Domaine De La Ferme Blanche Cassis Blanc 2018, or: why I started writing about wine again.

Yesterday afternoon was beautiful. I went for a walk in Balboa Park, just a few blocks from my house, and enjoyed the solitude, space and freedom of being outside for about an hour. I walked up and down hills, through open fields with new Spring wildflowers, past a cactus garden and the Naval Medical Center San Diego, and felt incredibly lucky to be alive and in such a privileged spot. Sadly, however, the city has now closed down all of its parks, even Balboa Park; apparently, they weren’t able to prevent people from congregating in small groups, so now I’m stuck at home for the foreseeable future.

Anyhow, I digress. There’s still food in the house, there’s still remote work to be done, and there is also wine, for the first time in many years, and I’m doing my best to parcel it out accordingly. I’m reaching into the shipping boxes and grabbing bottles at random, letting chance decide what to make of all of this bounty. Yesterday’s bottle was a bottle of white wine from Provence, from a part of the world I had thought was only known for blackcurrant liqueur. It is something of a miracle that a bottle from a tiny spot in France somewhere near Marseille could make it all the way to my house in San Diego, proof that globalization does have advantages. Of course, pathogens spread that way as well, from dieback in Western Australia to the novel coronavirus that claimed its first death in San Diego county yesterday as well.

I chatted briefly with an old friend earlier in the week, who was greatly relieved that he was able to get his daughter safely back home from a now-abandoned year abroad in Marseille, but again, I digress. What to make of this wine? It’s supposedly primarily Marsanne, but to me it just tastes soft, like inexpensive peach perfume, the kind of thing I imagine a Harajuku girl would wear (and believe me, I have no idea). Absolutely fine, fairly innocuous, and overall my primary impression was that this was a ‘you had to be there’ kind of wine – lovely in situ, but why go to the trouble of shipping it halfway around the world? I cooked up a frozen paella Valenciana, and noted that the packaging invited me to close my eyes of being in Valencia, which is something I did a lot earlier this year; while I was away for Christmas, my husband stayed at home and hung out with a couple of friends from Washington state who are seriously considering moving there. Sounds fine to me, taxes notwithstanding, so I booked us Thanksgiving week in Valencia, which I’m beginning to suspect might not actually happen.

I sat on our living room couch, with a bowl of reheated French paella Valenciana, a glass of Cassis blanc, a view outside to the sun setting on the senior citizens’ apartments down the way, and thought about what to do.

For now, there isn’t much to do except to wait. At my desk, there’s a Japanese himekuri calendar. It’s March 24; that means there are 282 days left until the end of the year; the calendar is still visibly bulky, an ominous symbol for the days ahead. I was planning on hiking the Via Alpina in September, but will I be able to stay fit enough to do so if I can’t go for a walk in Balboa Park, much less a longer hike nearby? Will Edelweiss even fly to Zürich at all this year from San Diego? Will the trail be open? What will things look like five months from now?

In the meantime, this is why I’m back writing at Full Pour: not because the world needs wine writing of any kind (really, it probably doesn’t), but because I’d like to remind myself of all of the good reasons to enjoy wine. For a short period of time, I found myself totally engrossed in a part of the world I’d never considered, looking up the winery on Google Earth, reading about the terroir, and frankly enjoying the mild buzz as a welcome distraction from onerous Big Questions like am I going to get this thing? and are my parents/friends/neighbors going to be OK? Is there a point to any of this? Not really, but there is still a definite magic to the physical experience of enjoying a glass of wine – and it’s (for me, at least) a way of feeling more alive, more connected to the world than usual. Cheers.

Peregrine Pinot Noir 2009, or: why I stopped writing about wine.

I wrote the tasting note below in November of 2014, shortly before I abandoned wine writing. I had forgotten about it until Chris, with his lockdown-inspired post, prompted me to log into WordPress for the first time in years.

Reading it again, I recognise my mood. A close friend had recently died, I had returned from an unexpectedly engaging trip to India, and in any case the enterprise of wine writing had seemed, for some time, irredeemably inane (I admit my complicity in this).

I never posted it, because I was ashamed of how I felt and the bitterness with which I had expressed those feelings. Now, though, it just seems honest, and perhaps appropriate in a moment of collective existentialism that skirts far closer to Camus than I ever thought possible.

In my current, almost wine-free existence in India, I miss the role wine used to play in connecting me to other people, to my own senses and aesthetics. I miss the momentary, fleeting ecstasy a familiar, or bracingly new, aroma used to prompt. Most of all, I miss the promise that wine might be, somehow, greater than itself, a stand-in for something more significant that we might collectively experience and explore. Now that life is so curtailed, I miss what made it feel expansive and beautiful.

[written on the 10th of November, 2014]

Having recently had ample cause to contemplate the fragile net that separates me — a slightly overweight gourmand who, tonight, is drinking a bottle of New Zealand Pinot (which you can read about if you’d like; no need to repeat myself) — from oblivion, it seems apropos to consider the comforts of the drink. What good’s the damned thing if it can’t save my friends from the abyss, or me from wondering how best to waste my life, or my loved ones from bad, bad decisions?

Lest that all seem a little morbid for a wine blog, let me note this: we spend our salaries on great bottles of wine, devote countless hours to seeking out special bottles (and the friends who love them), much energy debating the merits of screwcap versus cork. To what end? Wine lovers are a notoriously generous bunch, it’s true, yet we’re hardly working towards world peace with each sip.

Such thoughts have quietly intruded on my attempts to write about this or that bottle. My enjoyment of good wine remains unmitigated in its frequency and intensity, but it hardly seems worth the effort to contribute yet another piece to a world groaning under the weight of shitty wine writing and the intellectual vacuum that enables it.

I’d like to rush in and reassure you (and myself) that it’s all worth it, that wine is the noblest of all pursuits, but I can claim no such insights. Still. There’s something in it all. I’m writing tonight, prompted by the familiarity of this Pinot’s aromas and the comfort of its fruit. Something prompted a burst of enthusiasm, or at least a desire to express myself, that has been absent for some time. It smells and tastes very much of what it is, this wine, which suggests a fetish for natural wine that, I assure you, is entirely absent from this writer’s temperament. No, this is the smell of the madeleine, a banal familiarity capable of reviving images, moments, people, feelings. It’s not going to save the world, wine, but just for a moment it’s a little bit magic.

Price: $NZ60
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Bodegas Juan Gil Honora Vera Monastrell 2018

Late last week, I went over to my neighbor’s house to pick up some cookies she’d baked as a treat for my husband and me. She offered me a glass of Schloß Biebrich sparkling rosé (hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, it’s a lot of fun for not a lot of money and way better priced than most of the other options), we got to chatting, and I of course asked her if there was anything that I could do for her given The Current Situation: pick up groceries, run by the pharmacy, whatever – as she’s older than I am, she and her husband had been advised not to leave their house. She’s a lovely woman; when I married Dan, she gave us a matched set of honey bears with handwritten labels on them, and her cookies (oh man, her cookies!) are so dang delicious that you would probably buy the house next door if you could just in hopes of getting a batch of them, fresh baked, delivered to your door sometime. Plus, her husband is a genuinely cool cat; he talked us into going to Perú with him last summer to hike the Inca Trail, which was a freakin’ blast.

Yes, there was something I could do: pick up a prescription at Costco. To be honest, this filled me with dread. I do not love going to Costco, but I do it every few weeks because I do love organic milk, large quantities of apples, fresh baguettes, Parma ham, and a lot of other things that you, dear reader, will surely not be surprised to find in my (or any other) bourgeois middle class American household. I immediately said yes… and then hedged by saying that I would gladly do it next Tuesday. I had recently gone to a Costco – two weeks ago on Friday,March 6 – and it was obvious that shit was already getting weird. Like, really weird.I stopped in on my way home from work, choosing to go to a Costco business center (it’s kind of like a regular Costco, but definitely oriented to restaurant and convenience store owners) for the first time hoping that it would be somewhat less jammed, and it was, but the cashiers were nervously laughing about the onslaught that had just finally subsided by the time I got there on the way home from work, so around 5 p.m. Toilet paper (huh) and water (why? c’mon, our tap water is awesome in San Diego) were long gone, some aisles were shut down, and it definitely had an eerie, calm-before-the-storm vibe. I bought apples, milk, and peanut butter, and got the heck out of there.

I popped in the Costco near my office in the mid-afternoon on Thursday, March 12, hoping to stock up on a few shelf stable basics, and things had definitely tipped all the way over into full-on End Times madness… albeit a very suburban San Diego madness, which meant that there was a one-minute wait to get a cart and that the lines were very long, but everyone was calm, friendly, and mostly in a we’re-all-in-this-together state of mind, except for some younger people who were obviously freaked out by the whole scene, wondering what the heck was happening. “Son, obviously you’ve never been in a pandemic before,” I said, not sure if I was joking or not. A lot of the prepper-approved basic were long gone (beans, rice, spaghetti) but there random bits and bobs around that looked fine to me, so I snapped them up (one each, no hoarding): Italian canned tomatoes, organic Italian pasta in shapes I didn’t recognize (casarecce, the hell?), peanut butter (whoops, bought the wrong kind the last time), chili, reduced sodium Spam, mixed nuts. The lines moved quickly, I had a fine chat with a nurse from the Scripps medical center across the street, and I felt better that I now had enough stuff to keep us fed for a few weeks in a worst case scenario type deal.

But this was a day after that. Costco, she asked. Would it be OK? Of course, I said. I would be delighted to. And then I went back to my house and slowly realized that that would likely be the last time I’ll see her that close, in person, until The Current Situation has passed. This, dear reader sucks.

At least I had a few days to steel my nerves in preparation for going back to the dreaded Costco. I started working from home full time just a few days before, which gave me plenty of time between technical support calls (my day job!) to figure out some kind of a strategy. I convinced myself that surely waiting until a Tuesday afternoon would be the best because the initial panic would surely have passed; I imagine that the weekend hordes would have calmed down by then. Plus, after seeing a favorite wine shop post on Twitter that they were now offering a curbside pickup service, maybe I could also sneak in a visit there… and maybe back to the Japanese grocery store as well? Although there wasn’t anything I really needed at either of those two stores, I did want to buy the smaller rice storage container I failed to get the last time, plus some ready meals are always delicious (pork cutlet with egg and rice bowls FTW).I left the house at two o’clock. It took almost no time to get to the San Diego Wine & Beer Co; I decided that because it was still relatively early on that it was less likely than it would be in the days ahead that there would be any risk of exposure to 2019-nCoV, but that could also just have been justifying bad behavior on my part. Regardless, I was happy to see that the shop had left its doors wide open to let the fresh, clean San Diego air into the shop, and also happy to see that there were no other customers in the shop. Score. I pulled on a pair of disposable gloves and went in to get my shop on.

Reader, if you’re in San Diego, there really isn’t a better place to get your drank on. They expanded the shop last year to have a shit ton of beer as well, but it’s the wine selection that you’re probably here for. It isn’t the biggest store, but they are friendly, the prices are more than fair, and they have a well-chosen selection that ranges from cheap ‘n cheerful to seriously expensive (but not marked up beyond reason). You could go for a single bottle of Auguste Clape Cornas or a case of this Juan Gil mataro, it’s all roughly the same price, after all! I grabbed two cases of wine (and a couple bottles of Pliny the Elder because fuck it, why not), paid (Apple Pay, theoretically contactless but I still had to sign some paper, yecch), and scooted over to Mitsuwa, the Japanese supermarket, which was nearly unrecognizable compared to the week before. All of the sales had been discontinued, most of the rice had disappeared (they were down to either very expensive Japanese imported rice or extremely boring American rice), but they did have my beloved ready meals as well as spaghetti and rice for the neighbors. Plus, a few more pouches of shelf stable chicken curry, because delicious.

And then, dear reader, I steeled my nerve and drove to Costco. It looked… crowded… ish, but not bad. There was no wait for gasoline, so I filled the tank for the first time less than $30 since I’ve owned my VW. I then parked, dashed up to the exit, and asked if I could just go in and pick up her prescription. Answer: no. You have to go wait in the main line to enter the store, but “it’s not bad right now.” And then I saw how they’d reorganized everything and immediately felt better. A long, carefully tended entrance corral outside the store, with social distancing in place. A dedicated employee to wipe down the shopping carts; another employee to let customers in as space inside the store dictated. Cool. And inside the store, everything, more or less, that you could want. (No Parma ham, but whatever. I’ll live.) I did an impromptu shop (Kirkland bourbon? Kirkland cognac? Sure, why not), grabbed four bottles of wine for the neighbors, threw in a bottle of that cheap Kirkland sangria I’d always been curious about, and found plenty of prepared food that would fit in my fridge and keep us fed in style for six more weeks. A quick trip through the register, paid contactless, no touching anything at all, and then… whoops, no one around to help pick up the prescription. But no, wait! A few calls were made, and they found the pharmacist somewhere in the back of the store, probably refilling bottled water shelves. Whew. He gave me her prescription, entirely based on trust (no ID, no signing), and I was out of there and back up the hill to our house(s).

My neighbor now has her prescription as well as Asian spaghetti, rice, chicken apple sausage, four bottle of Kirkland wine, and some random other stuff. It’s good. And I believe there will be cookies again in the future. This makes me happy.

This wine, incidentally, also makes me happy. I have no idea how anyone can sell a bottle of organic Spanish mataro for $6.99, but there you go. It’s not overly alcoholic, it doesn’t necessarily have the full-on meat feast you’d expect from top shelf mataro, but it does have a lovely, leafy, minty cigar box kind of feel to it, and it goes down a treat with a bowl of katsu don in the middle of a global pandemic. If you possibly can, decant it an hour beforehand – it realllllly started getting good right as we were finishing the bottle while watching The Seventh Seal – and buy more than one bottle because this one’s a keeper. Plus, if you’re really not keen to touch anything or come in close contact to people at this point, you can call the San Diego Wine & Beer Co. or order online and they will just put it in the trunk of your car. Now that’s a win.

2017 Pivnica Brhlovce “Happiness” Pesecká Leánka Slovakia

The husband just now: “OK. That tastes apple juice-y… like cider.”

To be honest, I’d like this better if it were cider. Say, something from Asturias. However, at this juncture, I’m just happy to have a glass of anything other than Sapporo beer (the cheap stuff brewed in Canada, not the awesome stuff brewed in Hokkaido; at the moment, I have an awful lot of that due to an impulse to stock up on rice and shelf stable beef curry at the Japanese supermarket on the way home from work two weeks ago).

Earlier this week – has it really only been a week? – K&L send an email saying that they were closing all of their stores, but were still able to ship and deliver. I haven’t posted to this site in eight years or so, and I haven’t ordered any wine in about the same amount of time – excepting of course the massive purchases I made in South Africa last August in preparation for my 50th birthday celebration with Julian and friends in the Kruger and Cape Town. Five years ago, I think it was, I sold off the last of my collection at auction, save for a few bottles; the proceeds weren’t much, but I was glad to save the cash on hand for a rainy day instead of continuing down a predictably bleary fortysomething path towards increasing alcohol use and bloat. Hey, if I was heading towards 50, I would rather arrive as a mostly fit, REI hiker Dad type instead of a portly bloviating wine blogger. You know.

Given the general mood here in San Diego, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about my wine order: I searched for French wine, white, and ordered by cost: I wanted the least expensive stuff, but a case. Then, why not another case? Yes to the bottle of Nicolas Joly Savennieres I’d always lusted after but never bought. Yes to a wide array of Georgian wines, one of my true loves. And then what to do with the last few empty spaces? Well, search for white wine, other, in stock in Hollywood, not too expensive… and this is how you wind up with a bottle of Slovak white wine from the middle of nowhere that smells like “rainwater” (again, the husband, who’s always had a better nose for these things than I).

Let’s flash back for a few minutes to the winter of 1989. I was living in Tübingen, Germany at the time. I’d just turned 20, had lost my virginity to a gardener at the university, and was finally feeling like hey, maybe I was in fact an adult. As Christmas approached, shit got weird: there was a massive earthquake back home in Northern California, family dynamics changed as a result, and then a Hungarian picnic went haywire and East Germans started flowing over the border to the West. By the time my family landed in Frankfurt, it was pretty clear that decades of paralysis were about to suddenly end in some kind of revolution; on New Year’s Eve, 1989, I found myself in the back seat of a rented Mercedes, my father at the wheel, and talking my way into driving into the ČSSR, the Czechoslovak People’s Republic. My Mom had sent a letter to a hotel in Prague hoping for a reservation, but things were typically socialist and hadn’t quite worked. The Hotel Beke in Budapest had confirmed, and we’d enjoyed a couple of days there, eating McDonald’s on Marx tér and discovering the pleasures of Hungarian Turkish baths – oh, and lest I forget, there was a wonderful night out at a Cuban socialist restaurant with shitty Cuba Libres followed by a lip-synced production of CATS that made zero sense, followed by a round of indescribable schnitzel at the Karl Liebknecht Sausage Stand, or some such shit – and then we were up bright and early on the 31st and on our way to the border post just outside of Bratislava.

Now, I do speak German, and I speak it reasonably well – usually well enough to pass for German and not sound like an obvious American. I have also always had a thing for socialist-speak, largely because it was just so God damn weird when compared to the Reagan-era California that I grew up with. This is just to say that I was able to speak us through the border post with a minimum of fuss; shortly afterwards, my Dad stopped at the tourist office in Bratislava, who let me use their phone to call the hotel in Prague to see what the heck was up with our reservation.

Dear reader, you will surely not be surprised to hear that the hotel in Prague did not give a millishit as to what the hell had happened to our bourgeois Western reservation. They were kinda busy with the Velvet Revolution and settling old scores with the Soviets. Ah well. So back on the highway it was in hopes that showing up in person would present a Situation That Must Be Dealt With… and also a place to sleep for the night.

On the way from Bratislava to Brno, we must have passed through Pivnica Brhlovce, which is a small winery in what’s now Slovakia.

In 1989, and at least through the early part of 1990, it would have been impossible to imagine a wine like this being produced, or even any kind of idiosyncratic small business like this existing. This is made from Fetească Regală, which is a Romanian grape that isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s biodynamic. All of it exudes a very 2020-esque fuck you, this is strictly for the cool kids kind of vibe, which I am very there for. It’s got a weird, pale, coppery look and smells to me like Cabbage Patch Kids on acid; that is, it’s definitely more reminiscent of apples than grapes and is frankly hard to pin down as wine. Even so: how is it as a beverage? Is it… happy?

You know, it kind of is. There’s something exuberant about its feisty fuck you-ness; this dares you to drink it and ignore anything you might feel about rural Slovakia or the outskirts of Bratislava. Sure, you drove past when you were 20 and all that registered were the endless rows of prefab concrete apartment buildings. Sure, you were still in disbelief that that Hungarian masseur was so friendly and seeing Ceaușescu executed on live TV. You thought it was awesome that you had a Big Mac in front of a Lenin status; you thought it was amazing that you scored a copy of Paul’s Boutique on cassette for just a dollar or so… but what did you drink that was good? Sure, there was beer, but it was just OK. Those Cuba Libres got you drunk, but hell, they sucked; Pepsi with Havana Club isn’t all that. But what would that Christmas have been like with a glass of happiness?

There was nothing for us in Prague. The hotel had never received Mom’s letter, and all of the hotels we stopped at turned us away; they were too busy getting ready to finally kick the Soviets out of the country. On the way back towards West Germany, we stopped in Pilsen briefly to get gas, which devolved into a very weird situation as a large mob of Roma showed up to demand Westmarks. We didn’t have much, just enough to buy a quarter tank of gas, which we weren’t sure would even get us to the border. There was an awkward, desperate piss stop in a field somewhere in Bohemia; we had to slow down, conserving gasoline, and drove slowly through the ominous dark towards the West.

Dear reader: somehow – a Christmas miracle? – I convinced the border guards to give us all of our Western currency back. We drove across that border two hours before midnight; I found a small restaurant with an apartment for rent in the back that fit all four of us. They had already closed up for the night, but they made us pizzas. We ate, we drank good Bavarian beer, we slept well. It was a good night.

Back to the wine, though: should you buy this? I have no idea. Is it good? Does it matter? The simple fact that things like this exist give me hope. I never would have expected that something this human would exist in 2020 knowing what it was like there in 1990.

This wine tastes like hope.

Jeremy Pringle

Jeremy Pringle — musician, wine writer, punk, aesthete, friend — died peacefully in his sleep this past weekend.

A memorial service will be held at 2pm, Friday 15th August at Taringa Baptist Church, 36 Morrow Street, Taringa.

“And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” — Aeschylus.

The craziest wine region in the world?

mosel-kerpen-1I sentence anyone with romantic notions of wine production to a harvest in the Mosel.

There’s no doubt the last three weeks, spent occasionally in the cellar here at Weingut Kerpen but mostly on the slopes of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich and, most distressingly, Graacher Domprobst vineyards, have been the most physically demanding of the year. Two days after the completion of the harvest, each morning is a process of unfreezing various joints and muscles that, I am tempted to think, have been permanently damaged. I’m grateful, however, the various cuts on my hands and arms inflicted by rogue secateurs and blackberry bushes have, for the most part, stopped bleeding.

You’ve probably seen the photos: vines rise scenically above cute German villages that look to have strayed in from a fairy tale. I’ve not seen any witches on my visit so far, but there’s certainly a moral to the Mosel story: this is no sane place to grow wine. One has to walk the vineyards to adequately appreciate how steep they can be, and how difficult it is to simply make one’s way from top to bottom without the added complication of trying to pick fruit.

And yet, vines have graced the south-facing slopes here for two thousand years, as ancient a tradition as any New World winemaker might wish for, proving at the very least that crazy vignerons aren’t a new invention. This is an extravagantly old-fashioned wine region, from its viticultural methods (still predominantly close planted vines, one plant per post, cane pruned in the shape of a heart) to the magnificent wineries that grace the banks of the Mosel in Wehlen, Bernkastel and Graach. The wines are old-fashioned too, gloriously so in my opinion, with few concessions to fashion or varietal diversity. Sure, there’s some Spätburgunder planted here and there, along with a smattering of Müller-Thurgau, but the point of the Mosel is Riesling in its spectacular diversity of expressions.

Wine here is an interesting counterpoint to that from Burgundy. The Burgundian model of wine has had a far-reaching influence in terms of shaping how many other regions, especially in the New World, conceive the winemaking enterprise. The primacy of terroir, the exaltation of single vineyards, the ostensible erasement of the winemaker; one site, one expression, minimal “intervention.” German Riesling is different. For a start, vineyards like Wehlener Sonnenuhr are vast and contain many sites of differing grades. Although generally regarded as having some defining characters, these mega-vineyards are simply a starting point for a winemaker-driven range of expressions: dry, half-dry or sweet, ripeness levels like Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and so on. These aren’t pseudo-natural, “just leave it and bottle the results” wines, they are a complex matrix of styles enabled by the vineyard and mediated by the winemaker, often requiring simple but highly interventionist winemaking (most notably, stopping fermentations part-way through).

How refreshing: a wine culture that acknowledges both the importance of the vineyard and of winemaking.

It’s this integrated view of winegrowing that prompted Martin Kerpen to send me out to the vineyards to pick. In a series of fascinating conversations, we have discussed the relationship between vineyard and cellar, and how some wine cultures separate the two more than others. His view is unequivocal: winemaking is inseparable from viticulture. Although my formal training presented me with two quite separate disciplines, and my experiences this year have been firmly cellar-based, the wisdom of Martin’s view has slowly dawned on me as I’ve moved between vineyard and cellar, first picking then processing fruit. I find, now, when I taste each batch in the cellar, I know how the fruit looked in situ, what the vineyard was doing as we harvested, the trellising used, the crop load, variability within the site, and so on. It’s a view I’ve not had of any parcel of fruit until now, and it’s fascinating.

Of course, I’ve tasted widely and often since arriving here. I was already a big fan of German Riesling, hence my desire to work in the Mosel, and my appreciation for the wines has grown substantially over the past few weeks. They are, at their best, sublime, spectacular wines. What has shocked me most, I think, is how well, and how slowly, the wines age. They develop a set of flavours quite different from South Australian Riesling, shunning overt toast and honey in favour of a slow transformation that shaves the wines of their highly floral aromas and further emphasises fruit richness and minerality. Minerality is a key term when approaching these wines, and as a descriptor is often used by local vignerons to indicate a separate element from either fruit or structure; a third component of wine, if you like. I don’t think there’s anything magical about the mineral flavours in these wines, but they are most certainly there and are a key balancing element.

If there is anything magical about Mosel Rieslings, it’s in their balance. For example, wines with over one hundred grams of residual sugar taste only off-dry and finish cleanly, yet with the most powerful, luscious fruit on the mid-palate. This is a trick I’m repeatedly astonished by, and I’m keen to learn the magic from Martin. I’ve been conscientiously tasting ferments as they take their course, and we will soon begin arresting ferments. Martin does this mostly by taste, and I’ll be tasting alongside him, training my palate to recognise the right moment.

It’s truly nuts here: the vineyards are insanely steep (and even more insanely beautiful), the complicated system of quality classifications surely invented by a committee of lunatics. Most of all, though, the wines are wildly, crazily, fittingly beautiful.

Sandstone Cellars IX 2009

75% Tempranillo and 25% Touriga Nacional.

This wine is particularly interesting to me because it’s a blend of the two red varieties that seem to be emerging in this part of Texas as the most promising viticulturally and when vinified. In fact, more than one winemaker here has called Tempranillo the red grape of Texas. All this on the basis of a very few years’ experience; I guess the results have been pretty striking.

This isn’t without challenges; for starters, neither grape is typically as cuddly as Syrah, nor as immediately understandable as Cabernet Sauvignon. Both can be savoury, angular and meaty, with fairly demonstrative structures. Things become interesting, though, when you place these characters up against Texas terroir, which tends to produce lighter, more elegant wines.

I reckon the Sandstone Cellars IX is a pretty good demonstration of what happens. This is indeed a medium bodied wine, its colour wanting a bit for density. So far so typical. Then you smell it and are struck by how demanding this wine is. There are few concessions to inexperience here; this is a stridently angular, adult wine, full of umami-type aromas like soy and roast meat, along with sweet tobacco and snapped twig. There are occasionally hints of bright red fruit that tease one by shining clearly then quickly disappearing into the wine’s mesh of savouriness.

In the mouth, a repeat of the aroma profile’s predominantly savoury notes, with lovely fruit (dark this time) and sweet, sweet tannins. Indeed, this is a very structured wine, and despite its vintage shows no obvious evidence of bottle age. The aroma’s tensions resolve nicely in the mouth, and I particularly like the way flavours bounce from slightly sweet to firmly savoury and back again.

There are certainly more approachable wines in the Sandstone library, as there are in tasting rooms throughout this region, but for distinctiveness of character this is second only to the Sandstone Cellars III.

Note: I am currently an intern with Don Pullum, the maker of this wine.

Sandstone Cellars
Price: $US35
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2012

One of the more puzzling experiences of my recent tasting foray into Russian River Valley (and more specifically Green Valley) wine has been the stylistic diversity and, at times, highly variable quality of Sauvignon Blanc produced in the region. It runs the gamut from Kiwi-inspired styles to insipid dry whites to this Merry Edwards wine, stylistically by far the most resolved of any I have tried from the region.

I was quite looking forward to visiting to Merry Edwards Winery, it having received some solid recommendations, but nothing could have prepared me for the brutally efficient cellar door experience, which is as close to a drive by tasting as I have seen. The wines, though, were without exception intriguing, and by far the best of my day’s tasting in Green Valley. A Pinot specialist, the portfolio contains several single vineyard Pinots and this one Sauvignon Blanc. After extended tasting, some of the 2010 Pinots made less of an impression than they did at first, fading rather more quickly than I thought they might, but this wine impressed from beginning to end. It’s a multi-clonal blend, including 20% Sauvignon Musqué, that is barrel fermented and aged with lees stirring to build weight and texture. What pleases me about it, though, is that it retains outstanding freshness and character; that is, it always plays to the variety’s strengths.

The nose is quite pungent, with aromas of tropical fruit and sharper gooseberry. It’s fresh but rounded, lacking the sharp bite of a Marlborough style. In place of this incisiveness is a smoother sense of generosity and greater complexity in the form of some mineral edges and fresh herbs.

In the mouth, this is happily acid driven but with a fullness on the middle palate that softens some of its linearity. Tropical, herbal, mineral flavours echo the nose, with some good weight and texture through the after palate. This has good line and surprising length for the variety. It’s not particularly funky in flavour or texture, but it has oodles more interest than a more straightforwardly made wine, and I feel this is a particularly good style for Sauvignon Blanc if one is to turn one’s back on the highly aromatic, stainless steel approach.

Good fruit, obviously, and particularly well handled.

Merry Edwards Winery
Price: $US32
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Lindemans Bin 9003 Hunter Valley Shiraz 1995

I tasted this alongside the Tyrrell’s 4 Acres from 2006 and, although the younger wine provided more satisfaction, it was nice to see two distinctively regional expressions of Shiraz at different points in their lives.

On the nose, intensely tertiary notes of leather, sweat, spice and the sort of fruit that has become liqueur-like moments before it vanishes altogether. The aroma profile reminds me of how confronting older wines can be; while completely sound, this smells so odd, so unlike one’s idea of wine, that it may well send some drinkers fleeing to the nearest bottle of Pepperjack Shiraz. I love, though, the distinctively leathery notes this wine throws from the glass.

The palate is harder work because it has lost just slightly too much fruit through the after palate to mask its (still quite prominent) acid. There’s still pleasure here, though. I especially like its flow through the mouth. Up front, surprisingly fleshy, with leathery, spiced flavours and that residual dark berry fruit. The mid palate shows some purity before it begins to fall apart through the after palate. Flavours aren’t perfectly integrated, and there’s some oak that, for me, sticks out a bit. But this is an old wine, on its last legs really, and one oughtn’t be too impatient with its imperfections.

A gentle pleasure.

Lindemans Wines
Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

McLaren Vale vintage wrap

There’s a point during vintage at which things seem to click. Everyone knows what to do, any quirks in the equipment have been sorted and things just happen, even though the team is tired and a tad over it. It’s a nice moment to reach, and I felt able to move from a focus on learning basic operations to actually looking at each wine, its progression and how it might compare to other ferments in the winery.

Overall, the vintage was characterised by a stop-start rhythm, fruit arriving in waves based on a weather pattern that alternated between scorchingly hot and messily rainy. I saw no parcels of fruit that came in before full flavour ripeness, so although the weather was a bit tricky, everything seemed to fall into place in terms of being able to pick at the right time. Shiraz came in first and was generally full and generous, parcels varying quite a lot in fruit character but everything seeming of good quality. Then Cabernet arrived (more of which later) along with Grenache and Mataro. Some more unusual varieties also passed through the Geddes winery, notably a parcel of Nero D’Avola destined for the Brash Higgins NDV label and some Petit Verdot right at the end of vintage.

One thing I’ll be doing more of in future is branching out from McLaren Vale Shiraz into the wonderful Cabernets, Grenaches and Mataros it can produce. I do love the region’s Shiraz for its generosity and plummy flavour profile, but I saw so many parcels of great fruit of these other varieties that I feel they are due greater attention. Cabernet Sauvignon in particular was a surprise. I’ve enjoyed some McLaren Vale Cabernets in the past but have always tended to reach for Coonawarra or Margaret River when looking for great Aussie Cabernet. Although the Vale’s expression of this variety is quite different, I saw some really exciting, varietal fruit come in and it has reopened my eyes to the potential of this variety in the region. Fruit from Blewitt Springs, with its sandy soils and cooler climate, was especially fragrant and intense.

A lot of winemakers in the Vale are excited by Grenache and Mataro, although there’s more stylistic divergence between makers when it comes to Grenache in particular than for the other red varieties. It ranges from a fragrant, Pinot-like wine to more Shiraz-inspired expressions. The best ferments I saw seemed to fall between these extremes, preserving the fragrance and bright fruit of the variety while ensuring sufficient density, intensity and structure. Mataro continues to baffle me a little. It’s talked up a lot amongst wine writers and makers and, to be fair, I’ve had some really nice Aussie Mataros, but its dark, challenging flavour profile will have a hard time stealing the easy drinking crown from Shiraz. No matter; it’s a variety worthy of attention and I hope makers in the Vale continue to experiment with it, in blends and on its own.

Outside of the fruit, I developed enormous respect for the team I was working with and feel very lucky to have done vintage with them. Dowie Doole’s winemaker, Chris Thomas, managed a hectic vintage without really breaking a sweat. I love it when people move through stressful, constantly changing environments with seeming ease and Chris has that talent. He patiently showed me all the required cellar operations (sometimes more than once) and did so with clarity and patience. What a great teacher to have. Tim Geddes, in whose winery we worked in most days, is even more laid back and assembled a spectacularly fun and diverse vintage team comprising Julian Forwood, Tina Deng and Jack Christie. I’ve not laughed so hard in years. I’ve written about Amanda Geddes’s lunches before, and these provided pleasure and sustenance right to the end.

Time outside the winery was also fantastic, albeit necessarily limited. McLaren Vale is a real gourmet area and my host, Leigh Gilligan, ensured I was able to experience most of what the region has to offer in this regard, including via his own delicious cooking. It always mystifies me when wine regions have no food culture; when these things come together, as they should, pleasure is exponentially increased. A particular highlight was seeing Lulu Lunn, partner of Dowie Doole’s charming Drew Dowie, stretch mozzarella and hand me a portion, all warm and fresh and juicy. What a pleasure.

I’ll be popping back in early May to have a look at the wines we made, most of which will be in barrel. I’m fascinated to see what’s changed, how malolactic fermentation has affected each wine, which parcels have remained my favourites and which will surprise me.

So good was the experience that I feel strongly I’d like to do it again. Could this be the beginning of the end?