Wednesday 30 June
French wine sales are suffering at the hands of the Australians, Californians, Italians and South Africans in the UK. To add insult to injury, English wines are beating them at their own game: the International Wine Challenge (IWC) has just announced Camel Valley’s 2008 Pinot Noir Brut has taken the sparkling rose trophy ahead of the Champenois. This is another kick in the teeth for the Champagne region, after poor sales in 2009.
What I like most about the competition is the value awards. As a tight northerner, the price of decent wines can make my eyes water. Finding a great wine under a tenner certainly improves my mood. And my dad, a Liverpudlian (an even more notoriously tight lot), will be making a special trip to the supermarket to fill up on bargains when he sees the results (although not to Waitrose, as they haven’t made it as far north as my hometown yet)
So, what are the stars I’ll be sending my dad out to buy:-
Oloroso Trophy winner: Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Oloroso 12 year old for a mere £6.49
La Différence Carignan 2009, France, £5.81, France, Tesco.
Moon Bridge Riesling 2009, Australia, £5.49, Marks & Spencer
Domaine Villargeau Sauvignon Blanc 2009, France, £9.99, Majestic Wine Warehouse
Falanghina Campania 2009, Italy £9.99, Laytons, Oddbins
Brussel Sprout heaven
Monday 28 June
Big Lobster, Limestone Coast: should the Yarra have a Big Brussel Sprout?
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, brussel sprouts are here to stay. Personally, I think they’re a great vegetable and they should be more highly regarded by the vegetable-eating community. So, when I found out that the Yarra Valley is home not only to stunning Chardonnays but the southern hemisphere’s largest brussel sprout farm, I knew I would like the region
I wondered if there was a Big Sprout for tourists to visit – like the big banana in Coff’s Harbour or the Big Lobster on the Limestone Coast (pictured). The Australians are experts at big things and they have become major tourist attractions - I’d certainly make a special trip to see it. Unfortunately, they haven’t got one…yet. Maybe a facebook campaign is on the cards?!
Other than sprouts, the Yarra Valley is sadly lacking in food specialities: there’s no Pauillac lamb equivalent here. Unfortunately, brussel sprouts are normally lumped in with asparagus and artichokes as foods that are a disaster to match with wine. But I won’t take that lying down…
In an edition of Wine Spectator, New York chef Andrew Carmellini paired his recipe for brussels sprouts, pancetta, rosemary leaves, toasted bread crumbs, Pecorino cheese and black pepper with Syrah. Try Sticks No 29 Shiraz Viognier, which has the peppery note and raspberry fruit to match.
Or how about brussel spouts with blue cheese, nuts and bacon with Giant Steps’ elegant 2008 Gladysdale Pinot Noir
It’s unlikely you’re going to eat a whole bowl of brussel sprouts, but if you were so inclined, best match it with a good old Savvy. Try De Bortoli’s 2008 Yarra Sauvignon Blanc
Wednesday 16 June
I’m devouring a sausage cassoulet lunch with De Bortoli’s Steve Webber. It’s leftovers from dinner the night before, he admits, but it’s all the better for it.
I’m looking out at the vines as the rain comes down in sheets and the trees are stripped naked by the wind. Naturally we’re talking about the Yarra but I’m interested in Webber’s attitude towards wine shows. As chair of judges at the Melbourne Wine Show for the past two years, Webber has some firm views on the Australian wine show system that I’m keen to here about before we make it to dessert.
In the past six months, many of the best wines I have tasted are those that aren’t entered in competitions. Out of context, interesting or restrained wines just don’t cut the mustard in wine shows. It’s well known that the big ballsy wines tend to catch the tired judges’ palates despite many judging chiefs asking subtlety to be rewarded.
Webber agrees, “Shows reward obviousness. We are trying to change the attitude of judges”
Standards have also been increased: a mere 27% of wines won a medal at the most recent Melbourne show; 43% of wines took a gong at the Royal Sydney competition. I’m happy to see fewer wines taking a bronze. I never buy a bronze medal-winning wine because it’s likely to be uninteresting, albeit technically correct. “The show system promotes sameness,” complains Webber.
“Something that’s fault-free and well-made wins a bronze. That’s not good enough for me, it has to show character. We have got to make more interesting wines that don’t have the soul fined or filtered out of them,” he adds.
By making the process more rigorous, it gives the bronze medal winners credibility rather than being also-rans. But it could be commercial suicide. Many of the bigger wine companies (mentioning no names) blanket enter their wines in every competition in the hope that they’ll get something – which they usually do. And that’s what makes money for the shows to continue running. It seems you’re damned if you do change things and you’re damned if you don’t.
Under Webber there has been a shift in attitudes at the Melbourne show, he claims. However like a sausage cassoulet, things will only improve with time.
Yarra Valley Fires: A Year On
Monday 14 June
It’s more than a year since the Yarra Valley was hit by bush fires raging through the region, burning vineyards and anything that laid in its path.
The impact of the fires was confined to just 4% or 154ha of vines. Unfortunately sweltering temperatures had already reduced the potential crop before the blazes hit: yields were 25-30% below average due to January’s heatwave. Leaves and grapes were sunburned with some vineyards experiencing up to 80% crop loss.
Then came the fires and smoke damage. Willie Lunn, winemaker at Yering Station, says, “We lost two vineyards in Yarra Glen. There was about 400 ton of other fruit we didn’t pick because of smoke taint. Some wines became a bit smoky and they will never see the light of day.”
Many grapes harvested were discarded in the winery, as smoke taint only rears its ugly face once fermentation starts.
Tom Belford, assistant winemaker at Sticks, adds, “We ended up with about 50% of what we would normally make. We handpicked everything and whole bunch pressed it but a lot went down the drain.”
So, what are the knock-on effects? Has 2010 been affected by the last year’s fires and heatwave? It seems not: smoke taint infiltrates the stomata and heads to the berries not the vine wood, so this year there is no hangover. Just 4% of the vines in the region were burned, so production has not fallen significantly.
There is plenty of excitement surrounding the 2010 harvest. Belford says, “2010 was one of the best vintages we have had in a long time we didn’t have any extremes. Varieties ripened at the right time so we were able to deal with it properly.”
The major issue is continued supply, moving from the 2008’s onto the 2010’s. Will wineries be forced to release the 2010’s earlier than they would like to meet demand? The 2008 vintage was pretty big but for those without any 2009 reds, like Giant Steps, what will they do when the 08’s run out? Will there be a conflict between the marketers, who want to get the new vintage wines to market asap, and the winemakers, who don’t want to rush their wines? A gap in supply is highly likely.
Hands off our wine, say Yarra Valley producers
Thursday 10 June
Hang time, phenolic ripeness and overdelivering have been the buzzwords of winemakers and marketers for some time. After spending the past few days in the Yarra Valley, the new phrases appear to be ‘natural winemaking’ and ‘hands-off approach’. If only I had a dollar for every time someone had said that to me over the last 48 hours, I would be able to retire early
No longer is interventionist winemaking cool in this part of the New World. It is poo-poohed. Adding yeast to get the ferments going? No thanks, said more than 75% of the producers I met. Nice, new barrels? No thanks, says Steve Webber of De Bortoli: “We’re using the oldest grottiest casks for our Sauvignon Blanc”. Fining and filtering the wine? Don’t you dare. Webber believes “there is greater interest in wines that don’t have the soul fined or filtered out of them.”
Certainly there are interesting developments giving less fruit-forward, more textured wines in the Yarra. It seems that winemakers aren’t doing very much if they are to be believed. So what are they going to do with all that extra time on their hands? Drink beer? That’s my guess.