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Blind Wine Tasting: Practical studying part III

Every week I head over to Monvinic, Barcelona’s largest international wine bar, to practice blind tasting. Typically this involves a flight of 6 wines, split equally between white and reds from all across the world. I’ve long been a believer that blind tasting is an incredibly useful study tool, and I’ve decided to track my sessions here in all their misery (mostly) and glory (very rarely!). As a result you may seem some confusing measurement terms as I am currently using the WSET Lexicon as a frame-work for my tasting notes partially trimmed down here for the purposes of brevity.

I ended up skipping a week and opting for a lunch last week due to a severe case of needing a small break from studying in general. However, this week I was full of energy again and ready for round 3!

White Wines

Wine #1: The wine has a pale lemon colour. On the nose there is a pronounced aromas of ripe green apples, green pears, lemon, grapefruit, peach and a touch of apricot. There are some gentle, floral aromatics along with some sweet herbs; tarragon and thyme.

On the palate the wine is dry with high acidity (a little creamy), medium alcohol, medium body, a medium + intensity and a medium + finish. A fresh, aromatic style of wine with some weight on the palate despite the clearly young, vibrant style. Very refreshing and altogether a very well made wine.

Guess: Albariño from Rias Baixas in Spain from the 2015 vintage

Reality: Alvarinho (same grape) from Vinho Verde in Portugal from the 2015 vintage

Wine: Quinta do Soalheiro Primeras Vinhas 2015

Located in Melgaço, Vinho Verde’s warmest, driest sub-region, production at Soalheiro is focused on Alvarinho, known as Albarino in neighbouring Galicia, Spain. It is Vinho Verde’s star variety and Soalheiro are one of its finest exponents. Antonio Cerdeira illegally planted 4 ha of Alvarinho in 1974 and, following changes in the law, released his first Alvarinho in 1982. Today his daughter, Maria tends the estate’s 10 ha of organically certified vines, while her brother Luis makes the wines.

Conclusions/Learning points: Bam, nailed it. After having confused Albarino with Sauvignon Blanc only two weeks ago, this was a much needed victory with regards to this grape variety. Even better than that, I took a little time sorting through the evidence and coming to some logical conclusions; high acidity but with some creaminess, medium alcohol and quite a bit of florality, sweet herbs – all pointed me in the right direction. Very good start and a delicious wine; I wish I could buy more of it!

Wine #2: This wine has a medium gold colour. The intensity on the nose is pronounced and clearly oxidative in style. Ripe apricots, peach, nectarine, lemon curd and oxidised golden apple are present, along with the toasted almond, rich nuttiness of carefully oxidised wines. Plenty of oak as well with lots of toast, smoke and vanilla.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium alcohol, a medium + body, a pronounced intensity and a medium+ finish, ‘Lemon curd on toast’ was my summary of the wine, although more specifically it was a gorgeous assemblage of really ripe, oxidised fruit, old oak and nuts. With the moderate alcohol levels and still elevated levels of acidity, I could only think of one wine this could reasonably be…

Guess: Viura blend from Rioja in Spain from the 2003 vintage

Reality: Viura blend from Rioja in Spain from the 2003 vintage

Wine: Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Blanco Reserva 2003

Lopez de Heredia are one of the truly classic bodegas of Rioja, having been founded way back in 1877. They now own over 170 hectares of land around the region, with Vina Tondonia making the majority of this with a little over 100 hectares of land. In a region that often changes to suit fashions, Lopez de Heredia have stayed stalwartly traditional, with long, slow elevage in American oak and delayed releases; their most recent Gran Reserva white wine is 1996, to give an example!

Conclusions/Learning points: I can’t remember the last time I got off to such a good start in a blind tasting, although it is worth pointing out that this is a very specific wine, and I knew it from memory as much as anything else. I did briefly consider the idea of white Cotes-du-Rhone/Montsant/Priorat/Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but the alcohol levels weren’t right and the wine seemed too evolved. Still, very happy to be doing so well right off the bat.

Wine #3: The wine has a medium lemon colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of aromas, with some clear and obvious reduction (screw-cap? New World?). The aromas are pleasant, with ripe lemon, lemon zest, green apple, apricot, nectarine and a touch of green pineapple. There is some oak usage here as toast and vanilla are both detected, as well some some yeasty, pastry dough aromas suggested battonage, or at least extended lees ageing.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol, medium+ body, a medium+ intensity and a medium finish. Nothing in particular stands out, hence all the ‘mediums’, but this is a nicely balanced wine with good fruit, nicely integrated oak and a the only downside being a slight reduction.

Guess: Chardonnay from Gisbourne in New Zealand from the 2010 vintage

Reality: Chardonnay from Tasmania in Australia from the 2010 vintage

Wine: Stefano Lubiana Estate Chardonnay 2010

Steve Lubiana is a fifth generation wine-maker from Italy who arrived to Tasmania, Australia, back in 1990. Along with his wife, Monique, they now produce a portfolio of pure, crisp wines from cool climate, biodynamic vineyards in the Derwent Valley. The wine-making focuses on the nature of the grape and the fruit first and foremost, and this Chardonnay is joined by an excellent Riesling and a Pinot Noir that I have yet to try. Sparkling wine is also produced broadly in Tasmania and the Lubiana Estate makes this as well.

Conclusions/Learning points: So, grape and vintage completely correct and I also correctly identified that we’re in the New World, so that’s very positive. I called New Zealand as I thought the alcohol was slightly higher than it actually was, and that the fruit profile was perhaps a little more tropical. According to my note, my guess was in the right place so I suppose I must have mistaken some bottle development for fruit ripeness, which took me in the wrong direction. A shame, but encouraging nonetheless!

Red Wines

Wine #4: The wine has a pale ruby colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of ripe cherries, strawberries and red currants. There’s also a lot of savoury, earthy characteristics here suggesting bottle age and development, with some barnyard, undergrowth and gravelly/earthy aromas. There’re some hints of old oak as well, with a lightly toasted, smoky aroma.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium ripe, firm tannins, medium+ alcohol, a medium body, a medium+ intensity and a medium finish. A nicely balanced wine with some fruit still singing nicely, with a good level of development; my favourite time to catch wines in their life cycles. Not a heavy wine in terms of tannins, or alcohol and clearly made in a cooler environment, although with no hint of under-ripeness.

Guess: Pinot Noir from Burgundy in France (Village level – Volnay?) from the 2010 vintage

Reality: Pinot Noir from the Ahr in Germany from the 2010 vintage

Wine: Meyer-Nakel Blauschiefer 2010

Meyer-Nakel enjoys the reputation of being one of the finest producers of Pinot Noir in Germany. Based in the Ahr Valley, a diminutive region of barely 550 hectares in the north of the country, they produce a selection of red wines including this lovely balanced wine, produced from vineyards grown on blue slate. The best wines in the portfolio are the single vineyard expressions with longer oak regimes and a lengthy drinking window, as with all top Pinot Noir based wines.

Conclusions/Learning Points: Same issue as my last tasting; what is the difference between Pinot Noir produced in Germany and Pinot Noir produced in Burgundy?! Clearly I need to attend some sort of master class where this is compared. Again, very encouraging that both the varietal and the vintage were correct. Fortunately, Monvinic have a wonderful selection of older, German Pinot Noir as well as some affordable, younger bottlings so I will have the chance to try a good few more yet.

Wine #5: This wine has a clear, deep ruby colour. On the nose there is a pronounced intensity of ripe and jammy black fruits; blackcurrant, cassis and cherry. There’s a strong herbal sensation, with lots of mint, eucalyptus and even a touch of green bell pepper. New oak seems present with pronounced vanilla, nutmeg and clove influences, along with some toasted, smoky notes.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, full ripe, soft tannins, high alcohol, a full body, pronounced intensity but unfortunately only a medium finish. A rich, ripe and powerful style of wine that screams ‘Australia’. Very modern in style but also fresh and really quite delicious, although a single glass would be sufficient!

Guess: Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra in Australia from the 2010 vintage

Reality: Shiraz from Coonawarra in Australia from the 2010 vintage

Wine: Katnook Estate Shiraz 2010

As part of the Wingara Wine group, this winery was purchased by Freixenet in 2001. It continues to be directed, however, by Wayne Stehbens, who has made the wine in a 19th-century stone woolshed (used in the region’s early vintages) for the past 20-odd years. Much of the grape production has been sold to others but Katnook’s reds have been characterised by their intense, concentrated, ripe (often very ripe), sweet fruit and tight structures when young. The stars of the production are Cabernet Sauvignon based, but the Shiraz and Shiraz Prodigy wines are also very popular.

Conclusions/Learning points: Damn, that was close to a very good call! With the rich dark fruits, herbal notes and what I thought were clear Cabernet Sauvignon descriptors, I was disappointed not to get this one, despite getting the region, country and vintage correct. What’s the difference between incredibly ripe Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz? I need to look this up as I was expecting a little more black pepper and spice from Shiraz. A friend told me that she always gets a spectrum of blue fruit in over-ripe Shiraz/Syrah; I will have a closer look the next time and see if that helps at all. Still, a solid call and would have scored me a lot of points in an exam.

Wine #6: This wine has a pale ruby colour. There is a medium intensity of fresh red fruit; redcurrant, cranberry and raspberry. The wine isn’t overly aromatic or complex and there’s a hint of earth, toast and smoke but little else.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity and medium+ firm, sticky tannins. The alcohol level is medium and the body is medium. As with the nose, the flavours are quite simple, fresh and pleasant but lacking excitement. There’s a little grip to the tannins but really nothing much to point me in the right direction. It could be Gamay, tannic Pinot Noir, Mencia, cool-climate Garnacha….

Guess: Mencia from Ribeira Sacra in Spain from the 2015 vintage

Reality: Sumoll/Tempranillo blend from Catalunya in Spain from the 2015 vintage

Wine: Gran Autocton Negre 2015

Autocton Gran Celler is a brand new project from Albert Jané of Acustic Celler in Montsant and Priorat. The grapes are grown from both the Penedes and Tarragona but vinified in the old, family winery in Mas Vilella in the Penedes. The focus is very much on indigenous varieties, hence the name of Autocton, and the appellation is DO Catalunya. The wines have only been very recently released into the market from the 2015 vintage.

Conclusions/Learning points: Hrm. There’s a part of me that was a little irritated to be presented with a Sumoll/Tempranillo blend, but in a way it was nice to have a curveball at the end of a very successful tasting in total. I can’t think of a single characteristic that defines Sumoll comparatively to other varieties, so I’ll have to have a think about this one. Not a bad wine in all but at the asking price in Spain, there are quite a few others I would head towards first.

One of my best ever tastings; to nail 3 wines and get so many details correct about the others is a huge improvement for me. This time around I took a little extra time to clear my mind and really dig into the wine, which made a big difference, as I sometimes have a tendency to rush. I learnt a lot and also discovered a few more weaknesses to work on in my tasting, but I went home with a big smile on my face and I’m already looking forward to next week to see if I can repeat it with any level of consistency!

Thoughts on: Fira del Vi 2017

This year was the first chance I’ve had to attend the Fira del Vi festival in Falset, a small but important town close to the regions of DO Montsant and DOQ Priorat. The festival takes place in the first weekend of May, and producers from both regions offer tastings at the fair as well as organising small events around the Falset at the same time, all in the name of promoting the wines of the regions. With it taking place over an entire weekend and celebrating the wines of two of Catalunyas most famous and popular wine regions, it’s heavily attended with somewhere in the region of 15,000 visitors flocking to the town (population 3000, by comparison) to drink and make merry. It was suggested to me that I sign up for the day of ‘professional’ tasting the Tuesday after the weekend itself, when things would be a little quieter and I wouldn’t stick out so much with my notepad and desire to spit wine rather than drink it (at least until lunch!). With the sense of childish glee that only comes to those who get out as little as I do, I embarked on an early train with my friend Alex, and proceeded to chatter away like an escaped inmate for the entirety of the 2 hour journey.

It turns out, I stuck out anyway but less because of my notepad and more due to my blonde hair and blue eyes. Like many regions, the Catalan wine community is quite insular with most of the wine-makers, salesman, distributors and major figures in the industry well acquainted with one another; this isn’t Bordeaux or Burgundy, where the world of wine descends regularly to taste and score every vintage. However, in true Falset fashion, the reception was warm and welcoming, with only the occasional snigger when I butchered Catalan pronunciation during my inquiries. Fortunately Miquel Hudin, author of the Vinologue guides to the regions and Porerra resident, was on hand to steer us around for the first hour and introduce us to some lovely people, which I’m almost certain was also how we got to try some special wines that weren’t immediately available.

The event itself was set in a sort of car-park in the middle of the town itself, with all the producers making a circle with their stalls with small clusters set up in the centre. There were apparently 65 producers showing their wines over the course of the weekend according to the guide we were given, but there were perhaps only 50 or so for the final day. However, not only were some of the ‘big’ names of Priorat present and pouring but also a whole host of smaller producers that I hadn’t had the chance to try before, so I set about trying to taste the entire range of as many producers as I could, stopping only to make notes on wines of particular interest, of which there were a great many. Lunch was at 3pm and our original plan was to come back afterwards and finish with the producers we hadn’t had a chance to visit. Unfortunately, it turns out that lunch was the signal for the end of the day and so we missed out on the fantastic wines of Val Llach, Clos Figueras and a few more. However, I will definitely be back next year and I will be bringing some wine for lunch to avoid having to very sheepishly ask producers for a full glass of wine just as they’re closing, like some sort of alcoholic, purple-toothed Oliver Twist. (My thanks to Clos Figueras for bailing me out of that one!)

Whilst the quality of the wines was universally very high, these 3 were my highlights of the event for very different reasons.

Most memorable wine – Mas Doix 1999 (Poured from a magnum)

A bit of an unfair one as it wasn’t really part of the normal line-up but if Mas Doix 1999 isn’t your wine of the day, then you and I go to very different tastings. We were poured this wine, secretly stashed away, by Valentí Llagostera, co-owner of Mas Doix and a warm, friendly character. After the 1998 vintage, he along with Ramon Llagostera and their cousin Josep Maria Doix, decided to stop selling their grapes to the local co-operative and set out on their own. They’re now one of the most highly respected producers in all of Catalunya and rightly so; were it not for this wine, the 1902 Carignan would be up for ‘Wine of the Day’ – without a doubt the best Carignan I’ve ever tried.

The 1999 Mas Doix defies the adage that Priorat can’t age and is made from roughly equal parts of Garnacha and Carineña, before around 16 months ageing in French oak. At almost 18 years of age, this still holds a remarkable amount of ripe and dried black fruits, a beetroot character and then plenty of delicious, savoury notes; leather, dried violets, wet leaves and black pepper. Still fresh with soft, integrated tannins and so much flavour – absolutely delicious. The finish just went on and on. A very special wine indeed.

Best value wine – Les Sentius 2012

One of the greatest surprises of the day was just how much excellent wine was being served at lower price points; the world knows what Priorat can offer at 50 euros and above, but it isn’t a region well known for its value-for-money wines. A great deal of the wines I was enjoying were below 20 euros a bottle and quite a few closer to 10! Fighting off some stiff competition from Gran Clos, Cal Batllet and Malondro was this excellent wine from Celler Joan Simo.

The gentleman at the stall was none other than Gerard Batllevell Simo and owner of the estate. Like many grape-growers in the region, Gerard decided to stop selling his grapes off locally and start producing his own wine in 1999. The Les Sentius bottling sits in the middle of the range, with Viatge al Priorat at a lower price point and the excellent Les Eres Vinyes Velles and Les Eres Especial Carners considerably more expensive. Les Sentius is a big, bold Priorat wine with lots of power and spice, ripe dark fruits and herbal characteristics. It’s remarkably fresh for a wine with 15% alcohol and I’d love to try it alongside a hearty stew of some sort, although at a pinch I could be convinced to sit down with a bottle by itself! At around 15 euros a bottle, this is remarkably good value for money and I have already ordered a couple of bottles for future drinking.

Biggest surprise – La Solana Alta 2014

The feeling of discovering a special wine completely by accident is such a fun thing. Ultimately, a lot of wine is going to be within a certain frame-work stylistically, particularly in the Old World regions in Europe where rules and regulations dictate so much in terms of what can be produced. Even excellently made wine can end up tasting quite ordinary when tasted alongside 50 of its peers, and it takes a special wine to jump out of these line-ups and really demand some attention. The first time I experienced this was also in Priorat and involved a slightly older bottle of Clos Mogador (2009), which remains my favourite producer from the region to this day.

On Tuesday that wine was La Solana Alta 2014 from Bodegas Mas Alta. The winery itself is a relatively new project (1999 once again!) and production is overseen by Michel Tardieu and Philippe Cambie from the Rhone Valley; two very important names in France and a hint to the origins of the elegance and style in the resulting wines. A brand new release in its first vintage and a blend of 50% Garnacha Blanc and 50% Carineña Blanc, I found myself returning to this wine over and over again. A really beautiful balance of delicate stone fruit, melon, brioche and subtle oak with lots of intensity and a long, long finish; this wine took me completely by surprise. Effortlessly elegant without losing a shred of concentration and could well be the best Catalan white wine I’ve tried so far. I silently kicked myself for forgetting to ask if I could buy a bottle or 3 at the event, as the price of 40 euros at Vila Viniteca, currently their only distributor in Barcelona, isn’t the friendliest. This will certainly find itself into a future event for one of our weekly wine tastings here in Barcelona, as well as a space in my fridge.

Overall, this was a really lovely day out to a well organised event and I will certainly be back next year. There were so many good wines being served, and not always from the well known names of the region. I’ve already plugged Miquel a little earlier on but if you truthfully want to understand the wines and culture of Montsant and Priorat, his Vinologue Guides are the best way to get started. We finished the day with a delicious bottle of Ribera del Duero from one of my favourite producers, Finca Villacreces, from the 1998 vintage; 25 euros on the restaurant list of the Hostal Sport in central Falset. Needless to say, the train journey home was a sleepy one.

Maestrazgo Wine Club Newsletter – Edition 17 – May 2017

May: A similar month to April, with a great deal of green growth and management of the soil and canopy to be done. Unfortunately this year, there has already been frost sweeping across Europe which has destroyed many of the buds that would ordinarily go on to flower and produce grapes. As a result, 2017 is already off to a rough start and the damage hasn’t been fully assessed yet; even parts of continental Spain have suffered quite badly. With warmer temperatures, buds are starting to develop earlier than usual and the late Spring frosts are particularly harmful, wiping out not only the potential crop but in severe cases, even limiting the vines ability to recover and produce extra buds. There’s still lots of work to be done to prevent these outbreaks of frost and to shelter as much of the vineyards as possible. Whilst wealthy producers may go as far as hiring helicopters to disperse the cool pockets of air, most vignerons will be up all night, lighting fires and trying to keep cool air from settling. A hard month lies ahead.

Hello Wine Lovers! Welcome to the 17th Edition of Maestrazgo Wine Club and another month of wine tasting in Barcelona. This month we’re going to be doing another 3 tastings, with one blind tasting of international varieties, a tasting focusing on some of the most exciting, terroir driven wine-makers in Spain and an international tasting looking at the famous Rhone Valley of France. We’re only two months away from our annual summer break from our weekly gatherings, so I’m looking forward to signing off with a bang! There are some delicious wines to be drank and as always, the tastings will be taking place in our private room in the Born district of Barcelona and are limited to 10 persons per event.

Events: Maestrazgo Wine Club:

11th May – International Wine Tasting: Blind Tasting – 10 places available – 30 euros p/p
18th May – Spanish Wine Tasting: The Terroir Manifesto – 10 places available – 30 euros p/p
25th May – International Wine Tasting: The Rhone Valley – 10 places available – 30 euros p/p

Articles: I probably spend too much of my time reading online articles about wine. However, as a result I can find and select a choice few to share – here are my three favourites from last month!

  1. ‘Penedes and local grapes’ by Amaya Cervera – Spanish Wine Lovers are back with another excellent article, this time on the indigenous varieties of DO Penedes.With such a wealth of indigenous grapes in Spain, it’s sometimes a wonder we use anything else at all but the truth is that a lot of them are slowing dying off, as vineyards are replaced with more fashionable varieties. Read about what they’re up to in the Penedes to combat this.
  2. ‘Where have all the wine merchants gone?’ by Tim Atkin MW. This is an excellent article written by one of the most widely travelled Masters of Wine, Tim Atkins. The piece is about the British wine trades tendency to focus on famous names and scores to sell wines, rather than getting out there and making new discoveries, something I believe applies very strongly indeed to the Spanish wine trade! All the really excellent importers and retailers I know of share one similar trait; they get out there and they taste the wines. Every year. As a result, they’re always adding new producers, wines and styles which enriches our wine culture immensely.
  3. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a fake’ by Adam Lechmere. Forgeries and fakes in the wine industry are reaching a whole never level, with some experts estimating that as close to 75% of all wines imported into Hong Kong are fake; a terrifying thought. As bottle prices for the rarest wines spirals out of control, there’s a huge industry in well made fake wines to sell to collectors and what we know at the moment, is that we’ve only discovered the tip of the iceberg. If you haven’t seen the documentary Sour Grapes on Netflix already, I highly, highly recommend you watch it!

Wine of the month: I’m constantly on the look-out for wines of real quality and value; most commonly you’ll find me drinking in the 6-25 euro range:

Francisco Barona Ribera del Duero 2014

Technically a little more than 25 euros, (28 to be precise) but what a wine! It was only a few weeks ago that I was having a conversation with a friend about wines from Ribera del Duero, something along the lines of how the wines are always a little bit too similar in style. Then this comes along. Fresh, vibrant and so full of energy and concentration, a truly delicious wine. I believe it’s the first vintage of this new producer and there’s a limited production of 12,000 bottles making this pretty difficult to find. If you can track some down, I highly recommend it! I’ve got two bottles put away somewhere, so perhaps it may come to a tasting with a year or two of extra age behind it…. more likely it’ll be consumed with great relish long before that! This sort of wine is the future of Ribera del Duero.

Wine Facts
Some fun and interesting facts about the world of wine. Terminology, myths and FAQs; as science becomes more ingrained in our industry, we discover new and exciting realities every day!

“Do I need a wine fridge to store my wine?” – Honestly, it really depends on how long you want to keep it for. If you’re planning on drinking your wine within a year or two, professional storage isn’t really necessary and most cool, dark places will do. If you’re fortunate to live in a house with more than one floor, under the stairs is almost ideal for this sort of make-shift cellar whereas for the majority of us living in Barcelona, a bag or box under the bed is probably the next best option. For longer term storage or for particularly poorly ventilated flats (my previous abode turned into Hells Kitchen during July/August) then yes, a wine fridge would be highly recommended!

“What is ‘Fortified Wine’?” – A Fortified Wine is usually a wine that has had neutral grape spirit, 77-96% ABV, added at some point during its creation, often during the fermentation process. This was historically done to make wines more robust for long sea journeys; a certain George Washington famously toasted the independence of the USA with Madeira, a wine that has been both oxidised and fortified to around 19%, making it an ideal drink to send across a 3 month trans-Atlantic crossing in the 18th Century! It is also done to kill the yeast responsible for completing the fermentation, leaving a sizeable quantity of unfermented sugar in the wine. As a result, many fortified wines are sweet; Port, sweet Sherries, Madeira, Vin Doux Naturels etc. Highly under-rated and usually available at very good prices. PX drizzled across vanilla ice cream with crushed walnuts… thank me later.

“What’s the correct temperature to serve wine?” – Naturally this is slightly subjective as it largely depends on the personal preference of the person drinking the wine. However, the old adage of ‘Serve red wine at room temperature’ certainly doesn’t hold true in Spain, and with the advent of central heating only really makes sense in you live in an igloo, in which case you probably aren’t drinking wine and definitely aren’t reading this newsletter. My personal favourite temperatures depend slightly on the body/style of the wine, just as a general rule I try to serve red wines around 16°C and whites at around 10°C. If you’re ever in doubt, try to serve the wine slightly cooler than you would ordinarily as it will always warm up in the glass but is highly unlikely to get cooler.

Social Media
These newsletters only come out once a month and there is a limit on space for content. If you use Social Media and want to keep up with regular wine updates and occasional rambles, feel free to connect with me on any of the following platforms.

Facebook: Wine Cuentista
Twitter: @Wine_Cuentista
Instagram: wine_cuentista

That’s it for this months newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it and please, if you have any suggestions or things you would like to see get in touch! Either respond to me here or email to I can’t wait to see you all soon for more wine, food and good company. 🙂

Fintan Kerr

Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Wines of Australia

Last week we drank our way around the two islands of New Zealand, so it made a lot of sense to journey to their closest neighbour a week later and discover the wines of Australia. A quick look at the map, however, is enough to know that the wines are likely to be enormously different regardless of whether or not they’re in the same part of the world. Australia is roughly the same size of the USA and the majority of the population quite sensibly don’t live in the centre, where the unbearable heat and lack of water drives people towards the coast. Unsurprisingly, the majority of quality wine is to be found in much the same areas and the Australian wine-market has proven itself perhaps the most adaptable to change in the world, having reinvented itself many times over. Today it is the 6th largest producer in the world and commands respect at all price points.

Historically viticulture started in the 19th century in Australia, with the first records dating back to 1791. Between 1820 and 1840, viticulture became firmly established across the southern half of Australia, all driven by cuttings brought from Europe as Australia has no native vines to speak of. The industry boomed and sank like much of the rest of the world as phylloxera, mildews and two World Wars took their toll on the wine industry, and Australian wine as we know it today really began in the 1950’s. Australia was an early adopter of stainless steel fermentation tanks and as technology became more prevalent, the production of fortified wines decreased and dry wine started to grow in importance and volume. High yielding, poor quality grapes were pulled up and replanted, mainly with the three grapes we most commonly associated with Australia today; Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which account for almost 60% of the total production at present.

Where these grapes are grown, however, and the styles of wine they produce are very much related to where they’re grown, exaggerated by the sheer size of the country. There is a rough north/south split in terms of climate, with the northern half of Australia being more akin to a tropical climate and the south being a lot drier, with an early Autumn and long, hot days. The proximity to the Pacific Ocean and Tasman sea makes an obvious difference, although due to the mass of land this isn’t as pronounced as in other areas of the world. Whilst the majority of Australian bulk wine is grown the Riverlands and Riverina, most new projects are now seeking out cooler climates either at altitude, or closer to the ocean to help off-set the heat and gain more balance in the resulting wines.

In terms of wine-making, Australia is often considered to be the most modern in style with an incredibly scientific approach to vinification. Most wineries, even medium-sized ones, have their own laboratories instead of relying on third party companies, and is equipped with a broad array of modern technology such as computer-controlled crushing equipment, fermentation tanks, rotofermenters and usually quite a lot of new oak. This modernity transfers to the philosophy of wine-making as well, with a very different approach to some of the common ‘faults’ of wine-making, with an almost zero tolerance approach to brettanomyces, volatile acidity and so on. This is in direct contrast with some of the most famous wine-regions in Europe, where a little bit of these compounds is often considered favourable to the style. Do you like that smell of petroleum in aged Riesling? I personally do and it was one of the first ‘oh wow’ moments I had in wine. According to Jim Barry, by comparison, it’s a fault and should be avoided.

With such a broad climatic diversity and a modern approach to wine-making, it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Australia is making every style under the (incredibly hot) sun. The most typical style of Australian wine, from entry level to no-expenses-spared premium expressions, are made using Syrah and typically entitled “Shiraz”. It’s grown in nearly every region, providing a vast diversity of differing styles, price points and ageability. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are in second and third position respectively, with the former producing some outstanding wines in Margaret River in Western Australia. Pinot Noir is also an important red grape, being used for both sparkling wine and premium red wines, typically planted in the cooler regions of Tasmania, Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. For white wines, Chardonnay rules in terms of volume and some truly top quality expressions are made throughout the country. The pendulum of fashion tends to drag the style from one extreme to another, although some of the wines I’ve tried over the past year seem to be settling in a happy medium. Both Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are grown in some quantity although typically vinified and sold as separate varieties rather than blended, with Semillon achieving a unique, smoky characteristic in the Hunter Valley, especially as it ages. Riesling is likely the other most important white variety, with some incredibly pure, zesty expressions hailing from Clare Valley, Eden Valley and Tasmania.

With such a broad diversity of wines to cover, we decided to keep it simple this week and cover the basics, using high quality wines from regions across the country. In the future, we’ll definitely organise more tastings to explore the individual areas of Australia in more depth. Until then, here at the 6 wines we drank!

Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Riesling 2013. Jasper Hill is the leading producer in Heathcote, a relatively new producer in the cooler Victoria region of Australia. Very much in the style of wines from the Northern Rhone, the wines here are made in an old-fashioned format, with little to no irrigation in their granitic vineyards and a minimalistic approach to wine-making including very low levels of sulphur. Although some excellent Shiraz and Nebbiolo is made here, we’ve gone for their excellent Riesling with a few years of bottle age. Subtly floral with lots of citrus fruits, slightly herbal characteristics and just the sandlightest hint of honey. There’s a lot stored away here and I’d happily keep it for another 5-10 years and see how this develops!

De Bortoli Villages Chardonnay 2012. De Bortoli are better known for their inexpensive, bulk wines produced in Riverina but they have a few quality wines, such as this Chardonnay, mainly produced in the much cooler Yarra Valley. Stephen Webber, the wine-maker, has made a clear move away from excessive use of oak in his wines to allow the cooler-climate fruit to really shine. This bottling of Chardonnay is a great example of this. Whilst there is certainly some French oak influence with a smoky, savoury character, the fresh lime and green fruits come bursting through. Some lees stirring is evident with a yeasty character and overall, this is an inexpensive, truly tasty Chardonnay that I suspect would give some more expensive Burgundies a run for their money!

Xanadu Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. Our only wine from western Australia, hailing from the Margaret river. Xanadu was originally founded in 1977 by Dr John Lagan and was one of the first pioneers of the region. It has since been incorporated into the Rathbone Group where it has joined the likes of Yering Station and Mount Langi Ghiran. The resultant change in quality, including vineyard and winery improvements, has resulted in some truly excellent, modern wines that are now being recognised throughout the world. This blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec and 3% Petit Verdot is a beautifully structured wine bursting with cassis, ripe plums and eucalyptus. 14 months in 40% new French oak results adds a smoky-but-sweet background note, resulting in a delicious, accessible wine.

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2012. Probably the most iconic producer in the entire of Australia, Penfolds have been leading the charge since the 1950’s although the first vineyards were planted in 1844 by Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold. Better known for Grange, the pinnacle of their production, Penfolds have a broad range usually using fruit from multiple different regions to create wines that are defined by wine-making rather than any individual region or vineyard. Kalimna Shiraz is made from a variety of vineyards with the hot, ripe Barossa Valley usually well represented and obvious in the dark, ripe brambly fruit profile. Penfolds have always been famous for their continued use of American oak and it’s true here, with 12 months ageing contributing notes of sweet vanilla and bitter chocolate to the wine. Still quite young and closed, this should unfurl into something delicious over the coming 5 years although it’s approachable now with a reasonable decant.

Chapoutier Tournon Shays Flat Vineyard 2012. It took a bit longer than you might expect for Northern Rhone producers to realise the potential of Australia and start investing here, but make it they did. Chapoutier, one of the leading lights of the Northern Rhone, has made a sizeable investment here and now produces some of the most delicious wines coming out of Victoria, produced from vineyards purchased in 2009. The wine is somewhere between Australia and the Northern Rhone, with lots of ripe black, brambly fruit, black pepper, dried violets and the gorgeous smoked meat character so prevalent in good, moderate-climate Syrah. A really beautiful combination of two styles and one of my favourite Syrahs for a reasonable price.

Chris Ringland Marvel Shiraz 2010. Chris Ringland is an Australian wine-maker famous for making wines with absolutely enormous concentration, depth and flavour. For those who like big Spanish wines, you might be familiar with Clio and El Nido from Jumilla, which Chris has a big hand in as part of the Juan Gil project. His Australian wines follow a similar principle; incredibly old, unirrigated vines which are then fermented in open oak vats and aged for between 1-3 years, in a combination of French and American oak.

Blind Wine Tasting: Practical studying part II

Every week I head over to Monvinic, Barcelona’s largest international wine bar, to practice blind tasting. Typically this involves a flight of 6 wines, split equally between white and reds from all across the world. I’ve long been a believer that blind tasting is an incredibly useful study tool, and I’ve decided to track my sessions here in all their misery (mostly) and glory (very rarely!). As a result you may seem some confusing measurement terms as I am currently using the WSET Lexicon as a frame-work for my tasting notes partially trimmed down here for the purposes of brevity.

Back to Monvinic for round 2!

White Wines

Wine #1: The wine has a pale lemon colour. On the nose there is a pronounced aromas of ripe peach, green apples, green pears, white flowers and a touch of honey. There’s a hint of brioche indicating potential lees usage and lots of ripe citrus fruit.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium alcohol and a medium body. There is a medium+ intensity of candied lemon, lime, green apple, green pear and apricot. There’s the same florality as the nose as the finish is medium+ and wonderfully dry. A really delicious wine with a nice mixture of different flavour components, some textural quality to the palate and lots of refreshing acidity. Great stuff!

Guess: Albariño from Rias Baixas in Spain from the 2015 vintage

Reality: Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough in New Zealand from the 2015 vintage

Wine: Alana Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Alana Estate is a small project located in Martinborough, on the south end of the northern island in New Zealand. Founded in 1993, Alana has since been acquired by Mike Cornish and operates under the ‘Waipara Vintners’ company. Since 2011, the estate has focused heavily on sustainable viticulture and employed Alex Craighead, a minimal intervention friendly wine-maker to take Alana in a new direction. They currently produce a variety of wines, all from plots of older vines, with a focus on Pinot Noir.

Conclusions/Learning points: Swing and a miss. Martinborough is mostly known for its powerful, spicy expressions of Pinot Noir but Sauvignon Blanc is a close 2nd in terms of plantings. This is my first taste of a Sauvignon Blanc from this part of the country but due to the wine-making philosophy of their new wine-maker, I can’t be sure if this would be a ‘typical’ style of Sauvignon Blanc from the region. One of my biggest issues in blind tasting is trying to stop myself from making my mind up when presented with obvious evidence, so it’s also possible I smelt floral aromas and ripe stone fruit and my mind went straight to Albariño. I did try the wine immediately thereafter and it wasn’t what I would associate with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but then the vast majority that I’ve tried comes from Marlborough, which has a very distinctive style. I suppose I’ll have to track down a few more and see!

Wine #2: This wine has a medium lemon colour. There is a medium+ intensity of ripe golden apples, peach, bruised green apple and pear. There’s some oak here with light toast and smoke notes, as well as a slight oxidative aroma of roasted almonds and some hay.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium acidity, medium alcohol and a medium+ body. There is a medium intensity of green apple, green pear and some riper, golden apple. Definitely some oak here with more smoke, a slight bitterness and even a touch of tannic grip. The finish is medium+ and a little savoury.

Guess: Viura from Rioja in Spain from the 2012 vintage

Reality: Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in France from the 2012 vintage

Wine: Vacheron Sancerre 2012

Domaine Vacheron are one of the most recognisable names within the Loire Valley of France, with over 47 hectares under vine, the majority of which are Sauvignon Blanc. The estate is now certified as a biodynamic producer and produces many single vineyard expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, as well as a new focus on improving the quality of their Pinot Noir.

Conclusions/Learning points: Well, that answers my earlier questions about the New Zealand wine; I apparently suck at blind tasting Sauvignon Blanc. That makes the learning point very easy at least; drink a lot more of it! This isn’t the first time I’ve completely missed a Sancerre and the reality is that I need to spend a bit more time learning what these wines are all about. I also clearly mis-read the acidity.

Wine #3: The wine has a medium lemon colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of ripe melon, golden apples, peach and pear. There is clear oak usage here in a slightly clumsy fashion; a little too much smoke and cloves for the fruit characteristics of the wine to really come through. Oxidative notes of hay, mushrooms and almonds. A little unbalanced and not very fresh.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium acidity, medium+ alcohol and a medium+ body. There is a medium intensity of ripe lemon, golden apple and again, too much oak influence. Smoky, a little rubbery and lacks freshness.

Guess: Xarel.lo from Penedes in Spain from the 2012 vintage

Reality: Xarel.lo from Penedes in Spain from the 2014 vintage

Wine: Gramona Ovum 2014

Gramona are a well established producer of high quality Cava and still wines, having been founded in 1921 in the Penedes region of Spain. They focus mainly on indigenous varieties for their Cavas to great effect, with III Lustros and Cal Battle in particular being exceptional wines. They also produce a line of still wines, often focusing outside on international varieties grown at slightly high altitudes, including Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

Conclusions/Learning points: I always inwardly wince when I correctly identify a Spanish wine based on some of the obvious faults and flaws associated with some of our wine-making here. Despite the excellent quality of Xarel.lo wines around Catalunya, the overly oaky, oxidative aromas are still present and unfortunately are linked to Xarel.lo more often than not, due to its tendency to oxidise easily. Gramona are a very good producer but this wasn’t a good wine, and I thought it was older than it actually was due to the lack of life and freshness. Still, considering how wrong I got the first two whites I suppose I should be happy to get it right!

Red Wines

Wine #4: The wine has a pale ruby colour. On the nose there is a pronounced intensity of ripe cherries, blackberries, plums and damsons. There’s some oak usage here, but subtly done, with light hints of vanilla and smoke and just a touch of undergrowth/stalkiness. Really quite bright and aromatic, with subtle oak and herbal notes; lovely!

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium+ ripe and firm tannins, medium+ alcohol and a medium body. There is a medium+ intensity of ripe red and black fruits, oak and the same herbal influences as detected on the palate. The finish is medium+ and full of the same juicy fruit and a lovely, dry mineral sensation. A well balanced, delicious wine.

Guess: Garnacha from Sierra Grados in Spain from the 2013 vintage

Reality: Mencia from Bierzo in Spain from the 2014 vintage

Wine: Raul Perez El Rapolao Lomas de Valtuille 2013

Raul Perez is one of Spains most famous wine-makers consulting on projects all around Galicia in the north-west of the country. However, his own winery and family home is located in the village of Valtuille de Abajo in Bierzo, where many of his finest wines are made. Raul Perez is a big part of the movement towards expressing the terroir of Spain from single vineyards and smaller zones, and I expect his success to continue along with the excellent quality of his wines.

Conclusions/Learning Points: I love this wine! Funnily enough, I had written a tasting note for it around 5 months ago and a comparison of my blind note is almost identical to my non-blind note, which is very reassuring from a tasting point of view. So, the error comes then from how I deducted from the note, but where did it come from? Probably the fruit profile; Garnacha is typically more red fruit oriented than black, and the ripe tannins rather than the austere, dry nature of wines from Sierra Grados. Not too disappointed, though, as I was very much in the ball-park and the tasting note was accurate.

Wine #5: This wine has a pale ruby colour. On the nose there is a pronounced intensity of ripe and slightly dried red fruit; strawberry and cherry stand out here. There’s some developing barnyard aromas, leather and undergrowth/forest floor. Just a hint of light oak usage with a touch of smoke, but nothing obvious.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium ripe tannins, medium alcohol and a medium body. There’s a medium+ intensity of the same flavours as described on the nose, with a medium finish. The balance of flavours and structure is excellent here and again, exactly the sort of wine I love to drink. Lightly evolved but with lots of primary fruit left.

Guess: Pinot Noir from Burgundy (Village level) in France from the 2011 vintage

Reality: Pinot Noir from Baden in Germany from the 2011 vintage

Wine: Ziereisen Baden Schulen Blauer Spatburgunder 2011

Weingut Ziereisen are a small project from Baden in Germany, focusing almost exclusively on their expressions of Pinot Noir, although there is a small quantity of Pinot Gris and Syrah also grown. They tend 11 hectares of vineyards and produce 4 different expressions of Pinot Noir, divided between vine age and vineyard site.

Conclusions/Learning points: I’ll happily take this, having gotten both the grape variety and vintage correct. Trying to determine the difference between the same grape grown from a similar climate is notoriously difficult unless there clear wine-making differences between the regions, which in this case there isn’t. I messaged Neel Burton, the author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, to get his take on it. The response was “Honestly, it’s very difficult!”. So, happy to get the grape and the vintage right again, and I’ll try to pin-point minute differences at future non-blind comparative tastings.

Wine #6: This wine has a medium ruby colour. On the nose there is a pronounced intensity of ripe black fruit; plums, cherries and blackberry. There is a strong note of cracked, black pepper, smoked meat and dried herbs. There’s something dark and bloody about this wine; a tell-tale sign of Brett, I believe.

On the palate the wine is dry with high acidity and medium+ firm, sticky tannins. The alcohol level is medium+ and the body is close to being full. The flavours match the palate wonderfully with lots of ripe black fruit, pepper and smoked meat leading into a long, savoury finish. All three red wines I’ve been served today are of an excellent quality and I really enjoyed tasting them!

Guess: Syrah from Croze-Hermitage in France from the 2014 vintage

Reality: Syrah from Croze-Hermitage in France from the 2014 vintage

Wine: Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2014

Alain Graillot is a locally born wine-maker, who has become a benchmark of style of quality in Croze-Hermitage over the last 30 years. Low yields, old oak and sustainable viticulture are the hall-marks of Graillots style and now joined by his son, Maxime, the future looks bright for the domain. Whilst other producers are now ramping up their efforts in Croze-Hermitage, both the red and the white wines from this estate remain in demand.

Conclusions/Learning points: The only thing better than nailing a wine is nailing a wine at the end of a tasting! This just screamed cool-climate Syrah from the get-go, so the question was simply placing the region and the vintage. It didn’t have the meat of Hermitage, nor the juiciness of St Joseph and so Croze-Hermitage was realistically the only place it was likely to be produced in.

Really happy with this tasting. One learning point remains the same and that is the constant battle to not try and ‘guess ahead’ of the tasting note itself, but to try and remain neutral until all the evidence has been gathered… easier said than done. That and I need to drink more Sauvignon Blanc. A LOT more Sauvignon Blanc!

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