend to see quite a bit of oak, I found this a bit problematic when I tasted the 07's last year, and probably is why I didn't rave about them as much as I ought to have done. However I was pleasantly surprised when I tasted the Barakonyi Hars 08 (Harslevulu) at the Buda wine festival, it was showing lovely white flowers and nice minerally core of citrus fruit, while the oak was noticeable it was merely adding body, exactly how I like it. A tank sample of the Hars 09 was equally promising, prodigiously aromatic with very ripe fruit and some sweet apple like notes on the palette.

When I think of the dry Nobilis wines I tend to think of their Harslevulus, however this might be because good examples of the grape are slightly harder to come by than good dry Furmints, of which the 09 Barakonyi is an example. Sarolta has left 8g of residual sugar in the wine which isn't very noticeable balanced as it is by the high acidity of the Furmint grape. The 09 showed lots of peachy Furmint character, and was starting to integrate it's oak. It should be released sometime next year.

There are a couple of off dry wines, a Sarga Muscatoly (Muscat), which is at 14g residual sugar and is very perfumed with a lime and turkish delight palette and an off dry finish, and a Koverzolu (means fat grape) which again is light, off dry and quite pleasant.

However the serious wines return again when you start to taste the sweet wines. The late harvest Sarga Muskatoly which is made from shrivelled grapes from the Barakonyi vineyard shows all sorts of exotic rose, spice and perfume and is suitably sticky and unctuous on the palette.

Amicus 08 (120g residual) is 90% Furmint, 7% Koverzolo and 3% Hars and spends 6 months in new oak has bucket loads of acidity which conspires to keep the sugar in check, apricot and ripe pear characters abound on the palette and it has a great lengthy finish.

The 2002 6 Puttonyos clocks in at 160g residual sugar and similarly has a great freshness and intensity of fruit. These are sweet wines that are predicated on their intensity of fruit, they're very much of the new school where oxidative characters are nowhere to be found, unless they develop slowly with age. Rather like the Amicus, the 6 putt is very well balanced and has a great finish of apricot marmelade and a touch of the tokaji minerality.

I like Nobilis a lot, I think Sarolta is charm personified, and oddly I also relish seeing Peter slightly more relaxed, he's away from the official business that I usually meet him through, so instead of being the president of Tokaji Renaissance he can concentrate on keeping his youngest daughter occupied long enough for his wife to chat to us about the wines. A lovely family winery, that also seems to be on the up and hopefully will continue to improve.

Monday, 4 October 2010


Alana alana, give me three wishes, I want to be that dirty finger and his sex bitches.....

I can't look at Alana without hearing the inimitable Lovefoxx from Cansei de Ser Sexy singing almost the same name... Slightly distracting, but less so because it's a great song. Oh and the wines are quite stunning.

Alana arrived on the scene with some dash and verve a couple of years ago. They obviously have some money behind them, though this wasn't fully elaborated upon, because they've arrived to really shake up the scene in Mad.

The village of Mad is sort of the spiritual home of the new generation of Tokaji producers. With Royal Tokaji having their cellars only a couple of doors up from Istvan Szepsy's boutique operation. Growers like Gabor Oroz skirt the periphery of the main road and the whole town is dominated by it's most famous produce.

Alana has set up shop on the main street, purchasing in two goes a 900 square foot cellar and 17th century house which they are in the process of renovating. The goal is to have two separate entries, one from the main road which visitors can use and the other at the top of the property for wine making traffic.

They have around 23 ha which is divided into 10ha of Furmint, 6 of Harslevulu, 2.5 of Yellow Muscat and the rest between other varietals like Zeta.
Their policy regarding Oak, as slowly evolved as they have gone on. Always using Hungarian Oak they have moved from Trust with western Hungarian Oak, to Kadar with their guaranteed Zemplen Oak to finally using the local Tonellarie in Erdobenye, where Atilla has found that simply having a good working relationship with some one close has benefited him the most.

In Atilla Gabor Nemeth they have found themselves a winemaker thoroughly up to the challenge. Quiet and thoughtful he's regularly singled out as the philosopher of the younger generation. This might be doing him a slight disservice, but his wines have the rare quality of showing a very distinct character, and one that runs through the range.

Furmint 06 Betsek. Betsek is regarded as one of the traditional cru vineyards, however Atilla is of the opinion that the upper and lower parts differ radically in terms of quality, with the upper half being much better. Sadly their holdings encompass both areas, though the lower part is more likely to suffer from botrytis, so for the dry wines it's mostly the higher fruit.
This had some slightly toasty peach/ripe pear fruit characters on the nose, it is medium bodied on the palette with quite high acidity. There is an abundance of fresh fruit still on the palette which is lovely to see as the wine has spent 3 years in barrel, yet still finishes with fresh clean youthful fruit.

Harslevulu 05, there was about 20% of Botrytis affected fruit in this wine, as such it took a very long time to finish fermenting, however the extra marmelady apricot notes on the nose complement the white flower notes very well, and the slight extra viscocity helps offset the higher alcohol nicely. Again for a wine that spent three years in barrel it is remarkably fresh. Atilla comments that this was a wine he didn't like for most of it's evolution, before finally blossoming later on in its life.

2005 Muscat/Harslevulu blend, one of only 500 bottles that probably wont see a commercial release this was a blending accident that turned out very well. A beautiful golden colour with slightly sticky ripe tangerine notes and perfume on the nose then a marmelade and apricot palette.

2008 Muscat. I've never had a hankering for Passion fruit cheesecake before, it's not something that I usually find myself yearning for. However this stunning sweet muscat succeeded in lighting that particular flame. A glorious confected lime and perfume nose led directly onto a superbly sweet (140g residual sugar) palette that maintained a directness and minerality that succeeded in keeping it fresh.

2008 Kiraly Furmint, at 220g residual sugar this is in the Szamorodni category and from the Kiraly vineyard. There was 30% of Botrytis fruit in the blend, the rest was plain late harvest. Unlike a lot of Szamorodnis this isn't lacking any freshness, and indeed it demonstrates (the bar I'm sat writing this in has just started playing Backstreets Back, by the Backstreet Boys, it's incredibly disconcerting) minerality, fresh super ripe peach notes, a lovely opulent creamy palette and a very fresh finish. For a 100% Furmint sweet wine it is very fresh with really good poise.

2006 Aszu 6 Putonyas, surprisingly for an Aszu this doesn't have any Furmint. The base wine is Harslevulu and Muscat, with the Aszu berries comprising Harslevulu, Muscat and Zeta. The nose is minerally, with sticky tangerine and floral notes. On the palette there is a fresh apricot, tangerine marmelade character, with a lush creamy vanilla and oak accent that rounds off the palette.

It's a great shame that at present Alanas wines are not available in the UK as I think they're a Tokaji hose of the highest quality, their production is still on the low side, so I imagine that when they finally get an importer willing to make the individual hand sales the wines require that the prices will be a long way from the bottom of the price scale.
This is quite simply how it has to be. As wines of this quality only come about as a result of serious care and attention to detail.