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The Power of First Impressions

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s book on the ‘power of thinking without thinking’, he discusses the notion of thin slicing or the ability to make an effective judgment on a situation, person or experience within minutes or even seconds. In other words first impressions are often correct.

This is a concept with which I wholeheartedly agree, but of course, being human, our first impressions are sometimes wrong. At the most recent meeting of Sniff’s tasting group we were tasting four wines semi-blind. We knew that there were two Grenache based wines, a Zinfandel from California and a Primitivo from Puglia but did not know the order in which they were poured, the respective price points, or the specific region of production. Any self-respecting oenophile will tell you that they would not confuse Zinfandel with Chateauneuf du Pape (CNdP) but that is exactly what I did. I arrived at this snap decision based on the smell alone, the predominant aroma was that of bruised apples and tobacco. So why leap to Zinfandel? Well because a ‘classic’ descriptor for Zinfandel (or at least, one that I had in my head), was exactly that, apple and tobacco…At this point my unfortunately simple, lizard like brain refused to consider any other information accrued after actually tasting the wine. In some respects there are legitimate similarities or ‘confusables’ between Zinfandel and Grenache (the dominant variety in CNdP). They are often high in alcohol, moderate in acidity, have red as well as black fruit characteristics yet the tannic structure is very different. Zinfandel has the pithiness of cranberries whereas Grenache has the chalkiness of well…chalk.

What I was actually smelling (the apple thing) was a bit of oxidation and Grenache is a well known for its susceptibility to this aroma altering process. Is this an excuse? I wish it was, the other members of our group who are not on the MW programme treat me as their first among equals, I am not meant to make these kinds of mistakes and of course they didn’t. What it does demonstrate is the power that a small piece of information can wield and that allowing a period of deliberation based on all the facts – two minutes should suffice – before drawing a more rational, evidence based conclusion should see future Grenache based gaffes, minimised.

Below are two of the wines tasted that provide a delicious but inexpensive comparison between the variety Tribidrag (aka Zinfandel and Primitivo).

Papale, Primitivo di Manduria, Puglia, Italy, 2010, 14%
Grape: Primitivo
Wine-making: 8 months in French oak
Note: Ripe and smoky with good depth and concentration for the price. Not hugely complex but this is an enjoyable and well-balanced wine that is as happy on its own as it is with a plate of Orecchiette.
Price: 1,200NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: 

Ravenswood, Old Vine Vintners Blend Zinfandel, California, 2012, 13.5%
Grape: 75% Zinfandel, 16% Petite Sirah, 6% Syrah
Wine-making: 10 months in French oak, a third of which is new.
Note: Very pretty red fruit style with a little bit of that apple and tobacco thing mentioned above. Soft and eminently drinkable without the raging alcohol sometimes experienced. A pleasing introduction to what is possible with Zinfandel.
Price: 930NT
Score: 15.5/20
Available from:

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Monuments 2

Chinese New Year celebrations can prove costly so spending your money wisely is essential. Choosing wine with which to celebrate, needs to fulfil a number of challenging criteria. It should be expensive but not so decadent as to leave you financially imperilled, you want to enjoy this wine not feel bullied by it. It needs to be globally recognised so that everyone appreciates that not only are you generous but also knowledgeable. Finally it should be something that demonstrates a little thought…so consider wines other than Bordeaux and Burgundy; my suggestion being California.

Ridge is famous, quite rightly for creating some of the most particular, long-lived and elegant wines of not only this State but anywhere. Although its reputation may have been founded on French varieties grown in the Santa-Cruz mountains, we are in America so why not buy something which is considered the American variety (whatever its European heritage): Zinfandel. Because of this variety’s association with medium sweet rosés and pleasurable but somewhat burly reds from further inland in California, it is understandable that some people regard Zinfandel as mediocre rather than monumental. But this is why Ridge (and at this point you could choose any number of their offerings made using this grape) and Lytton Springs in particular should figure highly on any serious wine-drinker’s wish list, because it demonstrates the apogee of what is possible. The inclusion of a good glug of Petite Sirah, a perfumed and opinionated variety, lends some grip to Zinfandel’s grease, leaving a wine worthy of celebrating the birth of a prosperous New Year.

Ridge, Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley, California (any vintage but the last I had was the 2009 which was drinking beautifully in 2014)
Grape: Normally a minimum of 70% Zinfandel with the remainder being primarily Petite Sirah
Wine-making: American oak barrels, 25% of which are new.
Note: Sweet and ripe with red and black fruit, spiced tea and pithy almost cranberry like tannins. Even with 14.5% alcohol this has a freshness and poise to match the restrained power. Delicious.
Cost: Approx 40USD
Score: 18/20 for the 2009
Available: Globally

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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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