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Hemel-en-Aarde: Newton Johnson

When I met Bevan Newton Johnson, the man in charge of marketing for the eponymously named estate, he was smiling even though his right hand bore the marks of a previous evening’s mugging. Bevan was mildly annoyed at himself, rather than his assailant, suggesting that he had not helped himself by walking alone, carrying his lap top through Cape Town at midnight. His first experience of such an occurrence appeared not to have dented his easy charm and as he talked me through his wines it became clear that they reflected, at least in part, some of Bevan’s engaging personality.

The wines that particularly moved me were the reds and specifically those in their ‘Family Vineyards’ range. Like many in Hemel-en-Aarde, Bevan’s family specialise in the Burgundian varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, whilst also having some deliciously expressive Shiraz. Pinot Noir for a variety so lauded spends the majority of its existence producing wines that flatter to deceive. Too often they are fruity but gutless with hot tasting high alcohol and a price-tag that reflects the intention of the winemaker rather than the quality of the juice inside the bottle. In Hemel-en-Aarde this is generally less true than in most New World regions I could mention, and at Newton Johnson they have managed to make Pinot of real perfumed purity with just enough mid-palate grunt to suggest that these wines will only get better as the vines mature and their experience of this area deepens. The price is less than most village level Burgundies but the pleasure quotient the opposite.

‘Granum’ is a blend of three quarters Shiraz with the remainder Mourvedre. This has Newton Johnson’s hallmark purity with ripe cherry fruit supported by a clove-like spiciness that makes me want to dig out a thick jumper and warm my toes in front of a fire, even here in the midst of an abnormally warm autumnal Taiwan. Don’t be fooled by the grape being called Shiraz, normally this has come to mean a more intense style of wine, more akin to those made famous in South Australia, but this is more ‘Syrah’ like, hardly angular but certainly elegant.

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The Midi: France's Soulful South

The South of France is really where it all started for me. Back in 2001/2 believing that the Languedoc/Roussillon offered some of the best value wines available, I decided to swap Halifax for Pezenas and a career in social work for the tanks and hoses of the winery. Luckily my wife agreed and I spent 2003 under the winemaking wing of the very generous Michel Le Goaec of Domaine Montrose. When I wasn’t assisting in the making of wine I was off with my little family tasting as much as possible and speaking to many of this region’s greatest producers both young, old and emerging. These tastings formed the foundations of the wine company that I would form on my return to the UK.

Although more than a decade has passed since I left France, my admiration and warmth that I feel for the people of the Midi and their produce remains undimmed. Yesterday I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some of the wines from this region at the Sud de France tasting event in Taipei. The outstanding obstacle faced by those in any ‘non-classic’ wine region trying to promote their wares is how to shake off long held and pejorative perceptions about the quality of the wines made. It is impossible in the space of a few years to expect the complete reversal of this view but it is clear that the Languedoc is no longer seen simply as a purveyor of plonk. Where once there was but two or three well known producers of high quality, age-worthy wines (e.g. Daumas Gassac, St Jean de Bebian, Grange des Peres), there are now many, and this has led to a slow but gradual elevation of the Languedoc’s status. This elevation is a result of a domestic and global market that is less accepting of ‘bad’ wine than ever before. But most importantly, within the Languedoc, there is also a greater appreciation for what is possible, particularly from some of the old vine-stock that litters much of the region’s sparse but ruggedly beautiful hinterland.

The best of yesterday’s tasting demonstrated that whilst the Languedoc remains a safe bet for fruit driven, juicy wines that provide instant if simple satisfaction, spending a little more results in delicious and particular wines that deserve recognition as ‘classics’ in their own right.

None of the wines below are currently available in Taiwan.

Cave de Roquebrun, La Grange des Combes, Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun, 2013
Grape: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre
Winemaking: Stainless steel
Note: Soft and fruity but not simple. This has enough grip to engage your tongue and some smokiness to the dark fruit, a result (allegedly) of vines growing on the fractured schistous soils that predominate here. Screams out for a fat sausage or a plate of boudin (black pudding).
Price: Ex cellars  5.07 euro
Score: 15.5/20 

Château Tourril, Cuvée Philippe, Minervois, 2011
Grape: Carignan, Syrah, Grenache
Winemaking: Stainless steel/cement
Note: This is all about the fruit and exhibits great purity and freshness making it a very refreshing and satisfying glass. This Chateau, now in the hands of the capable Stephane Kandler, is one to watch for affordable pleasure.
Price: Ex-cellars  3.42 euro
Score: 15.5/20 

Domaine La Tour Penedesses, La Montagne Noire, Faugères, 2014
Grape: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre
Winemaking: A small portion of new oak but mainly old.
Note: Rich and powerful almost heady with the smell of the outdoors. Only just bottled this was not edgy in anyway promising delicious drinking over the coming two to three years.
Price: Ex-cellars  4.80 euro
Score: 16/20

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Something for the Weekend 14. 15% Plus: A Barrier to Balance?

A good wine should keep two people entertained and engaged to the bottom of the bottle. More than an inch or two remaining suggests either an abstemious streak on the part of the drinkers or that something is not quite right with the wine.

The sommelier group of which I’m a part meets once a month to discuss and taste on various matters of a vinous nature. Choosing the topic is my responsibility and this month it concerned wines with an alcohol content in excess of 15%. This choice of subject was a response to our warming climate. Increased sugar levels in grapes (a result of greater heat summation) will ultimately result in a preponderance of wines featured in this high alcohol bracket.

Wines with these elevated levels of alcohol can feel unbalanced. Without sufficient fruit concentration, high alcohol gives a sensation of heat, even sweetness that can render the wines hollow. There are of course, exceptions, the perception of the unbalancing effect of alcohol does not follow a linear path so it quite possible for a wine at 13.5% to feel ‘wrong’ whilst a similar example at 15.5% feels ‘right’.

The seven wines selected were tasted blind (by all but the sommelier who chose the wines) and featured examples from France, Italy, Spain, Australia and the USA. The very pleasant, if unexpected conclusion, was that the reason we were tasting these wines was soon forgotten as the alcohol was as it should be; virtually invisible.

Below are the notes for four of the wines, any of which I would be happy to share and finish.

Domaine Giraud, Chateauneuf du Pape Tradition, 2010, 15%
Grape: 60% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre
Wine-making: The Syrah is aged in barriques and the wine is neither filtered or fined.
Note: Super ripe with an almost Port-like chocolate, damson and slightly raisined character. Perfumed, powerful and with good levels of concentration from this excellent vintage. Delicious.
Price: 2,100NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Oriental House

Seghesio, Home Ranch, Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, 2006, 15.7%
Zinfandel with a small portion of Carignane and Petite Sirah
Wine-making: No overt oak evident.
Note: I have not tasted many Zinfandels this old but this was still showing very well. There were some signs of maturity with an oxidative, leathery aroma accompanying the red and black fruit. Even at 15.7% the alcohol was well integrated. Very good.
Available from: A3 Cellar

Domaine Tempier, Cuvee La Tourtine, Bandol, 2001, 15%
70-80% Mourvedre, 10% Grenache, 10% Cinsault
Wine-making: 18-20 months maturation in old oak and bottled without fining or filtration.
Note: This was the only wine out of the seven that I thought tasted a little hot. The mushroom and soy-like aromas indicated that this was no longer young but there remained some balancing sweet and spicy red berry fruit. Good complexity but perhaps slightly cumbersome.
Price: 3,900NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Oriental House

Mitolo, G.A.M, Shiraz, Mclaren Vale, 2010, 15%
Wine-making: Matured in 70% new French and American Oak for 18 months.
Note: Opaque, tarry and with mouthcoating tannins and great concentration of black fruit, this was quintessential South Australian Shiraz. The power on display was balanced by some sweet and sour acidity and very good length; intense but not wearing.
Price: 2,100NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from:  Wooloomooloo

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The Tasting Group

Enthusiasm breeds clubs. People who love scuba-diving want to spend time in the company of others who like being submerged. Whether it is bike-riding, reading comics, listening to music or tasting wine, we all like the freedom that being a ‘member’ brings. We are allowed space to talk about our favourite subject without apology and we are able to benefit from fellow members’ passion and predilections.

And so it is with Sniff’s tasting group. We have a core of six with the occasional special guest. Meeting every two weeks, the tastings are often theme based but sometimes the greatest pleasure is derived from the decision to simply bring something we feel like sharing.

Our last tasting fell into this category and highlighted in the space of six wines the complexity of style that the vinous world has to offer. None of these wines were inexpensive but none were outlandishly priced and when the cost is shared the pleasure greatly outweighs the pain. We had representation from six different countries, one red, two whites, a rosé, one fortified and a passito wine from Italy. Fundamentally they were all delicious, whilst providing plenty of material for conversation and conjecture about how and why the winemaker had chosen to influence the wine in a particular way.

So join a club. Your knowledge and tasting ability will grow exponentially and you’ll be with people you like. What more can you ask?

Below are the six wines from our most recent tasting with brief notes and details on where to buy:

Amon-Ra, Barossa Valley, Unfiltered Shiraz, 2005, 14.5%
Wine-making: 100 year old vines, 100% new, of which 80% is French and 20% American. Both barriques, and hogsheads (225 and 300 litre capacity respectively) used.
Note: Smoky, tar-like, spicy and with a lick of licorice this is an extremely dense, concentrated, full-bodied wine that retains a certain finesse. Nearly ten years old but will continue to develop for another ten years. Sense assaulting.
Price: 3,950NTD (for the 2012)
Score: 17.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): Chateau Wine & Spirits

Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Ruby Port, NV, 20%
Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca
Wine-making: Fortified, and only a year or two in old wood to preserve the intense fruit style
Note: Excellent quality and value Reserve Ruby. Spicy, peppery dark fruit with some of the thrust and muscularity of Vintage Port without the price tag. Pair with something salty.
Price: 1,550NTD
Score: 16.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): Finesse

Château Simone, Rosé, Palette A.O.C., Provence, 2011, 14%
Primarily Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault
Wine-making: Old oak casks
Note: Pale ruby colour alerts one immediately to the fact this is no ordinary Provencal rosé. Not very aromatic with just a little red cherry on the nose but this gives way to an engaging full-bodied wine with a rich, cherry and herb fruit core. Not just for Summer and structured enough for food. I would like this with shrimp dumplings.
Price: 1690NTD
Score: 16.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): New Century Wine & Spirits

Vina Tondonia, Reserva Rioja Blanco, 1998, 12.5%
90% Viura, 10% Malvasia
Wine-making: 6 years in barrel affording the wine significant complexity.
Note: I love traditional white Riojas and this has plenty of deliciousness wrapped within its mildly oxidative body. Peach, green pineapple, flowers and a stave or two of oak make this an alluring glass. If you never usually drink white wine you might want to practice on easier, more overtly fruity examples before graduating onto this more ‘challenging’ style. Perfect with an oyster omelette.
Price: 1800NTD
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan): Vinaria Wine Cellar

Markus Molitor, Wehlener Klosterberg, Pinot Blanc, Mosel, 2012, 13%
Pinot Blanc
Wine-making: Aged in an Islay single malt cask
Note: Remarkable nose with a dominant seaweed, iodine tang that is briny and very Scottish in origin. Yet this is not just a vinous oddity. There is lovely palate weight, bright acid and fruit purity that is as expected from the region. If you like a tot of Ardbeg then buy a bottle of this.
Price: 1600NTD
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan): WineTeen

Montalpruno Vin Santo del Chianti D.O.C., 2006, 15.5%
Trebbiano & Malvasia
Wine-making: Made using semi-dried grapes
Note: Very fresh tasting Vin Santo that is dominated by the aroma of roasting pistachios. Sweet but with balancing acidity and persistent. Delicious with cheese, nuts or cake.
Price: 2,400NTD for 500ml
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan):

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