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Unlike the previous three years, I pretty much worked full time throughout vintage this year. Unfortunately, that left little time for writing, and frankly not a huge amount of enthusiasm on my part. Wine writing started as a tool to aid me as I studied for the WSET Diploma, and it was fairly seamless to go from having my nose in the Oxford Companion to Wine during the day to applying what I had learned in describing whatever I was drinking in the evening.
However, working vintage as a cellar hand is much more about manual labour than it is about wine knowledge and tasting. There are certainly ways in which one can apply having a Diploma, but being able to clean tanks efficiently is more often required day to day.
But here is it the end of July and I’m only now getting back to writing? Vintage actually finished in April, and I did have some down time, but even outside of vintage there are things to be done in the winery and I’ve not been short of work. Over the course of the last two months the 2013 red wines have finished up their malolactic fermentation, and so hundreds of barrels have been emptied and cleaned, while the wines that came out of them have been blended and returned to them for further ageing. Some of last year’s red wines are still in oak, each of which has required topping. Finally many of the 2013 whites have been finished and sent off to be bottled, and I was pleased to be able to taste a bottle of wine I helped make this year, complete with proper closure and label.
So while work goes on, I’ve been away from wine writing for far too long. Apologies to those who assumed I had passed away due to liver failure. I am still here, and I have a bit of a backlog of interesting wines to post. My intention is to return to a more modest posting schedule, starting with a wine a week, and possibly more when I’m spending less time in the winery and more time with bottles and a glass. Thanks for reading.
In addition to working closely with a winemaker in a tiny winery in the Adelaide Hills for the past four vintages, this year I’ve also been working at what could be described as a medium-sized winery that makes use of fruit from across South Australia. While not an especially large winery when compared with names like Penfolds or Casella, it’s been a big step up for me in terms not only of scale and varieties, but in terms of my role in a team.
The first big difference was that I was hired as a casual cellar hand for the vintage and paid an hourly rate – a fairly generous one at that. I’ve worked as a volunteer in the Adelaide Hills, initially for the experience, and on subsequent vintages because I enjoyed it. So as someone who ordinarily spends most of his time in front of a computer screen typing, it was strangely pleasing both to be doing a fair amount physical labour and to be paid for it.
Second, I was part of a team that consisted of two winemakers, up to four casual cellar hands, and myself. The senior winemaker managed the overall operations of the team and the winery, scheduling the delivery of fruit, the movements from fermenters across to tanks and barrels, and the staffing. The other winemaker was responsible for all the lab work – analysis of sugars, acids levels, temperatures, and progress of fermentations. The two of them set out the daily work to be done by the cellar hands. In addition, both were involved at different points in many other activities in the winery alongside cellar hands, from receiving fruit, digging out fermenters, pressing, racking, cleaning, what have you.
So what was so different about the experience? While I was hired on an “as needed” basis, it’s been pretty much a full time job. Vintage in the Adelaide Hills this year consisted of a handful of days spread over a couple of weeks, but with this job there has been a full day (and often more) of work to do for the last two months. So while vintage is generally the busy time of the year for wineries, this year has been much busier for me, and for a longer duration.
Not only has there been more work in general, but many new experiences. I’ve now worked with Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Colombard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sangiovese, and even Nebbiolo. I’ve spent more time on a forklift, stacking and unstacking barrels, moving things on and off trucks, and have tipped 500kg bins of grapes into a receiving unit. I’ve used a number of unfamiliar types of pumps, fermenters, and tanks, as well as a press so big that you have to climb inside and walk around to properly clean it. I’ve pumped over Shiraz ferments (as opposed to the gentle plunging when I worked with Pinot Noir), climbed to the top of a catwalk to dip tanks (that is drop a measuring tape into it to see how full it is) and then thrown in chucks of dry ice to lay down a protective buffer of CO2. I’ve done the same on a huge tanker truck, which somehow seemed the antithesis of my experiences in a tiny winery, but if you don’t do your own bottling on site, you need to get your wine to the bottling line somehow. All of that is in addition to jobs that were already familiar from previous vintages, like tipping baskets of grapes by hand, racking off lees, and of course cleaning.
The biggest single difference though has been being an actual cellar hand as opposed to just assisting the winemaker. As an assistant, I was typically working directly with the winemaker or doing a specific task that he assigned me, and the winery was small enough that we could always see each other. As a cellar hand, I spent some time working with winemakers or other cellar hands, but equally often I would be given a task (or assign it to myself if I knew it needed doing) and just get on with it independently. I certainly started the vintage needing to be told what to do, and often needed some supervision in doing it, but these days I typically will know how I’ll be spending my day even as I drive to the winery and can get to work immediately.
Next I’ll try to describe my understanding of the difference between what it means to be a cellar hand and what it means to be a winemaker.
As with the previous three years, I worked the 2013 vintage at a winery in the Adelaide Hills. It was a small vintage, not because of yields in the vineyard but rather because the owner / winemaker has been cutting back on his wine production and selling on more of his fruit. We worked with three crops of grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills is a distinct expression of the variety, distinct from the better known wines of the Loire Valley in France or the now ubiquitous New Zealand interpretation. It is neither overwhelmingly austere, not especially grassy, but rather has some hint of melon to complement the naturally high acidity. As with all of our fruit, the grapes were hand picked and arrived at the winery as whole bunches in 20kg baskets. We tipped the baskets by hand into the destemmer / crusher, pumped the must into the press, and pressed the juice into a tank where it was chilled. After the clear juice settled, most of it was racked off solids into another temperature controlled tank for fermentation, though some was put into a pair of barrels to produce a small amount of oak influenced wine. At this point it’s not clear if that will be bottled on its own or blended in with the stainless steel fermented wine.
Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills is not, to my palate at least, quite so distinct a style of wine, as there are competing views on how best to make it. When I can identify an example blind, I usually pick out a “lemon butter on toast” character which encapsulates both the citrus and new oak flavours that I find most typically. We put the Chardonnay whole bunches directly into the press without destemming or crushing and pumped into barrel for fermentation.
I can’t pick Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills blind, because I find there is a great range in expression, even across the parcels that make up the wines I’ve helped produce, depending on the site, the clone, the barrel, and the vintage. The best have very herbaceous notes and some pencil lead in addition to black cherry and raspberry, while some others are nothing but fruit when they are young. When our grapes arrived, some portion of the bunches went directly into the tubs we use for fermenting, while the other baskets are tipped into the destemmer. Those grapes were destemmed (but not crushed) into buckets that are then tipped into the fermenter tubs. After fermentation, the wine and remains of the grapes and bunches are transferred by bucket (which is to say by hand) into the press and the wine is then pumped into barrel. The point of the soft handling is to avoid having the bunches and grapes go through any sort of pumping.
My role in all of this has been assistant to the winemaker (though I wouldn’t be so bold as to call myself an assistant winemaker). Tasks like crushing typically involve moving pallets of baskets around with the forklift, tipping baskets, washing and stacking the empty baskets, bucketing must, operating the pump, washing barrels, what have you. Most can be done by a single person, but are much more efficient with two or three. Sometimes the tasks I’ve performed have been as simple as standing on the top of a ladder holding a hose and lowering down as a tank is drained, or switching a pump off when a barrel is full of wine. On the other hand, it can be more complicated in the form of preparing a yeast inoculation and starting a ferment.
What makes working at such a small winery special for me is that I was working with the winemaker on every physical step of winemaking, from washing barrels and cleaning tanks to measuring sugar levels and eventually tasting finishes barrels. As an assistant, I also brought provided coffee and sometimes doughnuts, both of which were considered essential.
At some point I’ll explain the difference between the physical steps of winemaking as opposed to being a winemaker, but in my next post I’ll talk a bit about the other vintage I worked this year, at a much larger winery, and as part of a team.
I’ve been working vintage this year, which for me is one of the most important aspects of the relationship I have with wine. It’s my fourth, and I wrote a bit about it last year as a break from writing about wines that I was drinking. This year it was a much more time intensive process, and so writing has been largely set aside. However, as vintage draws to a close, I’m going to take a week to write up what this vintage has meant to me while it’s still fresh in my mind.
One thing I’ve not properly discussed is vintage itself. Vintage is when wine is made. It’s broadly the period from when grapes are harvested until you only have wine. While there are some very warm parts of the world that can grow multiple crops of grapes in a year, typically it’s an annual event, occurring in the autumn. The term can also be used to refer to a specific year of a bottled wine, meaning the year in which the grapes that went into it were harvested, but for my purposes I use it in the winemaking sense of the busy time of the year.
The start depends on the climate - warmer area of Australia typically have harvests a few weeks before cooler areas, and vintage doesn’t come to cooler parts of New Zealand until later still. Obviously, vintage is roughly offset by 6 months for the Northern Hemisphere. Each year is different as well, with cooler summers leading to later vintages. Grapes ripen at different times depending on the variety, and even within a single variety they can be picked at different levels of ripeness from early picks for sparkling wines, later for table wines, and later still for late harvest or ice wine styles. For a winery that handles many varieties and styles across many regions, harvesting grapes can stretch over months, while for smaller wineries it can be as short as a week or two.
Defining the end of vintage is somewhat fuzzier, because it’s not simply a matter of when the wine is finished. Some wines are considered finished only weeks after having been grapes, while others undergo extended contact with skins or lees, further fermentations, cold stabilization, filtering, and/or fining, each of which can add days or weeks to the process, to say nothing of extended ageing which can add months or years. I generally think of the end of vintage as the point at which the white wines have finished their alcoholic fermentation and red wines have been pressed off their skins. From a practical point of view, it’s when you can give most of your equipment, that is your receivers, destemmers, crushers, fermenters and presses, a final wash and store them away until next year. More importantly, there’s typically a dinner or a party to celebrate the end of vintage, and I’m especially looking forward to one this year.
So for me, the 2013 vintage is nearly finished, with only a single white still fermenting – a late harvest Riesling. Much of the equipment has been washed and stowed, and we’re moving forward to getting the first whites ready for bottling. There’s plenty of cleaning still to be done, and the normal work of topping up and racking will continue throughout the year, but for now at least the long days are over and thoughts are turning to the vintage dinner.
In my next post, what it was like working this vintage at a very small winery.
It’s been a tough week and a half so far working vintage. Early starts and long days are par for the course, so I can’t complain about them. Equipment issues are more of a pain, with a pair of pumps needing repairs so far. The worst for me though is the physical exertion, in stark contrast to my otherwise fairly cushy life, and this year it’s been compounded by an accident (which was completely my fault) involving a forklift, a barrel rack and my head. Three stitches and a tetanus shot later later I’m fine, albeit with a black eye, but enjoying this (unrelated) day off to do some writing instead of just resting. And what better way to make the most of it than with this bottle of Best’s Great Western Old Vine Pinot Meunier 2010.
A grape familiar to any student who has covered Champagne, Pinot Meunier is something of a tough nut to crack for those of us interested in varietal wines. First, within Champagne while it is the second most widely planted variety, it is not as highly regarded as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. That means that while many houses use Pinot Meunier in their wines, few draw attention to that fact or produce varietal examples. There are some exceptions, including Krug, though I have yet to sample one. Second, as a grape it is not commonly found outside of Champagne. It is permitted in the Loire, though not widely planted, and can be found in Lorraine near the border with Luxembourg and Germany. Within Germany itself there are plantings but very few notable examples. In the New World, there are fewer plantings still, and it’s typically used in blended sparkling wine with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That makes this wine exceptional, as a still, varietal Pinot Meunier, before I even open the bottle.
As a Pinot, this variety is nearly identical at the genetic level to the other Pinots (Noir, Blanc, Gris, et al) except for the accumulation of mutations over the course of propagation through replanted clippings. It differs from Pinot Noir in that it buds and ripens later, making it less susceptible to late frosts and therefore gives more reliable yields. It also does well in clay soils, in addition to limestone, meaning it can be more widely planted throughout Champagne. Furthermore, it can have higher acidity than Pinot Noir, though it isn’t thought to have as much ageing potential. It’s easy to see why it would be a popular grape for growers, even if some houses prefer not to acknowledge their use of it.
Best’s Great Western was founded in the 1860s by Henry Best in the Great Western area of Victoria, roughly 180km west by northwest of Melbourne. Best spent nearly 50 years building the business until his death in 1913. Soon thereafter, it passed to William Thomson who had been running a neighbouring winery at Rhymney. He and his family continued to expand the business, which is now in the hands of the fifth Thomson generation.
The company is best known for its Shiraz, with their Thomson Family Shiraz in their Icon Range featuring on the Langton’s Classification as Outstanding and their Bin No. 0 Shiraz as Distinguished. This Pinot Meunier and a Pinot Noir round out that range, while their Concongella Collection and Great Western Range include more Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and a Dolcetto, in addition to a Champagne produced in a partnership with a small house in L’Aube.
The Great Western is a subregion of the Grampians in Victoria. While there are a number of subregions described as pending approval or used informally, Great Western is one of only fourteen subregions in Australia officially recognized by the Geographical Indications Committee. The region is moderate to cool, with a Mediterranean climate and some influence from the Southern Ocean and from altitude that ranges from 240-440m . The soils are varied, but principally clays and loams with good water retention.
As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright, with a medium minus garnet colour and very slight legs when swirled. On the nose it’s clean and youthful with medium intensity and notes of black cherries, some Pinot Noir funk, some black pepper, and some forest floor/mushroom scents. Later, there were additional notes of dark chocolate and coffee. On the palate it’s dry with high acidity, medium minus body, medium intensity, medium minus fine tannins, medium plus alcohol, and a long length. There are notes of black cherries, liquorice, cranberries, coffee, star anise, and black pepper.
This is a very interesting wine, and I think very good quality. If served it blind, my first guess would have been Pinot Noir with punched up acidity. I was expecting fruitiness but that was not exclusively the case. Instead it also has a fair number of developed characters despite only being two years old. I can’t vouch for varietal typicity, but it certainly has complexity and it does linger on the palate. While I’m drinking it far to young, I’m fairly certain they made more than just this one bottle so I’ll have to secure another. And also, having now tried my first varietal, still Pinot Meunier, I honestly don’t understand why it isn’t more widely planted. Apparently it’s also being used for more than just sparkling wine in New Zealand, so I look forward to finding out more.
As some may remember from last year, I work vintage. This year, in addition to having plans to work again with a producer in the Adelaide Hills, I’ll be doing some work with a producers best known for McLaren Vale wines. Today was the first day, and I’m generally knackered from an invigorating start, punctuated by the general lack of sleep experienced by someone with a newborn in the house. So yes, a new daughter, my second, and the start of vintage, my fourth. If not for just how good beer tastes after a day of making wine, I’m not sure how I’d survive.
In practical terms for this site, I’ll be thinking of my readers as I work at making wine, but will be unlikely to have a huge amount of time to actually write anything. At the very least, expect posts about the vintage and my experiences instead of posts about specific bottles of wine (and the grapes that make it up, and the region from which it originates). Still, if vintage doesn’t kill me, I’ll be back as soon as I can. Take care.
Jean Dubuffet, a French painter and sculptor, described the concept of Art Brut* as “pieces of work executed by people untouched by artistic culture, in which therefore mimicry, contrary to what happens in intellectuals, plays little or no part, so that their authors draw everything (subjects, choice of materials employed, means of transposition, rhythms, ways of writing, etc.) from their own depths and not from clichés of classical art or art that is fashionable.” Art Brut, also known as raw art or outsider art, is essentially work done by someone outside the artistic community, without the restrictions of accepted norms. Today’s wine is a bit of Art Brut in a bottle, the Alpha Box & Dice Changing Lanes 2005.
Alpha Box & Dice is the work of Justin Lane, founded 2008, and home to an alphabetic collection of wines. Essentially set up as a garage enterprise, Lane sources grapes from a stable of local growers and makes wines based more on his personal tastes than on established conventions. While his “Hercules” Shiraz, “Rebel Rebel” Montepulciano and “Tarot” Grenache varietals may sound conventional enough, his “Apostle” Shiraz/Durif, “Fog” Nebbiolo/Cabernet Sauvignon/Tannat and “Golden Mullet Fury” Muscadelle/Chardonnay wines give perhaps a slightly better idea as to his unconventional thinking when it comes to what varieties might sit well together in a blend.
This wine in particular is a good example of Lane’s willingness to try something out of the ordinary. Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon are not typically found together in Spain or France, but in Australia they’re fair game as blending partners. Similarly, this wine is a collaboration with another winemaker, Justin’s brother Mark Lane, which again isn’t so out of the ordinary. Mark sourced some particularly good Tempranillo, vinified it, and sent some of the best barrels to Justin, who was doing the same with Cabernet Sauvignon. What is unusual is that Mark Lane works in Western Australia, some 3000km from Justin Lane in McLaren Vale, South Australia. That makes this wine one of the most geographically diverse I have ever encountered. In terms of wine being an expression of the varietal characteristics of the grapes, the terroir and the intention of the winemaker, this has all three, times two. And while it has no impact on what’s in the bottle, the label features a lenticular print of mugshots of both winemakers, with the image changing depending on the angle at which it is being viewed and it’s easily the most creative label I’ve ever seen.
While I don’t typically comment on branding, Alpha Box & Dice does it well. The convention they’ve established of wine names with an alphabetic theme works well, though it remains to be seen what happens after Z. Each label is uniquely designed, and while they have little in common with one another, they sit well together in a group. Even the cellar door has a quirky, rustic feel to it, which flows nicely from the old garage in the country where the wine is made. Should it ever grow into a $500/bottle ultra exclusive, mailing list only winery, I officially call dibs on the parody label Art Brut & Dubuffet.
While Dubuffet used his term Art Brut to refer to art produced by asylum inmates and children, I use it in the more general sense of self taught. In many ways this applies to Lane, as he has no formal qualifications in winemaking, and his approach to what can make a good wine is uninhibited by tradition or fashion. That said, he’s not strictly speaking quite so much the outsider.
Justin Lane grew up in the Hunter Valley, and while not from a wine family, he spent much of his time in vineyards and after an abandoned attempt at studying viticulture, worked with Hardy’s and Tatachilla wineries. Those experiences opened the door for him to work vintages in France, Italy and even Moldova. In Australia he helped run a cooperative in McLaren Vale called Redheads Studio, which provided him with the network of growers needed to found Alpha Box & Dice after his partner bought him out in 2007. He’s recently co-founded an eating and drinking establishment in Adelaide called Cantina Sociale that sources barrels of wine direct from producers and pours them by the glass. While I don’t do bar/restaurant reviews, I’m a fan.
How does all this come out in the wine? In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a dark garnet colour and quick, stained legs. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with high intensity and notes of sweet spice, dried red fruit, persimmon, pomegranate and strawberries. On the palate it’s dry but with some fruit sweetness, medium acidity, medium plus body, medium plus intensity, high alcohol, medium minus fine tannins and a long length. There are notes of chocolate, pomegranate, black pepper, as well as dried fruit, both red and black.
This is a very good quality wine. It’s big in most respects. It has much more fruit than tannin, and while some of it comes across as dried fruit, it’s much more fresh than I would expect 7 years after vintage. It’s not for everyone – at 15.5% ABV it’s not a timid wine, but if you want a big fruit bomb that is showing itself to be capable of ageing, it’s a good bet. So while Lane has no formal winemaking credentials, there is nothing about this wine that suggests he needs to go back to school.
* Art Brut also happens to be the band that played at my wedding.
While I’ve been on something of a quest for new and interesting grapes, there’s certainly more to learning about wine than just grape varieties. Today’s selection is about the place, because while this is made from a familiar variety, it’s from a region we have not visited before. So we’re off to Sardinia with the Cantina Santadi Carignano del Sulcis Grotta Rossa 2009.
Sardinia is an island in the Mediterranean between Italy and North Africa, just south of the French island of Corsica. It has a colourful history, having been run at different times by the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Aragónese, Spanish, Austrians, and the House of Savoy. It joined what was to become Italy in 1861 and is run as an autonomous region.
In terms of wine, there isn’t as much history, colourful or otherwise. There is historical evidence of viticulture pre-dating the Carthaginian rule, but other forms of agriculture dominated, particular cultivation of grain and grazing of livestock. While vines, mainly of Spanish origin, were imported under the rule of Aragón, wine has not been as important culturally or economically on Sardinia as it has been in mainland Spain, Italy or France. Plantings were encouraged and subsidized after World War II, resulting in a rapid expansion of vines and availability of low quality, high alcohol wines used for blending on mainland Italy. However, funding was cut in the 1980s and such bulk wine production has dwindled greatly.
Though there are almost twenty Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regions and one Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) established on the island, production of quality wine is somewhat undermined by the expansiveness of some of the DOCs (including the entire island in several cases) and high limits on yields. Vermentino, Cannonau (also known as Garnacha Tinta, or simply Grenache), Carignano (Carignan), Vernaccia and Malvasia are widely planted, as are some of the more common Italian and international varieties, but there is not a wealth of popular varieties unique to the island the way there is with Sicily. I’ve seen references to Cannonau, Carignano and Bovaleddu as bring native Sardinian grapes, but for our purposes they are Grenache, Carignan, and Graciano respectively. On the other hand, Monica Nera, Nasco and Nuragus are a red and two white grapes respectively that have yet to be identified as anything other than Sardinian.
As to Carignan, it is a grape that is familiar to long time readers of this site, but for a recap it is worth having another look at the Carignan (blend) I tried from De Martino last year.
Carignana del Sulcis is a DOC in the southwestern tip of the island, including two smaller islands, Sant’antioco and San Pietro. A DOC since 1989, it is one of the few areas within Italy where Carignan is grown, and in addition to the standard varietal bottling, there are levels of quality defined as Riserva and Superiore which require additional ageing. Rosé and Passito wines are also produced. The climate, as with the island as a whole, is as Mediterranean as you can get, and soils vary with clay, sand and limestone, though the island as a whole is known for decomposed granite as well.
Cantina di Santadi is a large cooperative winery established in 1960. It had its start producing vast quantities of bulk wine which was sold unbottled and unbranded. Fortunately, a change of management in the 1970s resulted in a shift, and the coop has moved from being an anonymous supplier of cheap wine to being a rare example of a coop with a strong focus on quality wine production.
To that end, they’ve worked in close partnership with Giacomo Tachis, one of Italy’s most famous winemakers. One of the driving forces behind the massive improvements within the Italian wine industry through the 1970s and 80s, he has been involved with Antinori and helped create the Super Tuscan Sassicaia. He’s long had an interest in Sardinia, and in particular believes that Carignan, not widely loved or revered in the production of fine wine, is especially well suited to the climate and soils of southern Sardinia.
Today the company produces over a dozen different wines, DOC and IGT, red, white and rosé, as well as a grappa. Beyond Carignan, the company makes use of Cannonau (Grenache), Bovaleddu (Graciano), Vermentino, Monica Nera, Nasco, Nuragus, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Chardonnay in their wines. In addition, they released a special edition 1960-2010 commemorative bottling comprised of Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which could be called a Super Sardinian.
As to the wine in front of me, in the glass it’s clear and bright, with a dark ruby colour and quick, thick legs. On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium intensity and notes of cherries, sweet spice, pomegranate, and strawberries. On the palate it’s dry with medium acidity, medium body, medium minus tannins, medium alcohol, medium plus intensity, and medium plus length. There are notes of black cherries, liquorice, some red meat, dried red fruit, and small goods.
This is a good quality wine. It was interesting for more than just its origin, but not overly complex. Despite having good intensity, I felt myself reaching for descriptors as the fruit was somewhat indistinct. However, it certainly suffered no faults and was pleasant to drink.
There are some topics that I find interesting which are made more so because I know there will be people who want to read about them. Posts about Wine & Spirits Education Trust exams are popular because there’s a small group of people who care a great deal, and even if I’m not a huge authority on the subject, they’re often happy for whatever information or analysis I can provide. Today’s topic, on the other hand, will be of interest to very few, if any, other people in the world. Nevertheless, if obscure grapes are your thing, I hope you enjoy this post concerning the Larch Hill Winery Mad Angie Madeline Angevine 2009.
When I was studying with the WSET, I often found it unusual that they devoted any time at all to wine production in the UK. While there are some interesting wines being produced there, particularly sparkling wine from the south of England, the quantities and their impact on the global wine trade are so insignificant that it hardly seems worthwhile devoting pages to them in the syllabus.
That said, were it not for having to study wine production in England and Wales, I never would have heard of Madeleine Angevine. Course materials from 2000 in the Advanced class describe it as “A variety that supports the British climate and gives a good yield. It is perhaps best used for blending as it is low in acidity.” At the Diploma level in a more recent study guide, the variety is relegated to the “Less Important” topic list.
The grape variety is of relatively modern origin, having first been cultivated in 1857 and released in 1863. It ripens early, often ready for harvest by Sainte-Madeleine’s Day (22 July) from which it takes part of its name, while the city of Angers in the Loire Valley contributes the rest. It is the offspring of two grapes not currently used in commercial wine production, Circé and Madeleine Royal, and has been used as a parent for other varieties, notably Siegerrebe and Madeleine X Angevine 7672. It only has female flowers, which means it cannot self-pollinate, requiring other vines to be planted nearby. It does well in cool climates, and while it has all but vanished in the Loire, it seems to be embarking on something of a second life in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Washington, USA and British Columbia, Canada. It is also used as a table grape within Krygyzstan.
You may have noticed that I didn’t list the UK among places it is planted, and there is a good reason for that. Despite what I quoted from the out of date course materials, Madeleine Angevine as described above is not what was planted in the UK. In fact, their vines are the Madeleine X Angevine 7672, cultivated originally in Germany as a self-pollinating offspring of Madeleine Angevine and an unknown father. There are other plantings of one or the other (possibly both) in Sweden and Denmark, but I can’t determine which.
Unfortunately for me, I was unaware of the grape until I moved to Australia, some thousands of kilometres from the nearest planting, cursed to forever remember its name but with little prospect of ever tasting it. That is, until a trip to Vancouver allowed me to stock up on obscure varieties bred for cold climates.
This one is from Larch Hill Winery, in the now familiar Okanagan Valley of British Columbia – read my post on the JoieFarm Chardonnay for more information if the Okanagan Valley is unfamiliar. Owned and run by Jack and Hazel Manser, the vineyard and winery were conceived in 1987 and planted commercially after five years of experimental plantings. The list of their vines reads like a Who’s Who list of cold climate crosses – Ortega, Madeleine Sylvaner, Siegerrebe, and Agria, as well as this Madeleine Angevine. In addition to their own plantings, they source Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Maréchal Foch and Merlot from neighbouring growers, and their site also lists Semillon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Reisling, and Lemberger (Blaufränkisch). Their wines are largely varietal bottlings of the above, with a few blends, and a trio of dessert wines.
A quick note on the spelling of the grape variety in this wine – the bottle says “Madeline” but their website has the extra “e” in “Madeleine” that is the more typical spelling. I don’t understand why they’re using two spellings. As with most things, I consider Wine Grapes to be the final word.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a pale lemon green colour and a few quick legs when swirled. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium minus intensity and notes of pear, custard, lychee, and red apple. On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium minus alcohol, medium plus intensity, and medium plus length. The palate matches the nose in terms of pear, red apple, and lychee, but also brings with it rosewater and a honeyed character. It makes the wine taste slightly sweet, but not in a residual sugar sort of way.
This is a very good wine. It has a rich flavour, with balanced intensity and length. While it is fruit dominated, it’s a fairly complex collection of fruit, and the rosewater almost gives it an aromatic quality. While I get very excited at the prospect of trying new varieties, I set my expectations low in terms of how they will taste when it comes to obscure crosses. Generally speaking, if they produced exceptional wines, they would be more widely planted, right? While that sounds pessimistic, it means the surprise is all the more pleasant when I come across something I thoroughly enjoy, like this wine or the Niche Wine Company Foch from back in December.