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Shiraz the Omnipotent? How about Garnacha the Great?

This week, whilst trawling the tweets of those I follow, I noted that Steve Pannell had considered naming his latest 2014 McLaren Vale Grenache, ‘Garnacha’, the moniker of this grape in its Spanish homeland. Somewhat cryptically Jancis Robinson had replied to this revelation by saying ‘Interesting..’ and whilst I cannot claim to know why Ms Robinson views it as such, I am nonetheless in full agreement; interesting indeed.

Having recently returned from a two-week stay in the Barossa, speaking with the great and good of the region’s wine trade, appreciation of Grenache’s red-fruited charms, along with recognition of its suitability for Barossa’s climate, was palpable. The issue for many of Australia’s vine growers is that received opinion suggests the wine drinking public and too many of its winemakers see Grenache, at best, as ‘poor man’s Pinot.’ This damns Grenache with faint praise and does nothing to challenge the status of Shiraz as omnipotent in the hearts of the average Aussie, a status that for the good of the industry requires a legitimate challenger.

So this brings us back to Jancis’ and her ‘interesting’ comment. My feeling is that calling Grenache, ‘Garnacha’ might be just what the Australians need to help them negotiate an interesting path away from an increasingly unhealthy reliance on Shiraz (particularly in Barossa) with the assistance of this ‘new’ variety. The move towards more perfumed, elegant wines throughout the Garnacha producing world is testament to this variety’s ability to be a stud rather than a workhorse, something I alluded to in an earlier article

Increasingly, over the last two to three years, I have been tasting Garnachas that thrill. Whether they are from Terroir al Limit in Priorat, David and Nadia Sadie in Swartland, or Schwarz Wine Co. in the Barossa, there is no doubt that Garnacha can be arresting; that Garnacha is no poor man’s Pinot; and that Garnacha can be great.

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The Barossa

I love the Barossa. The people are warm, generous, open and thoughtful, the gentle undulations provide a new view of the vineyards at the top of every rise; and I can get a decent Flat White here that Taipei, for all its charms, singularly fails to provide.

The problem with the Barossa is that I meet very few people that manage to say the name without the addition of ‘Shiraz’, almost as if it were a place in its own right. Such a powerful association is a brand manager’s fantasy and whilst it is impossible to argue against Barossa Shiraz, at its robust best, being one of the world’s true icons, this region has so much more to offer. Such powerful associations create a very long and dark shadow from which other wines of the Barossa struggle to escape. There are world-class examples made from Grenache, Cabernet, Mataro (aka Mourvedre) and increasingly Tempranillo and Montepulciano that deserve attention, and let’s not forget the whites, such as the Semillons and Rieslings (particularly in Eden), that can be equally brilliant but are too often depressingly anonymous.

Two days ago I was at ‘Artisans of Barossa’, a restaurant/tasting room where such famous names as Duval, Spinifex, Schwarz, and Sons of Eden share an appealingly airy and polite paean to wine. I was munching my way through a plate of deeply satisfying beef empanadas whilst tasting through all the wines stocked that were not made from Shiraz. The couple beside me were equally clear about what they wanted to try and that did not include the Grenache, Tempranillo, Mataro or Saperavi that I was enjoying. It is not that I am suggesting Shiraz is ill-suited to this region more that I just wish people would treat the Barossa like those other great regions that begin with ‘B’.

When people talk about Bordeaux and Burgundy they say exactly that. They don’t say ‘Ahhh, Bordeaux Cabernet dominated blend’ or ‘Bordeaux Merlot’. The name of the region is enough in itself to describe the expected style of wine, i.e a firm but fresh (and in the best examples), elegant wine that is, well…very Bordeaux-like, whatever the variety(s) used. Barossa should be positioning itself in the same way, selling the style rather than the variety, because the wines betray their Barossan origins as clearly as the wines of Bordeaux do theirs. These are warm, generous and open wines, yet the best require some cogitation, and therefore amply mirror the personality of the people who make them.



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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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Mclaren Vale, the importance of soil and an afternoon with Chester

Chester d’Arenberg preaches minimalistic interventions in both vineyard and winery…but not apparently when it comes to the number of wines produced, currently standing at a mind-boggling sixty four.

This is a result of his somewhat ‘old-world’ view of things. Soil appears to be the most important factor to Chester, something with which many a Frenchman and woman would heartily concur. This results in a melange of wines that makes Chester and d’Arenberg somewhat of an oddity yet his mildly eccentric nature seems untroubled by how others may view him. Having never tried all sixty-four wines it is impossible for me to attest to a definitive house style, however of the wines I have tasted it is restraint both in fruit concentration, oak and power that makes the reds moreish rather than wearing. Mclaren Vale is traditionally a home of full-throttle, ripe, chocolatey Shiraz that has a sweetness enhanced by maturation in American oak with its overt vanilla and coconut character. Chester’s wines are more meaty, more savoury and made with less emphasis on extraction and new oak influence. Whether this is what you want from Mclaren Vale is up to you, however Chester’s wines should sit more comfortably with your evening meal than most.

For all of the notoriety that d’Arenberg has achieved for its red wines it was the two whites on the tasting table that I appreciated most. The Dry Dam Riesling was much less ‘bony’ than examples often are from Clare Valley further north. This is partly due to the dollop of sugar left in the wine to help balance the acidity and results in either the perfect accompaniment to a summer’s day or pre-prandial aperitif. The Money Spider was also delicious exhibiting Roussanne’s touch of honey, quince and apricot character. Whenever I have Roussanne like this I always wonder why people bother with the blowsier Viognier. Roussanne is what Viognier wants to be when it grows up.

Below are my favourites from the seven wines tried:

The Dry Dam Riesling, Mclaren Vale, 2013, (old vine and low yields), 10.6%
Wine-making: Stainless steel. Very high acidity balanced with 13g/l of residual sugar. Still tastes dry/off dry.
Note: Almost water white and with an intense aroma of lime sherbert and fresh tennis balls. Really delicious with the citrus fruit feeling ripe rather than sweet due to the small amount of residual sugar remaining in the wine. Fresh, vibrant and persistent.
Price: 840NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Creation Wine & Spirit Inc.   02-97918870

The Money Spider Roussanne, Mclaren Vale, 2012, 13%
Wine-making: Stainless Steel fermentation and maturation.
Note: Delicate floral nose accompanied by a little honey, quince and apricot. Moderate-full bodied with enough acidity to support the rich, mouth-filling palate. Harmonious.
Price: 950NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Creation Wine & Spirit Inc.   02-97918870

The Dead Arm Shiraz 2006, Mclaren Vale, 14.5%
Wine-making: 20 months in mixed oak, some French some American with a portion being new.
Note: Beginning to show some signs of maturity, this complex Shiraz has aromas and flavours that encompass spice, meat, fennel, and an earthiness supported by ripe, full and supple tannins. No real overt oak flavour and the mix of sweet and savoury fruit provides a well balanced wine that clearly has the ability to age for another decade. Great length on the finish. Rather fine.
Price: (none left of the 2006) but the 2009 is 2,400
Score: 18/20
Available from: Creation Wine & Spirit Inc.   02-97918870

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Something for the Weekend 7

Of all the ‘New World’ countries Australia should be the easiest sell. It has more regions linked to specific varieties than any other new world country. One cannot expect most casual wine-drinkers to know this but these links between grape and region should and need to be promoted hard. Marlborough Sauvignon, Napa Cabernet, these are successful brands. Australia has Barossa Shiraz but too few (well my wife couldn’t think of any more) other ‘brands’ that any one else would recognise. Through the work of Wine Australia and their A+ programmes there is a gentle, trickling dissemination at work. Yet with most Australian money being directed at China the likes of Taiwan receive little attention. It is up to us, the wine consuming public, to convince the Aussies that Taiwan is not the country where generic Australian Chardonnay past its sell by date goes to die.

So how do we do this? Through education and promotion that should then lead to increased consumption. Luckily Taiwan does offer the adventurous imbiber a plethora of wines from this sparsely populated continent. One of the best importers is Adelaide Finewine Cellar (AFW). They import a wide range of leading estates that include Bird in the Hand, Cullen, Kalleske, Yarra Yarra and even fortified specialists, Pfeiffers. With importers brave enough to ship such relative ‘oddities’ to these shores, we have an obligation to encourage them to continue by buying the odd bottle or twelve. Therefore below are three wines from AFW that serve as both a fine start to the weekend and a quality introduction to what is on offer from the land of Oz.

….and if you want to widen your knowledge and tasting experience then you should consider signing up for an A+ course on the subject. Half and full day courses are offered in Taiwan by Taiwan Wine Academy

Kalleske, Greenock single vineyard Barossa Valley Shiraz, 2008, 14.5%
Shiraz (organic/biodynamic)
Wine-making: 30% new French and American oak for 18 months
Note: Good introduction to overt, full-bodied Barossa style Shiraz. Spicy and saliva inducing aromas of fruitcake, licorice and tobacco. Save for a cold winters day.
Price: 2,150NT
Score: 16.5/20

Katnook, Founder’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, 2009, 13.5%
Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine-making: Only a little oak used (15%)

Note: Another fine and affordable bottle this time from Australia’s premier Cabernet Sauvignon region, Coonawarra. Has the minty character and dark but sweet blackcurrant fruit that is so typical of the region. Good value.
Price: 1100NT
Score: 16/20

Cullen, Mangan Vineyard, Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, Margaret River, 2010, 12%
62% Sauvignon and 38% Semillon
Wine-making: Small proportion of the Sauvignon (13%) fermented in New French oak to give a little extra richness and aroma.
Note: Margaret River specialises in varieties and blends made famous in Bordeaux. Cullen are one of the great producers of Australia and this taut, mineral and very precise Sauvignon/Semillon is evidence that one should never make the mistake of thinking that Australia can only make powerful red wines.
Price: 1850NT
Score: 17/20

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