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Thoughts on: Modern Wine Culture

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‘Wine Culture’ is a pretty difficult thing to define, especially in our constantly changing, modern, technology-driven world. When we think of wine culture, we tend to romanticize a little and think about a family somewhere, probably in Southern Europe, sharing a bottle or two of good wine over a table heavily laden with stunning fresh produce, preferably overlooking an area of natural beauty. Or a group of friends sat on a terrace in the middle of Paris or Barcelona, passing glasses around to be refilled during a quiet summer evening; if you have no imagination, fear not for a Google image search yields almost exactly this! However, when it comes to wine consumption Europe isn’t necessarily the pace-setter anymore and according to this article by Decanter, the USA is now the largest consumer of wine in the world and to add to that, they’re also the worlds largest importer of wine. It’s therefore pretty easy to see that the world of wine is changing in more than just production methods and grape varieties around the world; the consumer base is shifting quite drastically as well. This is also true for age groups, with the younger generations tapping into wine at an early age and making something of a splash when it comes to purchasing habits.

A while ago I read this article on the WSJ, which gave me a lot to think about with regards to how I see wine consumption within Spain itself. I interact with a real mix of people in the wine tastings I organise in Barcelona; from the younger ‘millenial’ generation all the way through to people in their 70’s, from all over the world. Is there a difference in their buying patterns and preferences; the what and the why? Absolutely. Is there a difference in styles and priorities in wine? Yep. Have we both at some point fallen for the trap of clever marketing, just in different guises? Unfortunately, I think so. People give the older generations a hard time due to their supposed reliance on expert opinion and wine scores but I believe my generation is just as gullible — we’ve simply traded scores and wildly bombastic tasting notes for cute narratives and forcefully expressed opinions that happen to coincide with our own way of looking at the world. It’s been expressed many times, and I believe it to be true, that this is largely in part to the ”classics’ of the wine world now being so outrageously expensive that they’re no longer affordable to the vast majority of consumers, especially for younger people and so other options are being sought as alternatives.

Technology has been a huge factor in this, with more blogs, videos and websites dedicated to the love of wine than ever before. Instead of subscribing to magazines, mailing-lists and conferences/fairs, it’s far easier to access the wisdom of thousands through websites and applications such as Cellar Tracker and Vivino. Wine Folly has also been hugely successful with its easy to digest infographics and aesthetically pleasing presentation, although sadly hamstrung by a lot of misleading and incorrect information along the way. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the recent shift in wine-writing or how the ‘old guard’ is changing and that there isn’t really an obvious replacement in this now very convoluted space. Is this an inherent problem? No, in fact I would say that diversifying opinions and challenging long held conventions has not only allowed people to explore the world of wine more easily but also encouraged the industry to move into the 21st century, at least from a marketing standpoint. This in turn has made wine more attractive to younger drinkers who then invest time and money into engaging with it, albeit at the expense of making an already confusing industry all that much more so.

However, with technology and fashion moving at a far faster pace than wine, this has led to a potentially worrying shift in priorities for younger drinkers. Instead of starting with the basics of viticulture, vinification and ‘benchmark’ wines from countries and regions with centuries of high-quality production, more and more people are jumping into wine at the ‘cool’ end of the spectrum. In Barcelona alone, there are 3–4 bars in the old part of the town that cater to only ‘natural’ and organic wines exclusively, all of which have sprung up in the last decade or so. Whilst there’s no inherent problem with this, it’s marginally worrying that certain narratives are becoming so strong amongst the younger generation of wine drinkers, most of which have very little to do with the quality of the drink itself. This is worrying because as the narrative grows stronger, so does the opportunity for marketing and manipulation rather than people choosing a wine because they truly enjoy drinking it and have the confidence to choose it, which is the goal of wine based education across the world.

Fortunately most of these trends are, like all things that are very loud in media, followed by quite a small minority (although here is an interesting report on the true market value of ‘natural’ wines) and even so, is it so bad? If wine-makers are finding that their audience places value in long term environmental solutions, so what? This has to be good for the industry as a whole and frankly, the narrative of the wine is also important; I give wine tastings for a living, I would be crazy to deny this. What we need to strike is a balance. Wine, like all things, is more enjoyable when properly understood, even at a very basic level. Buying a bottle after hearing a story about a monastery that produces a nearly extinct grape variety in India and contributes all profits to the ‘Before it was cool’ association is not understanding wine, it’s buying a story. The same way that people bought the story of the ’99 point’ wine that had ‘a tactile sense of seemingly schistic, crushed stone impingement’ do not understand wine, they are buying a story as well, just in different , and often very amusing, words.

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As wine starts to redefine itself in modern culture, education will need to work hard to keep up. In fact, it seems that the general level of wine education is increasing, particularly amongst younger people and that is a real cause for celebration. Ultimately, it’s down to us how we interact with wine — we have the potential to take wine to the next level and open more doors for more people. Conversely, we could screw it all up and go back to the hostile, inaccessible mess it was before. As I said in a previous article, anyone who works with wine becomes an ambassador whether they realise it or not; it’s part and parcel of the social nature of the industry we’re in.

I’ll finish by quoting Lettie Teague, author of the aforementioned WSJ article, who sums it up rather succinctly:“Will millennials in the end “revolutionize” wine — or banking or dining, for that matter? Will they render wine scores obsolete and classic wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy mere runners up to…Slovenian Chardonnay? Perhaps. They’ve certainly done their part to promote small producers creating interesting wines in odd corners of the globe. But to truly claim their position as the most powerful consumers in the world, they’ll need to develop a broader context and a deeper understanding of the entire world of wine — and not just an appreciation of a good story or a few obscure grapes.”

Maestrazgo Wine Club: A Tale of Tempranillo

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Time to get ready for a particularly interesting tasting this week! We’re going to be looking at Tempranillo as a grape variety in it’s three most prestigous appellations across Spain; Toro, Ribera del Duero and Rioja. Tempranillo is Spain’s ‘noble’ grape and dominates quality wine-making to a quite considerable extent, particularly in wines available in international markets. So named Tempranillo due to its early ripening nature, after the Spanish word for early, ‘Temprano’. Interestingly, it is still really only being grown in any great quantity in Spain with very few ‘New World’ winemakers seemingly interested; Argentina and Australia are two notable exceptions here. Across Spain it has a wealth of different names depending on where you grow it: Tinto de Toro in DO Toro, Cencibel in La Mancha, Ull de Llebre in Catalunya and should you poke your head across the border to Portugal, you’ll quickly discover a remarkably similar grape they call Tinta Roriz. With up to 72 different synonyms for the same grape, this can get confusing pretty quickly, hence why we’re choosing to focus on the top 3 quality producing regions!

Tempranillo is structurally a pretty friendly wine and very much in line with what most consumers are looking for; smooth textures, fruit, low tannins, reasonable acidity and an affinity for new oak. Yet, not only can it do all this but it also ages remarkably well and is very good at tasting..well… of Tempranillo! As Oz Clarke points out, it doesn’t quite have the ability to express ‘terroir’ as well as say, Pinot Noir, but it is reliable, seductive and can be made into wines of the very highest quality. It can be made into bruising, bulky wines over 15% alcohol and also makes easy-drinking light wines all the way down to 12%. The last time I flew with British Airways I was given a mini-bottle of Tempranillo from La Mancha at 12% alcohol and whilst you would hardly call it a great wine, it went down very, very smoothly indeed!

Below is a list of the 6 wines we’re going to be trying during the evening; two wines from Toro, Ribera del Duero and Rioja. There will be distinct differences in climate, viticulture and wine-making practices so we can explore the different sides of this versatile grape and whilst the tasting is completely booked, there will be others so make sure you make an account with Meet-up and join Maestrazgo Wine Club for our newsletter and notice of tastings as they go up!

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Victorino 2013 (DO Toro) – We’re going to start with the bruisers! DO Toro is famous for producing the most full-bodied style of Tempranillo in Spain, made from a mutation of Tempranillo known as ‘Tinto de Toro’; thick skinned, powerful with soft tannins, lowish acidity and high alcohol. Victorino is a wine from Bodega Teso la Monja and part of the Sierra Cantabria family. A 15% alcohol wine made from old (45-100 years) vines and aged for 20 months in new French oak… needless to say, I shall be giving this a decant prior to serving! A wine of the utmost quality and a powerful introduction to what Tempranillo in Toro is all about.

pintia_logoPintia 2006 (DO Toro)Next up is another full bodied expression of Tinto de Toro, albeit with a little more age and a little less upfront oak. Pintia is an extension of Spains most famous winery, Bodega Vega-Sicilia, who expanded into both Rioja and Toro in their Tempranillo-based conquest over 20 years ago now. Despite the high alcohol, Pintia show-cases a lot of the reserve and elegance that Vega-Sicilia are stylistically famous for, producing a wine of class and power. The tannins are ripe and smooth with pleasant flavours of dark fruits, cedar and evident oak from the 12 months ageing process. A lovely comparison with the young bull (I had to!) above.

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Finca Villacreces 2011 (DO Ribera del Duero) – We now know DO Ribera del Duero as a popular wine producing region famous for its modern and often blended styles of Tempranillo, however it wasn’t truly realised until the 1990’s that saw an influx of investment into the area; By 1998 there were 57 Bodegas in the area, by 2007 this had more than tripled to 180. Famous for it’s high altitude vineyards that allow Tempranillo to fully ripen whilst still retaining a refreshing level of acidity, DO Ribera del Duero now rivals DOC Rioja for the most popular region of Spain, with many preferring it’s more youthful and full-bodied style of wines. Finca Villacreces has long been a favourite wine of mine, sitting on a beautiful plot of land along the ‘Golden Mile’ of Ribera del Duero. It’s the second wine in their range and a Tempranillo dominant blend with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Merlot added for extra structure and complexity before being aged for 14 months in new French oak. A reliable and lovely wine.

gran-valtraviesoGran Valtravieso 2006 (DO Ribera del Duero) – A counter-point to Finca Villacreces is this brooding, powerful wine with enough age to start softening out and turning into something truly wonderful. Aged for 36 months in oak barrels, this actually sees 3 periods of ageing for 12 months in three separate types of French oak from different forests, making this wine a victory of blending more than anything else. This is the top wine from a relatively new Bodega that has garnered a growing reputation for good quality, affordable wines. With a 50 euro price tag, this wine doesn’t fall into that category but then, as the top wine of the estate, why would it?

e_muga_reserva_seMuga Reserva Seleccion Especial 2011 (DOC Rioja) – It wouldn’t be a Tempranillo tasting if we didn’t finish with the old King; DOC Rioja. Rioja has been the most famous region in Spain for some time and with their choke-hold on the export scene, that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. However, as far as complex and delicious Tempranillo wines go, they’re still at the top of the pile as far as I’m concerned, blending in Graciano for extra perfume and Grenache and Mazuelo (Carignan) blends for extra structure and kick. Muga Reserva Special Selection is exactly what it suggests; a special selection from their various vineyards blending together into a ratio of 70/20/7/3 of Tempranillo, Grenache, Carignan and Graciano. Aged for 26 months and only recently released, this wine got a wonderful write up from Spanish Wine Lover recently and with good reason – it’s really quite exceptional

bodega5_1Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2006 (DOC Rioja) – To finish the tasting we’re going with an old classic; A Gran Reserva from a top producer with a traditional blend of 80% Tempranillo and 20% Grenache/Carignan/Graciano with a long, long ageing process – 7 years between different oak casks and bottle ageing! This is really what Rioja is famous for; complex and expressive Tempranillo dominant blends created for the long haul. Truthfully, we’re probably drinking this one a little younger than would be considered ideal, but it’s still a delicious wine!

There we have it; a comprehensive look at Tempranillo across the three regions most famous for it, young wines vs older, blends vs single variety. Combine this with a wonderful group of people, heaps of food and a beautiful tasting room and you have yourself a winning combination. Looking forward to it already!

Thoughts on: Wine Education

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This is something I get asked a fair bit about, and although I’m currently studying my Diploma with the WSET I’d like this to be about wine education in general, as I intend to cover those topics in more depth another time. The real questions are, I suppose, what is wine education all about? Is it as much fun as it sounds? How do I go about it?

There’s a couple of ways to look at this, and I’ll get the first one out of the way quickly: If you want to be professionally involved with wine, you should, of course, invest in wine based education. Gone are the days of casually working your days in a wine shop and winding up as a senior buyer for a major wine company; the industry is now both more visible, more competitive and the world of wine has grown enormously. This subject came up a few months ago, when Matt Kramer, part of the Wine Spectator team, wrote a scathing article about this ‘new wave’ of wine professionals who were placing too much faith in qualifications and not enough on experience. Easy to say if you were fortunate enough to get a job with no experience/education and even easier to say if you were wealthy enough to have access to the worlds best wine from a young age (This was more a product of the times – wine simply used to be a lot more affordable!). For the rest of us though, we’ll simply have to spend our time and money investing in education.

With that aside, this post is really for people who have little to no professional interest in wine but want to know more about it, which I believe accounts for the vast, vast majority of wine consumers. Is wine education a worthwhile expenditure for you? I believe so, and here’s a few reasons why:

  1. Base knowledge – This is the big one for me. The world of wine is a vast, complicated subject that is absolutely rife with subjective opinion, interpretation and personal preference. All well and good but in order to get to grips with the enormity of the subject, it pays to have a framework to work from, a foundation if you like. Once you understand the basics of Viticulture (growing the grapes), Vinification (Making the wine), market influences, wine service and consumer habits, there isn’t too much you can’t quickly grasp from that point onwards. This is where good wine education comes into play, as it covers these bases in adequate detail and builds everything upwards from that point.

  2. Tasting skills – Whether or not you like a wine is a matter of personal preference. As I mentioned in this previous post, the concept of having ‘good taste’ is nonsense and should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. However, in terms of improving your ability to taste wine, break in down and understand the different components, a systematic approach to tasting is invaluable. The lexicon of wine language is just that, a language and in order to use it, you have to learn it. This is where tasting practices come in, and having a benchmark to work from is the real advantage here. When I first took my level 3 course with the WSET, I saw red wines under 14% alcohol as being quite light, because my only experience up until this point had been with big, beefy Spanish reds. I quickly discovered that 14% is considered pretty powerful for a lot of the world! Conversely, we had a German student who was so used to drinking Mosel Riesling that the concept of ‘High acidity’ was lost on her for all but the most gripping of wines.

  3. Experience – As Mr Kramer points out, nothing is a substitute for experience. When I first starting studying wine, Spain was my only real experience. In a week in London I got to try 112 wines from all over the world; Californian Chardonnay, Burgundian Pinot Noir, Canadian Riesling, Italian Nebbiolo, Australian Cabernet Sauvignon…. it was a truly eye-opening experience for me. Whilst it takes a while for such an intense amount of information to settle in, it completely changed my approach to wine and I saw a thousand doors open in front of me. I’ve been excited and curious ever since, constantly searching for new wines, new grapes, new regions and a better understanding.

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  4. Context – Like all good education, the learning process should be less about what to know, and more about how to think. With the foundation above, I have discovered that learning how to think and analyse wine and the world around is has greatly improved my analytical skill-set in general. To paraphrase Ian Cauble MS from the documentary SOMM; how often do we really take the time to sit, analyse and think about something? We mostly live our lives at a very fast pace and that is something that is simply not possible with wine, it has to be broken down and dissected in order to really answer that golden question; ‘Why does this wine taste the way that it does?’. In particular I have found that my appreciation of food, coffee, cocktails and basically anything that can be appreciated on the nose and/or palate has greatly improved since I started to focus on wine.

  5. Fun – I suppose it goes without saying that wine education tends to be a lot of fun! I have yet to meet anyone who spent time and money with an institution like the WSET and regretted it, as pass or fail you always gain something from it. With that comes new friends, new contacts and definitely new holiday destinations! It’s hard to learn about the natural beauty of Piedmont in Northern Italy without wanting to travel there immediately; wine, after all, is very rarely made outside of beautiful areas.

So, there you have it, I am greatly, greatly in favour of wine education, although I suppose that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the future I intend to look at some institutions in a little more depth in terms of what they can offer. However, for now, if you live in Barcelona and wanted to take a look at enhancing your wine education, I’d like to introduce my friend Sharon Levey, who offers WSET courses levels 1 and 2 for the most affordable price in the entire city, as well as being generally lovely and a fantastic teacher. Next month I am hoping to introduce her to Maestrazgo Wine Club with a special tasting event but for now check out her website for more information. (Today is the last day to book a course for September! Next ones are in November)

Wine Review: Recaredo Terrers 2009

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Unsurprisingly, considering I live in Barcelona, I’m a pretty big fan of Cava. Cava is a particular type of sparkling wine made in Spain using the traditional method and despite the fact it can be made in many different places around the country, a good 85-90% of it is produced within the Penedes wine region, specifically around a little town called Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. I’ve discovered, to my surprise, recently that Cava has a pretty average reputation around the world, mainly owing to the fact that three very large companies, Freixenet, Codorniu, and García Carrión, account for nearly the entire production. That’s not to say these wines are all bad but they’re certainly not setting world alight and the fact that the WSET is teaching me to detect a Cava by its ‘rubbery’ notes is not a ringing endorsement of the typical Cava sold in UK supermarkets and wine stores. Recaredo, on the other hand, may well just be the best Cava producer I’ve had the pleasure of trying so far.

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Recaredo is a family ran winery in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, producing around 250,000 bottles a year across their entire range (in comparison to the 88 million of Freixenet, to put that into perspective). They are unusual producers for a number of reasons; they own or control all the land their grapes are sourced from, their entire production is based on biodynamic viticulture and every single one of their wines is a Gran Reserva, meaning that no Cava they produce has spent less than 30 months ageing in their cellars prior to disgorgement. On top of that, their wines are outrageously affordable considering their quality and style. Disclaimer: I typically don’t drink Cava under 10 euros a bottle which isn’t to say good Cavas don’t exist in that price range, but they’re definitely the exception. Recaredo Terrers 2009, their ‘entry-level’ white Cava is a blend of Xarel.lo, Macabeo and Parellada that has been aged for a lengthy 70 months on its lees. The fact that this wine is being sold from 17-19 euros a bottle is insanity but exactly the sort of madness I appreciate in my life! Just imagine that on top of the entire process to grow the grapes and make the base wine, instigate the secondary refermentation and safely store it away, this has been sat in a cellar slowly ageing for almost 6 years before being disgorged and commercially released…. as I said, 17 euros is insanely cheap for this beautiful Cava!

Appearance: The Cava has a nice lemon colour with a lot of very intense bubbles.

Nose: Very pleasantly perfumed! The beauty of lengthy ageing is apparent here, with the lemon zest, floral and bruised green-apple aromas in a lovely harmony with some mature notes of pastry, honey and chalk. Still very youthful and delicate considering the base wine was made almost 7 years ago.

Palate: Bone-dry and enormously refreshing. The acidity is still very present and supports the fruity flavours very nicely, whilst combining with the small but persistent bubbles to create a very elegant texture. The finish is clean and dry with the fruit flavours lasting the longest.

Conclusion: Some people will already have come to the conclusion that I’m mad for suggesting this is a bargain at 17 euros, but it truly is. I personally believe their entire range up to their truly outstanding ‘Brut de Brut’ for 27 euros offers wonderful value for money but this is certainly the king in this regard. Grab a bottle and thank me later! You should be able to find this in most dedicated wine stores throughout Spain.

Score: 4/5

Maestrazgo Wine Club: Summer Discoveries

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So, Maestrazgo Wine Club is back and running in Barcelona after our summer break and this week we’re kicking off with a topic called ‘Summer Discoveries.’ This is more or less what it says on the tin; wines that I’ve discovered or re-discovered over the course of the summer and would love to share with you all! That’s to say that there’s been a fair few duds, a few wines that have been delicious but a little over-priced and then this lovely collection of wines in the middle that are both delicious and moderately priced. Subjects like this are always fun but a little challenging as there isn’t a strong central theme to the tasting and the quality of the wines has to be really up there in order to carry the evening. Which typically isn’t a problem, as that’s really what we’re all about!

Here’s a run-down of the wines we’re going to be trying over the course of the evening. If you’d like to attend there are a few spots left for 25 euros per person and you can find our group here.

Zarate Albariño 2015 – This was one of the first Albariño wines I ever tried in Spain and I fell in love immediately. Then in my search for new, interesting and stylistically different wines from the same region of Rias Baixas, I completely forgot about Zarate and I only tried it again this summer, which was a timely reminder of just how lovely this wine is. Adega Zarate itself is a family ran winery in the heart of Rias Baixas, right next to the little town of Meaño. The wine is young, fresh and beautifully aromatic with lots of smokey, flinty notes supporting the traditional citrus fruit and peach aromas of well made Albariño. 3 months of ageing on the lees takes the edge off the zippy acidity and the wine is about as good a candidate for archetypal Albariño as any I can think of. A lovely way to start!

Vino Zárate Albariño 2013Mas Comtal Pizzicato Frizzante 2015 – I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited to present a rosé wine. Is it particularly expensive? Nope. Is it structured and dense? Nope. So why the excitement around it? Honestly, it’s purely that this is one of the most fun wines I’ve ever tried. It is intensely aromatic with lots of beautiful floral notes, light red and citrus fruits and just a wonderfully clean flavour on the palate. I discovered it in Eldiset Wine Bar in Born and quickly discovered I could purchase it online through Vinissimus.com. It’s made from 100% Hamburg Muscat, which is a cross of Trollinger and Muscat of Alexandria; don’t worry, this is one of these unusual grapes you don’t come across too often. If it was going to be made anywhere within Spain, it would clearly be in the Penedes region with their slightly more relaxed approach to wine-making. I can’t wait to see what everyone thinks of it!

Juan Gil 18 Meses 2014 – Our first red wine of the evening is a bit of a bruiser and ordinarily not the sort of wine you’d associate with summer drinking. The reason I haven’t tried this in such a long time is due to its incredible popularity; as soon as it is produced, it seems to get sucked off the shelves. I was wandering around Corte Ingles and I saw it, meaning the newer vintage had been released, so I rushed home and bought a bottle or two online. I tried one and it was everything I remembered it to be; smooth, creamy, powerful and enormously dense. Lovers of new world wines will fall in love with this blend of Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in a heartbeat.

Juan Gil Blue Label 18 Month DO

Domenio Trepat 2013 – This was a nice discovery in unusual circumstances. I had been asked to help a friend out; he was stuck in Priorat at a wine festival but had a private tasting booked for a group of English girls over from London and could I possibly help out? Sure, why not! I went to the tasting, had a fantastic time and got the chance to try this lovely, powerful expression of Trepat from DO Conca de Barbera in Catalunya. This is a new style of Trepat, eschewing the delicate, Pinot Noir-like wines of the past and heading instead for fruit, power and spice. The result is a very juicy but still nuanced wine with lots and lots of appeal. This will be only the second Trepat based wine I have presented at a tasting but if the trend towards more intelligent wine-making continues, you’ll be sure to see a few more popping up!

Marques de Grinon Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – I’m subscribed to an awful lot of trade magazines, newsletters and websites. One of my favourites is The Drinks Business; a relatively dry look at the world of wine and spirits, that I receive once a month from their headquarters in the UK. During July, their panel of judges tasted well over 50 different Cabernet Sauvignons from around the world at different price points and came up with a few outstanding results. One of them was the famous Marques de Grinon Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, and so I simply had to try a bottle and see how it went! I’d known about the estate for some time as they’re quite famous in Spain, being the first truly successful ‘Vino de Pago’ having set up with Bordeaux varietals all the way back in 1973. I found the wine to be really well made with lots of typical black fruits, spice, cloves and earthy aromas with a fair amount of tannic grip. Whilst this wine will almost definitely improve with a little age, it’s a delight to drink right now and so, I think we shall!

etiqueta_cabernetThat’s our evening nicely laid out. Of course, there’s going to be a lot of wonderful food, conversation and company as well, so if you fancy coming along come join us at our home on Meet-up, and fingers crossed we’ll see you for a tasting soon!