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.

Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Wines of South Africa

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This week we’re back for another international wine tasting, this time look at the wines of South Africa. I hadn’t drank a great deal of South African wine until 2016, when my Diploma studies meant that I was spending a lot of time in London where wines from this corner of the world have been going through something of a renaissance. Just around the corner from the WSET headquarters in Bermondsey is Vivat Bacchus, a South Africa restaurant and wine bar that had a wine list full of some big names I’d been dying to try and an excellent, albeit very expensive by Barcelona standards, dinner menu. One night, our entire class headed out for a wonderful meal where I discovered the joys of South African wine, from crisp, creamy blanc de blanc sparkling wines, zesty Chenin Blanc and of course, dark, smoky Bordeaux blends and even then, we only scratched the surface.

Like Chile, South Africa has actually been producing good quality wine for far longer than ‘New World’ would have you believe, and back in the 18th and 19th centuries the dessert wines from Constantia in particular were gracing the tables of the aristocracy whilst some of the most famous ‘Old World’ producers were just getting started. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, quantity became prevalent over quantity and vineyards were planted with high yielding, disease hardy varieties such as Cinsault. This, along with the phylloxera crisis, was the catalyst for the formation of the Co-operative Wine Growers Association (KWV) who would go on to define South African wine for much of the 20th century due to the very large power it wielded. It had statutory authority to not only enforce production quotas in order to limit overproduction, but also to fix prices annually, leading to a great deal of criticism from the global market, during an already difficult political period in South African history. The restructuring of this organisation, along with South Africas first democratic elections in the 1990s, has seen a remarkable change of fortune for the wine industry here, with an array of different producers and styles now available to markets all over the world.

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Climatically South Africa is generally a warm, dry place, although not as much as the latitude of the country might suggest. The regions of South African wine production are split into districts and then further into wards, with a huge variation of style depending on the proximity of these areas to the sea, which of a multitude of soils their vineyards are based on and how much rainfall they receive, from 250mm a year next Klein-Karoo to 1500mm next to the Worcester Mountains. Cool winds blowing across the Cape cool the land and increases the length of the ripening season drastically, with many cooler climate zones being defined and planted all the time. Disease pressure continues to be an issue for the country, with the dreaded leafroll virus being particularly prevalent compared to other major wine producing countries. Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Merlot are all popular varieties being produced today, with Pinotage, South Africas very ‘own’ grape still accounting for a mighty 7% of all plantings. With so much to choose from it was hard coming up with the wine list for this weeks tasting, but I managed to whittle it down to 6 wines from across the country, with 1 sparkling, 2 whites and 3 reds to make up the evening. Roll on Thursday!

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Graham Beck Blanc de Blanc 2008 – One of the most famous names in South African wine who sadly passed away in the summer of 2010. The winery lives on, however, and is responsible for some of the very best South African sparkling wines going. Located in the Breede River Valley, bordering Little Karoo, the focus is heavily on sparkling wine production with three different ranges; NV, Vintage and their Premier Cuvee. We’ve gone for the Blanc de Blanc from 2008, a 100% Chardonnay partly aged in 225 litre ‘barriques’ and partly fermented in stainless steel prior to the secondary fermentation, where a minimum 36 months of ageing on the lees is allowed before disgorgement. Creamy, smooth and a delight to share one of the wines that I was first introduced to South African wine through!

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Tussock Jumper Chenin Blanc 2015 – Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape variety in all of South Africa, originally hailing from the Loire Valley in France. Very high in natural acidity but with a broad, often quite ripe fruit profile it has become the darling of grape growers across the country, not least because it can be used to produce such a broad style of different wines. I first came across Tussock Jumper in a blind tasting, notable for the fact I correctly identified that it was Chenin Blanc from South Africa. Ripe, honeyed and very fresh; a great example of Chenin Blanc with a cool label to boot.

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The Sadie Family Skerpioen 2012 – Eben Sadie is a pioneer of South African winemaking, originally starting his own projects in 1999. Considered to be a preservationist and ‘terroir obsessed’ wine-maker, he has sought out the oldest and most destitute plots of land in the already rugged Swartland, championing Rhone varietals on old bush vines. Expensive? Yes, but absolutely stunning wines usually cost a little extra and this combination of Chenin Blanc and Palomino Fino is amongst his very best.

The Chocolate Block 2013 – Blended red wines are common in South Africa, although not all take it to the extent that Boekenhoutskloof have, with a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier! The parcels of grapes are sourced from all across the Cape before being blended together and aged in French oak of different ages, prior to a final blending. The result is an easy-drinking and easy to enjoy wine with lots of South African appeal; dark, smoky notes with lots of fruit and, as the name suggests, a hint of bitter chocolate.

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Luddite Shiraz 2007 – Well made Syrah is a joy to behold and being the 2nd most planted grape variety in the country, there are quite a few to choose from in South Africa. However, this small plot of Syrah has been made by a man who’s spent a great time of time honing his skills in New Zealand, Australia and Chile before bringing it back to the Western Cape. 100% Syrah from three different sites and aged in French and Hungarian oak for 12 months, this wine is really expressing itself beautifully after 10 years of age. Dark and spicy with lots of coffee, plum and black pepper spice.

kanonkop-pinotage-2007

Kanonkop Estate Pinotage 2007 – Pinotage, that great divider of opinion. Pinotage was created by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault together in 1924 at Stellenbosch University, and has gone on to be considered South Africas greatest contribution to the Vinifera species of vines. It wasn’t much loved, especially at first, due to some weaknesses during fermentation leading to ‘off’ aromas of nail-varnish and bitterness on the palate. However, modern winemaking has addressed most of these issues and Pinotage can be a wonderful wine if made with due care. Kanonkop are considered to be one of the best when it comes to making this varietal, and their estate Pinotage is a wonderful expression. 100% Pinotage from old bush vines in Stellenbosch and aged in 80% new French oak – this is a great example of what South African wine is all about and an important point of different in international markets.

So concludes our venture into South Africa; 6 top quality wines to showcase one of the worlds great wine-making countries. It’s our final international wine tasting of 2016 but fear not, for 2017 will bring another round with it, looking at top quality wines from all across the globe. For more information on wine tasting in Barcelona, be sure to check out our page here and if I don’t see you on Thursday, I’ll see you in 2017!

Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Wines of Sicily

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Last week we did our monthly international wine tasting with Maestrazgo Wine Club, this time heading to the beautiful island of Sicily, just off the southern tip of Italy. I’d been blown away a year before by an aged version of Nerello Mascalese by Calabretta, purchased at Monvinic store in Barcelona for 18 euros (for a 2001 vintage, outrageously good value) and started to experiment a little more with wines in the area. Then, during my first week of studying for the WSET Diploma, I was fortunate enough to be taught viticulture by the inspirational Anna Martens; an Australian wine consultant who has recently set up her own winery on the slopes of Mount Etna with her husband. A few months later, Noble Rot released their quarterly magazine with a huge focus around Mount Etna and I finally took the hint; do a tasting about these fantastic, unique and characterful wines!

Sicily itself has a pretty long history as far as wine is concerned. The Greeks, being ahead of their time in so many ways, were the first to recognise the potential of the region for viticulture and started to produce wine there from as early as 800BC. This continued through the rule of the Roman Empire but unfortunately, by the time Europe was being dragged from the Dark Ages, the land under vine was being eyed up by merchants as being far more suitable for the production of grain. By the 14th century, wine was starting to gain traction once more and in particular, Sicily became known for the production of strong, sweet wines such as Vernaccio and Muscatello with huge international appeal.

To fast forward a few hundred years, Sicily is now the second largest producing region of wine in the entire of Italy, only just behind Veneto and its enormous production of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco, although sadly a good 85% of this is still rustic, bulk wine usually intended for blending purposes (often illegally) throughout the rest of Europe, or turned into grape concentrate/distilled (the traditional fate for overproductive grapes!). Although the majority of the wine by volume produced in Sicily is white, it is the red varieties that are starting to attract attention around the world, from the typical, spicy and powerful Nero d’Avola to the ethereal and drastically underpriced Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio from the slopes of Mount Etna. With there being limited DOC restrictions in place, creative winemakers have been drawn from across the globe to try their hand at making their own expressions in various parts of the island, although the draw of volcanic soil, old (sometimes even pre-phylloxera) vines and an utterly unique environment mean that many of the islands top producers have settled on Mount Etna as a first choice location. The trend towards international varieties has been curbed and it’s now the indigenous grapes that are really driving the reputation of Sicily forward. It’s an exciting time to be producing, drinking and exploring wines from this region and it was great fun to do the tasting!

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Below is the list of the wines that we tried over the course of the evening: I would have ideally have loved to find a decent Marsala sweet wine to finish the evening, but it just proved too difficult to source in Barcelona, so we kept it dry with 2 white and 3 red wines! The wines were organised from white to red, but also alternating between modern wine making styles and more traditional ones; Sicily has attracted a great deal of attention from winemakers and vignerons intent on making wine in a more ‘natural’ style, and so there are large stylistic differences, often within the same small areas.

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Porto del Vento Catarratto 2014 – Catarratto is right on the cusp of being the most planted grape variety in the entire of Italy (35,000 HA planted), hot on the tail of Sangiovese, which gives you an idea of just how much of it is planted in this one island alone. Usually over-yielded and distilled as a result of overproduction, Porto del Vento have taken a different approach by drastically reducing the yields with the intention of showcasing the grape at a higher quality level. The wine itself has a very interesting flavour profile, with notes such as chalk, soft herbs and restrained floral notes taking precedence over the citric elements of the wine. The palate has that lovely combination of being slightly fat whilst still retaining a good level of acidity. A hard wine to pin down to a style, which I find to be true with Sicily in general! A good start.

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Calabretta Carricante 2014 – I adore this producer, not least because it was the first Sicilian wine I had tried outside of cheap and cheerful Nero d’Avolas in Italian restaurants. For 4 generations, the Calabretta family has been producing top quality wines grown through organic and biodynamic viticulture around Mount Etna. Carricante, by comparison to Catarratto is a tiny production, barely checking in at a meagre 200 hectares. An ancient variety that has been revived by producers such as Calabretta, it has an incredible profile of bitter marmalade, cloves, cinnamon and lemon on the nose, but quite an austere, refreshing style of wine on the palate with a strong, stony finish. Absolutely delicious and utterly unique, fantastic stuff!

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Tenuta delle Terre Etna Rosso 2014– Our first Nerello Mascalese/Nerello Cappucio blend of the evening; the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot combination of Mount Etna that are largely responsible for the new-found visibility and demand for the wines from this area. I say Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in terms of what roles they play in the blending partnership, although both varieties are truly more akin to Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo; light in colour, soft in aroma and often quite steely on the palate in youth, fading to smooth, complex aromas and flavours over time. Tenuta delle Terre are a relatively new company, with around 30 hectares of land on the Northern slopes of Mount Etna. Whilst I haven’t had a chance to try their higher level expressions, this lightly oaked wine was a real treat and very good value for 20 euros a bottle. A great introduction to the style.

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Girolamo Russo ‘a Rina’ 2014 – Arguably the wine of the evening; absolutely delicious stuff. Giuseppe Russo himself is a pianist by trade and an ex-student of Italian literature, who took it upon himself to care for his familys estate back in 2005, including some 15 hectares of vineyards around the volcano. ‘a Rina’ is one of his most profilic wines, with around 10,000 bottles produced every year. For me, this is Nerello Mascalese close to its best, with a huge abundance of red fruits, spice and violets over silky tannins and a huge core of acidity. I recall from drinking older wines that the acidity is key to the longevity of these wines, as the tannins are really very much in the background. For 22 euros a bottle – sign me up for a few more!

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Donnafugata Mille e una Notte 2011 – I wanted to finish the evening on a more typical note and for Sicily, that is defined by Nero d’Avola (45 euros worth in this case – maybe the most expensive Nero d’Avola on the market?!). For traditional wines lovers, this was a welcome return to the norm with big, ripe fruit aromas, spice, oak and a solid structure of both tannins and acidity. A lovely rich and ripe wine that has a long life ahead of it and is a good example of the potential of Nero d’Avola, albeit with a hefty price tag. I also think the label is stunning and I would love to bring this out for dinner in a few years time, with a rustic spaghetti dish and some cold meats; now there’s an idea!

Another wonderful evening exploring the world of wine with Maestrazgo Wine Club. This month we have three more tastings covering the wines of Galicia in North-West Spain, Vinos de Pago and an international tasting as we chase Pinot Noir around the world in an effort to understand it a little better. As it stands every spot is taken with one exception – a single spot on the 20th October for our discovery of Spains single-estate wines under the denomination of ‘Vinos de Pago.’ To see the tastings as they come up, make sure to join our group on Meet-up here, where you’ll also have access to our newsletter every month. Happy drinking!

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