An article by former Decanter staffer, Olly Styles, on his no-holds barred website wine life has prompted me to write an article regarding his comments on the state of wine journalism.
In his column he says: “One thing is pretty damned clear however: wine writers lack balls. We all do. Perhaps it’s because the wine world is so small and any negative comments made about a wine invariably return to haunt the writer (this generally involves an importer shouting and gesticulating in your face during a trade show – and that’s only when they think your score of 17/20 was too harsh).”
First of all, do wine writers lack balls? While I hope the women do, the lack of opinion can be frightening. Regurgitating press releases and trying to please everyone was not part of good journalism last time I looked.
I have been told by several members of the New Zealand wine industry that I should not write critical things about the industry because it is small and I will get black balled. Hence why there are so many cheerleaders, afraid of being critical as they might not get flown to an all-expenses paid trip to a winery next year or God forbid, miss out on a free lunch. At a Jacob’s Creek launch, one writer told me she didn’t like the wines but had never been to the restaurant before and had come for the food! I almost choked on my canape.
In a recent column regarding lightweight bottles (or lack of them) in New Zealand, there was a backlash. Feathers were ruffled but the industry started to talk about the issue and consumers realised that heavy glass bottles might not be such a good idea.
I have also been told not to publish an article after interviewing a Kiwi winemaker and then being told that what I was told was ‘in winery confidence’. What did you think I was doing asking questions and writing down your answers? It certainly was not for the good of my health. There’s a thing called off the record which we journos respect but not if you freely tell us information on the record then back track.
Integrity is a key trait for journalists but I am not sure if it is universal. Recently, a New Zealand winery, who shall remain unnamed, sent samples for tasting and a member of the winery team emailed to say: “I’m sure x would be over the moon to have the editorial dedicated to her new range! Perhaps a wee wine bribe could be offered to ensure this?”
Members of the wine writing community need to be more professional if we are not to be tarred with one brush - and a bit more ballsy.
Consumers know Marlborough makes high quality, easy to drink Sauvignon Blanc but if you asked consumers to point to it on a map, it would be a pin the tail on the donkey exercise.
The latest research on the significance of region of origin by Wine Intelligence shows that at mainstream price points (£4 to £4.99) Marlborough, the Barossa Valley and Napa all feature in the top five regions from which UK consumers say they are likely to buy wine. Marlborough and the Barossa are still among the top choices when the same question is posed for purchases of £8 and above. So far so good.
Although prompted awareness of Marlborough is relatively low, consumers have a favourable view of New Zealand and say Marlborough wines are high quality, easy to drink and often recommended by friends. They are also more likely to be available in casual restaurants.
Research director Jean Philippe Perrouty said: “Bordeaux and Burgundy are known by 90% of UK consumers but only one in four or less say they would buy it. UK consumers say they are more willing to buy Marlborough, Rioja or Barossa - if they have heard of them - than Bordeaux or Burgundy. These wines have been able to create the perception of affordable quality.”
Still so far so good.
However, when it comes to knowing where Marlborough is or what the region is like, you’ll get a blank look. Many US consumers associate cigarettes with the region. How positive. Nevertheless it’s a similar story for Chianti, which conjures up images of Italy, red and Hannibal Lector.
Beyond country of origin, it seems most regions are failing to portray an effective image.
So where now?
Tourism is key. If you can get people to visit, they become ambassadors for the region. And it just so happens 85,000 people are heading this way for a few rugby matches in September.
Longer term, Marlborough should be shouting to the rooftops about tourism and food. The Marlborough Sounds are breathtaking, tell people about them. There’s great walking, mountain biking, and fishing on your doorstep. Plus, there are a wealth of artisan producers, from oyster farms, to pine nut orchards and cheese makers.
The Barossa has employed the skills of Paul Henry, ex general manager Wine Australia, to educate consumers that there’s more to the South Australian region than burly Shiraz. Perhaps Marlborough should be doing the same.
Steve Lienert, Penfolds’ senior red winemaker was in town on Friday night to launch the 2006 Grange and I grabbed him before any wine was poured to get the sober lowdown.
Before answering any questions, he was a good sport and agreed to do an Unfiltered…
Grange & sense of place
Is Penfolds Grange a terroir wine? Fruit is sourced from up to five different regions each year, so the answer is probably no. It doesn’t make it any less worthy although Burgundy purists might poo-pooh it. This vintage is 98% Shiraz with the majority coming from the Barossa, a little bit from Magill Estate in Adelaide and, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra “to tighten up the palate,” says Lienert.
Quantity and quality
Low yields = high quality. That’s the general rule but 1982 Burgundy blows that theory out the water. Lienert has found that the theory isn’t necessarily useful for then either. While most Grange vineyards crop at 1-1.5 tonne/acre, Lienert adds “Most of our great vintages have had good-sized crops. 1996 and 1998 were classic years but higher yields while 2000 yields were very low but it was not necessarily a great year.”
This year has been a “challenging” vintage in the Barossa, which means bloody hard. The rains across Australia, caused all sorts of fungal diseases. which wiped out as much as 30% of the crop in areas like inland Mildura. It did rain in the Barossa but it was not as badly affected as other areas , including the Limestone Coast region.
Lienert adds: “We had to be more selective this year. We rejected some fruit because of botrytis. Barossa and McLaren Vale were the stand out for us. The south-east of South Australia was more challenging.”
Ok, so this last section is for wine geeks and MW students…
Grange normally stays on skins for 5-6 days, and they rack and return (aka delestage) the wines to extract colour, tannin and give the wine plenty of aeration. Surprisingly, they don’t use any inert gases to prevent oxidation, such as nitrogen or carbon dioxide, until bottling. They basically don’t want to mollycoddle them, as Lienert put it: “When you were five, I bet your mum and dad gave you a smack on the bum? Did it do you any harm? You worked out well.”
The fermentation is taken up to 26-27C at the start of the fermentation and then cooled back to 16-18C once the wine has reached around 5-6% alcohol. “We don’t want bitterness. You can extract more colour when the wine is warmer but then you extract bitter tannins,” he says. (NB: tannins are alcohol soluble)
The wines are pressed before they reach dryness and no post fermentation is necessary as they can extract enough colour without it.
Despite no time on skins post fermentation, VA levels tend to be quite high in Grange around 0.8-0.9g/l (the EU maximum is 1.2g/l for reds). The reason is the liberal exposure to oxygen encourages volatile acidity during the fermentation. However, it adds a little lift to the wine rather than making it smell like vinegar!
Barolo is not a wine for the elderly or terminally ill. It takes a good 20 to 30 years before the tannins become approachable and you’re going to have to stick it in the cellar (or under your bed) until it comes around.
And if you don’t like tannins or acidity, you’d better walk past the Barolo section.
At an Ascheri dinner with Squisito Fine Wines, we were treated to a vertical of Barolos as far back as 1996 and cor blimey, they are still babes in arms. Most wines are dead as dodos by the time they hit 5 or 10 years but not these bad boys.
The likes of Ascheri are from the ‘traditional’ school of Barolo, leaving the wine on its skins for up to 40 days after fermentation completes (that is a loooooong time) and then putting it in oak for 2 ½ years. The modernists take it off the skins much earlier and like plenty of new oak to give more fruit and vanilla flavours.
Wine of the night has to be the 1996 Ascheri Barolo. It’s still as tight as a pair of speedos with lovely mid palate weight, incredible concentration and drawn out, finally-woven tannins. A really elegant wine that’s got lots of life left in it.
I took a moment out from tasting Barolos with MD of Squisito, Alberto Cenci, who tells me about his Italian-Kiwi romance and his love of Aerosmith….!
Remember to buy a card one lunchtime this week, as it’s Mother’s Day on Sunday. Florists will become bouquet factories and you should probably take your dear old mum out for lunch: Burger Fuel and Subway won’t cut the mustard.
My favourite watering hole, Stafford Road Wine Bar, runs an exceptional degustation menu matched with wine every Sunday. Perhaps it is my favourite watering hole as it’s a short stagger home – or it could be the delicious Provencal rose by the glass or the straw-thin French fries. Stafford Rd has also become the venue for my business meetings, although I have to admit I have had a couple of no-shows (I won’t mention names), and the staff have taken pity on me with free cups of tea. I think they may now be making bets on whether or not the other person will show!
If taking the bridge to the Shore is a step too far for you (come on, it’s just a road), super-slick Clooney has just opened its doors for Sunday evenings. It’s now open seven days a week and Sunday evenings is BYO night. The $20 corkage fee seems a little steep, but if you’ve got a decent bottle you want to crack, it’s certainly cheaper than paying wine list prices.
Make a day of it and take the ferry to Waiheke. Italian-owned winery Podere Crisci does a traditional Mediterranean long lunch for $65 every Sunday. Will be putting on something special on mother’s day? “We do something special every Sunday!” says Mike Ross, vineyard and restaurant manager. “We change the menu every week and we have never done the same one twice.” Expect lots of cured meats, Italian cheeses and to waddle out of the restaurant three or four hours later. It certainly beats a bunch of flowers and a burger.
Ti Point chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay 2010 ($22.99, Glengarry)
Three generations of women produce this medium-weight, not-too-oaky chardonnay. It has just enough freshness, and sits comfortingly on the middle of your palate.
Hunter’s Kaho Roa sauvignon blanc 2008 ($23.90)
Hunter’s is a family affair with sons, mums and aunties working together to make this barrel-fermented sav. It’s fresh with layers of flavour and tasty texture. The oak gives a nutty character, but it’s well integrated with citrus and grassy aromas.
Clos de Sainte Anne, Les Arbres viognier 2009, Gisborne ($58, Caro’s, Fine Wine Delivery Co)
Anne is the mother of the Millton family and the inspiration for this hedonistic viognier. It exudes an ethereal perfume of sweet dried apricots, flower petals and ginger.
An abridged version of this article was originally published in the Herald on Sunday on 1 May.