Best’s Great Western Old Vine Pinot Meunier 2010

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Best’s Great Western Old Vine Pinot Meunier 2010

Best’s Great Western Old Vine Pinot Meunier 2010

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.

Alpha Box & Dice Changing Lanes 2005

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Changing Lanes 2005

Changing Lanes 2005

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.

Mark Lane and Justin Lane

Mark Lane and Justin Lane

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.

Cantina Santadi Carignano del Sulcis Grotta Rossa 2009

Cantina Santadi Carignano del Sulcis Grotta Rossa 2009

Cantina Santadi Carignano del Sulcis Grotta Rossa 2009

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.

Bainbridge and Cathcart Cuvée Rouge aux Lèvres 2011

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Bainbridge and Cathcart Cuvée Rouge aux Lèvres 2011

Bainbridge and Cathcart Cuvée Rouge aux Lèvres 2011

A local wine bar sometimes pours a bottle or two of special wine by the glass on Sunday evenings.  While I missed this particular Sunday session, there was still some available when I next visited, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to taste this wine, the Bainbridge and Cathcart Cuvée Rouge aux Lèvres 2011.

So yes, it’s a new grape, pushing me that little bit closer to a Century of Wines.  Today’s variety is Grolleau Noir, a dark grape of the Loire Valley, found in the rosé and sparkling wines of Anjou, Touraine and Saumur.  It buds early and ripens midway through vintage, just after Gamay Noir.  It is known for high yields and is made into light bodied wine with high acidity.  While at one time it was widely planted, there was a significant decrease in the area under vine in the second half of the 20th century, though that trend seems to have slowed of late.  I can’t find any indication of this variety being planted outside of France, or indeed even outside of the Loire.  Curiously though, Wine Grapes says that it is known as Bourdalès in Madiran, quite some ways from the Loire, but doesn’t mention it being planted there.

Apologies for the especially poor quality of the photo, including the semi-detached nature of the label, but there is some detail that I hope you can make out.  This wine is neither rosé nor sparkling.  Grolleau Noir is not a permitted grape in red wines under the appellation rules of the Loire Valley, which should explain another detail visible in the photo, that this is a Vin de France.  When I was initially learning about the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system within France, I thought it was too restrictive in terms of not allowing for innovation or experimentation.  Since then I like to think that my opinion has become somewhat more nuanced.  Producers within France are in fact innovating and experimenting, some within classic wine producing regions.  However, in doing so they often have to give up the right to claim themselves as part of a particular appellation, and instead can only describe themselves as Vin de Pays or Vin de France.  Given that many French appellations have long established reputations, I think it’s a reasonable trade-off in terms of allowing winemakers to do what they want, while protecting the brands of appellations.

So what we have here is a grape that’s increasingly rare where it originates and unknown elsewhere, made into a varietal wine contrary to the appellation rules, sent to the far side of the world and into the glass of someone on a quest to taste 100 different varietal wines. I hope you can see why I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to taste it.  To top it off, one of the local names for the variety, Groslot, translates to jackpot.  It’s as though they made this wine just for me.

This wine is the work of Toby and Julie Bainbridge.  Toby, originally from England, and Julie, a native of Oklahoma, have been in France for 11 years, and have been working with Domain Mosse for most of it.  In 2007, with the help of Ali and Rob Cathcart, they branched out to make their own wines on the side.  They have 4.2HA of vines spread between Faye D’Anjou and Chavagnes les Eaux, roughly 18km south by south east of Angers in the Anjou and Saumur region of the Loire Valley, and I believe as of last year they’ve been able to give up their day jobs to focus on their own label.

It appears their vines are staked, or at the very least not trained on wires.  There is some tilling by tractor, and they acquired a sprayer last year, but I would bet that most of the work in the vineyard is done by hand.  They hand pick their grapes into buckets and small tubs, and use a traditional basket press.  They grow Groslot (Grolleau Noir), Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc, and make varietal wines of each.  They also apparently have an unfiltered, rosé, sparkling project, La Danseuse, from the 2012 vintage that was in riddling racks as of a few months ago, but I haven’t been able to dig up any further details.

Bainbridge and Cathcart don’t have a website as such, which is why there is no link in the first paragraph, but they do have a Facebook page with some photos and information in which they describe themselves as a natural winery.  I’ve written on the topic of natural wine before, so I don’t need to get into it again here.  Regardless of what I think of the term “natural”, I wholeheartedly support experimentation and innovation, which is clearly happening at Bainbridge and Cathcart.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any details as to their winemaking, so there’s some speculation in this paragraph.  They put their wine under crown cap in clear bottles typically used for sparkling wine, and there is some CO2 in the bottle that one of their distributors describes as “a preservative”.  The COcould in fact be added but I would think it’s more likely from being bottled unfiltered before fermentation is complete.  The label also indicates sulfites, but some are naturally occurring during fermentation, so I can’t say if they add sulphur at bottling.

In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with a dark purple colour and quick legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean and youthful, with medium plus intensity, and peppery notes as well as brambles, plums, and red currants.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus mouth coating tannins, medium plus acidity, medium body, medium alcohol, medium plus intensity, and medium length.  There are notes of plum – some red and some green – as well as pepper, and a bit of stem, but the fruit is very fresh.  There are also some violet notes on the finish.

I rate this wine as very good.  It has a fair amount of concentration, and the combination of the tannins and acidity make me think of the bite of unsweetened cranberry juice (which is not to say that it tastes of cranberries, if that makes sense).  The complexity of flavours is good as far as not just fruit but some lively spice as well.  I can’t really speak to its typicity as this is my first encounter with Grolleau Noir.  It reminds me a bit of Cabernet Franc, largely because of the stem notes, but it’s clearly a different variety.  I enjoyed this wine slightly chilled on a warm day and it absolutely hit the spot.

Pin in the map is only accurate to the town/postcode level.

Wines by KT Tinta by KT Tempranillo 2011

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Wines by KT Tinta by KT Tempranillo 2011

Wines by KT Tinta by KT Tempranillo 2011

If you have a look through the list of grapes I’ve encountered on this blog, I’ve managed to find most of them as varietal wines.  It’s not that I don’t like blends – many of the great wines of the world are made up of more than one grape, and within the Old World most regions are dominated by blends.  However, this site has an emphasis on wine education, and I think the best way appreciate how a grape contributes to a blend is to first be able to identify it on its own.  More on that topic in the coming week or two, but for now we have before us Wines by KT’s Tinta by KT Tempranillo 2011.

This is the fourth Tempranillo to grace these pages, but only the first time it’s appeared as a varietal wine.  That might seem a bit strange, since it’s a well known variety, and in fact the classic red grape of Spain.  The reason is that within Spain it is commonly found as part of a blend.  For instance, within red wines of Rioja it is typically the major component with smaller portions of Grenache, Carignan and/or Graciano.

It is planted widely throughout Spain, under many synonyms.  There are considerable plantings in Portugal, under the name Tinta Roriz, where it is used in table wine as well as Port.  There are a small number of plantings in the south of France, largely in the Languedoc.  Officially within Italy there are no plantings, but DNA profiling has shown that some vines called Malvasia Nera are in fact identical to Tempranillo.  There are plantings in North America from a few vines in British Columbia, Canada down through the West Coast of the USA, as well as Texas and Mexico.  Considerable plantings exist in Argentina, though there is very little of it in Chile.  Its popularity is on the rise in Australia, though in New Zealand it’s unclear if the grape will take off from its small start.

Tempranillo itself is a fairly productive vine, producing darkly coloured berries with thick skin, in medium to large sized, though compact, bunches.  It buds and ripens early, and does better in dry climates than most.  As with many varieties, lower cropping levels result in higher quality colour and flavour, as well as acidity.  It can have relatively low alcohol, particularly with respect to it’s traditional Spanish blending partners.

Wines by KT is the label of Kerri Thompson, who graduated from Roseworthy in 1993.  Since then she has worked as a winemaker in Tuscany and Beaujolais, as well as in South Australia, most notably leading at Leasingham.  She and viticulturalist Steve Farrugia partnered on a label, KT and the Falcon, with a number of wines out of the Clare Valley.  While only her name is on the current label, she has worked closely with viticulturalist Bunny Peglidis who tends Riesling vines in Watervale.  In addition to producing her own wines, she is the winemaker at Crabtree.  At present she makes four Rieslings, two of named vineyards.  She also produces varietal Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and this Tempranillo, as well as a Shiraz / Grenache / Tempranillo / Mataro red blend, and a Tempranillo / Monastrell rosé.

Normally I try to say a word or two about the wine’s region, but this wine does not explicitly list an origin other than Australia.  Wines by KT is based in Clare, and while their website appears to be under construction, it’s a fair guess that most or all of the grapes came from there.  I’ve written about the Clare Valley before, so for more information it’s worth looking at the write up of Pikes Clare Riesling.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright with a medium plus purple colour – not deep purple but “grape juice of my youth” purple.  It shows thick legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean and just starting to show some development, with medium minus intensity, and notes of dried red fruit, cranberries, potpourri, and a bit of dust.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium minus body, medium alcohol, medium mouth coating tannins, medium plus intensity, and medium length.  There are notes of cranberry, dried simple red fruit, pomegranate, and a bit of cola.

This is a good wine, very much made in a young style.  When I tastes wines made from Tempranillo, the main note I tend to pick up is that the fruit always comes across as a bit dried.  I don’t know if anyone else gets that as a rule, but for me it’s the tell if I’m tasting blind that there might be a Tempranillo in front of me.  In that regard, this wine has good varietal typicity, at least for my palate.  While the alcohol was medium, I think some more of it might have given the wine a bit more body, but for having worked the 2011 vintage in South Australia, I think this one turned out pretty well.  There wasn’t a huge amount of complexity, but at least as much as you would expect from such a young wine.  And most of all, I’m pleased to add another variety to the century list.

Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006

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Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006

Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006

Some friends who run a local wine bar have been in South Africa on holiday over the last few weeks.  While I’m jealous, I’m also glad they took the trip because I have high hopes they’ll bring back with them tales of interesting wines and with any luck they will have arranged for some to feature in their establishment.  So while I was in Adelaide over the holidays, I was thinking of South Africa and drinking this Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006.

As much as I would love to cover a new grape and a new region with every post, my access to the world of wine is limited by what I can readily source.  For wines of South Australia, most everything just requires a trip to a bottle shop or a cellar door, but for the rest of the world I am limited by what is imported.  Those wines tend to be European and from the most sought after regions / producers, which means if I want a First Growth Bordeaux I just need to find the money, but if I want a Pinot Gris from Oregon I’m out of luck.  Fortunately I’ve been able to bring back a few bottles from my travels, though they only cover the areas I’ve visited.  This is just a roundabout way of saying that instead of some new grape variety and unexplored area of the world, it’s another Pinot Noir from Elgin, not so unlike the Ross Gower Cap Classique I wrote about this time last year.

Obviously this is not the same producer nor the same style of wine, but since it’s been a year some recap of Elgin probably wouldn’t go amiss.  It’s a region of the Western Cape roughly 70km east by south east from Cape Town, midway between the wine centres of Stellenbosch and Hermanus.  It’s among the coolest regions of South Africa, a plateau at 300m bordered by mountains.  The climate is cool, with both altitude and relative proximity to the ocean (approximately 20km to the west and south) being factors.  Winters are cold and harvests can be more than a month after warmer regions of the Cape.  I originally described the soil as shale, which does serve as a base for the region as a whole.  More specifically it’s often covered with a layer of sandstone gravel or clay, sometimes both.  And as I’ve said before, baboons are a hazard in the vineyard, particularly when grapes are ripe or nearly so.

As of this post, four out of the ten wines of South Africa I’ve covered have been made in whole or part of Pinot Noir, and so one could be forgiven for concluding that it’s a popular grape in the country.  However, while the plantings have almost doubled between 2000 and 2010 to nearly 1000HA, it’s still a relative drop in the bucket compared to the 18,000HA of Chenin Blanc, 12,000HA of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 12,000HA of Colombar.  In fact, Pinot Noir ranks 13th in the league table of plantings, though its percentage growth over that period is rivalled only by Syrah which saw a near doubling of plantings from 5,600HA to just over 10,000HA.  So while Pinot Noir is an increasingly important grape for South Africa’s cooler regions, it is perhaps over-represented on these pages because of my personal preferences.

The Oak Valley Estate was founded in 1898 by Antonie Viljoen.  He was likely one of the descendants of François Villion, a French Huguenot, who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1671 and married Cornelia Campenaar of Middelburg, Holland.  Viljoen studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and was a medical officer in the Boer army, but was captured by the British and detained at Oak Valley for the duration of the Second Boer War.  He was subsequently knighted for his work at post-war reconciliation.  He oversaw the planting of the first commercial orchards in the region, the precursor of the apple industry which is now the foundation of the region’s economy.  He also started the first winery in 1908, though it was only in use through the 1940s.  The estate is now managed by Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen.

Oak Valley is unique among the producers we’ve covered in that wine is not their only business.  Wineries which also distil spirits, press olive oil, or sell branded merchandise are not uncommon, but Oak Valley as a business is at least as concerned with apple and pear orchards, greenhouse flowers and beef cattle as it is with wine.  The vineyards as they stand today date back only to 1985, and their first vintage was 2003.  The lion’s share of their plantings are Sauvignon Blanc, with much smaller amounts of Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and fewer still plantings of another half dozen varieties.  While grapes are estate grown, space is currently rented at a neighbouring winery for production.  Wines currently produced include varietal Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and this Pinot Noir, as well as a Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blend and a Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon Blend.

As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright with medium minus garnet colour and quick, thin legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium intensity and notes of sweet red cherries, pomegranate, dark chocolate and sweet spice, along with a little Pinot funk.  On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus flavour intensity, medium fine tannins, medium plus alcohol and medium plus length.  There are notes of red cherries, cranberries, pomegranate, dark chocolate, a hint of iodine, and some saltiness or blood on the finish.  (Either that or my mouth is bleeding from something completely unrelated.)

This is an excellent wine.  I don’t break out the excellent rating often, despite trying to drink the best wines I can afford, but this one certainly earns it.  The flavour profile shines  - the fruit, while distinct and still fresh, does not constitute a bomb by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s fairly soft in its fruit intensity, allowing the chocolate to come through, rounded out with the interesting finish.  Everything is supremely well balanced.  What I find even more surprising, and which I didn’t know when I wrote my tasting note and quality assessment, is that this is a relatively recent venture.  Even though the estate has over a hundred years of agricultural history, I believe this is only the second Pinot Noir they produced, from vines that were only five years old at the time.  I can only hope that my friends managed to bring more Oak Valley wine back with them from their trip.

Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012

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Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012

Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012

Today’s wine was a gift from a fellow wine writer, Stuart over at The Vinsomniac  It’s very much a curiosity, and while there are some things that can be determined from the bottle and the producer’s website, writing up this wine has left me with more questions than answers. If answers are found subsequently, I’ll certainly update this post.  And with that puzzling introduction, I give you Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012.

This wine is produced and bottled in Severnlea, which puts it in the Granite Belt wine region in Queensland, Australia.  For those not familiar with this country, Queensland is the state in the north east corner and is home to Brisbane, Cairns, Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast, and the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s the tourists’ image of Australia, with kangaroos hopping along the beach, and it’s not an image that lines up well with growing grapes for wine.

Obviously it’s much more than just that, and while there are certainly lovely beaches, it’s a big place.  To put it into perspective, it’s not just bigger than California – you can throw in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado and it’s still bigger.  Or if you prefer, it’s bigger than France, Spain, the UK, Ireland and Portugal combined.  Across the expanse of such a large area, there’s bound to be climate and soils appropriate for viticulture, which brings us to the Granite Belt.

Located in the south east of Queensland, centred on an area roughly 160km in from the coast, the Granite Belt has the coolest climate in the state, largely due to its elevation of 450m to 900m (with 810m being the average), though being nestled along the southern border helps as well.  It is the textbook definition of a continental climate with warm summers and cold winters.  Snow in the winter, while not common, is not unknown.

There are two main soil types – a brownish-grey speckled soil well suited to vines, and a sandy, granitic grey-black soil which is less so, both supported by deep clay.  Drainage is good, which is to say water retention is bad, and so irrigation is often essential.  Hazards include spring frosts and rain at vintage, though both can be mitigated with thoughtful site selection.

I started to write that the Granite Belt is a fairly young region, as James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of Australia dates the first wine grapes as having been planted in 1965.  However,  Granite Belt Wine & Tourism claims vines were first cultivated by an Italian Catholic priest in the 19th century and cites vineyards and wineries dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.  As a region, it is known for small producers making boutique quality wines, though some of its appeal is certainly wine tourism with easy access from Brisbane.  It’s also home to a number of interesting grape varieties, which are highlighted through the Strange Bird Alternative Wine Trail, co-founded by the Ridgemill Estate winemaker.

I’ve written about Saperavi twice before, with the Hugh Hamiliton Oddball of McLaren Vale, Australia and the Taliani Valley of Napareuli, Georgia, so I think it’s time to move on to the producer.

What is now Ridgemill Estate got its start as vineyards under the name Emerald Hill in 1998 with plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay.  Tempranillo followed two years later, and in 2004 the property was purchased by the current owner, Martin Cooper who set about making some changes.  He hired Peter McGlashan as  winemaker and manager, rebranded the estate as Ridgemill, established cabins in the vineyards for wine tourism, and expanded plantings to include Saperavi, Verdelho and Viognier.  The current line up of wines includes varietal Chardonnay, Verdelho and Shiraz, blends of Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec / Merlot, and Monastrell / Tempranillo, as well as a Merlot rosé.  They also produce a sweet white wine, two fortified wines and a traditional method sparkling wine.  Apparently they also have plantings of Jacquez, which is banned in France.  How cool is that?

None of that is exceptionally out of the ordinary (except for the Jacquez), so what has left me scratching my head so much?  Primarily that the back label of this wine says that 60 bottles were produced, unfined and unfiltered.  Sixty bottles, five cases, or 45 litres of wine.  It’s an impossibly small amount, and I say that having worked three vintages with a winery that is effectively a one man band.  Saperavi is a reasonably productive grape, and as the vines were planted in 2006 I have a difficult time imagining their harvest only came to 60 bottles.  Then again, since this was released the same year it was produced, perhaps there is a 2012 reserve that will be released after further maturation.  Or maybe they sold off a portion of the harvest to another winemaker.

If there is no reserve 2012, then there’s the question of how you go about making 60 bottles of a wine.  Of the equipment I’ve used in a small winery, most would be overkill for such a small batch.  It would take more time to clean a destemmer than it would to process the grapes, and that applies to the crusher as well.  I can well imagine a very small kvevri, possibly a repurposed earthenware planter, as a fermenter, and as for pressing, I have seen some pretty small basket presses, but still.  This wine is unlikely to have seen the inside of a barrel, because except for tiny barrels for storing fortified wine at home, such small volumes are not easy to accommodate – a standard barrique would only be 20% full with 45 litres.  Bottling and labelling would almost certainly have to have been done by hand as the overhead cost of getting a bottling line running would be prohibitive.

All of that is pure speculation based on the label, so perhaps it’s time to have a look at the wine itself.  In the glass it’s clear and bright with a medium minus purple colour and quick, thick legs.  Interesting colour – in my experience if a wine is purple, it’s also fairly dark.  This one, while certainly purple, is not so dark at all.  On the nose it’s clean and youthful with medium plus intensity and notes of mulberry, some peppery character, blackberry, plums, a little soda pop and a hint of perfume.  On the palate it’s dry with medium body, medium plus acidity, medium fine tannins, medium intensity, medium plus alcohol, and medium length.  It started out quite candied with notes of cherry and bubble gum.  It developed somewhat in the glass, and other berries emerged, as did some chocolate and a bit of black pepper.  However, the fruit was still very candied – something from a sweets shop instead of a green grocer.

I don’t know what to make of this wine.  While I’m not an expert on Saperavi, I’ve had a few and this is nothing like those.  The colour, while purple, is not nearly as dark as I would have expected, particularly since Saperavi means “dye” in Georgian and is a teinturier, meaning its juice is coloured instead of clear.  The spectrum of berry flavours is fine, but the bubble gum and candied notes suggest carbonic maceration, which is certainly a possibility, particularly if whole bunches were used.  While I like a little of that in Gamay and some Point Noirs, I’m not sure how I feel about it in heavier reds like Saperavi.

Really though, I can’t properly assess the quality of this wine because it was a gift.  I generally don’t accept samples for review, and even though this wasn’t sent from the actual producer, I’ll keep my conclusion to myself.  However, I couldn’t resist the chance to write about a new (for me) wine region and a producer who is clearly innovating with interesting varieties.

Morris of Rutherglen Cinsaut (Blue Imperial) 2010

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Morris of Rutherglen Cinsaut (Blue Imperial) 2010

Morris of Rutherglen Cinsaut (Blue Imperial) 2010

Closing in on a century of varietal wines, 76 with this post, it’s starting to be a bit more challenging.  Even though I’ve encountered 98 different grapes, over 20 of them have been only as components in blends.  There are a few that will be relatively easy to find as varietal wines, such as Prosecco and Tempranillo, but others such as Crouchen Blanc and Tibouren are rare enough in blends and nearly impossible to source as varietals.  Today’s wine is a grape that proved more difficult than I had anticipated to find as a varietal, despite it being a relatively common variety.  So I give you the surprisingly rare Morris of Rutherglen Cinsaut (Blue Imperial) 2010.

Whenever I think of Cinsaut I am reminded of the first time I heard it pronounced out loud, which was well after I was familiar with the word on paper.  Unfortunately I was unable to connect how it sounds with the spelling, and came across as something of an idiot as a winemaker told me all about a grape which I had tasted numerous times.  It didn’t help that it can also be spelled Cinsault, and in Australia it can also be known as Blue Imperial or even Black Prince (among many others).

Cinsaut is a red grape of southern France, though there are plantings in the south of Italy going back centuries as well.  It has proven popular in the vineyard for a number of reasons.  First, it does well in heat and under drought conditions, which while generally a good thing, can be an extremely attractive quality in countries or regions where irrigation is not permitted or practical, and goes some way to explain why it is also cultivated in North Africa and Lebanon.  Second, it can produce generous yields of both big bunches and big berries, though there is obviously a trade-off to be maintained between yields and quality.

Outside of the Mediterranean, Cinsault is best known to students of wine as a parent of Pinotage in South Africa, where it was known confusingly as Hermitage.  It was the most widely planted red grape there for decades, only dropping out of the top spot in the 1990s, but not widely appreciated.  There are some plantings of the grape in the USA, particularly on the West Coast in California and Washington, and while not wildly popular within Australia, it is a part of some well respected red blends from Barossa and McLaren Vale.

This is the first wine on this site from Rutherglen.  Being based in South Australia, there’s certainly a local bias against wines from interstate in terms of availability, but Rutherglen has an international reputation and featured prominently in the WSET Diploma, albeit within the section for fortified wine.  Rutherglen is in Victoria, north east of Melbourne, nestled against the border with New South Wales.  It’s a historic region, with a wine industry that dates back to the first half of the 19th century.  The climate is continental with hot summer days but cold nights.  Broadly speaking, there are two main soil types, with a stretch of loam across lower hill slopes being favoured for the production of fortified wines and more widespread sandy soils in which grapes for table wine are grown.  The fortified wines of Rutherglen deserve their own article, so I will save discussion of them for when I have one in front of me.  The table wines though are typically big and red, with Shiraz, Durif and Cabernet Sauvignon being most widely planted for table wines.  Muscat and Muscadelle are widely planted for fortified wines.

Morris Wines was established in 1859 by George Francis Morris and he grew it to over 200 acres by 1885, making it the largest wine producer in the Southern Hemisphere.  However, the region as a whole was hit hard by phylloxera near the turn of the century, resulting in a great downturn and in the sale of the business in 1917.  However, the family remains involved in the operation to this day and the fifth generation, though the company is currently owned by Pernod Ricard Australia.

The company is best known, as is typical of the region, for its fortified wines.  Morris produces over a dozen though I hesitate to list them all as they have names like Vintage Port, Fino, Amontillado and Tokay which are in a state of flux (it’s complicated) and will wait until I’m covering Rutherglen fortified wines.  However, they do produce table wines of the big three red grapes, Shiraz, Durif and Cabernet Sauvignon, in addition to this Cinsaut, as well as a Chardonnay and a sparkling Shiraz / Durif blend.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright with a medium plus ruby colour and slow, thick legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium intensity and notes of black cherry, plums, cranberries, and some sweet spice.  On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium fine tannins, medium body, medium plus alcohol, medium plus intensity and a medium plus length.  There are notes of plum, cranberries, black cherries, and a hint of liquorice.

I rate this wine as a solid good.  It had a strong fruit profile as befits a young red, and while it is fruit driven, it’s not just a bland collection of simple red fruit – the flavours are fairly distinct and complex.  It has more intensity on the palate than the nose, and the acidity keeps it fresh.  As this is my first varietal Cinsaut, I can’t say much about typicity, but it certainly hasn’t put me off the grape.  I’ll continue to be on the lookout for Cinsaut, even if I only find it in blends.

Sandhill Estate Vineyard Gamay Noir 2010

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Sandhill Estate Vineyard Gamay Noir 2010

Sandhill Estate Vineyard Gamay Noir 2010

While I’ve been taking it easy over the holidays in terms of wine writing, I can’t let the end of the year slip by without writing up this wine.  Gamay is one of my favourite varieties, I’ve been on a bit of a Canadian kick of late, and it makes sense to end the year with something I  like.  But it’s more than just that.  This wine is in fact the wine I enjoyed drinking more than any other in 2012 and so my wine of the year is the Sandhill Estate Vineyard Gamay Noir 2010.

I’ve been a fan of Gamay from before I knew anything about wine, and I can trace it back to a Beaujolais Nouveau dinner in Seattle where the proprietor had a small barrel of the stuff he poured for diners that third Thursday of November many years ago.  I didn’t know what grape or grapes went into the wine, and really wasn’t at all interested at the time, but I enjoyed the sense of occasion.  When I started learning about wine a decade later, though my tasted shifted from Nouveau to the more savoury village wines, Gamay remained a favourite of mine, irrespective of what the rest of the wine world thinks of it.

I wrote a fair bit about Gamay when I covered the Sorrenberg offering back in February, but since I now have at my disposal the wonderful Wine Grapes tome, I can’t help but throw in a few additional details.  The book officially calls the grape Gamay Noir, as does this producer, which differentiates it from its sibling Gamay Blanc Gloriod (no longer cultivated) and the red-juice producing Gamay Teinturier de Bouze which is thought to be a mutation of Gamay Noir.  The parentage of Gamay Noir is believed to be Gouais Blanc and Pinot, making it a sibling of Aligoté, Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Melon, Romorantin and at least a dozen other slightly less widely known varieties.  In addition to the countries I originally mentioned, it’s apparently also cultivated in South Africa, so another wine has been added to my shopping list for the next visit.

This is yet another wine of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.  The region should by now be very familiar to return readers, but if you need a refresher on the basics, please have a look at my posts on the JoieFarm Reserve Chardonnay and the Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery Auxerrois.

That brings us to Sandhill, which should not be confused with Sandhill Winery in Columbia Valley, Washington State, Sandhills Winery in North Carolina, or Sandhill Crane Vineyards in Michigan.  There was even a Sandhill Vineyard in Australia, but it changed its name.  I can’t imagine why.

This Sandhill was founded in 1997 and is one of a dozen wine labels owned by Andrew Peller Limited.  The wine is made by Howard Soon, a Vancouver native with over 30 years of winemaking experience.  His approach gives Sandhill the relatively unique selling point of only producing single vineyard wines.  Grapes are sourced from five different vineyards, in addition to the estate vineyard, and the origin features prominently in their branding.  Winemaking is non-interventionist so as to allow appreciation of the particular vineyard terroir.  Production is very limited, and wines in the “Small Lots” line are often only made in quantities of a dozen or two barrels – sometimes less.  White wines produced include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.  Red wines include Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay Noir, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Syrah, and a few blends of the above.  They also produce a rosé based on Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese and Barbera.

This wine was produced using fruit from the Sandhill Estate Vineyard, in the South Okanagan.  The site has a unique microclimate, enjoying both an abundance of direct sunshine and temperatures which can climb to nearly 40C/104F.  In addition, it’s located at the base of a rocky hill which reflects sunshine back at the vineyard.  This wine was fermented with commercial yeast and aged for just over a year in third use French oak barrels.

In the glass it is clear and bright, with a medium plus ruby colour and quick thick legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium plus intensity and notes of dark chocolate, liquorice, bacon, black cherries, and black pepper.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus intensity. medium acidity, medium plus body, medium alcohol, medium plus fine tannins, and medium plus length.  The palate delivers what was promised on the nose with notes of dark chocolate, black cherries, liquorice, bacon, and black pepper.  There’s also some brambles and earthiness, which gives the wine texture.

I rate this wine as exceptional – it’s really fantastic.  There is a complex array of flavours which makes for a very rich drinking experience.  There’s certainly varietal typicity, in that it’s absolutely Gamay, but produced by someone looking to make a fine wine (as opposed to how a great deal of Gamay is made).  I knew nothing about the producer when I bought it and the same was true when I drank it.  Now though, I am in love with this wine and I would feel guilty if my wife didn’t feel the same.  More’s the pity that I’m not likely to run into another bottle without a trip back to Canada, and I don’t think a replacement from Washington, North Carolina or Michigan will quite do the trick.

Niche Wine Company +124 Reserve Foch 2010

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Niche Wine Company +124 Reserve Foch 2010

Niche Wine Company +124 Reserve Foch 2010

It’s been a long two weeks, between an office move and a five day course in project management, but I’m back and looking forward to covering some new grapes.  It’s been a bit difficult to get myself back in gear, but I’m going to make it easier with a string of varietal wines from grapes that are new to me.  Today is something of a rarity, the Niche Wine Company +124 Reserve Foch 2010.

I picked up some interesting wines while I was in Canada, in particular some varieties I’d not encountered before.  Auxerrois was a familiar name but hadn’t tried one, and Ehrenfelser was completely new to me.  The grape in this wine is one that I had come across in my studies but never expected to try because it’s so uncommon, and also because it’s a hybrid.

I believe this is our first hybrid, and as such it deserves a note.  Most grapes used to make wine are from the Eurasian species Vitis vinifera which translates to wine bearing grapes.  However, it’s possible to produce vines which have Vitis vinifera and another Vitis parent, and such vines are known as hybrids.  It’s typically done in an effort to supplement vinifera with resistance to various pests, diseases, or difficult climatic conditions.  After phylloxera hit Europe in the 19th century, there was a great deal of interest in such hybrids, typically bred with phylloxera-resistant North American species.  Many were produced through viticultural research in France and are collectively known as French hybrids, something of an analogue to the German crossings discussed in the context of the CedarCreek Estate Winery Ehrenfelser.

However, development of hybrid vines is somewhat controversial, in that non-vinifera vines can have undesirable properties in wine, such as a scent evocative of animal fur which is termed foxy.  Of the many hybrids to emerge at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, most were subsequently banned in France for grape production, and others relegated for use only as root stock onto which Vitis vinifera vines were grafted.  Some, however, such as Vidal and Seyval Blanc, have proven popular in areas with marginal climate because of their ability to survive winter freezes.

This grape, Maréchal Foch or sometimes just Foch, is a hybrid developed in France in 1911 by Eugène Kuhlmann, and commercially released in 1921.  It takes its name from Ferdinand Foch, a French general who became Maréchal de France in 1918.  I know of him because I’m keen on military history and hardware, and while it’s quite common for the names of war heroes to grace things like ships and tanks, I can’t think of another general to have a grape named in his or her honour.  This hybrid is recorded as bring the result of breeding Goldriesling (Vitis vinifera) with Millardet et Grasset 101-14 OP (which is itself a hybrid parented by Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris), though it has not as yet been confirmed or disproved through DNA profiling.  A red grape able to withstand the cold, very little of it remains in Europe, with plantings being limited to tiny amounts in the Loire and eastern Switzerland.  However, it has found favour in some cold states in the northern USA as well as both eastern and western Canada.

Speaking of Canada, this wine is from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.  I’ve written about the region a few times since my trip to Vancouver in September, so I won’t repeat myself, but details can be found in my posts on the JoieFarm Reserve Chardonnay and the Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery Auxerrois.

The Niche Wine Company is a very small producer based in West Kelowna.  Joanna and James Schlosser run the winemaking and business side of the operation, which operates on vineyards James’ parents, Jerry and Kathleen, own and work.  They released their first vintage in 2011, with varietal wines based on their plantings of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, and this Foch.  They also produce a rosé, which at least for their first vintage was a blend of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.  The company had two releases of their Maréchal Foch 2010.  The first was released after just under a year in a mix of French and American oak barrels, whereas this second release is from a portion held in reserve and put into first use American oak barrels for an additional 124 days.

In the glass this wine is clear, and bright, with a deep brick red colour that is nearly black and quick, thick legs.  On the nose it’s clean and intense with notes of dried red fruit, raisins (more Pedro Ximénez than Port), a little nail varnish and dark chocolate.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium minus body, medium plus intensity, medium fine tannins, medium alcohol, and a medium length.  There are notes of raisins, dark chocolate, prunes, cherries, and a hint of coffee.

I rate this wine as very good.  It has a great intensity and complexity of flavours, particularly for a wine that’s so young.  It was very fresh right out of the bottle, though 30 minutes after decanting the raisin notes started to appear which rounded out the flavour profile nicely.  I wasn’t expecting this wine to be anything other than a curiosity – a hybrid that’s still listed in textbooks but with decreasing plantings.  However, it absolutely delivered.  While I’m unlikely to encounter another bottle any time soon, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a dozen for the cellar to see how it looks a few years down the road.