My first crush

The first crush of my Year of Winemaking, indeed of my life (excluding my horribly fucked up student wines, which simply don’t count in any meaningful way), was about four tonnes of Lake’s Folly Chardonnay. Together with the excellent winery team, led by Rod Kempe, we processed two press loads of great fruit and then cleaned up.

First point to note here is that all the stories you’ve heard about cleaning at wineries are true. It’s incredibly important and seemingly endless, though when it does end there is often a refreshing beer on hand, which for me, today, was beyond welcome. I’ve already learned to detest the way seeds get stuck in every nook and cranny of processing equipment. To the extent that I have any OCD tendencies, they were certainly exercised today.

As I sit here, feeling pretty tired, a lot of things are swirling around in my head. Three years of University, in many ways, has barely prepared me for work in an actual winery, where process and equipment are of the essence. But it’s fascinating to jump in and out of the physical act of making wine to reflect on the decisions being made. Rod has shared his thinking every step of the way, from his decision to pick, taken late yesterday, to each choice he has made during initial processing of the Chardonnay. His is a deliberate approach borne of twenty five years of experience as well as respect for the heritage of the Estate. I’m soaking it all up.

What’s completely evident to me after only a couple of days here is how much I have to learn, and the distance I have to travel to integrate a lot of (valuable) textbook knowledge with its real world context. For example, Rod and I wandered through the whole vineyard tasting grapes today. I could see his experience shoot through what he was tasting to a decision on which blocks to pick. For me, that sort of knowledge remains to be acquired.

As ever with wine, the industry’s collegiate vibe is a great joy, and I’ve already paid some fascinating visits to Tyrrell’s and Thomas Wines, both fully in the vintage swing. The different choices each winemaker makes, some simply nuances, some quite large, are a source of great fascination for me, even as the experiences out of which they have grown remain opaque. Clearly, though, within the basic parameters of winemaking, there are a multitude of paths one night follow, which adds enormous interest and variability to what is already a highly variable agricultural product. There’s a reason why wine can consume people, both makers and drinkers, and this is part of it.

Tomorrow, we’ll rack the settled Chardonnay juice and get some ferments going, some in tank and some straight into barrel. Should be good.

A year of winemaking

When one plans a year of travel, getting stuck a day after leaving home isn’t usually on the cards. And yet here I am in the Thora Valley, cut off from the Pacific Highway by several metres of violently flowing river, unable to reach the Hunter Valley. It’s at Lake’s Folly in the Hunter I will start this year of adventure, though the rain has reached it too and picking is delayed.

I’m still surprised to find myself in this position and, in retrospect, I blame a mixup with an exam paper. Around August of 2012, I was ready to sit the final exam of my Masters, primed to smash through it, looking forward to the elation of accomplishment and the reward of junk food. Bathetically, it turned out my exam had been misplaced, and I sat idle in the exam room, exchanging embarrassed glances with the invigilator, for the half hour it took to find my paper.

While I waited, my mind started to wander past a December graduation into the land of “what next?”. I have a good, challenging day job that keeps me busy (as well as fed and watered), but without the structured engagement of University, I had no idea how I’d keep learning about wine growing, aside from simply drinking the finished product. I could always take a year off and follow the harvest around the world, but that would be ridiculous, impractical, not to mention financially ruinous…

And here I am, en route to the Hunter, without income, trapped momentarily by nature, but very much on my way to a year of helping to make wine. So far, the little idea hatched over a misplaced exam paper will take me to Tasmania, the McLaren Vale, Central Otago, Western Australia, California and Germany, perhaps by way of some work in France or thereabouts. I’ll go from a very theoretical view of winemaking to a messily hands-on one, helping a bunch of talented winemakers make lots of different wines in lots of different ways, starting to learn all the things one can’t from books alone.

My wonderful friends wonder if I’ll chuck in the corporate towel and make wine my life once the year is up. I wonder something more essential: how a year of doing this will change my relationship to the drink. For a writer whose currency is a subjective, aesthetic reaction to wine, an immersion in the practicalities of winemaking risks robbing the drink of its mystery. I’m also a scientist by training, though, and know the natural world becomes even more compelling and beautiful with knowledge of how it works. Perhaps the same will happen with wine; as always, I’ll record these experiences and the wine I encounter on Full Pour.

I hope you will keep me company while I find out.

Mount Pleasant OP&OH Shiraz 2002

I’m off on a big adventure, one which I hope to write about soon and at some length. For now, suffice to say that my first stop is the Hunter Valley and, one day after leaving Brisbane, I’ve already hit a bit of a snag. Along with many others I’m sure, I am cut off by flood waters and being forced to stay put, in my case in the Thora Valley. This is highly bearable, I might add, due to the excellent company I am enjoying, as well as a constant flow of good food and wine. Being stranded has never felt so luxurious, I bet.

This wine was consumed last night in the midst of howling winds and relentless rain. How ironic that it evoked nothing less than than the turned red earth in which its vines were grown, only five hours south of here by car, and in conditions far more pleasing than those we’re currently experiencing. This is a good old(ish) Hunter, with aromas of earth, leather, red fruits and some oak. Old red wines seem to acquire a mellowness along with their tertiary flavours, and this is starting to smell settled, comfortable and luxurious.

The palate has a mouth-coating quality that places flavours on the tongue evenly and persistently. Very much a repeat of the nose’s profile, this wine’s flavours are well integrated and showing a range of tertiary notes alongside primary fruit and oak. It strikes me as old-fashioned in style, showing a level of rusticity (not a euphemism for any sort of bacterial spoilage, by the way) that I find appealing. I also feel it needs more time to become truly distinctive and suspect it will drink even better as a fully mature style. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy right now in its regional flavours and beautiful mouthfeel. Tannins in particular are delicious and fine.

Hunter Valley, I hope to see you soon.

McWilliams Mount Pleasant
Price: N/A
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Terra Tangra TT 2009

It’s amazing what turns up when people find out you like wine. For example, a friend recently brought this back from a holiday to his native Bulgaria; a lovely gift as I have exactly zero experience with Bulgarian wine, even though the country has a long history of winemaking and is a somewhat prolific contemporary producer. This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah from a vineyard in the Thracian Valley region, all grown organically.

A spongey, fragile cork was slightly concerning as I opened the bottle, but the wine is clean. The aroma is quite confronting, not because its notes are difficult but because it’s easy; so easy that I’m almost inclined to preserve my modesty (and its dignity) and look away. Yes, this is terribly keen to give it away and makes no secret of its intentions. In wine as in life, this is sometimes appropriate (indeed welcome), so I suggest this is a wine that merely needs to find the right occasion. Soft fruits, a prickle of leaf, spice.

The palate is interesting because the ease of its aroma translates to a buxom mouthfeel and a fruit flavour profile that suggests a hint of residual sugar; I don’t have the technical details of this wine to hand so I can’t confirm if this is the case. Flavours are mostly dark and berry-oriented, with a full burst of red fruits on the middle palate. This is 60% Merlot and it shows. There are also edges of overripeness, which detract a little even as they add savouriness. Structure isn’t a feature, though there’s enough acid to prop up the line. Fruit sweetness hangs over the after palate and finish, the latter of which is more persistent than I expected.

Drinkable and (to me) quite different.

Terra Tangra
Price: N/A
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Jalama “Carg” Pinot Noir 2010

Forgive me, Julian, for I have sinned. It has been some ridiculous amount of time since my last confession tasting note. That being said, it’s a new year, a new site (thank you for your hard work), and it’s high time I pulled my own weight around here and contributed something. Right! Off we go: Last year, I was fortunate enough to have drunk several very, very good bottles of wine with this guy named Tom. Tom and I work for the same company, but at relative opposite ends of the totem pole: I’m a humble support tech, and he’s the capo di tutti support services at the company. Better yet, the guy has a seriously good sense of taste when it comes to wine… and he shares. Now, Julian, you may remember that we used to joke about how those of us in the colonies have an amusing habit of referring to anything exceptionally good as being world class or having European styling; this is of course also very, very true in the wine world. If a wine’s especially good, well, then of course it’s world class. To name one example, there’s a very fine, very exclusive winery called in the Santa Rita Hills AVA called Sea Smoke. Support tech that I am, I’d heard of them, sure, but I’ve never actually seen a bottle of theirs, much less tasted it, until Tom cracked one open. Sure enough, just as the <TITLE> tag of the Sea Smoke website claims, it’s world-class: rich, generous, unobtrusively oaked, with fine grained tannins and impeccable taste. There’s a reason it’s mailing list unobtainium and much sought after, and as much as I wanted to find fault with it (being so close to Los Angeles, surely it would have a touch of vulgar Hollywood surgical amplification about it, n’est-ce pas? But no, it’s pure class.)

But I digress. The wine I have in front of me is superficially similar and at the same time not the same thing at all. This is from a small, family-owned vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, not a larger, long-established, well-known winery. Although it’s presumably grown with the same care in a similar climat, and also raised in new French for quite a long time, it’s a relative steal at forty-six bucks, or about four times the price of an oak-chipped monstrosity from the California Central Coast. So: Is it worth it? The short answer is thankfully fuck yeah.

Let’s start with the look of this wine. As rock sage Nigel Tufnel once said, it’s none more black, reall. Unlike Oregon pinot, this one isn’t lacking in the anthocyanin department, no sir. This is the kind of manly pinot that screams Hey ladies, check out my excellent taste in wine as well as my bank balance, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. On the nose, it’s got everything you could hope for in a pinot: soft, fragrant oak just hanging out like Neal Cassady at the Salinas Greyhound station, crisp saline air drifting in from the coast with just a touch of smoke from the Spreckels plant down the road. Mixed in with very pretty strawberry-cherry notes, there’s also just a little bit of something very Robert Smith in there as well, serious as a heart attack, nervy and tense, tightly coiled. It’s very, very groovy.

Finally, the taste of the stuff? Yeah, pretty much what you’d expect, but better. Magically, it’s light on its feet in the mouth, not heavy or syrupy as California pinot sometimes tends to be. The French oak is a bit more noticeable on the finish – for my taste, I could stand perhaps a touch less, but then again, this is very much a la mode and it’s absolutely spot on for the local style. It finishes with some very smooth, fine grained tannin and a lingering soft, cedary note that unfurls into a wonderfully refreshing, acid-supported vibrancy that has a real way of making you wonder why you don’t drink this kind of wine more often.

Really, why don’t you?

Price: $46
Closure: Cork
Source: Winery

Tesco Finest Viña Mara Rioja Gran Reserva 2004

By far the best of my UK supermarket selections over the past couple of weeks. Marketed under the Tesco Finest label, this is in fact made by Baron de Ley.

Immediately complex aroma, with dark, meaty fruit meshing well with an array of oak- and bottle age-derived notes. I find the integration of aromas especially exciting, and I do think styles like these, with more extensive age built into their élevage in barrel and bottle, present a different view of old red wine. There’s a mellowness here, combined with still-robust fruit, that is so attractive.

In the mouth, rich and full bodied, placing liquerous red and black fruits on the tongue along with leather and spice. Flavours are intense and generous, perhaps a little blurry too, but quite delicious. The middle palate shows a good deal of freshness, thanks in part to good acid, although it’s at this point the wine’s flavours come apart a bit, oak especially feeling a bit obvious. The after palate and finish are more about old red wine flavours, delicious if you like them (I do). Mouthfeel is a highlight, being firm yet sensual at the same time.

Good wine, great value.

Tesco Finest (but really Baron de Ley)
Price: £14.99
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Tesco Finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2011

Marketed as part of Tesco’s Finest range, this sits at the upper end of what I’ve seen on the supermarket shelves here in the UK. The embossed bottle certainly looks the part, although for some (no doubt parochial on my part) reason it remains disconcerting to see supermarket own-brand wines. This was in fact produced by Les Vins Skalli.

The nose is quite pretty, showing clean red fruits, edging towards but not becoming confected in character, along with a bit of darker spice and even a hint of meatiness. It is very fresh smelling and well balanced, but lacks the sort of richness one might expect.

The palate highlights this wine’s lack of stuffing. There are more clean red fruits, a bit simple, surrounded by a framework of spice and vegetation. Palate weight is light to medium bodied, and the wine seems to lack texture, gliding across the tongue and not seeing fit to leave much of a trace either in mouthfeel or indeed persistence of flavour. What’s here is clean and correct, there’s just not enough of it.

Tesco Finest (but really Les Vins Skalli)
Price: £14.99
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Baron Amarillo Rioja Reserva 2006

I was underwhelmed by two recently tasted, fairly pricey Costco-procured wines, so thought for my next adventure into supermarketland I’d try Aldi, another import into the UK. At £5.99, this Rioja Reserva was the most expensive wine on offer at the Chester-le-Street branch of this brutally efficient supermarket chain.

While not a £50 wine in disguise, this drinks very well and in most respects was more enjoyable than either Costco wine. The aroma is settled and integrated, with calm notes of spice, strawberry, vanilla oak, savoury fruits and some bacon fat. It is expressive and well balanced, showing enough complexity to satisfy without being overtly challenging.

More of the same on the palate, showing a very clean flavour profile and firm acid. The interplay of sweet and savoury is especially enjoyable here, with fruit pulling in both directions, playing out primarily on the middle palate. Despite the interest in its fruit, it’s not a fruit-forward wine, and there’s pleasing restraint in all respects here. The downside of this is an intensity of flavour that could be greater. Other flavours, including a nice snapped twig note, continue on to a finish that is lightly touched by fine tannins.

For the price, this is quite excellent and a wine I’d be happy to buy again.

Baron Amarillo
Price: £5.99
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Château Chauvin 2005

Another Costco purchase. I have no prior familiarity with this estate.

The nose is quite heady, with pungent brambles, some dust, brown spice and oak resin. There’s a thickness to the aroma profile that, while communicating a sense of generosity, also masks detail and makes the wine smell a bit monolithic. There’s also a slight suggestion of meat and band-aid.

The palate validates all these impressions. It’s bold and liquerous, entry and mid palate full of juicy, dark berry fruit. Thankfully, it’s not an overly sweet flavour profile, and there are attractive hints of savouriness right along the line. The oak, while very prominent, also helps the wine stay on the right side of fruit sweet. Through the after palate, tannins begin to appear, adding texture and variation, but arguably going beyond where they ought in terms of dryness.

A very drinkable wine, perhaps more so with food, but not great.

Château Chauvin
Price: £27
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Poderi Colla Dardi de Rose Bussia Barolo 2007

A very happy new year to all. To celebrate 2013, I’m in County Durham in the UK visiting a friend who happens to be an exceptionally talented cook. In between hearty English meals, I am tasting the occasional wine. I like to shop for wine in supermarkets while here, and this particular bottle was procured at Costco.

Young Barolo can be a bit forbidding, and this is certainly a very structured wine at present. However, after a couple of days’ tasting, I think I have the measure of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the most elegant example. The aroma was initially quite muted; a day’s air, though, sees it somewhat more expressive. There are some recognisable aromas, tea leaf and red fruits, though it’s far from coherent. More like a moderately crazy goldfish darting in and out of the strands of seaweed in its too-small tank.

The palate shows satisfyingly robust tannin and a set of flavours that provide more satisfaction than the nose. It’s bright and moderately intense, with a particularly clean middle palate. However, the elements never come close to expressing any sort of narrative, appearing to be placed randomly along the line. The tannins, too, while present, lack any sort of beauty of arrangement.

Will this come together? I’m not sure; for now, it offers only intermittent pleasures.

Poderi Colla
Price: £25
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail