Calivinification (Red Hot)

Whilst the trade was tasting its way through 2,000 Australian wines yesterday, I was sitting at home writing about California, by way of the Nekter Wines event at The 10 Cases in Covent Garden on Monday. Of course, I know we are all behind Australia at the moment, not least myself with family members directly affected by the fires. I just thought that I’ve written so much about Australia lately that it is time to spread my wings further afield again.

The Nekter event was somewhat smaller, with thirty-one wines on show, but it was no less crowded, being held in the small basement room at The 10 Cases on Endell Street. When I have tasted this importer’s wines before it has always been at a larger event, whether at Out of the Box, or at the occasional tastings they do with friends like Modal Wines and others, most recently in Islington. I had no idea that they import thirty-one wines from California and although I’ve tried a good few in previous vintages it was both a pleasure and quite instructive to sip every one of them in one leisurely sweep. The quality surpassed even my high expectations and I liked every wine on show. This article could easily have been given an alternative title: the best Californian wines you’ve probably never heard of.

The wines were lined up thematically, but I’m going to present them by producer. I think that it made good sense for tasting, but this way may make better sense for the reader. The thirty-one wines came from nine producers and I understand that all the vintages shown are those currently available.

All prices quoted are retail, inclusive of VAT, based on the list handed out at the tasting. They are occasionally rounded up to the nearest pound. But please check as they do not always correspond with the prices listed on the Nekter web site.



This is perhaps an appropriate place to begin because some would argue that Steve Matthiasson, along with his wife Jill Klein Matthiasson, has done more than anyone to change Californian viticultural attitudes. This former cyclist and skateboarder has influenced a lot of change here, not least through his war on the heat spike, eschewing canopy thinning and rather risking a spot of mildew than subjecting his fruit to the harsh sunshine of a Californian summer. The result has been a crop of wines with more tender alcohol levels, but with no loss of fruit ripeness. You could even say he’s redefined the meaning of ripeness in a California context. At least among connoisseurs.

Nekter imports the “Tendu” wines from Matthiasson Family Vineyards. Tendu White 2016 is a Vermentino with 10% Chardonnay, from the Dunningan Hills AVA (Yolo County, Sacramento Valley). The soils are gravel and the climate could be called Mediterranean. Fermented with native yeasts in used wood, it sees six months on lees and no sulphur is added. It may be a relatively simple wine but it packs fresh minerality and a little lees texture, and for under £24 it is very good value. 10.5% abv.

Tendu Cortese 2018 is made from fruit sourced in Clarksburg’s Lost Slough Vineyard (which will crop up later) on the Sacramento River Delta’s deep alluvial clay. It’s an interesting take on the Piemontese variety because it is put through malo, giving it a bit of gras, assisted no doubt by picking slightly later (not all that common at Matthiasson). It’s bottled unfiltered too, giving a hint of texture, which elevates a simple £22 wine.

Tendu Red 2018 comprises just under half Barbera, just less than 20% each of Aglianico and Montepulciano, with the remaining 12-13% from a mix of Rhône grapes. These all come from two sites (Muller Vineyard for the Barbera, Windmill Vineyard for the rest) in the Dunningan Hills. Simple élèvage in stainless steel, but no added sulphur. For a red it has lovely zip.

For the 2018 vintage the Tendu wines have moved from litre bottles to 75cl, and they all now have a compostable cork closure.


This is the not uncommon story of a couple of guys, Matt Nagy and Ben Brenner, fed up with making posh Parker-point wines for bankers and hedge fund gurus, who found happiness just letting the fruit do its thing, hence the name of their own label here.

Submerged Ribolla Gialla 2017 is a great example to begin with. From the famous Oak Knoll District, George Vare originally planted these first ever Californian Ribolla vines in the Bengier vineyard. They came from Gravner in Friuli and have been called “suitcase vinestock” for the obvious reason. Mind you, I’m not sure how George managed to plant eight acres from his suitcase, but from this beginning a Californian star was born. Fermentation is for fifteen days under a submerged cap, followed by fifteen months in old oak with almost no topping-up. No SO2 was added. Mineral and stony sums this up, and £35 is a bit of a bargain. It’s only got 12.5% alcohol but there’s beautiful balance.


Riesling 2018 comes, possibly surprisingly given the variety, from the Nelson Family Vineyard in Mendocino. The vineyard has been in the family for four generations and the 45-year-old vines give superb grapes. Big lime with a hint of grapefruit balances quite rich fruit, where you get a little pineapple mid-palate too. Stainless steel only. Unusual but wonderfully moreish. There’s apparently around 15.5g/l residual sugar. £37.

Mourvèdre 2016 comes in part from the Fore Vineyard at over 1,000 metres asl in Lake County, all on red rocky terrain. 40% whole bunch fermentation in Hungarian oak gives a wine with a fresh floral bouquet and a chewy palate. £44.


Counoise 2018 shows a slightly different side to this grape, often made light and fruity. Steve Matthiasson planted the Windmill Vineyard in the Dunningan Hills in his younger days, along with Jack Roberts of Keep Wines and Benevolent Neglect’s Matt Nagy. The other half of the fruit comes from Alder Springs in Mendocino. Matt ferments and ages the two separately before blending. It’s a big wine (14% abv), yet has lashings of freshness and acidity, along with a bit of grip, to balance it. Just £27.

Whole Cluster Syrah 2017 is a result of an extended period of skin contact caused by the necessity to leave the wine during the 2017 fires. The result is actually lighter than the 2016, perhaps because the grapes were picked two weeks earlier, or perhaps affected by the skins drying (no pumpovers, less extraction?). Ageing was in one old 400-litre puncheon. The bouquet is atypical of Syrah, but despite the wine’s current structure and 14% alcohol, it somehow still feels quite light on its feet. £58.


Jared and Tracy Brandt set up shop in a Berkeley warehouse after a stage with Eric Texier in the Rhône, and a passion for some of the tenets of Japanese permaculture adherent, Masanobu Fukuoka (whose name the deeper readers of my blog will perhaps be familiar with).

Stone Crusher Roussanne 2017 comes from El Dorado County at 750 metres asl. Whole bunches (no destemming) fermented for just shy of two weeks with light pigeage. The juice was basket-pressed gently into old oak for ten months ageing. The skins give a deeper colour and texture, but the wine is nicely rounded out. The finish shows a touch of attractive sourness. £42.50.

“The Bear” 2016 isn’t as big as the name suggests. The lead variety is Counoise, blended with Rhône varieties (including a little Roussanne). The source is El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills once more, the regime is a mixture of concrete and wooden vat, the varieties fermented separately before blending and then given ten months in old oak. This has a very “sweet” cherry nose balanced by a palate with a bite. A lovely wine, though perhaps it takes a taste to fork out £46/bottle for Counoise. Taste it and you may well be tempted! £46.

Perli Chardonnay 2017 The innate balance and tension in this wine probably derives from the site, the Perli Vineyard being a steep slope devoid of much topsoil at 670m asl on Mendocino Ridge. Apparently yields are kept down by the local bear population! This took six months to ferment before five months ageing in used wood, and there is still 6g/litre r/s left in the wine. It adds richness to balance the steely acids…hence the tension. This comes in at an unbelievably low 11% alcohol too, yet it is almost hedonistic. I’d love to try a whole bottle. £38.

Testa Carignanne 2017 comes from a site planted almost 110 years ago in Mendocino. The terroir is decomposed sandstone. Just 20% whole bunches are used but the wine remains vibrant in every respect, via colour, bouquet and palate. A classic example of Cali-Cari weighing in at a mere 12.5% yet showing perfect balance between ripeness of fruit and thirst quenching ability. £36.


If you think you know Evan Frazier but are not au-fait with Ferdinand Wines, perhaps it is because he has a day job working as Assistant Winemaker for John and Alex Kongsgaard. He began his career in Roussillon but for his own label he’s firmly taken inspiration from Spain, although the last of the wines here nods towards his Pyrenean beginning.

Tempranillo 2014 Shake Ridge is a rocky site of red soils scattered with solid quartz in Amador County (Sierra Nevada). This wine saw a fairly extended 18 months in oak, 10% of it new, adding toast and spice but not too much. The wine has crispness and bite suggesting a nice balance at five years of age. £37.

Albariño 2018 Vista Luna is a site in the far northeast corner of Lodi, near the border with Amador County, an area which gets its heat ameliorated by cool air from the San Joaquin Delta and the Sierra Foothills. It’s made from organic fruit, fermented in old oak with whole bunch pressing. The wine is left passively on lees for ten months, without any punching down or stirring. What you get initially is a very sunny, bright but rich, bouquet, overtly fruit-driven yet with the merest hint of ginger and nutmeg spice. Deeply interesting. £28.

Garnacha Blanca 2018 This wine also hails from Vista Luna (see above). Handpicked at low brix, the fruit is handled carefully, pressed as whole clusters and aged one year in older wood. Just a little sulphur was added at the bottling stage. It’s as tasty as its Catalan counterpart can be, with a herby and savoury demeanour, complemented by some Californian sunshine. Circa £27.

If you really want to try something different there is also a white wine and a rosé in 375ml cans from Ferdinand Wines. It’s pretty unorthodox using quality fruit (the pink is from 75-y-o Carignanne bush vines) for a canned wine, but these are reputed to be very superior wines in a can. Bring on summer.


This is a quality operation where fruit selection is paramount, based on multiple tries and picking fruit at optimum phenolic ripeness for every single site. This means the wines aren’t cheap (the first wine is £35 and the remaining three retail in the £50-£60 bracket). But they do exude class.

Homestead 2014 takes a fruit selection comprising Mourvèdre (35%), Grenache (27%), Carignan (19%), Syrah (16%) and Cabernet Sauvignon from sites in the Mount Harlan and Chalone AVAs on the Santa Cruz Mountains. Each variety is fermented separately in small vats before ageing for just under a year in used oak barrels. It’s a well put together blend, a lovely wine where all the different varieties seem to play their part in a harmonious whole. Freshness and sour cherry were by two foremost thoughts here.

Looking at how much the wines below cost, this could well be a bargain at £35. The three wines below were bracketed at the tasting with the three stars from Ashes & Diamonds, which Nekter had called “Showstoppers – where the air is rare”.

Coastview Chardonnay 2016 comes from a high altitude site in Monterey County. It sees a gentle ferment with an extended period of twelve months on lees. It’s such a complete wine that you may be surprised to find out it is made in stainless steel. It sees no oak. The result is a complex and savoury Chardonnay. The lees have definitely added texture and mouthfeel and it shows signs of considerable complexity to come over the next year or three (perhaps longer?). £54.

Lester Pinot Noir 2015 comes from the Santa Cruz Mountains, more specifically from the Lester family’s vineyard in the Corralitos Hills, just three miles inland from Monterey Bay. Planted on poor sandy and clay loam twenty years ago, the grapes benefit greatly from the famous bay fog which only burns off later in the day, when the sun then lingers into the evening. A high proportion of the grapes are fermented as whole clusters (70%) in open wooden vats, followed by ageing in French oak (25% new). As with the Chardonnay, the aromatics are stunning. Such vibrancy. This is serious stuff, but it is equally a wine which appeals to the sensual side. £61.

Gabilan Mountains GSM 2013 I’d never heard of the Gabilan Mountains but apparently the are in Monterey, south of the bay. The Grenache and Syrah, which together form 76% of the blend, come from the Coastview Vineyard at 700m asl. The Mourvèdre is from the Brousseau site, down at 440m. The two vineyards are fermented separately before ageing together twenty-one months in used French oak. The colour is dark, and a glance at the abv on the label makes you take a second look – 15%. It has that ripe Monterey nose, but it is nothing like those big cropping corporate wines off the valley floor down here. The palate has much more freshness than you’d imagine, though it is quite tannic, even at six years old. £50.25.



I am a signed-up fan of Keep Wines. I must have told the story before of how Jack Roberts met wife to be Johanna within a few hours of stepping off the plane on his first trip to Napa. Whilst Johanna has worked for Broc Cellars and Abe Schoener, Jack is now Assistant Winemaker at Matthiasson Family Wines. Their own label makes wine from sites which they either farm themselves or are cultivated by Steve Matthiasson.

I must also have a label moan here. I absolutely adored their original labels when I first saw them. They show a castle, I forget where it is, somewhere in the UK, in which it is rumoured that Jack’s father was born. People say “wow!” but I just think how freezing cold those places tend to be. They reckon the label is too funky for the grown up wines they are making these days, yet I’m not so sure the wines have completely lost that little touch of funkiness which first drew me to them back in 2017. Try the Counoise, or their Pinot Meunier (not shown on Monday, so perhaps they have stopped making it?) to see what I mean.

Counoise “David Girard” 2018 This has a gorgeous pale colour with high-toned sweet cherry fruit. Slightly cloudy/hazy, it has a gentle texture in which otherwise is a fruity wine to drink cool in the sunshine. But with 13% abv it’s not that light, and will be a versatile food wine. The fruit, planted on alluvial soils over granite in El Dorado County (east of Sacramento) is forty years old. It is fermented carbonically in a sealed tank for two weeks before being basket-pressed into old oak for just six months ageing. No sulphur is added. Delicious stuff at £32/bottle.

Evanghelo Carignanne 2016 This is a seriously old vineyard with 140-year-old vines in Contra Costa County, which forms the northern part of San Francisco’s East Bay Region. You’ll do well to find it mapped in any wine books aside from Jon Bonné’s The New California. It has been referred to, according to Nekter, as “the land which time forgot”, but this does mean there’s some very old vine stock here. This is a complex Carignanne with a little sous-bois underneath the fruit and, perhaps, an earthy touch. It’s a wine for quite hearty food, coming in at 14% abv and retailing at £46.

Lost Slough Albariño 2015 is from the same site as Steve Matthiasson’s Tendu Cortese, at Clarksburg (Hidden off Highway 5, to the north of Walnut Grove, which I’m sure leaves you none the wiser – look at Bonné, p 287 to see how remote it is). The “blurb” talks of how this wine is “influenced by the old school style of Galician Albariño, as championed by Raul Pérez’s Atelier”. Well, I am something of a Pérez fan. It is picked later when malic acid has receded, basket pressed and aged first in neutral oak for two years, then a further two years in bottle. It exemplifies how the variety can age, and ought to be allowed to. £36.

Windmill Vermentino 2017 Another site we’ve come across before (in Yolo County, if you remember). The fruit underwent a spontaneous fermentation and thereafter it was left on lees for 18 months to mature. We have a fatter, or perhaps deeper is better, wine with rich texture, but all on just 11% alcohol. Juicy with a savoury or sour touch. £37.

Kahn Syrah 2015 This was one of the brightest wines on show. The Kahn vineyard is made up of volcanic soils (perhaps one reason), at 600 metres in the Lovall Valley (Napa), but only accessible from the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains. The fruit is stunning in its purity, dark with cassis and a touch of eucalyptus, yet very much Syrah. Organic, 14% abv, 50% whole bunch fermented and aged in neutral oak for 18 months. Very impressive at only £46 for a wine from California.


If a wine entices you by its label, then I think you will be hooked on Field Recordings. Each vintage they choose an historical musician to complement their philosophy. Andrew Jones is the man behind Field Recordings. This is a tiny label, of which the “Wonderwall” wines (presumably Andrew is an Oasis fan) are an equally small part. This winemaker with a vine nursery background is also the instigator of yet another “wine in a can” project, Alloy Wine Works.

The two wines immediately below come from Edna Valley. Located south of San Luis Obispo, this is part of the large region denoted as “Central Coast”, though in wine geography terms it is very much “Southern California”. But we know that means little if you benefit from the cold sea air and mist, in this case from Morro Bay, so Edna Valley is actually pretty cool for its southern location.

Wonderwall Chardonnay 2018 comes from Spanish Springs and Coquina. The wine sees around eight months on lees, and ageing is unusually in a mix of both oak and acacia barrels. The oak is American, not French, and 25% new. The result is a wine which has a degree of weight on the palate (abv is 14%), but a nice line of citrus acidity as well. With considerable zip, you’d be unlikely to guess that level of alcohol. Nor, I think, would you guess this retails for just £23.

Wonderwall Pinot Noir 2018 Some of the Pinot fruit comes from Spanish Springs (see above), the rest from three more sustainably farmed vineyards: Morrow View, Greengate and Pooch. Fermentation is in stainless steel on native yeasts, after which it goes into oak for malo and eight months on fine lees. The bouquet strikes as very fragrant and fruity. The palate shows a certain lightness, but only to a degree, as there’s structure too which implies a little more age might benefit it, despite its low price, £25.

Wonderwall Syrah 2018 is just given a broader Central Coast designation, but the individual sites which make up the blend are all in choice locations: Arroya Seco, Paso Robles AVAs, and Stolo Vineyard, in the almost unknown coastal community of Cambria, which does not as yet have a designated AVA. What the sites all share is a rocky terrain. The result is a bright wine where the fact that this sees a third new oak during an eleven month maturation does not really come through on the nose at all. It does on the palate, of course, but for just £25 you get a wine which will mellow into something perhaps more European in style than typically Californian. That despite its avowed 14% abv.


Three friends came together to form Long Term Wine Company and the Convexity label, and they managed to hire Steve Matthiasson to make the wine. You may have gathered by now that Matthiasson plays a part of some distinction in many of these wines. It should be said that few, if any, other wine makers have played such a pivotal role in defining what we now call The New California (post-Bonné, of course).

Convexity Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 The fruit has been sourced from two Napa Valley sites, Red Hen and Vare Vineyards, along with a supplement from the Matthiasson Family’s own vines. What makes this cuvée really interesting is that it is only comprised of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to 3% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot (all very Bordelais), we also have 4% Sangiovese. That latter percentage may not sound a lot but I think it gives the wine a bit of lift and an extra dimension. It has a serious 18 month period in French oak (a third being new) and the result is a surprisingly elegant, leggy (13.5% abv), beautiful, wine which covers several octaves, from sweet fruit to savoury. £65, but still good value.



We end on a high note indeed with Ashes & Diamonds. Khashi Khaledi worked in the music industry but made a life change to wine after developing a passion for, and a desire to recreate, the style of the great Californian (primarily Napa) wines of the 1960s and 70s. In order to achieve this goal, Khaledi has hired some famous names to make the wines. The first two below are made by Steve Matthiasson, the last wine by Diana Snowdon Seysses.

The name Ashes & Diamonds denotes a crossroads in life which Khashi felt he was facing. One choice, as with a seam of coal, could lead to ashes and one to diamonds. A bit like my late change of career to wine writing, then. The diamonds are, of course, all metaphorical.

Cabernet Franc No 1 2014 This is actually a blend of 75% CF with 25% Merlot. The Cabernet comes from what are described as eight “backyard” vineyards in Napa’s cooler south, on a mix of volcanic, clay and loam soils. The Merlot, from Ashes and Diamonds’ own vineyard, is forty years old. The regime isn’t extreme, twenty months in French oak, just 20% new. The key is the fruit, and its sensitive handling (all destemmed and fermented in stainless steel) by Matthiasson. The Cabernet Franc has real freshness but the Merlot rounds it out. The immaculate Cabernet Franc fruit shines right through. £83.


Vineyard 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 This is in some ways a classic Rutherford Bench Napa Cabernet, from the region’s once beating heart. The George III Vineyard was used by André Tchelistcheff to make Beaulieu Vineyards’ famous wines, including the 1968 vintage, the tasting of which was so instrumental as a catalyst to Khashi Khaledi’s career change. This cuvée looks to a ripe style, but with an unbelievably restrained 12.5% alcohol. How does Matthiasson do it, especially because, of the mix of French and American oak, 17% and 30% respectively is new. This is very classy and built to last. Despite the low alcohol, it has real presence.

Now I’m not usually inclined to warm to this kind of wine, where great wealth is directed towards creating a wine that may well be very fine, yet is well beyond the purse of most people I know (and I do know a lot of people who spend rather a lot more than I can afford on wine). But I keep thinking of the winemaker, and what he has been given the opportunity to make here. So at £133/bottle I won’t be buying it, even less so in a restaurant, but if you are a little more wealthy, and so disposed, you will not be disappointed (though it must be said that, made “old school”, it would be a crying shame to drink them all too soon, as is so often the way with Napa).

Red Hen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon No 1 2016 Directly north of the town of Napa itself, in the south of the Valley, lies Oak Knoll. Being one of the coolest sites you will find a quite different kind of Cabernet here, and 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is what we have in the glass. The vineyard is owned and farmed by Bart and Daphne Araujo, whose famous Eisele Vineyard has, since 2016, formed the name of this equally famous biodynamic estate (formerly Araujo Estate), which I now believe (source: World Wine Atlas, 8th edn) is in the same hands as Château Latour.

The winemaker this time is Diana Snowdon Seysses, and she treated the Cabernet to a 17-day fermentation in stainless steel followed by maturation for seventeen months in wholly French oak, 35% of which was new. In some ways this wine, despite its 14% abv, has a Pinot sensibility. Am I taking too much from the winemaker? The fruit is really intense, but Diana has brought out a more savoury side (herbal) which you don’t usually get in the fruit bombs Napa sometimes produces. Yet again, we have a resulting wine which will age. A mere £102.50 for this one.


Some Conclusions

This was an unusual tasting. First of all, California has given me a great deal of pleasure since I read Jon Bonné’s New California Wine back five or six years ago. It helped that London wine merchant Roberson sold a great many of the wines he covered, which were easy to pick up before they sadly closed their retail shop in West London. That said, California forms a very small part of my cellar and I probably possess more wines from, say, Beaujolais or The French Alps than I do from America’s sunshine state.

Tasting through thirty-one Cali wines was instructive. There wasn’t a single wine I disliked, even with alcohol levels topping out at 14% or above for a third of them. I was pleasantly surprised how many saw no, or little, added sulphur and how stable those wines were. But out of all the wines, my favourites invariably showed lower levels of alcohol, which for me in no way appeared to affect ripeness. This doubtless comes back to something I touched on at the beginning – canopy management. It is certainly no surprise that Steve Matthiasson’s name is an almost constant thread.

I should make small mention of the 2018 vintage, which is the current vintage for several wines here. Potentially in California it is a cracker…if you have a taste for restraint and elegance. Generally, average temperatures throughout the 2018 growing season were lower than usual, as much as five degrees in some districts. Harvest for many began anything between ten days and three weeks later than in 2017, That makes a big difference. In parts of Europe even a few years ago that drop in average temperatures  could spell disaster (imagine Bordeaux). In an increasingly overheated California it made for an interesting scenario. Of course, taste the wines first. Generalisations are always of debatable value. But do try to taste. If the wines fit your preferred style it might be just the right time to venture a bit of cellar space for the Californians.

If you must know, my favourites for drinking would be the Benevolent Neglect Ribolla GiallaKeep Wines’ Counoise and CarignanneDonkey & Goat Testa Carignanne, and Big Basin “Homestead Blend” (all very much geared to “drinking”). But you will see throughout my notes that there are many wines I’d love to drink at home or in a restaurant. Of the wines costing an arm and a leg, these are unlikely to pass my lips other than at future tastings, but they scored for being wines one would drink, not merely admire.

Now I genuinely cannot wait for Nekter to show their South Africans and Australians separately. In the meantime, enjoy these Californians. I hope my obvious enthusiasm is validated by other writers who may have attended.






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Binging on the Bogans’ 2018 Burgundies – Eyre, Haisma, Le Grappin et al

The festival of Burgundy tastings (some call it a circus) hits London in January. For some people it is the highlight of the wine year. Importers bombard their customers with invitations to events which overlap, so that some avid fans can attend three or four tastings in a day. And they do. I tend only to go to one these days. This one. I’m no longer in the market for very expensive wines requiring long cellaring, although I’m very much enjoying those I have tucked away.

Andrew and Emma Nielsen’s Le Grappin, Mark Haisma and Jane Eyre were showing their 2018 vintage at Vinoteca City (Cannon Street/Bloomberg Arcade), along with Jérémy Recchione and the Romanian venture of which Mark is a partner, Dagon Wines (formerly Dagon Clan).

Before we hit the wines I think I need to say something about the 2018 vintage in Burgundy. The general view is that it was hot. That cannot be disputed, although most producers will focus on the good news – no hail or frost, a dry summer and fruit in perfect condition at harvest. When you read what consumers are saying the views range from “difficult to judge easily” to “undrinkable”, the latter comment made about the wines of one well known grower on the Côte d’Or. One cynic said it was probably a “best ever Parker vintage”. But the majority considered opinion is that freshness is a quality found in the minority.

However, I only attended this tasting. There’s a reason, of course, well several, but I do feel that all three producers headlining here do produce the kind of wines I appreciate. I was away at the time of their 2017’s tasting last year, and I’m glad I made it yesterday. I was pleasantly surprised. I can agree with the words of a trade professional I know who, after a few qualifying comments, mostly regarding prices, said “some great gear on show, though”. Let us begin.


Andrew and Emma Nielsen work out of a tiny winery within the walls of Beaune. Their Du Grappin label buys grapes from points south, Beaujolais, Macon and the Rhône. Le Grappin is the main label for their Côte d’Or wines, where they have been lucky to secure long term relationships with the owners of some genuinely under appreciated sites. Jancis has called their wines “pure” and “refined”, and that is indeed what they are. Andrew is an intuitive winemaker, which means he adapts techniques to the vintage. That was important in 2018. I do have an emotional link with this producer. I bought my first pack of Beaune Boucherottes from the (first) 2012 vintage. I don’t buy every year, but that is purely for budgetary reasons, so I have to focus to be 100% objective.


For the 2018 vintage, with no serious damage and loss from hail and frost, there are four white wines produced. Personally I think that due to the Le Grappin style, these wines have been a success. All four are very well delineated and differentiated, which is not always easy in a hot year. Savigny Blanc has the most freshness and acidity, Saint-Aubin “En L’Ebaupin” is a little quieter and restrained but has more depth (it’s often my favourite Le Grappin white). Santenay 1er Cru “Les Gravières Blanc” comes back with a bigger bouquet and has a note of salinity, and finally Beaune Grèves has some sweet fruit and spice. There were six barrels made. I think the first three wines would drink well at three-to-four years, whilst the Beaune needs longer. I actually liked every one of them.


The red cuvées were all made with whole bunches in 2018, and with minimum intervention (so no plunging or punching down) to pull back on extraction. They were all fermented as dry as possible. The Savigny has a vibrant colour, a rich cherry nose, and quite sweet fruit. It is balanced by a grippy freshness. Santenay 1er Cru Gravières is a new wine from the same vineyard as the white equivalent. The vines are between forty and seventy years old, which must be an advantage in cases of heat stress. That said, the wine is quite deep and rounded.

Beaune 1er Cru Boucherottes is on the Pommard side of Beaune, but it doesn’t have the tannin that some Pommards seem to have in 2018 (according to what I have read). The fruit is in the red spectrum and I thought it was quite promising. It will drink early, though not now. I recall Andrew telling me to drink the 2013 Boucherottes before the ’12s, and those ’13s are drinking beautifully now. So I’m not discounting the same progress for this vintage.

I also tasted the two 2018 Aligoté cuvées. These if anything seem to have more acidity than the previous vintage when I finished my last bottles, so I don’t think they will fade swiftly. The “Skin” bottling was made with half-destemmed fruit and half by carbonic fermentation over seven days on skins. The destemmed portion definitely adds complexity. Fleurie Poncié 2018 was also impressive, probably helped by being a very old parcel of bush vines at altitude. A true Chauvet wine, using concrete to good effect too (a 21 day fermentation with a slow start thanks to overnight chilling, in Beaune). It has real freshness of scent and structure. Organic. I did also taste the Côtes du Rhône, pure Grenache, good value and good tout-court, but less my thing, I think.

The only concern for me really here is the prices (between £147 and £190 for six in bond for the Côte d’Or wines), but it should be accepted that Andrew and Emma charge what they have to. Top fruit comes at top prices. Those of us who can regularly purchase fine Burgundy these days is, let’s be honest, limited to an elite. It’s a shame, but a fact of life. I will pick up odd bottles of Le Grappin where I can, and enjoy Du Grappin as well.


Of the three Ozgundians Jane might be the least well known in the UK, but some say the most well known in the region itself. Although I know her wines less well than those of the other two, I have come to realise that I have been seriously missing out, if only because my Burgundy budget is now so slender as prices have risen. Jane’s wines cover a wider price spectrum, starting at £105 ex duty/VAT (translating to £145 all in) for her Fleurie right up to £465 (£575 inclusive of duty and VAT) for her Corton Grand Cru. There are a couple of new wines for the 2018 vintage. All are red here.


Jane first made Fleurie in 2016. The juice underwent a similar 21-day fermentation as Le Grappin’s in 2018, but with 60% whole bunches. It’s quite dark-fruited and a little smokiness adds interest. Approachable now.

From the Côte we start with Côte de Nuits-Villages from Comblanchien (from two sites, one parcel farmed biodynamically). 100% destemming and one barrel (ie 10% of ten) was new. Elegantly scented, mineral, nice. Unlike some reports, the lesser wines from all the producers here showed no gloopy flabbiness. Gevrey-Chambertin has some oomph, but also brightness. Savigny 1er Cru Aux Vergelesses usually attracts me. It has a bit more weight, roundness and grip. I think it was the first cuvée Jane made back in 2011. Its round fruit makes it appear approachable but give it time.

Santenay Gravières 1er Cru is a new wine, 30% whole bunches and 25% new wood. The fruit is plump and ripe and it’s a bigger wine, for me, than the Savigny. It may drink well in just 4-5 years. Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Les Bondues is an very interesting wine. It is effectively a Monopole for Jane as she is the only winemaker to take this patch of 90-year-old biodynamically farmed Pinot Noir vines, which sit amid Chardonnay rows pretty much just over the road from Le Montrachet. The acids are good and the fruit pretty complex. It has that touch of earthiness and textured grip that made me quite a fan of Chassagne reds back in the day, when, not being white, they were cheap as chips.

Jane’s Beaune Premier Cru comes from the famous Cent Vignes, on the Savigny side near the Clos du Roi. Six barrels were made (one new). It has a plump bouquet and you do catch a bit of oak spice, with cherry fruit then something deeper, plummy. The vineyard is farmed biodynamically and no sulphur was added to this cuvée until just a little, two months after the malo.

Gevrey comes back with a 1er CruCorbeaux, a site pretty much directly south of, and abutting the gardens of, the village itself. But more importantly, it also abuts the Grand Cru, Mazis Chambertin. It’s relatively closed now but the fruit is exquisite. You also get more complex spicy notes hinted at. There’s more to come here, it needs time.


We finish with the Corton Grand Cru 2018. In 2017 this wine was 100% from “Maréchaudes”, but for 2018 just 60% of the grapes were sourced there. The rest of the fruit came from “Renardes” (30%) and “Bressandes” (10%). The bouquet is wonderfully pretty, Jane attributing the aromatics to the “Renardes” fruit. The palate is bigger than the nose leads you to expect. There’s structure but it does retain a nice lightness and elegance. I’d buy some if I could afford to. Ideally I’d go with a mixed case of the red Chassagne, the Savigny, the Cent Vignes and this Corton.



Mark showed a big lineup of wines so I’ll have to restrict any elongated comments to just a few wines, but the range, again, was good and whilst I preferred some wines to others, they are certainly not at all typical of some of the comments surfacing about the vintage in general. But reading what others have said about this particular tasting on wine forums, I don’t think my more positive thoughts are completely atypical.


We’ll begin with the pair of wines Mark has called A Bogan in Bogandy. The white is a Vin de France, blending Chardonnay and Aligoté, the red is AOP Coteaux Bourguignons with Gamay and Pinot Noir. Both are fun wines which retail at around £15-£17/bottle, which provides good value. As Mark says, he wants all his bottles to be of a certain quality, but for a fun pair of wines these hit the mark. It was my first taste of the Bogans, though I did spot a 2017 “Bogan Goes Walkabout” on the shelf at Vinoteca, a Vin de France blend of Syrah and Grenache, I think.


Mark’s Aligoté is always very popular, and the 2018 more so than ever, possibly on account of the extra ripeness and toned down acids. It comes in at 12.5% abv and both smells and tastes of grape juice. The Côte d’Or kicks off with Saint-Romain, a fresh wine of the hills, before we move down to Chassagne-Montrachet, a wine with perhaps a bit more of a bite, and fruit, whilst retaining freshness. Mark has previously avoided Meursault, but his new Meursault Sous la Velle (from a site close to the town) does not display the traits he seems to dislike about this appellation. It’s very fresh, especially for the vintage, but it does have an underlying buttery essence. I really like it. Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Le Maltroye is potentially a step up in class, very much greengage/reine-claude with mineral texture.


Last of the whites to mention is Mark Haisma’s Saint-Peray 2018. This once derided and unsung appellation of the Northern Rhône is now fashionable once more. I say “once more” because one particular wine merchant never fails to remind its customers that Saint-Peray, albeit in its now rarer sparkling form, was Richard Wagner’s favourite “tipple”. Mark sticks to the still version of this Marsanne-Roussanne blend, giving textured stone fruit and a little oily mouthfeel in 2018. I’d say more phat (ie gratifying) than fat.

After the Bogan red (mentioned previously) we moved up a step to Mark’s Bourgogne Pinot Noir which has just a touch more presence. Of the red village wines, Volnay is dark and leggy but the bouquet is nicely floral. Gevrey had been cooled down in an ice bucket but was also quite scented on warming. It has a bit of power, and of the two, for me, the most impressive.

Pommard 1er Cru Clos des Arvelets, presumably somewhere in the Arvelets vineyard west of the village, has big fruit but quite a lot of tannin as well right now. Morey-St. Denis 1er Cru Les Chaffots is a smallish lieu-dit bordering Clos St. Denis. This had also been chilled but seemed to me quite elegant. Echézeaux stands proud with a deep, resonant, nose but closed on the palate, tannic. It has a lot to give, but not right now.

As always, we end with a sip of Mark’s superb Cornas, which is usually capable of longevity but not always given the opportunity. It’s almost a shock moving over to Syrah. There’s depth, from violets at the top down to a deep bass note. Sandwiched between is good fruit, tannin and some savouriness, all stored away. Whether you could approach it after ten years or five I’m not really sure. If I’ve ever drunk one before a decade old, I don’t remember it.

It is always said that you should follow the producer, not the vintage. That comment is usually aimed at poor vintages, the cold and the wet. But it applies to hot vintages too. All three of these micro-negoces have dealt with 2018 in slightly different ways. I’m not prepared to say that the wines of one are better than the others, but I think they have all done remarkably well in this vintage. I naturally preferred some wines to others, but I cannot say that any showed signs of the most frequent criticisms being levelled at 2018 as a vintage. Generalisations are rarely accurate in wine, and never in Burgundy.


Jérémy and his wife were not in London this year but Mark had lined up half a dozen of their tiny output on the table next to his. Many of you will know that this small artisan producer makes some very finely crafted wines, which would certainly be better known if he made more of it. Most of these wines consist of just one or two barrels, so perhaps fewer than 400 bottles in some cases.

We began with what is pleasingly now the obligatory bottle of Burgundy’s once derided variety, Aligoté. This is in a rounder style and if I would not rate it as comparable to the others already tasted, that is in no way a criticism. It’s a good pointer to the quality here. Bourgogne Chardonnay 2018 is approachable and juicy. I didn’t see prices for the Recchione wines, but if reasonable I’d be happy buying this for ordinary drinking.


There’s been a lot of talk, positive I would say, about some of the wines from the Hautes Côtes in this vintage. Here we had a very nice Hautes Côtes de Nuits, with just the right degree of plump fresh Pinot fruit and 12.5% abv. It may have been my favourite out of the six wines shown. I also liked the slightly fatter Côtes de Nuits, but from the back label this bottle turned out to be a 2017.

The last two wines were from fruit sourced close to Jérémy’s home turf towards the northern end of the Côtes de Nuits. Fixin, generally, has improved beyond recognition in the past decade or two, and the Recchione Fixin 2018 is fragrant with high-toned fruit, more so than many Fixin’s I taste. It has a notably savoury finish too. Gevrey-Chambertin seems a little less soft and needs more time. I found it a difficult wine to judge.


Somewhere along the line Dagon Clan became Dagon Wines, but then I’d not tasted any of their wines since early 2017. I don’t mean to be patronising to say that the wines have improved. They have certainly grown up. I remember their wines as great value drinking, but at this tasting there were some more serious wines as well.

In the easy drinking camp I probably most liked the 2019 rosé called Har. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah with a little skin contact and gentle pressing into stainless steel. Half sees malo and the result is zippy and just 12.5% abv. I also like the entry level white, Cleştar (2018) which has a smooth finish and a bite. Aromatic.

Clearstone 2018 is a big step up, the best white I’ve tasted from these guys so far. It’s the wine which used to be called “Clar”. It is 100% varietal Feteasca Alba, fermented in wood and left to sit on fine lees for six months. It’s both fresh and buttery with a lemon citrus nose. Someone told them that Feteasca Alba is “Romania’s Chardonnay”. I can see that, but this has a little touch of Semillon character as well. I would certainly buy this wine if I see it on a shelf.


There are two wines called “Jar”. Jar 2018 blends 60% Feteasca Negra with 40% Pinot Noir. These varieties go well together. With 20% new oak, hopefully the limit, the bright fruit reminds me a little of a rare good Dôle from the Swiss Valais. Smooth fruit, but a grippy finish. I prefer it to Jar SR, which blends Feteasca Negra with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.


Gotmerlot 2018 is a wine from a new vineyard and just 367 bottles were made. 75% of the blend is Merlot aged in oak for ten months, at which point 25% Feteasca Negra is added. The colour is deep and there’s an attractive scent of dark fruits. The Feteasca gives a bramble freshness to the rounder Merlot. I reckon it needs five years to fulfil its potential.

The final wine on show was Sandridge 2018. Right in the middle of a vineyard there is a three hectare plot of Feteasca Negra, of which one hectare is on a sandy ridge. That hectare of fruit is harvested separately and fermented in steel tank before seeing three months in oak. Dagon made a single barrel in 2016, and none in 2017, so this 2018 is the second vintage and there are three barrels. This is in some ways the most interesting venture for Dagon because the wine really seems expressive of terroir. This will also benefit from some years in bottle, though at a guess people are likely to buy these and drink them. It will still give much pleasure.


I sometimes feel that Dagon Wines get lost amid all these Burgundies, and I have to ask whether a lot of the city folks and burgophiles who buy from Mark Haisma et al are in the market for Romanian wine? That said, this is a good showcase for them and I hope trade buyers grab a taste. I’d stock them, for sure, if I owned a wine shop. Once hand sold they would go really well, of course for the novelty of their location but more for their quality. I’ve long said that Romania is brimming with untapped wine potential beyond the co-operative and factory production, and Dagon Wines is a beacon.

Some Conclusions

Going back to the 2018 vintage in Burgundy, I have increasingly read horror stories from other tastings. It’s as if I had been tasting a different vintage here. The keys to making good wine in 2018 must be managing ripeness and tannins. For negociants who supposedly have less control over picking dates, these folks have done very well. I suspect nothing was left too long on the vine.

I’ve read more criticism of harsh tannins than anything else. Someone pointed out, correctly, that Haisma, Eyre and Nielsen used mostly whole bunches, ripe stalks adding freshness. Stalks can, of course, lower acidities, but they can add brightness and freshness, as well (some argue) as soaking up a little alcohol. I don’t know what other producers did, but the only wines I found overtly tannic were wines where tannin would be somewhat bigger anyway. For example Echézeaux (Corton can be an exception and look how Jane added Renardes fruit from higher on the slope to boost the aromatics) is always going to have more structure, and Pommard has long had a reputation for tannin, even if it does not habitually show it in every vintage.

Over all, the wines on show on Tuesday were balanced. The whites are mostly fresh and have a prospect of drinking at three to five years, as a very broad generalisation. The reds are stylistically varied. Money aside, I would buy these 2018s, though I’d not be inclined to go long. They will in most cases drink earlier than some other vintages, but that’s no bad thing.

Actually, not putting money aside, Burgundy is getting pretty expensive. The producers have to cover costs and make a living. There is undoubtedly greed in the region, though I’m positive there were no greedy people in the room at Vinoteca. The problem, looking ahead, comes with 2019. Another warm vintage but with a smaller crop for most. Some suggest it will be harder to sell for the negociant, but the price pressure on grapes will certainly be significant. I would hope that there is enough loyalty to help these people keep making fresh and exciting wines. When it comes to vintage one can ditch generalisations and reach for the eternal truth in Burgundy, as anywhere – producer is key.



Posted in Aligoté, Artisan Wines, Burgundy, Eastern European Wine, Fine Wine, Wine, Wine Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sydneyside Dining Selection

We ate some wonderful meals during our time away in October and November, but during our last few days in Sydney we visited three very different restaurants which I’d like to write about before I leave the Southern Hemisphere for now. My guess is that the fires are putting many people off heading out to Australia. The coastal highway has just reopened up from Shoalhaven to Sydney but with more winds at the weekend, for how long? Even when we were in Sydney there were days when the smoke was bad enough to preclude a view of the ocean from less than a hundred metres away.

However, when the fires have died down my guess is that there will be quite a strong desire amongst wine lovers and members of the trade to support Australian Wine and Australia in general. Every tourist will be very welcome indeed. Anyway, we really enjoyed each of these restaurants and between them there is almost certainly something for everyone.

The three restaurants in question are Jonah’s, which is north of the city in the area known as the Northern Beaches, at Whale Beach; Dear Saine Éloise at Potts Point (by King’s Cross); and Bodhi in Central Sydney. I won’t bore you with too much detail about the food, just some photos to perhaps whet the appetite for some future visit.


Jonah’s can fairly be described as a fine dining experience, one which is unquestionably enhanced by its location, with plate glass windows overlooking Whale Beach from high above, views which they do not skimp on when it comes to their web site. What began as a mere shack in 1929 grew into a celebrity haunt and today has an air of seriousness tempered by the fact that it is, after all, Australia…so it’s not “stuffy” in the least. The view is in turn enhanced by the food, which is very accomplished.



We drank moderately, a glass of Bollinger GA to begin, then a bottle of Vinteloper Pinot Gris 2019, followed by a half of Henschke Adelaide Hills Noble Gewurztraminer 2016. The Vinteloper was a lovely wine, a blend of Adelaide Hills and Fleurieu fruit, mixing freshness and a little texture at a reasonable 12.5% abv. That’s reasonable for Aussie PG, and Vinteloper always looks for freshness.

I had a nice chat with the sommelier about Vinteloper. It’s not a label I’d necessarily have expected to see in a restaurant like this, but it seems he was personally very keen. Many of you will know that David Bowley’s decade-old operation was badly affected by the Bush Fires which destroyed around half of Adelaide Hills’ vineyards in December. I know that Henschke lost Pinot Noir in the Hills too.


There are a lot of UK events raising money for the Rural Fire Service taking place in the UK, especially around Australia Day (26 January). These include wine auctions and raffles, and restaurant events (plenty going on at Wander, the Australian restaurant on Stoke Newington High Street if you want to take a look). An uncanny number of these events include bottles (and magnums) of Vinteloper. I’d urge everyone to help, donate and enjoy in whatever small way they can. Vinteloper is imported by Graft Wine.

The Henschke was deliciously sweet, concentrated, floral, but not lacking in balance. This was a treat because although I’ve drunk a good few of the Henschke wines, I think it was my first Noble Gewurz from Stephen and Pru. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in the UK. It was undoubtedly one of the prompts for opening the Mount Edelstone 2001 on Christmas Day.


This long lunch with friends was spent seated in what I reckon is the best table in the restaurant (right hand corner by the window). The surf and sun provided an unrivalled backdrop, and we were even treated to a large lizard doing its thing in the garden. Although it does seem very smart, you can get two courses for lunch for $89, three for $110, more than reasonable. Naturally you really need transport to get up to the northern beaches, but Jonah’s does have a dozen rooms forming what they describe as their boutique hotel.

Jonah’s is at 69 Bynya Road, Whale Beach, Sydney. Check out their web site here.


Dear Sainte Éloise is what I would like to call the Sager+Wilde of Sydney. The similarities are obvious in this restaurant, which is rather a wine bar with innovative food. It was also managed for some time by a S+W alumni, so the similarities are not necessarily shocking. It’s location is near Pott’s Point, on the harbour side of King’s Cross. If you walk to it from Circular Quay, as we did, you pass through the Botanical Gardens and walk up towards the King’s Cross district, an area crowded with backpacker hostels.


Between the two you pass through one of Sydney’s most interesting housing districts, Wolloomooloo, a mix of 19th Century working class housing and blocks now occupied by a good proportion of First Nation inhabitants with increasing incursions from gentrification. The architecture is worth a look. Climbing up via the district’s steep steps you eventually reach Orwell Street, on the edge of King’s Cross. Éloise gets her name from the George Orwell Novel, Down and Out in Paris and London. You can look up the quotation, but it is quite apt for the impoverished surroundings. Whilst Llankelly Place (the entrance is here, although the postal address is Orwell Street) has a few nice cafes peopled with young workers and tourists, you will certainly see a good few passers by who maybe could not to afford to frequent the street’s establishments.


Lunch here was so good I would not hesitate to go back. The wine list is extensive and pretty much what you’d expect from any number of London bars specialising in natural wine. Trouble is, whilst Sydney does have a good number of similar institutions (perhaps not quite as many as Melbourne?), they are more spread out.

We opened our imbibing with a Crémant du Jura Frédéric Lambert followed by Ruggabellus Sallio 2017. This latter wine is a blend of 47% Semillon, 37% Muscat and 16% Riesling from the Eden Valley in South Australia.

Based somewhat out of the way at Le Chateley, Frédéric Lambert farms most of his vines at Toulouse-le-Château, to the southwest of Poligny. His Crémant has an extremely good reputation. He uses around 20% Pinot added to Chardonnay, and the wine is allowed two years on lees before disgorgement.

I know little about Ruggabellus. I’d heard about them and had wanted to try something, but this was my first taste. It’s not easy to glean a lot about their wines. This blend is described as an introduction to their skin fermented style, and it certainly had lovely texture as well as fruit. I think I’m getting back into Aussie Semillon, though this wine is a long way from the Hunter bottles we were drinking a week or two previously, and the other varieties certainly shine through here as well. The Ruggabellus web site suggests that the inspiration comes from “the old winemaking techniques used in Eastern European Countries”, which is maybe a little opaque. The wine was very good indeed, and a hundred times more expressive than the web site. In this instance, who cares!

The wine list includes a good by-the-glass selection, with Koerner, Plageoles, Sanchez Romate, Frances Gonzalves, Vincent Careme and William Downie among several dozen available on the day. Take a peek at the pics below for some of the bottles. They also have a few sake on offer.

I’d hoped to be back in Sydney soon, but as travel up and down the coast is impossible right now, that may have to wait. However, when I do get back I shall very much look forward to a return visit here.

Dear Sainte Éloise is at 5/29 Orwell Street (but note, the entrance is actually on the alley called Llankelly Place. The bar is almost immediately on your right as you enter Llankelly Place, look for the small gold name plaque. You can peruse their web site here.


This is something a little different. Tucked behind St Mary’s Cathedral, technically on College Street, but hidden by an expanse of concrete, is one of the best vegan restaurants I’ve been to. It serves what we call Dim Sum, or what the Aussies call Yum Cha. Treat yourself to trays and trays of delicious and authentic looking plates, all meat and dairy free (even the one which looks like it has a prawn tail protruding from the parcel).

Unusually, Bodhi cuisine also follows the Buddhist cooking philosophy (of which I was wholly ignorant) of not using onion, garlic, chives, leeks and spring onions. So I’m no Buddhist, apparently, but I would say that these restrictions definitely didn’t have any negative impact on the food. I could happily eat here once a week, and let’s face it, it’s probably affordable for many of us to do just that.


You can dine inside, but we sat out under the ancient Moreton Bay fig trees, providing shade in the middle of a very hot late spring day. Each dish costs between $9-11. We spent just over £20-a-head. Perhaps we allowed our eyes to get the better of us. We did stick to tea, they have a very good selection, but they also appear to specialise in cocktails. We were heading over to the National Gallery of NSW to see the splendid “Supernatural Japan” exhibition, with specially created works by Takashi Murakami, and we didn’t want to feel sleepy from alcohol in addition to a food coma.

Bodhi is at 2-4 College Street, Sydney. You’ll have to nose around to find it, but just head across the concrete patch behind St. Mary’s and look for the fig trees. You can check out their web site here.

There are of course plenty of good places to eat in Sydney, from the classic seafood of Doyle’s and the expensive Japanese cuisine at Tetsuya, to the down to earth natural wine of The Wine Room at the Dolphin Hotel (Surry Hills, closed January), but I reckon the three places above cover a neat spread of the kind of interesting dining which Sydney and her suburbs have to offer. There is, of course, no shortage of restaurant guides to tell you where to go…but you can trust me on these, each filling a particular niche, of course.


Mural painting detail, Takashi Murakami at Supernatural Japan (Gallery of NSW, ends 8 March 2020)





Posted in Australian Wine, Dining, Restaurants, Wine, Wine and Food, Wine Bars, Wine Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Recent Wines – December 2019 #theglouthatbindsus

I haven’t quite finished my series of articles on Australia, and I certainly hope to write and publish the last of those before the tasting calendar kicks in, which it does in a couple of weeks with Le Grappin in The City (14th) and when Nekter Wines opens their whole Californian range at The 10 Cases in Covent Garden (20th). But first I thought I ought to bash out my regular “recent wines” roundup. The last of these was September’s, as I was away in Nepal and Australia for October/November, so we skip straight to December.

You will have to forgive me again. If my last article was short, I’m not going to be able to keep this one down to my usual dozen wines. If I’m reticent to jump on the “dry January” bandwagon, I’m no different to anyone else when it comes to drinking more in December, though I blame more entertaining than any attempt to get my liver in training for the festivities themselves, which are actually relatively tame here (though we did drink a stunning wine on Christmas Day). I shall just have to try not to waffle on too much about each of the sixteen bottles here. I won’t say “wines” as one is a cider, and I think we shall be reading a lot more about artisan cider in 2020.


This is a mostly Sylvaner field blend from a lieu-dit near Pfaffenheim, the grapes grown on a mix of brown limestone and sand. The vintage was a warm one, and the rich and ripe fruit (14% abv) was fermented slowly in large old oak. You get a powerful but subtle bouquet with slight oxidative notes, baked apple, cinnamon, and a little orange. It’s less nutty than when I tasted it back in April 2019, with more of the baked apple. The finish is soft and there’s around 16g/litre of residual sugar, though it doesn’t taste “sweet”, just complex. Very much a wine of the maker, and if you like Frick then this is something of a treat.

Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene. I ordered some after the “Ugly Ducklings to Swans” tasting with Doug Wregg at Solent Cellar last year.



You’ll have seen this wine before if you read my Review of the Year, because it was my favourite skin contact wine of 2019. It combined development, quality and also a degree of the unusual. The blend is Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Ryzlinku (Rhine Riesling, I believe) and Sauvignon Blanc, biodynamic and with five months in qvevri in contact with skins. A small amount of sulphur was added. Delicacy, length, complexity but also freshness. It’s the latter quality which, at eight years of age, makes this wine special among the several superb orange wines I drank last year.

The importer is Basket Press Wines. I thought this was perhaps their last bottle but it’s still listed under Dobrá Vinice on their web site.



I’ve long been a fan of Philipp Wittmann, and this lovely bottle proves the golden rule: look to the producer first. Philipp turned the estate fully biodynamic when he took over in the mid-2000s, and his thirty hectares include some of the region’s finest sites, hitting the heights with Kirchspiel and Morstein. Yet 20% of the Wittmann vines are Weisserburgunder, and Philipp loves this variety.

From his Pinot Blanc grapes he makes a hidden gem. It looks like a glistening green Chablis. It has tension and freshness, but a tiny bit of bottle age has added creaminess too. The terroir comes in via a streak of what tastes like typical “Riesling” minerality, but the label puts us right. It’s the influence of the dirt. I think most people will have sold out of the 2017 (Howard Ripley appears to have some left), but I’m assured that the 2018 is stunningly good too, and I plan to buy some.



I always enjoy Berlioz (especially Béatrice & Bénédict right now…but to be serious…). Adrien Berlioz set up his Cellier du Cray at Chignin around thirteen years ago, in his mid-twenties. He’s a distant cousin of the perhaps currently more famous Giles Berlioz, and I think they used to make a joint cuvée together. If you take note of those who know (ie Wink Lorch) you will read that Adrien is becoming one of the most talented winemakers in the region.

This is Mondeuse as I generally (not always) prefer it, ie sappy and grippy with relatively low alcohol (11% here). The fruit is nice, quite dark but lightish. I might have kept this a year longer, but if you like the grippy nature of the wine that won’t bother you. Adrien is sometimes seen as a better white wine producer, and it’s true that some of his whites are genuinely magnificent at their best. But as I said, I like the style of this Mondeuse.

Purchased from Solent Cellar, which usually stocks a selection of Adrien Berlioz.



This is yet another wonderful skin contact wine, from Slovenian Styria in this case. Božidar Zorjan is one of the originators of the skin contact revival in the region, perhaps making such wines from his Pohorje vineyards before some of the more, shall we say, higher profile proponents. Zorjan uses qvevri, perhaps no surprise, but he goes further. As a spiritual man with an interest in cosmology, his vessels are buried outside, “beneath the stars”.

Dolium bears no vintage. I’d like to guess that it is not young, no big deal as I know Zorjan ages his wines before release, sometimes for many years. I do know it is made from Muscat Ottonel, fermented in qvevri on skins before transfer to a 1,200-litre barrel for at least a year. It’s above all a wine of depth. There’s fresh lemon striking through honey and a hint of caramel with spice (perhaps cardamon and aniseed). It’s a strange wine. The freshness (quite youthful in some ways) makes it seem simple, but beneath all that is real complexity. Someone described it as “sacred”. It’s not a word I’d choose, but I can see what they meant. Certainly extraordinary. It’s exactly what you’d drink if you are looking for the most interesting (as opposed to best, or best value) wine on a list.

Another one from Les Caves.



This is one of a new pair of wines which Pieter Walser has bottled exclusively for Brighton’s oldest wine merchant, Butlers Wine Cellar. It’s a Pinotage, not it has to be said a variety I buy often, due perhaps to disappointments in the more distant past. The fruit was sourced from Darling. I don’t currently have one of Pieter’s stories to relate about this, except that it is aptly named after Henry Butler’s partner, Cassie (whom some of you will know, if not personally then via the Butlers’ Instagram feed).

This is dark fruited, brambly, with a nice bite and enough acidity easily to balance the 13.5% alcohol. It’s not complex but it does have some concentration. I can’t really think of more I need to say, but I like it and will definitely be relieving them of some more on my next visit. For around £20 it’s good value, a perfect versatile red.

Butlers Wine Cellar of course. Blank Bottle Winery is imported by Swig. The white wine in this pair of Butlers exclusives is a Viognier from Stellenbosch fruit. I shall try my bottle soon.


GRAUPERT, MEINKLANG (Burgenland/Austria)

Another wine lacking a vintage date, though this may be more due to it’s designation as a “Landwein” than any multi-vintage stuff going on here. I’ve had it in the cellar for a couple of years so perhaps it was from around 2016 vintage, perhaps 2015? Meinklang Farm is much more than just a vineyard, and they are perhaps more famous for their beef herd in their homeland. The Michlits family has vines at Somló, in Hungary, makes a range of excellent cheapish varietal wines from Burgenland (Pamhagen is where the winery is situated), and (if you can find it) excellent beer from ancient grains (Urkorn-Bier), along with other wonderful cuvées, some fermented in concrete eggs.

Graupert refers to the viticulture. The vines, in this case Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder), are left wild and untended, bar a little shoot repositioning when required. They don’t prune the vines at all for the grapes making this cuvée. You might think the vines will run wild and create an unharvestable tangle of tendrils, but this isn’t the case. As with other vineyards farmed in this way (there are some in both Alsace and Greece you may have come across), the vines find their equilibrium.

Winemaking is simple – biodynamic, ten days on skins. It’s a crazy wine, deep coloured, very natural yet clean and pure. But despite that, like the Dolium above, it also tastes weirdly complex, and nothing like you might expect from the dark colour and bouquet. Perhaps a wine for the adventurous, but yet another unique wine, and who doesn’t want to taste “unique”?

Meinklang’s wines have a varied distribution depending on cuvée and price, but Winemakers Club in Farringdon, London, usually has some of the most interesting of their bottlings.



You may well have seen me post on this particular artisan cider in the past. It’s made from a blend of estate grown eating varieties, fermented with wild yeasts and aged in old whiskey casks in Ben Walgate’s Tillingham winery shed. It’s naturally sparkling and unfiltered, so you get some texture, yet it is so light and fresh. The bubbles dance on the tongue in a way that those in most sparkling wine rarely do, though here you want freshness above all, and you get plenty of it.

Starvecrow is one of a group of producers at the forefront of the nascent English artisan cider/natural cider revolution, which I notice is being supported by Silo now they’ve moved to Hackney Wick.

This bottle came from Seven Cellars in Brighton but can be found in quite a few good regional independents, and from The Fine Cider Company, whose book “Fine Cider…” came out last October (£16.99, Dog and Bone Books, or a fiver less if you’re prepared to go down the large discounter route).



This is a blend made by Fabrice Dodane at Mathenay, just outside Arbois. The name of the cuvée is that of one of the famous sites of Arbois itself, a southwest facing hillside of marls and gravel which you will pass, close to Stéphane Tissot’s Tour de Curon, if you walk from the town through the vines to visit Stéphane at Montigny-les-Arsures. Les Corvées is perhaps more noted as a Trousseau vineyard, but Fabrice has made a cracking mix of Pinot Noir and Ploussard here, vinified wholly without added sulphur.

The fruitiness is off the scale, and I think of all the Saint-Pierre wines this is drinking the best at this moment. The fruit is plump but balanced by lively fruit acidity, like perfectly ripe cherries and raspberries. We are not talking about one of the world’s finest wines here, but in context it would be hard to assert than this is not the most enjoyable wine you could have opened tonight. Pure fun, pure fruit, pure delight.

Once more we have to thank Sir Douglas and the folk at Les Caves de Pyrene for importing this natural beauty. Another wine I’d like some more of for persistent glugging, please.


ARNEIS “ETERNAL RETURN” 2017, ADELINA WINES (Adelaide Hills, Australia)

Adelina is the label of the Gardner family who make wine, appropriately, in the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia. This Piemontese variety is often overlooked by fans of the region’s red wines who might not get further than the occasional Cortese, but I like it. I think it has the purity, at its best, of all the “Alpine” white varieties. This one is characteristically pale but above all, it certainly is fresh. You get some stone fruit and pear, with a tiny hint of apple in the acidity, almost like slaking your thirst with an ice cold mineral water with a squeeze of fruit. What you don’t realise without a glance at the back label is that it packs 13.5% abv, deceptive, although the finish has a degree of tell-tale richness. Arneis translates from dialect as “little rascal”. It lives up to that name.

Imported by Astrum, purchased at Butlers.



This was another wine featured in my wines of the year for 2019, based on its amazing value. A few of us were drinking more Aligoté last year and for me, this was the best on several levels. It’s not easy to find, but one way or another we did manage to drink four bottles and this last, opened just before Christmas, was the best of them, benefiting from that extra touch of age.

It comes from a vineyard called Perelles-le-Haut near Macon-Roche-Vineuse. The vines, on Bathonian Limestone, are over eighty years old, a great find by Andrew Nielsen. The grapes undergo a simple manual vinification in large format old wood with six months on lees. This Aligoté is remarkably Chardonnay-like in some ways. It’s classy, noticeably alive and drinking beautifully. Exceptional and worthy of sitting beside the Le Grappin wines from the Côte d’Or.

Purchased direct from the producer. Le Grappin will show their 2018 vintage, along with Mark Haisma and Jane Eyre, at Vinoteca (City) in London on Tuesday 14 January.



You might well know by now that this is the label of Tim Phillips, whose “Clos du Paradis” walled vineyard is close to Sway in Hampshire. His wines are perhaps the true unicorns of English Wine, almost impossible to source easily, not helped by Tim’s perfectionist bent which means the wines are only released when he thinks they are good and ready. That perfectionism goes through everything he does, from vineyard management to packaging.

The abv here is just 11% and with no dosage this is very dry, but explosively ripe and fresh. There’s no lack of creamy Chardonnay fruit, it’s just nicely corralled by the dry acidity, as if seeping through a filter, gently. The tension is palpable. I know occasion makes a wine, but this was almost certainly the best bottle of this sparkling Chardonnay I’ve drunk.

I know from talking to people at tastings that a lot of you want to try Tim’s wines. One or two have struck off down to the New Forest to visit and he does usually have an open day every year. There are a few indies which have stocked his wines, including nearby Solent Cellar and Ten Green Bottles in Brighton. To find out more about what he does contact him through his web site, .



This vineyard is what I suppose you might call “the other sundial”, although there are several carved into the rocks of the steep sided Mosel River Valley. According to Anne Krebiehl (Wines of Germany, Infinite Ideas, 2019) both sundials at Ziltingen and Wehlen were built by Jodocus Prüm, who founded the estate in 1911, though Prüms had been farming in the area since the 12th Century.

The two sundials are not far apart, both on the right bank of the river between Graach and Zeltingen-Rachtig, and conveniently on the Mosel cycle path if you hire your bikes in Kues (opposite Bernkastel) and head for lunch in Traben (thankfully you won’t see the disasterous, tear-inducing, Mosel bridge until you round the river bend towards Ürzig). As with Wehlen’s vineyard of the same name, it is an exceptional site. The 2007 Spätlese has aged wonderfully, but it isn’t old by any means. There’s some richness and some acidity. It accompanied a Mushroom Wellington perfectly, a versatile wine in perfect balance.

JJ Prüm continues resolutely down the path of Prädikat wines whilst  others pursue the GG Trocken route. I am certainly a very big fan of Grosses Gewächs, but Prüm has a special place in my heart, and my cellar. These wines are a privilege to drink.

Despite the quality, the ordinary releases (as opposed to rarified auction wines) are fairly easy to find and well priced. For a good range of Prüm contact Howard Ripley Wines. This particular bottle out of my cellar originated from The Sampler.



Vincent Couche farms around 13 hectares of vines biodynamically, mostly on the Côte des Bar (he’s based at Buxeuil) in the far south of the Champagne Region, but what drew me to this cuvée was its particular source. The vines here are from Montgueux, which is pretty much a solitary hill directly to the west of Troyes. Chardonnay from Montgueux tends to ripen well and early from predominantly south facing chalk, but the terroir seems to help the wines retain freshness and tension as well as ripeness. The result, especially in the wonderful wines produced there by Emmanuel Lassaigne (Champagne Jacques Lassaigne), can be magnificent.

This wine sees 30% oak vinification which gives it a little roundness and gras, I think. Dosage is 6g/litre, so it’s not extremely dry. It’s a fresh, mineral Chardonnay with a savoury touch and a little salinity, very pleasant. The overall quality surprised me from a Grower I’d not previously tasted, nor in fact read about though I had heard the name. It has made me want to try some more of Vincent’s wines. My guess is that he has more of a Pinot focus down south?

Purchased from, and on the recommendation of, Solent Cellar who import it direct. They also stock a Rosé. You may also have tasted the PN/Ch cuvée called Chloé at one of the Raw Wine Events.



The Koppitsch family farms at Neusiedl-am-See at the northern end of the lake, a relatively short cycle from my wine friends in Gols, and usefully where you alight the train from Vienna if heading to this part of Neusiedlersee. I know I’ve told you that before, but obviously I’m hoping it sinks in. It makes a lovely day trip from Vienna. Hire bikes next to the station and head down to Das Fritz on the lake for lunch or dinner by the boats.

This is another producer I’ve drunk plenty from over the past twelve months, and I adore their petnat. The blend is 50% Pinot Noir and 50% St-Laurent, whole bunches into the screwpress and then into fibreglass for fermentation. Bottling is by hand. In spring the bottles are put outside when the nights are still cold, before Alex hand-disgorges them all. You get a fairly simple 11% sparkler, but it’s simply one of the most fun wines I drank last year. This last bottle proves the point that if dogs are not just for Christmas, petnats are not just for summer. I will say one thing, though, it did taste very dry next to a dosed Champagne.

Some of the Koppitsch wines are brought in by the small Scottish importer, Fresh Wines (Kinross). This particular wine is currently out of stock, but you can sign up to get an email when they have the next vintage. Leave some for me.



As someone who drinks a lot of “natural wine” it surprises some that I do drink the classics as well. For some years I’ve not been buying many such wines, but when I pull wines out like this I can appreciate them as much as anything I drink. Henschke do not claim to make “natural wines”, but as with Prüm above, they unquestionably make wines with soul.

We drank this 2001 on Christmas Day and it was stunning. Better than I expected, and that’s high praise (you don’t plan to drink average wine on 25 December, after all). At the time of the vintage these Shiraz vines were about ninety years old, ungrafted onto American rootstock, planted by Ronald Angas in 1912. Dry grown ever since, on Mount Edelstone, the grapes are vinified in a mix of French and American oak for 21 months.

The cork looked old and it required a Butler’s Friend opener (which I think you guys in the USA call an “Ah-so”, though I have no idea why?). Like a classic Aussie Shizza, it had a blend of red and darker fruits with a chocolate foil, and so refined for 14% abv. Concentrated and long, mellowing but not ready to slide down the hill for a while yet. For the best producers 2001 was exceptional for red varieties in this part of South Australia, and for Shiraz in particular, despite crops sometimes well above average. At this stage in its development, I’d say it was the best Mount Edelstone I’ve drunk. A great wine with which to finish a roundup of a great month’s drinking.

This bottle was purchased from The Sampler and rested in my cellar for some years.


A little extra…

One final thought and pointer on Australian Wine. I watched, on i-Player, a few days ago an episode of the old Clive James documentary series, “Postcard from Sydney”, filmed in 1990. It’s most interesting for wine lovers because Clive heads up to the Hunter Valley for a tasting at Rothbury. He shows himself to be neither adept at wine tasting, nor knowledgeable, but even more entertaining than the way Clive amiably bumbles along hiding his light under a bushel is that he is tutored by the late, great, Len Evans. If you have heard of Len, but perhaps never seen, let alone met, him it’s well worth a look (and Clive James is always good value in any case). This episode, along with a “Postcard from London” has only been shown very recently, to commemorate Clive’s passing last year, so they should both be up on i-Player for a week or two yet.

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New Year’s Eve at Wild Flor

This might be the shortest article I’ve posted here but it serves the dual purpose of easing me back into typing after the festive excess, and at the same time helping me out with the internet being down for two-thirds of Monday (very nice of my provider to schedule non-urgent work for the day most of the lucky people go back to work). I wanted to share some photos of our New Year’s Eve dinner, and I’ve not got anything coming up that they wouldn’t appear incongruous tacked on to.

Wild Flor, in Hove, is shaping up nicely and right now it seems to inhabit that special place where a restaurant is still good value but the quality of the cooking is heading for firm recognition. Quality ingredients with a degree of innovation à la carte and good wholesome fixed price menus (they are also hot on accommodating dietary requirements) combine with one of the best wine lists in the city for those who appreciate both the classics and something a little less conservative.

You might think “Hove” is a bit niche, but half of London heads down to Brighton for the weekend, and people often ask me where to eat. It’s also no more difficult to come down for a night out than it is for me to pop up to London to dine with friends, which I do quite frequently.

We weren’t too sure where we were going to be for New Year’s Eve, but thankfully we found out in time to nab the last table for their set menu dinner, priced at £80 for a good selection of amuses bouches, four courses and a glass of Champagne. If you think £80 is not cheap, well it was always going to cost a bit more to eat out on this particular night, and yes, I do think £80 is good value for the quality.

Wild Flor always has decent Champagne by the glass. The first time we ever visited it was Pierre Peters, one of my very favourite Growers. On 31 December it was Michel Gonet “Les 3 Terroirs” Blanc de Blancs 2010 which was fresh and delicious. It was the second 2010 I’d drunk in a few days, along with a 2008, and it didn’t taste too young when served as an aperitif, but already had just enough development to take it out of the “young and simple” category. Not a Champagne I know well, I was impressed with the 2010. It’s an Extra Brut, with the 100% Chardonnay fruit sourced from Vindey (Sézannais), Montgueux (near Troyes) and Mesnil-sur-Oger (Côte des Blancs).


We also naturally ordered a bottle off the list. I have to apologise here because I had been craving Nebbiolo for a couple of weeks and when I spied Mascarello Barolo Perno (Vigna Santa Stefano) 2011 I had to grab it, especially when I discovered it was the last one they had left. I was lucky that I’d been chatting to someone I consider a bit of a Piemonte aficionado only a day earlier, and he’d mentioned the approachability of the 2011s.

In Barolo 2011 was quite a hot vintage, and if you check out the label you’ll notice 14.5% abv. But the quality which appears to make this vintage is its fragrance. There’s a certain richness, though I’ve tasted much richer Barolo. Perhaps the savoury quality of this lovely wine isn’t totally representative, I don’t know. But if the 2011s generally show a wonderful bouquet, this is an exemplar. The tannins are ripe and whilst I’d not say this is anywhere close to maturity (well, at home I’d leave it a few years), I had no regrets drinking it in a restaurant. It was exactly as I’d hoped, no, better than I’d hoped.

Although pricing it is pretty meaningless, as there’s no more left, I thought £120 was reasonable on a restaurant list. Wild Flor shares the approach I remember so well from the old Connoisseur’s List when 28-50 first opened in London, where relative bargains (or at least surprisingly fair prices) could be had.


The food photos below include dishes from the Vegan Menu (V) as well as the Set Menu for the night.




Westcombe ricotta, Jerusalem Artichoke with chestnut mushrooms in hazelnut dressing


Roast pear and Jerusalem Artichoke with chestnut mushrooms and hazelnut dressing (V)


Gigha Halibut, chive and caviar beurre blanc


Gnocchi Sardi, parsley purée, chervil root and white wine sauce (V)


Fillet of beef, truffled pomme purée, roast shallot & red wine sauce


Celeriac and wild mushroom pithivier, roast shallot & truffle mash (V)

The desserts, blood orange custard tart and baked apple, candied walnuts and pear sorbet didn’t get photographed, but after the wine maybe I’ll be forgiven. My tart was exquisite though.

There was an additional supplementary cheese course for those determined to see in the New Year, and with an Aviet Vin Jaune on the list it was tempting, but then my wife would have had to sit there and watch, and anyway, the VJ would have rendered a thirty minute walk home, all uphill, close to impossible. But it was a great night and an equally great atmosphere.

Wild Flor is at 42 Church Road, Hove BN3. Check out their web site for menus, wine list, opening times, etc, or to book here. It’s about ten minutes by taxi from Brighton Station and less than five minutes from Hove Station (via a Littlehampton train from Victoria).


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Review of the Year 2019

It’s always an enjoyable task deciding what to highlight from the year just gone, or almost (as I write this on New Year’s Eve). The research for this article, and my initial words, were begun in the week before Christmas and I always try to devote a lot of thought to my annual review. As with everything I write, the caveat is always that it’s totally subjective. I always allow my reaction to wine to be influenced by other factors when I’m not at a professional tasting. Wine is so much about enjoyment with wonderful people rather than the cold sting of  “points”. My assertion is that when so many other things in the world are a bit, well, crap, then at least your glass may as well be half full when it comes to drinking. So below you can read about the wines I recall enjoying most in 2019 (with apologies to any stunning wines I’ve forgotten), followed by a few more categories to (hopefully) stimulate your interest.

I am gratified that this site continues to build its traffic year on year. In 2018 I was amazed to top 30,000 visitors, and the 2019 stats are just a little short of 36,000. It’s gratifying to see that so many people are interested in my opinions and passions. To be frank, that’s what keeps me writing. So I hope that this little interlude, or indulgence, will strike a few chords. Normal service will be resumed in a week. I hope you had a wonderful festive period, whatever you believe in and wherever you are.


Red Wine – 

Probably the producer who provided the greatest number of brilliant red wines in 2019 (though mostly not at home) was Hanspeter Ziereisen. This wonderful winemaker in Southern Baden, near the Swiss border, will also appear in the white wine category, impressive. I just bought Anne Krebiehl’s Wines of Germany and for this producer her “recommendation to try”, rather than just one wine, says “anything at all”. After my own heart! A producer which excels at every level.

Our visit to Australia recently gave me three outstanding wines from many drunk and tasted – Clonakilla Shiraz-Viognier 2018 is a superstar wine (potentially wine of the vintage, though too young now, of course). Andrew Thomas‘ Kiss Shiraz 2017 will be stunning as well, and every red I tasted at Bindi (I should say every wine) almost made me cry (only partly because they are not currently imported into the UK). However, I can’t omit another Aussie, Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2001. This old favourite was drinking perfectly, one of the best wines I’ve ever opened on Christmas Day. You know, I’ve never tried Hill of Grace!

I saved a bottle of Rennersistas Waiting for Tom 2015, which I drank last year (Blaufränkisch, St-Laurent and Pinot Noir) and adored it. Who says natural wines don’t age well. My other star Austrian drunk in 2019 was a Gut Oggau Josephine. From France, several Gnome Labels from Domaine L’Octavin (Arbois) were all beautiful. As an aside, I am so happy and relieved that Eduard, Stephanie (of Gut Oggau) and the family are safe after a fire at a friend’s house over Christmas. It puts many things in perspective.

But after all those lovely bottles one red wine stood out above the rest in 2019. In fact it is among the very best red wines I’ve ever drunk. Casse Basse Soldera Brunello Riserva 1990. It was a privilege to drink it with good friends at The Sportsman (Seasalter). Astonishing, and a clear example of how wine can touch the deepest parts of the soul.


White Wine – 

I think one white wine also stands out in 2019. It’s always difficult when you know a wine isn’t mature, but the genuine purity of Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2017, from the Macedon Ranges in Victoria, drunk on a farm in NSW which, as I type, is under threat from the terrible bush fires, was quite remarkable. The Ziereisen white I mentioned above is made from a grape usually sneered at by the uninitiated, Chasselas. Hanspeter’s Gutedel 10 hoch 4 Alte Reben 2016 is something else though. I only tasted this at a Howard Ripley event, but I didn’t spit. In fact, whilst others were ogling the Auction Wines on the next table, I took a second pour.

Another star of a lovely dinner at home with a sommelier friend and her partner, where we drank quite a few outstanding natural wines, some of unicorn status, was Domaine L’Octavin Pamina 2015, Chardonnay from Arbois’ “La Mailloche” vineyard. I’m kind of in love with this domaine’s wines, although I find Alice Bouvot a little daunting as a result. Finally, a general mention for the Aligoté of Andrew and Emma Nielsen’s Du Grappin label. Over Christmas I adored opening one or two of their Le Grappin Burgundies (Beaune Boucherottes 2013 is exquisite now), but these wines from the region’s forgotten white grape have been amazing. It’s generally been a fine year for Aligoté consumption.

Sparkling Wines – 

And the winner is…I really must plug Black Chalk, Jacob Leadley’s new label from Hampshire. The Wild Rose 2015 was my favourite of several wonderful bottles this year. Other accolades to Bérêche Beaux Regards, Jérôme Dehours Terre de Meunier, everything I drank from Lassaigne, Florian Lauer‘s Sekts (and those his dad made) and my only bottle of J-P Rietsch‘s Crémant d’Alsace (just stunning). The best fun all year was had drinking the Koppitsch family’s Pretty Nats (or nuts!) petnat, once I could get hold of several bottles. In fact all of this family’s wines make me so happy. Very much hoping to see Alex and Maria this year.

Orange Wine – 

Amber Wine, Skin Contact, whatever you want to call it. Lots of great Georgians, mostly from Les Caves de Pyrene, and Matthieu Deiss/Emmanuelle Milan’s Vignoble du Rêveur Artisan is amazing if you can find it, but one wine from another source stood out. Dobra Vinice is an estate I know well, insofar as I know wine from Czech Moravia. Nejedlik Orange 2011 is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Ryzlinka and Sauvignon Blanc. Off the scale complex. Kind of what you hope for plus more, if you are partial to the odd orange (from Basket Press Wines, although this vintage may no longer be available).


Sweet and Fortified Wine – 

I’d been saving Heidi Schröck Ruster Ausbruch 2002 for some years. It finally went, and it just pips Rieussec 1996 to top spot for sticky of the year. I’m ever the predictable one when it comes to fortified wines. Equipo-Navazos gets the gong again, and the best of the year was almost certainly the Bota 51, a Palo Cortado Viejissimo “GF”, sourced  originally from butts at Gaspar Florido, then moved to Pedro Romero. The wines in this old solera are between 50 and 80 years old. I do so adore the singular wines of EN, but maybe someone will buy me some old Madeira in 2020…

There are one or two producers I’ve not mentioned and I’d feel terrible if I failed to do so. My favourite people in Arbois, Domaine des BodinesHermit Ram (Canterbury, NZ) and Kelley Fox (Oregon). All three are joining my select group of wine gods (Gut Oggau, Rennersistas, Octavin etc), people whose wines light up my life.

Last, but certainly not least, Tim Phillips, or perhaps I should say Charlie Herring Wines. Tim makes wine, cider and beer from his walled garden (Clos du Paradis) and orchard in Hampshire, not far from Lymington on the edge of the New Forest. His wines, including as far as I’m aware England’s only bottle fermented Riesling, are made in tiny quantities but they are so pure. Often steely, but oh so pure. You’d think Tim does it by shamanism, but actually I think he has a very good grasp of wine science and trusts his intuition. And of course it’s all about the quality.

Perfect Strangers, Tim’s “cider with a dash of red wine” blend


As I write I’m yet to visit the newly opened Silo way out on the edge of London’s eastward spread (as far as hip dining goes), but their Brighton iteration served up exciting food, amazing wines and all with a zero-waste philosophy. It was the most exciting place to eat in 2019.

The gastronomic highlight of my year is invariably what has become an annual trip to The Sportsman at Seasalter for a group of us. We are allowed to take our own wine on this occasion (so long as we share it). It is hard to imagine anywhere (I mean that) capable of serving a better tasting menu. On our 2019 visit I must single out the halibut in Vin Jaune with a single morille, and the pairing of Sussex Rib with my choice for red wine of the year/decade/lifetime (that Soldera). In London a little of the Sportsman magic rubs off on Noble Rot (Stephen Harris remains Executive Chef) and I can’t wait to try their new restaurant on the former site of one of Soho’s great dens of political machination when it opens later this year.

More than honourable mentions go to Mast Weinbistro (Vienna) and the new Wild Flor (Hove), both for their exciting but very different wine lists. Mast is probably my favourite restaurant in Europe (because they have a great wine selection, wonderful atmosphere, and food to match). Wild Flor was where we spent New Year’s Eve (a short piece will appear soon). For bars, well, Plateau (Brighton) is up there with anything London can offer, especially for its wine list, and the best time I had in a bar in 2019 was probably at Septime La Cave (Paris), on a day when we both ate and drank quite a lot…which is what Paris is for.

Sydney…well I’m going to write about three really good Sydney restaurants in the New Year, but just to mention them, Jonah’s (posh), Dear Sainte-Eloise (Sydney’s Sager+Wilde) and Bhodi (vegan dim sum, seriously!). Watch this space.


I bought less wine than I should have in 2019, though I suppose I do still own rather a lot. I still buy regularly from Solent Cellar (Lymington) and Butler’s Wine Cellar (Brighton), supplemented by trips to Newcomer Wines (Dalston, and invariably Furanxo just down the road whilst I’m there), and increasingly to the new wine shop at Antidote (off Carnaby Street), who sell a few choice bottles from the Dynamic Vines range. Solent Cellar is like a London wine shop in a small Georgian town on the edge of the New Forest. It is very much worth the detour.

Dynamic Vines is probably my favourite medium-sized merchant (well, they import Gut Oggau and La Tournelle for one thing), alongside Graft Wines (formed last year when Red Squirrel and The Knotted Vine came together) and Vine Trail. Small Merchant of 2019 must be Basket Press, whose mainly Czech list is inspiring, and getting more exposure, but I also have to mention Nektar and Modal Wines, plus Swig, Indigo, Uncharted Wines, Carte Blanche and, new to me in 2019, 266 Wines (some amazing kit shown at the 2019 Out of the Box Tasting last October, including the remarkable Hiyu Wine Farm from Oregon).

Les Caves de Pyrene surely wins the accolade of best large merchant, and if their portfolio is anything to go by, they are indeed large now. They are responsible for so much that we drink today, either directly or indirectly. I buy more wine from them (directly or from retailers they supply) than any other UK merchant right now. And let’s not forget they have Doug Wregg, who as most of you will agree is just one of the nicest bloke’s on the planet, not just in wine. I only lament that they stopped importing Bindi.

If there is one thing I ought to buy more of in 2020 it is wine from Piemonte, but I don’t want Barolo which needs 20 years. I’m getting a little too old for that. I also learn’t something in 2019. I knew blokes could drink pink wine, of course, but I discovered it is perfectly nice in winter as well as summer. I have mainly a bunch of Austrians to thank for that piece of enlightenment. Well there you go.


Throughout the year I try to attend as many tastings as I can, although their organisers seem to enjoy bunching them all together at times. It’s not at all unusual for several to be held on the same day, and whereas some people are happy to show their face at several, I generally make a point of doing only one in a day. I miss some, but it suits my focus. And with me it’s always first come first served (take note). There are some tastings, mostly trade/press only, aside from the obvious (Raw and The Real Wine Fair) that I would hate to miss.

Out of the Box, the young importer event usually located in Clerkenwell in early October, has become unmissable. The importers showing tend not to be big names, but this is almost certainly where you will make some amazing discoveries (as with 266 Wines’ Hiyu Wine Farm, mentioned above).

In 2019 there were some other wonderful events, perhaps headed by Newcomer Wines’ and Vine Trails’ Celebrating Common Ground. This brought together wines from Alsace and Germany from two of the UK’s very best merchants. I even got to meet legend Rudolf Trossen, worth the trip to Old Street just for that. I think the other tasting which stood out in 2019 was Les Caves’ “Drinking Outside the Box“. No marks for confusing nomenclature, but this September event was, for me, even better (high praise) than their Real Wine Fair, perhaps on account of it’s more manageable physical size and Marylebone location (easier to get there early doors and get stuck in before the crowds arrived). It was so good I actually wrote three articles about it.

The Les Caves “Box” and Marc Tempé pointing to “Common Ground”

Other plaudits go to the wonderful New Wave of South Africa which was the only trade event in 2019 where we had to queue to get in, so popular it has become, and a small tasting of Blank Bottle Winery, held at one of Henry Butler’s shops in Brighton in early June. Winemaker Pieter Walser, and Damian from importer Swig Wines, came along to pour something like nineteen or twenty samples. Not only did we taste them, but Pieter, possibly the most entertaining story teller in wine, gave us a morning of unparalleled myth, legend and yarns that I may have ever had the pleasure to listen to in a wine shop. You can easily search for any of these events using the search box at the top right of this page, but if you want to be enthralled by Pieter’s wines and a few tall tales, click here.



I buy quite a lot of wine books and I try to review the best of them on my Blog. There is one clear winner among many great reads for 2019. You might wonder how come the same author that won this highly esteemed accolade in 2017 has won again in 2019? Well, Wink Lorch‘s Jura Wine, the 2017 winner, was not only a well researched gem, but it also hit the zeitgeist perfectly, being published as this remarkable region in Eastern France was shooting to stardom. Her timing was perfect.

As well as being clearly the world’s foremost expert on Jura wines, Wink lives for half the year in the French Alps. Her next project therefore had to cover her home regions. It took a very long time for Wines of the French Alps (also self-published) to come out. The work was completed after a period of tragedy for Wink, who lost her partner before publication. Brett Jones was very much an inspiration for her, and as owners of her two books will know, a great photographer as well. Yet Wink struggled through, and produced a book every bit as near-perfect as the last.

The French Alpine Regions may not be quite as “on trend” as Jura, but those who have tasted the wonderful wines of producers like the now retired Michel Grisard, Jean-Yves Péron, or perhaps the two Dominiques (Belluard and Lucas) already know that there are world class wines to be discovered. If you’ve read Wink’s book, you will be in the vanguard of new discoveries. If you haven’t read my review, click here. The review also contains a link if you wish to buy it.


I want to mention one other book. I had been mildly annoying Wink by suggesting that her next project should be a natural extension eastward to Switzerland, but she gently pointed me in the direction of an author I had previously only read in wine magazines and journals, Sue Style. Her The Landscape of Swiss Wine was published in 2019 by Bergli Books, and later in the year Sue sadly passed away. The book does omit a couple of producers I’d have liked to have seen covered, but it’s a lovely book, one sorely needed by myself and my more adventurous wine friends. I’m not alone in appreciating Swiss Wine and Sue’s book will inspire many others to discover the beautiful wines we already know and love. My review can be found here.

Lest you should think I have forgotten, I have to remind you that 2019 saw a new (8th) edition of the World Wine Atlas. Hugh, Jancis and team have as always done a magnificent job. I only got my copy late, on my return from Australia, but although I’m yet to read it cover to cover, a good flick through shows that the amount of updating looks astonishing. It must be the most meticulously put together wine book there is. It’s essential. If you own the 7th edn, then I seriously suggest you upgrade to the eighth.


I write about wine and I’m truly passionate about it, so people are surprised when if asked which I’d give up if forced to, wine or music, I always say wine. I would hate to live without wine but I’m not sure I could live without music. I have remarkably wide and eclectic tastes as well, perhaps mirroring my tastes in wine. For those who managed to get this far in my review of 2019 I’m going to throw in some musical highlights too.

My musical event of the year took place in Vienna, happily one day before the Koppitsch Party at O Boufé’s. I have a love of opera, and I’ve seen performances at Vienna’s famous Staatsoper, but I had never seen a performance at the Theater an der Wien before. I’ve been desperate to see Purcell’s King Arthur for years and in January 2019 I had the chance. In truth I wasn’t feeling too well but it remains my opera highlight of the last decade. So, Gus Christie, don’t say I didn’t tell you.

For a very different musical experience, check out the sheer raw energy of Idles via their recent release A Beautiful Thing, recorded live at the Paris Bataclan. The music sounds violent but this is a band full of love and compassion. A very different set is Nick Cave‘s Ghosteen. I read a review which said that to listen to it you need to be able to comprehend absolute despair and to be able to come out the other side. It is clearly the work of an artist who has lost a child, but there is hope in there, and it is beautiful.

I bought many records from many genres in 2019 (more than bottles of wine? Maybe not), but to listen to all three above would give a fairly interesting summary of what goes on inside my head. If you are interested, yes, I am pretty much hooked on the vinyl revival. I can’t believe how fresh music appears through this medium, especially after the compressed, dulled, passion of MP3 files.

It only remains to wish you all a very happy and successful 2020, and to thank you for reading my articles. Every click is encouragement for me to write more (for sadly there is no financial inducement to do so). To anyone who finds the time in their busy life to read my work, I am genuinely grateful. There are many more words to come out and many bottles to be drunk, books to be read, and vineyards to be visited…I hope…in the coming year. Happy New Year!

Below are some (I stress, some) of the wonderful wine people who have helped me enjoy 2019 like perhaps no wine year before it. Without all of you, producers and wine merchants, I could not have written the many thousands of words of the past year. Some I know well, others hardly at all, but you all played a part.


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Hunter Valley Part 2 – Andrew Thomas

If you read an article which perhaps just touches on the Hunter Valley you will see several famous names listed as the region’s best known and finest producers, but the chances are that if a couple of producers less well known to you are tacked on at the end, one will almost certainly be Andrew Thomas. The reputation of Thomas Wines is long established in Australia. After all, Andrew’s first vintage for his own label was 1997. Before that he had honed his skills with that great Hunter name, Tyrrell’s, a mile or two down the road. But during the following decades these wonderful wines have gained both international recognition and cult status.

The Hunter Valley as we know it, the area around Pokolbin, began its viticultural story in the 1860s, though vines had been planted not too far away at Wollombi, on the convict road north from Sydney Cove, in the 1820s. Since then the region has seen its ups and downs. A bank crash in the 1890s, the removal of protective tarrifs with Federation, the arrival of downy mildew in 1917 at a time of labour shortage, the misery of the economic woes of the 1960s, all could quite easily have killed off this region’s viticulture. So could the race to the bottom from some quarters in later decades. I would suggest that the current revival of the Lower Hunter as a wine producing region, not just a place for weekend tourists to come to is, more than anything else, down to people like Andrew Thomas, and his unerring quest for quality and terroir expression.

My first Hunter Valley article focused on Gundog Estate, but it is where you will find all my preliminary comments and my brief introduction to the Hunter Valley, and its history and heritage. You can read Part 1 here. This second part will focus on a tasting at Thomas Wines in November 2019.

It was a remarkably hot and sunny Sunday morning when we drove almost to the western end of Broke Road and turned right up Hermitage Road. The weather was a late spring pointer to what is looking like a hot summer, and I coincidentally saw a photograph only this morning of beautifully healthy small bunches developing on Andrew’s vines, but equally some very parched earth. A complete contrast to the squelching mud I was wading through in the New Forest last Sunday.

Hermitage has its own identity within the Valley, and the “Hermitage Wine and Food Trail” lists not only vineyards but also local produce, boutique beer and cider makers, cheese making and a host of other gastronomic and leisure activities, including a newly constructed cycleway. The Thomas Wines tasting room sits just off Hermitage Road on Mistletoe Lane, within a small complex which also houses the Brokenback Bar and The Mill Restaurant, along with several local accommodation options.

The tasting room itself is large, clean, modern and smart, as perhaps befits a boutique producer whose multi-award winning wines represent some of the finest in the Hunter. This is where you first meet Andrew Thomas, whether he’s there or not. One whole wall contains the photograph below, of the man himself in the vines. I think the photo expresses the whole philosophy of the winemaker in one click of the lens. Andrew is known for his single vineyard wines from Semillon and Shiraz, the valley’s two signature varieties. The focus is to make the best wines from these grape varieties in the region. Two varieties…but many different bottlings. Currently there is just one diversion, as in Two of a Kind (below).



Some people have suggested that Andrew Thomas has revolutionised Hunter Valley Semillon. The variety is generally under appreciated in the wider world of wine, especially since it became more or less a minor part of the White Bordeaux grape mix. The Hunter Valley is not the only place in the world capable of making creditable Semillon as a single varietal wine, and in fact an increasing number of fine Semillons are coming out of Western Australia. But the Hunter Valley produces a singular style, famous for being an unoaked wine which tastes oaked once properly aged (where “properly” can easily mean twenty years or more). It’s a style which in its youth can persuade a taster that they have Riesling in their glass, and indeed some producers in the distant past labelled their Semillon as “Hunter Valley Riesling”. The long list of Thomas Wines Semillons begins with Synergy.

Synergy Semillon 2019 – this wine is a blend from different sites in the region. Braemore Vineyard, which Andrew has owned for around twenty vintages, forms the core, but the rest are from contract growers. It is important to point out that one of the key elements in Andrew’s success has been his relationships with local growers. A strong bond between grower and winemaker allows Andrew to source the best fruit at perfect phenolic ripeness for each cuvée. It cannot be stressed enough just how important these relationships are to the pursuit of quality.

The wine is fruity and easy to knock back, as you’d expect from a wine which sells at a near ridiculous Aus$20 at the cellar door, for this level of quality. As a good introduction to the range, it shows a tiny bit of residual sugar with citrus acidity not too prominent, and a bit of tropical fruit on the palate.

Two of a Kind Semillon 2019 – Unusually for Andrew, this special cuvée blends Hunter Valley Semillon with 45% Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills. It’s a way Andrew can express a different Semillon tradition, the “Bordeaux Blend”. It’s a very nice wine and not one I’d turn down a bottle of. There’s also a matching Shiraz, a blend of 55% Hunter fruit with 45% from McLaren Vale. I didn’t taste it (sold out), but that 2017 made it into James Halliday’s “Top 100 Wines of 2018”.


Six Degrees Semillon 2019 – This is another take on the variety, where the fermentation is stopped to create an off-dry wine. Andrew’s inspiration here, interesting in the light of my earlier comments on young Hunter Semillon, is the Mosel.  The result is 8.5% alcohol and around 35g/litre residual sugar. This is balanced by fresh lime acidity and a little apple freshness in a light wine for early drinking. It is rather Riesling-like, but think again and you might guess it’s Hunter Semillon.

Fordwich Hill Semillon 2019 – We now move up a gear. Fordwich Hill is the first of the Premium releases. The vineyard is at Broke Fordwich on the western fringe of the valley. The soils are volcanic, with granite debris washed down from the hills, and the area seems to get a little less rainfall than other parts of the region. The wines tend to have a broader tropical palate, with more stone fruit than lime. This is without doubt a contemporary Semillon. The Andrew Thomas wines seem to exude precision, and even a degree of austerity in youth, and this wine certainly shows precision even with the broader stone fruit style. Everything seems to hang from a delicate, filigree, frame. Just 270 cases produced.

OC Semillon 2019 – The first thing my palate noticed here was a touch more complexity. OC stands for Oaky Creek Road (in Pokolbin, off McDonald’s Road). The terrain here is one of loamy and sandy flats. Andrew says that this site is more suited to producing a classical rendition of the grape, so it is perhaps less contemporary than his other wines. This manifests itself in a steely lime backbone running through a grassy wine with a degree of austerity. Hopefully customers will understand that this is a wine to age a decade or more. One worries that they might be fooled by the $26 price tag, a mere £13 or so for a wine of genuine quality.

Braemore Semillon 2019 – This vineyard, planted near the tasting room on Hermitage Road in 1969, is on flat land made up of alluvial river deposits. After a very warm ripening period the grapes were hand picked in January, whole bunch pressed, and fermented with wild yeasts and left on lees until bottling in May this year. Despite the warm summer this 20th Anniversary bottling of this vineyard still retains a low alcohol level (10.7%) and acidity of 7g/l. In some ways it is more approachable now than the OC, but it really will age magnificently if allowed. You get orange blossom and lemongrass up with the grated lime zest. The acidity is refreshing rather than rasping, and its freshness is off the scale amazing in terms of overall concentration. A classic in the making, for sure. It really does justice to a great vineyard.


Braemore Cellar Reserve Semillon 2014 – This may not be a fully mature version of this vineyard cuvée, but at five years old it is just beginning to dip its toes into its drinking window. The bouquet has changed, from a pure and linear citrus to something with a more ethereal edge (lime blossom, springlike). The palate has developed a honey note whilst the citrus element has gone from lemon juice to a rounder lemon curd. The colour is just a touch darker than the lime green glow of youth. To be honest it is lovely now, but in a decade it will evolve to add nuts and perhaps brioche, and the acidity will round out further. But whichever style you prefer, this old vine cuvée is up with the very best Hunter Semillon. The Cellar Selection wines are available to signed up members. Just over 250 cases, or more specifically 512 six-packs, were kept back, at $390/6 ($65/bottle).


Andrew Thomas makes such amazing Semillon that we must not forget that he’s equally adept with Shiraz. The variety in some ways has its Australian home in the Hunter, but it is very different in style here to that of the Barossa or McLaren Vale. It can be a more restrained rendition, with more savoury elements. Historically, these wines could age as well as any in the world, but there was often a leathery element which crept in. They used to call it “sweaty saddle”, a result of brett (brettanomyces), a form of bacterial spoilage.

The result was that whilst the wines undoubtedly aged with complexity, the fruit could be hidden under the saddle. With contemporary Hunter Shiraz the fruit purity of well tended old vines is kept centre stage. The old vines give genuinely intense fruit on both nose and palate, but the savoury nature of the wines, the trait which in my opinion makes them so much more food friendly than the alcoholic fruit bomb style, is not lost.

Synergy Shiraz 2017 – As with the Semillon of this name, this is a blend of different sites, and an introduction to Andrew’s reds. I know one wine writer (my favourite in the UK if you must know) who would definitely call this his trademark “smashable”, as indeed does Andrew. It’s actually whacking out 14.3% abv, but it tastes much lighter, fruity, peppery, and purple-rimmed. Barbecue material.


Sweetwater Shiraz 2017 – Sweetwater Ridge is a vineyard at Belford, in the north of the region, planted in 1998 on loam over ironstone and limestone. It’s a vineyard which can be vigorous so the fruit is thinned out more than most sites. Fermentation contains around 10% whole berries to add a fruity zip, and maturation is in 300-litre French hogsheads. The bouquet is very floral, rose petal and violets with an undercurrent of cherry. There’s a little tannin and structure, but there’s also a lovely sweet spot of fruit which suggests that whilst this will age you could broach it now, or soon, if you want to.


The Cote Shiraz 2017 – If Semillon used to be called “Hunter Riesling” then Shiraz often went by the name of “Hunter Burgundy” in this part of NSW. The name obviously came from the more savoury and lighter (relatively) style of wine you got from Hunter Shiraz grapes. Pokolbin boasts many historic vineyards, and “Côte d’Or” is one of them, the source of this cuvée, just south of Oakvale. The vines were replanted in 1971 on loam, and this 2017 is the first time Andrew has released a single vineyard wine under this name.

The fruit was destemmed  and given a 48-hour cold soak. It then spent seven days more on skins whilst fermenting, before gentle pressing into 300-litre hogsheads (25% new). The bouquet is all sweet fruit and spice, pretty intense. The palate has structure and supple tannins, with real texture. The fruit is just lovely, but the tannins and the savoury qualities point this towards a 20-year snooze in the cellar if you can manage it.


Elenay Shiraz 2017 – The unfathomable name actually relates to the practice of nose to tail eating…”L an’ A” purportedly meaning “lips and arse”. It was originally made from barrels which didn’t make the cut, leftover, but it is no “leftover wine” now, in quality terms. Sweetwater, Kiss, Belford and Dam Block vineyards provide the fruit for this barrel selection wine.

The bouquet here is quite intense violets, but for me (not noted by other tasters) I was definitely getting a little bacon fat forming (my nose is so well attuned to this, partly from my love of older Northern Rhônes, and partly from living in a vegan household). The palate has blueberry and darker fruit, all bound by French oak which sets this out as another twenty year wine. The price, $55, equates to less than £30 at the cellar door. You could be fooled into thinking this is not the serious wine it is.

Kiss Shiraz 2017 – The estate’s flagship Shiraz comes from a vineyard at Pokolbin Estate. The vines, on sandy loam, are fifty years old this year so this 2017 has serious old vine credentials by anyone’s definition of the term. After a 48-hour cold soak it was fermented on skins for nine days before 16 months maturation in the usual 300-litre hogsheads. It was bottled in May this year. It still shows the structure and tannin of oak ageing, but it is spicy as hell and is showing tiny hints of what is possible for the future. This will last over twenty years but may reach its plateau sooner. It would be a shame to drink it now, but if I had to…as the literature says, “Benchmark Hunter Shiraz”. Without doubt the finest Hunter Shiraz I can recall, and I have tried some of the older Mount Pleasant wines in the distant past.

If you can’t bring yourself to see Barossa Shiraz in the same fine wine category as Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie then you probably need to try this. Aus$85, assuming you can get some. Although Kiss sells out on release, or pretty quickly at the cellar door, you can take a look at the Provenance List.  This is a small list of back vintages straight from the domaine, all bottles kept back in temperature controlled cellars, then to wine cabinets in the tasting room when made available for sale. There are some large formats too. Try enlarging the photo for the details of current vintages and prices. I took a 2013 ($130).



Dam Block Shiraz 2017 – This wine is known as “The Baby Kiss”. It comes from a 0.8ha block just across the dam from the “Kiss” vineyard at Pokolbin. 2017 is its third vintage. The fruit seems a mix of red and blueberry, perhaps more plush than Kiss, certainly concentrated but more approachable. It sees a couple of days fewer fermenting and a month less in oak, but overall the winemaking doesn’t differ a lot. The drinking window is estimated up to fifteen years or over, but it would be less of a waste to broach this sooner. It is only a little over half the price of The Kiss.


I think that the top wines here truly are Hunter benchmarks. They are clearly modern wines. Andrew doesn’t seem to allow any faults to get in the way of their expression. Some of the cuvées have an unmistakable mark of the estate on them, yet all are clearly differentiated wines. If Andrew equally manages to illustrate a modern take on the Hunter heritage, it is definitely through allowing the different vineyards to express themselves. At the end of the day they are definitely wines of the vines rather than of the winemaker. They are also stunning.

Thomas Wines is at 28 Mistletoe Lane, on the corner of Hermitage Road, Pokolbin NSW. The excellent cellar door is open every day, 10 ’til 5, bar the usual big holidays of Christmas, New Year and Easter. The entry level wines are free to taste. A fee of $15 per person is charged to taste the premium wines, waived against any purchase. You can link to their web site here.

There’s one more new estate I want to mention here. We didn’t visit Tintilla, which is just round the corner from Thomas Wines. I was aware that my wife’s late Godmother had a relative who made wine in the Hunter but I had no idea who it was and she is sadly no longer around to ask. I only discovered it was Tintilla from her nephew, who we visited later in Sydney. The winemaker is James Lusby whose father, Robert (a vascular surgeon, so another of the Hunter Valley and Australian Wine’s medical men), founded Tintilla in the mid-1990s.

Back in Sydney we drank a bottle of the Tintilla Angus Hunter Semillon 2018, and I’ve just found out that this wine won the Len Sorbello Memorial Trophy at the Winewise Small Vigneron Awards 2019. It comes from Semillon vines grown on the estate’s dry river bed soils on a tributary of Rothbury Creek. The soils drain well, but the grapes need to be harvested before summer rains. This is a wine made with no skin contact and fermented and matured, in classic Hunter fashion, without oak. The style has that lemon and lime nose, with more floral touches too. The palate has a fine line of acidity, but with a touch of richness to ground it. Very nice, though I’m not sure it has any UK distribution. It’s only Aus$30 (a touch over £15) at the cellar door. You don’t need to pay a lot for good quality in the Hunter if you know where to look.

Tintilla Estate is at 725 Hermitage Road, Pokolbin. As well as grapes, the family farm an olive grove too.


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Hunter Valley Part 1 – Gundog

For those people who discovered Australian wine at the time it exploded onto our shores in the UK, during the 1980s, it would probably have been the Hunter Valley wine region where the grapes were sourced. It would not have been a wine from that region’s two signature grapes, Shiraz and Semillon, which they tasted, but a buttery, fruit-laden, Chardonnay. Rosemount’s base in the Upper Hunter produced the quality Show Reserve and single site Roxburgh wines which a few aficionados sourced, whilst the rest of us, still wearing our shorts when it came to wine, so to speak, guzzled up their diamond label. For many, that was the first Aussie Chardonnay which passed our lips. To all but a few it was a revelation. Back then, the Hunter Valley was Australian Wine Central.

That might come as a surprise to a lot of people. Rosemount, not the export giant it was in the UK, is now far more centred on McLaren Vale, whilst the great Hunter Shiraz wines, such as those made by Maurice O’Shea at Mount Pleasant in the first half of the 20th Century, are but a distant memory to most. Hunter Semillon is certainly still one of the world’s great wines. Unoaked, in youth it often tastes like concentrated lime cordial, but with age it convinces most drinkers it has been meticulously tutored in the finest French oak barrels, and how it ages.

With low alcohol (often 11%) and a steely mineral core, the wines may show a resemblance to Riesling, and before these wines required stricter labelling on export markets, they were often labelled as “Hunter Riesling”. Although few people drink Hunter Valley Semillon outside of Australia today, its reputation is rising once more on the back of sheer quality and younger winemakers putting faith in that quality.

The Hunter Valley is climatically a terrible place to grow vines in some respects. Described as semi-tropical, summers are humid with low and almost constant cloud cover, and harvests can be wet. The volcanic terroir, cut by alluvial river beds, do both provide promising soils but viticulture here is not easy. The region’s advantage has always been proximity to Sydney, around 100 miles to the south and now well connected via the Pacific Motorway (M1).

So why, you ask, is the Hunter Valley still an important part of Australia’s current wine scene as well as the country’s wine heritage? Before he died in 2006 Australian wine writer and famous wine judge Len Evans was interviewed by Max Allen. According to Allen, Evans said (The Future Makers, Hardie Grant Books, 2010, p320) that “Hunter wine has improved out of sight in the past ten years…and it’s thanks to the new ones. There’s a fantastic cadre of young people…swapping information…being very critical of each other.” Perhaps  this is where to look for future greatness as the Hunter Valley struggles to be seen once again as a region for some of Australia’s finest wines.

Over the years the large vineyards of the Upper Hunter Valley have contracted. It’s easier and cheaper for the large corporations to source fruit in South Australia, and indeed from other less well known wine regions in NSW. The generally quality-focused Lower Hunter Valley, an area less than 10km wide and maybe 15 to 20km north to south, sits west of a line drawn between the mining town of Cessnock, and Branxton to the north. The region is centred on Pokolbin, not really a village, more a cluster of a couple of stores and restaurants on Broke Road, between the Visitor Information Centre (useful for a free large scale vineyard map) and the Hunter Valley Gardens, by the roundabouts to the west.

Within this area sit a cluster of wineries, many now boutique in size. Some make their money and fame from wonderful wines of genuine quality, whilst others benefit from the well developed tourist trade. Around the wineries you will find a surprising number of places to stay, to eat, to listen to concerts, look at art, or take a balloon flight. Personally, I’d never argue that the region is beautiful. Not in the way of so many wine regions. But it unquestionably has its own charm, and at least the Brokenback Mountains make a hilly, blue-hued, frame for the vineyards.

Hunter Semillon forms only a small part of the output of the wider Hunter Valley, not surprising as the whole region produces less than one hundredth of Australia’s wine output these days. The region’s fame far outweighs its importance to the “industry”. The Lower Hunter Valley without doubt suffered in the past, as its reputation for some wonderful old wines gave way to the prominence of the bulk producers (mainly) in the Upper Hunter. But in that quiet period others got to work, to rebuild that reputation. Along with Semillon, the valley does provide the right conditions for characterful Shiraz, at least in some vintages. So the revival of the Hunter seems to be focused on those two varieties.

To the wine lover on export markets, especially the UK, names such as Tyrrell’s, Mount Pleasant (the old McWilliams homestead), Lindeman’s, Brokenwood’s Graveyard Vineyard, or possibly Lake’s Folly, founded by Sydney doctor Max Lake in 1963, arguably Australia’s first boutique winery, might be most familiar. Locally there are others building reputations based on quite thrilling wines. I have chosen two producers to highlight who are beacons of excellence by any standard. Perhaps the better known of the two, Andrew Thomas Wines, will be profiled in the second Hunter Valley article. Here, I visit Gundog Estate. If you haven’t heard of them, don’t worry. I hadn’t either until the middle of 2019.

Gundog Estate was founded in 2011 by Matt Burton and partners. Matt, with a degree from Charles Sturt, had gained experience abroad (France and USA), before a career at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley. Coldstream’s former owner, Aussie wine writer James Halliday, has always called the Hunter Valley his first love, though I have no idea what made Matt choose a region in New South Wales, perhaps a little in the doldrums at the time, over that prestigious Victorian vineyard just outside of Melbourne. But choose it he did, and he chose to focus his efforts here on Semillon and Shiraz. Since his first vintage Matt has gone on to scoop many awards, including becoming, in a circular journey of sorts, a “James Halliday Five Red Star Winery”.

Gundog Estate’s tasting room is in the old school house, located on McDonald’s Road, on the right, south of the Broke Road roundabouts. Five vineyards make up the estate’s core fruit. The 48 Block sits a little way behind the tasting room, whilst two more sites, Sunshine Vineyard in the north of Pokolbin, towards Rothbury and The Old Road Vineyard, both sit beside the long Wine Country Drive. That leaves Vernon Vineyard (farmed by David and Sue Vernon, who Matt has worked with for more than twelve years) and Somerset Vineyard, both to the south, either side of Mount View.

Matt treats all his Semillons in the same way. Only the free run juice is used, just as in Champagne. Fermentation is cool, after which the wine rests on fine lees for three or four months. The Shiraz parcels get a two-day cold soak, and are fermented without cooling in open-top vats. The oak regime is intended to play a supporting role, and Matt isn’t looking for overt oak influence, though new oak can be around 30% via the purchase of a brand new oak puncheon occasionally for each wine. Maturation in oak is usually limited to ten months.

The Wines

The Chase Semillon 2019 – The source is old vines in the Somerset Vineyard, where the vines were originally planted on sandy loam in 1965, giving a youthful dry and fresh lime citrus wine with added lemon grass and zippy apple from a ruthless selection of low cropping fruit. Alcohol sits at 11%.

Hunter Valley Semillon 2018 – Up at a heady 11.5% abv, this wine is sourced from heavier soils around Mount View. There’s more of an earthy texture here, and perhaps the acidity, more lemon than lime, suggests earlier drinking. It is nevertheless a characterful wine and nicely differentiated.

Hunter Valley Semillon 2013 – It’s so important to get a handle on how Hunter Semillon ages, although at six years old the wine isn’t fully mature. Indeed, some Semillon will go through a dumb phase at this age. Here we have a smoky fruit character, almost plummy with a bit of stony texture, and plump too. Bigger on the palate, it’s a classic example of a wine you might swear had seen oak.

Somerset Vineyard Semillon 2014 – The vines on this old creek bed are on their own roots, not grafted onto American rootstocks. The soils are interspersed with volcanic elements and limestone, on west facing slopes planted in 1965 and 1970. Lime is concentrated on the palate here, but appended with a sour/bitter savoury note. Released at four years old, this is still very young and might go thirty years if allowed. It doesn’t need that long, but it is rather a shame most is consumed on release. The acid backbone will grant it that age, but there’s a touch of richness to tempt the impatient.


Wild Semillon 2019 – This wine is fermented on skins (2 weeks) using only wild yeasts. It has fairly prominent acidity and even a little “Sauvignon Blanc character”, but the wine doesn’t come over as completely dry. This is perhaps the rather peachy fruit, which goes well with the very textural result of the winemaking. A different take. Alcohol is at just 10.5%.


Wild Semillon 2014 – it’s always good to try an older vintage of any current wine. The bouquet of this 2014 has developed a gorgeous floral element, and I used the same adjective for the wine as a whole. The acidity has held but there’s just more complexity and the single dimension of the 2019 has broadened into a multi-dimensional wine.


Indomitus Albus Semillon 2018 – The labels of the Indomitus wines show a photographic image of the 12th century Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex. This temple has been left pretty much undisturbed since its discovery. Matt is keen to avoid calling the Indomitus wines “natural wines”, but the philosophy is nevertheless to intervene as little as possible, to show yet another side of Hunter Semillon.

The Albus Semillon wine grew as an extension of the Wild Semillon, 50% of the must seeing skins during fermentation for around three months, using wild yeasts of course. Very little sulphur is used. The result is high in acid, but textural. The bouquet is concentrated then explosive. It has a slightly sweet side and a definitely savoury edge too. Complex. It’s far more out on the edge than any Hunter Semillon I’ve tasted before. A bottle drunk later was thrilling, just pipping a bottle of the Wild Semillon 2014  we drank back in Sydney (good as that bottle was). In my view, though, it does need more time.


Gundog does make wine from other regions’ fruit. There’s an extremely good Canberra District Riesling (we tasted the 2019) which comes from vines Matt controls at Murrumbateman. Only 100 dozen bottles are currently released each vintage, but it is rightly jumped on, I’m told. Matt also makes a very nice Indomitus Rosa from fruit he sources in the Hilltops Region of NSW (not far from Canberra District, of course). Unusually, the variety is Nebbiolo, making a salmon pink wine with a remarkable scent which is both floral and of pineapple! Delicate, yet a wine of texture, 13% abv, food friendly…I was rather taken with it.

There’s also a concentrated Rutherglen Muscat (don’t spit this one), and a partnership range with Dylan McMahon from the Yarra Valley, for several wines off volcanic soils near Seville. From the latter label I tasted D’Aloisio’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2017. It’s a wine where the malo is not encouraged, though the fresh acids are balanced by 30% new oak and 13% abv. The result is fresh and textured. Texture seems a trait here. Now we come to the Hunter Shiraz.



Rare Game Shiraz 2018 is remarkably refined with scents of violet combined with dark fruits. A good tannin structure holds it all together well. The low cropped vines are in Somerset Vineyard and Tinkler’s Vineyard, off red volcanic soils. It’s not cheap at Aus$60 (cellar door), but it will age for 5-to-15 years, gaining with complexity.

48 Block Shiraz – The fruit here was once used by Lindeman’s. Matt began working with the Tinkler family in 2014. The vineyard produces small berries, which when picked on the early side produce the kind of Shiraz Matt likes to make, known locally as “Hunter Burgundy”. The bouquet for me is deep cherry, but with a high tone too. The fruit is treated as if it were Pinot Noir so there’s delicacy (despite alcohol up at 13.8%) and spice. The spice comes through a lot, though the fruit has a nice ripe sweetness at the same time. Quite plush.

The Somerset Vineyard 2014 is in the same vein, elegant, savoury and medium-bodied. The Old Road used to be called “Will’s Vineyard” when it belonged to De Bortoli. Will Capper still manages it, but the name was changed due to trademark issues. Planted in 1980, it sits on clay loam and iron-rich gravels. The style is broad and rich, in some contrast to the other two single vineyard Shiraz wines. The single vineyard wines are not on general release. As with so many producers, but this seems especially true of the Hunter Valley, you need to join the Cellar Club to get them. You can understand why. Otherwise, if on general taste they would be gulped down by all the coach parties before they hit your cellar.


Despite the relatively low international profile of Gundog Estate, I would recommend a visit. The very pleasant, and friendly, tasting room, run by genuinely knowledgeable and engaging staff, is at 101 McDonald’s Road, Pokolbin. It won a Best Small Cellar Door Award from Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine in both 2013 and 2018. It is open seven days a week, 10am to 5pm (except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Easter Sunday). It shares space with the Gourmet Pantry. You can buy a charcuterie and cheese platter to soak up the wine if you wish, and very decent coffee to wake you up afterwards. But more importantly, the wines are seriously impressive.

Gundog Estate’s web site is here.


The Tasting Room

Some famous Hunter sights – Lake’s Folly, Mount Pleasant and Tyrrell’s



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It doesn’t need anything else in the title, does it. I’ve said before that by personal favourite Australian wine estates have long been Jasper Hill, in Heathcote, and Clonakilla, at Murrumbateman in Canberra District. In the first of my string of articles from Australia I mentioned how I visited Jasper Hill, but due to her delay in getting back to the vineyard, I was unable to taste with Emily Laughton. This visit more than made up for that disappointment.

We drove up to Murrumbateman whilst staying on the coast near Milton, and it was a long old day, around six-to-seven hours driving and nine or more hours on the road with stops and the tasting. We were lucky to make it to Clonakilla because the wind was up and temperatures hit the low thirties, and there was a genuine fear of fires. In fact the coastal highway south to Bateman’s Bay was closed last week due to the proximity of bush fires, and I understand that Clonakilla are not shipping wine this week due to the temperatures.

From Batemans Bay the road climbs steeply through the Budawang Range, to historic Braidwood. Many people stop here, but we drove on for a brunch in Bungendore. Above the mountains there’s a wide plateau which, although way more rocky and larger, reminds me of the high pasture in the Jura, except that the mean terrain means you see many fewer cows (mostly beef) per hectare. From Bungendore you can cut directly northwest to Murrumbateman, avoiding the city of Canberra. The blocks up here get even more windswept and seem even more exposed, with big granite lumps sitting immovable in nearly every paddock.


Canberra District was first planted with vines in the 1970s. The pioneers were the Carpenter family at Lark Hill, Lake George Winery (the lake itself, often more or less empty despite its size, lies east of Murrumbateman), and John Kirk, who named his winery after the family dairy back in County Clare, in the mid-west of Ireland. John’s talented son Tim took over in the early 1990s, and undertook one small change at the estate, one which would reverberate around viticultural Australia, and indeed the world.

Tim had visited Guigal in the Northern Rhône, and had been smitten by his great Côte Rôties. On returning he decided to co-ferment some Viognier with his Syrah. In the words of Jancis Robinson, in a quote used on the Clonakilla brochure, “Clonakilla’s subtle Viognier-influenced Shiraz almost single-handedly turned round the Aussie Shiraz super tanker”.

Next we move on a decade to the mid-2000s for another important event in Canberra District wine history. In 2006 Hardy’s decided to close their big winery here, leaving a host of local growers, not so much Canberra people but those who had planted in the nearby Hilltops region near the town of Young, high and dry and risking bankruptcy. All that fruit up there is one reason why you see a lot of wineries all over NSW knocking out some excellent wines from Hilltops fruit.

However, when Tim Kirk lost almost his whole harvest to frost back in 2000 he was pretty much saved by an alternative source of grapes, planted largely for the big Southcorp organisation, fruit which was just itching to be turned into wine by a local star winemaker. By adding Tim’s skills to the mix, the Hilltops blend was born. I remember buying it from Adnams, and later from current UK importer Liberty Wines, and thinking what great value it was.


Cellar Door at Clonakilla

Clonakilla isn’t all about Syrah, although there are now several in the range. I always bought their delicious Viognier, which you could find at Fortnum & Mason back in the day (not currently listed but they do sell the Hilltops Shiraz). The white they have probably become best known for is their Riesling, a variety that has massive potential in the region. In fact there’s an “International Riesling Challenge” held in Canberra. The best Australian Riesling 2019 was West Cape Howe Porongurup Riesling (Great Southern Region), but I personally count Clonakilla’s as one of the very finest in the country. Sadly UK importer Liberty Wines doesn’t list it. AG Wines, trading from West Ealing in London, does.

Before we taste some wines we should step back again and say something about the terroir up here near Murrumbateman. The Canberra District vineyards are partly volcanic, but with more loam and shale, with significant granite outcrops. Perhaps it was the wind, but it does feel almost desolate out in the vines. Rainfall is generally low, and over time it is clear that Syrah, Viognier and Riesling thrive, but not exclusively. The Hilltops fruit is on more uniformly volcanic soil. Interestingly, Tim and his team discovered from geological analysis that there is a thin layer of sand through the vineyards which seems to date from the time dinosaurs became extinct. It was as if a great wind had blown across the land and left a layer of fine sediment.


Quite bleak, certainly parched

Clonakilla Riesling 2018 – If the Syrah wines display the subtlety often lost in some Aussie versions, this wine is perhaps not a white wine mirror image. Lime and mineral mouth texture wreath this wine, made from old vines and vinified as whole bunches. The bouquet is largely floral but something of the wine’s steeliness comes through. It’s a wine made to age, but in its youth it has real zip and zest. Why oh why Liberty Wines don’t bring this to the UK I really don’t know? In my view it rates alongside the best of Clare and Watervale.


Clonakilla Viognier “Nouveau” 2019 – Whole bunches into stainless steel, a fresh wine, simple but very tasty. Bottled early it shows 12.5% abv and 1.9g/l of residual sugar. It makes for a light wine, ideal for aperitif drinking. Peach and pear fruit.

Canberra District Viognier 2018 – Another whole bunch fermentation, but this then goes into oak, where it spends a year on lees. The wine is completely different from the Nouveau. The crop in 2018 had been thinned by hail but at harvest the fruit was healthy and super concentrated from a warm growing season and harvest. The oak rounds out its emerging complexity, so that you get stone fruit flavours underpinned by ginger, which really comes through as it warms a little. It is harvested off 500 million year old granite and the wine sort of has that stature. Always liked this, but the 2018 is superb.

Clonakilla Chardonnay 2018 – My first taste of the estate’s Chardonnay. This is from very high grown fruit: Steve Morrisson’s Revee Estate and Heather and Rob Johansen’s vines, both at over 700 metres at Tumbarumba (way southwest of Canberra, close to Granite Mountain). It begins with citrus scents on the nose, followed by a gentle floral note, but the palate has punch, partly through its very clean acidity (apple crunch) which at first hides a savoury finish. It’s a wine to age, but right now it is bracing…thrilling in its own way. A little gras points to its future potential.


Ceoltóiri 2018 – Pronounced keel-toy-ree, this cuvée is named after the Irish word for “musicians”, and reflects the family’s love of making music together. The blend is 50% Grenache, with the rest made up of diminishing amounts of Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault and Counoise, plus a tiny splash of Roussanne. The soft raspberry fruit seems light, and you would never guess (as with many modern Grenache blends done well) that it boasts 14.5% alcohol. The nose is gently perfumed, but the palate does give a hint of opulent fruit from a warm vintage as it warms in the mouth, and a little tannin begins to coat the tongue.

We purchased a bottle of this which we drank up in Sydney. It was gorgeous, a wine with far more elegance than the abv level on the label might suggest. We drank it before a Geoff Merrill “Jacko’s” Shiraz 2012 from McLaren Vale, and the contrast in size was instructive for when it comes to making generalisations that “high alcohol means a big wine”. The Ceoltóiri is no delicate flower, but it’s not remotely a bruiser either.


For those reading this on a large screen, I apologise for the food stain…got too close to the hob!

Ballinderry 2017 – The name means “place of the oak” in Irish, and relates to an oak tree John Kirk planted along with his first vines back in 1971. This unusual blend for the region is a classic “Bordeaux” medley, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It succeeded so well in 2017 because a very wet winter was followed by a dry but humid summer. It’s normally a little too cool for these varieties to excel every vintage around Murrumbateman. It has very concentrated cassis fruit and will see a long life after its two years in oak. The quality does shine through the ripe tannins.


We now come to three Clonakilla Syrahs, the signature of the estate. Given the proclivity of those producing a more elegant style of the variety to use “Syrah” over “Shiraz” on the label, the choice of the originator of that more nuanced style might surprise some.

Hilltops Shiraz 2018 is from that warmer region around Young. That richness comes through first on the bouquet. The 2018 vintage was of very high quality, as we shall see with the Shiraz-Viognier, below. The fruit is dark and rich, and this is one of the best of the cuvée I’ve tasted for a while. Although this isn’t Canberra District fruit, you do seem to get that more floral note on the bouquet which singled out Tim’s wines from the beginning of his tenure.

O’Riada Shiraz 2017 – The O’Riada is named after Sean O’Riada, a famous Irish musician and composer who died the same year as John Kirk planted his first vines, in 1971. This is the tenth anniversary bottling of this wine, which is made from fruit sourced around Murrumbateman and Hall (the latter on the north edge of Canberra itself). This is a wine with a wild side. The fruit is nice and brambly, but the main event is spice, as in pepper and cloves. A little classic violet on the nose, and a richness for sure, yet also a sense of restraint. Under starter’s orders, so to speak. Pure Syrah, no Viognier, but still a whole bunch ferment and a maceration lasting a month. Young as it was, I took a bottle for my birthday up in Sydney. Not too young, a glorious treat.


Canberra District Shiraz-Viognier 2018 – Tim describes the ripening season in 2018 as “brilliant”. I hate points, but Nick Stock, Aussie Wines contributor on James Suckling’s site, in giving this ninety-nine of them used the word “perfection”. Whole bunches in the fermentation are limited to around 28% this vintage and Viognier is up nearer 6% than the 2% more often seen in other local wines. Other than that we have a gentle oak regime but a wine built on a tannic structure, to last and last. I drank my older bottles, which came from Adnams in Southwold, where I first discovered Clonakilla, but going back I still have one last bottle of 2008. They never taste old.

A brief TN is perhaps in order. Violets, maybe rose petals and spice vie for control of the bouquet. The palate is strong on berry fruit, red and black, but with ripe plum as well. There’s a note of Bovril, yes, definitely not Vegemite, more beefy/savoury. Many people think this wine is often Australia’s finest Shiraz. Plenty are bigging up the 2018 as the best ever vintage, and more than one critic reckons this is Australia’s absolute finest Shiraz of 2018. But give it ten years, double that if you are young enough. A world classic in the making.


After our tasting we decided to take a different route home. The M31 Highway past Goulburn isn’t that interesting, but it got us to a coffee stop at Moss Vale, before we descended Kangaroo Valley towards Nowra, completing a circle. The Valley is rather boastfully described by the regional tourist organisation as “the most beautiful valley in Australia”. I can’t say I’m experienced enough to verify that claim, but as you descend quite fast through the Southern Highlands you swing left to right and back again, continuously, down a steep-sided route of lush rainforest.

You get used to the bush in Australia, gum trees and eucalyptus, pleasant on the eye as the trees habitually let through more light than European forest. The rainforest, not uncommon at all down here, is different. It’s like dense jungle, with local humidity giving the foliage a deep green hue you don’t see in the bush. The trees can shade enormous ferns. The route of the valley follows the Kangaroo River as it tumbles towards Shoalhaven, and a little less than half way down from Moss Vale you will find the famous Fitzroy Falls, a local tourist attraction sadly closed to visitors due to fire risk when we passed.

It was a long day. On my last visit up here we stopped overnight near Lake George, but with the chance to rise early on the farm (if not quite with the cows who head, remarkably quietly so as not disturb the guests, to the milking shed at 4.00am), the trip itself made a nice scenic day out. Visiting Clonakilla was, of course, the icing on the cake.

Clonakilla is at 3 Crisps Lane, Murrumbateman. Access (signposted) is directly off the Bungendore to Murrumbateman road, another good reason to take that route and avoid going around Canberra. There’s a map and full contact details on the Clonakilla web site here.

The cellar door is open to all individual visitors without an appointment, weekdays 11am-4pm, weekends 10am-5pm. A welcome awaits. I don’t believe they charge for tastings, unlike the majority of cellar doors, where a small fee is taken off purchases. Maybe that’s why the sign says “buses by appointment”. But to leave here without at least a bottle or two is inconceivable. If ever there was a need for one of those expensive wine suitcases.


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Let Me Tell You A Little About Shoalhaven Coast

Australia is brimming with new wine regions. Just as we get used to Tumbarumba and Hastings River in New South Wales we hear that Willyarup, within the wider Margaret River appellation, has just been given approval. One region you may not yet have heard about is Shoalhaven Coast. The first vines were planted here in the 1820s at Coolangatta Estate, by Alexander Berry, a close friend of the famous Australian wine pioneer James Busby…but then it went very quiet. That is, until the 1980s when Coolangatta’s new owner planted Sauvignon Blanc.

The reason this emerging wine region is worth writing about is that it has the potential for quality wine and growth, especially from wine tourism, because it begins just 200km from Sydney. But this coastal region also possesses some of the most beautiful beaches in the whole of NSW. In fact the region is so beautiful, but probably relatively unknown to people outside of Australia, that I think this article will have a bit more of a travelogue feel to it.

There are sixteen cellar doors in the Shoalhaven Coast Region, but eight are listed on the Shoalhaven Coast Wine Trail. This begins at Kiama in the north, with Yarrawa Estate to the west, close to the rainforest of Kangaroo Valley, being the most northerly of the wineries. The route continues south, quickly skipping down the Princes Highway to Shoalhaven and its famous heads, then further south via Nowra and Wandandian to Milton and Ulladulla. Between these two settlements, around an hour’s driving from the north of the region, you will find Cupitt’s Winery. The wine route then goes just a little further to its most southerly outpost, Bawley Vale Estate.


It has been the standard view that Shoalhaven Coast is a reasonably cool climate region, based on the prevailing cooling winds off the Tasman Sea, which can ameliorate temperatures. But wine writers invariably caution for summer humidity and especially summer rain. This is a similar problem to that traditionally faced by the Hunter Valley, but that is a long way north, perhaps at least five or six hours driving.

Australia is currently suffering one of her longest droughts. The reason we were down here was principally to visit family, and one of them runs a dairy farm. Feed is in such short supply that he’s shipping it from Western Australia, at crippling cost. There’s not enough rain to make the grass grow, and he has five hundred cows to feed. So at least at the present time the books are not quite accurate. It’s very dry.

The grape varieties planted in the region have, to a certain extent, reflected this perception of humidity and summer rain, so for example you will find the hybrid variety Chambourcin in many vineyards. Chambourcin is particularly resistant to mildew and other fungal diseases, and is used for medium-bodied red wine, rosé and, increasingly, sparkling reds. But planting has been wider and experimental. Vinifera varietals originally planted include Chardonnay, Verdelho (especially), Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, whilst more recent plantings have included Tempranillo, Arneis, Viognier, Sangiovese and Tannat.

What will grow remains to be seen. The region has won “1,000 awards”. Awards are admittedly prolific in the world of Australian Wine, but even if the number can be taken with a pinch of salt, it does show an intent, in terms of quality. What is certain is that the region is well known gastronomically, as you might expect from somewhere which has changed beyond recognition since I first came here several decades ago (my wife spent some of her childhood on the southern coast, at Mollymook, about ten minutes from Milton). It is now a smart playground for the kind of wealthy Sydneysider who craves a “Grand Designs” holiday home and some long and unspoilt surf beaches. So you will dine well down here.

I’m going to write a little about my visit to Cupitt’s Winery, and then mention a lovely neighbourhood restaurant in the shadow, literally, of a much more famous one. If I include some photos of the beaches and the bush in order to make you jealous, or possibly to entice you down, I make no apology.

Cupitt Winery

Rosie and Griff Cupitt founded their winery between Milton and Ulladulla in 2005, choosing the Shoalhaven Coast as somewhere they felt they could make a more European style of wine. Rosie, with a degree in oenology from Charles Sturt University, had gained experience in Europe, including the Upper Loire in France. The couple have more recently passed on winemaking to their sons, Wally and Tom.


Like many wineries in less well known regions of New South Wales, and indeed in some well known regions if you read my previous article, on Polperro Wines, fruit is bought in from afar. Cupitt’s has a lot going on. It’s a boutique winery, a micro brewery, and a fromagerie, and they purchase a good number of grapes from the Hilltops Region and Tumbarumba to supplement their currently small crops of home fruit. Fans of Clonakilla will know of Hilltops, northwest of Canberra. The wines from purchased fruit are pretty good. In fact Cupitt’s has become a James Halliday Five Star Winery.

There’s a spicy lees contact Viognier, a very crisp Fiano, a pristine grapefruit Riesling, a fresh skin contact Marsannay, Dusty Dog Syrah (with 2% Viognier co-fermented) and Carolyn’s Cabernet Sauvignon (traditional, oaked), all from Hilltops grapes. There’s also a Provençal style Rosé, a Pinot Noir called The Pointer and a very interesting “Little Red” blending Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Barbera, all from Tumbarumba. That’s a lot of wines, and we enjoyed tasting them all (there were still one or two we missed) but not really why we came.

At the present time the only wine Cupitt’s makes from Shoalhaven fruit is a Sauvignon Blanc, called Alphonse Sauvignon Blanc. We tasted the 2019 which has seen a little oak, but not enough to really stand out. It was impressive, showing all the cool climate precision you hope the region is capable of giving. This cuvée saw seven months on lees and it is full of citrus, fresh acidity and a floral bouquet. It is also nice and long.  It’s made as a nod to Alphonse Mellot, the producer of steely biodynamic Sancerres, with whom Rosie had worked and learnt from during her time in Europe. It’s Aus$34 at the cellar door.


Cupitt’s is expanding its home vineyard plantings, with Semillon, Albariño, Gamay and Cabernet Franc, but these will take a while to produce wine. I’ve not tried any of the beers but the cheeses are remarkably good. There’s a very good Chaource lookalike called Veuve, both young and aged versions available (I have to declare an interest – the milk comes from my wife’s cousin’s farm). We also got to try a hard cheese which at three months old resembled a young Comté (buttery, nutty) from raw milk. Angel Williams is the cheesemaker, and it was as interesting chatting cheese with her as it was tasting the wines. She makes cheeses with Rosie Cupitt, and has also written an acclaimed book How to Say Cheese – An Interactive Cheese Journey.

The excellent restaurant has been under Russell Chinn’s direction since 2010 (he worked at The Waterside Inn under Michel Roux). They have recently won a “Star Cellar Door Award 2019” from Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine.

Another random connection with the area near Milton is Tallwood Restaurant, at the north end of Mollymook Beach. One of our friends in the UK mentioned that they had worked in New Zealand with a very good chef and his wife, and that turns out to be Matt Upson, who set up Tallwood. Now this is a rather unassuming place in a small parade of shops, a few tables on the pavement but surprisingly spacious inside. It needs to be because it seems to be full all the time. We dined on a Monday evening, when there’s a chef’s special set menu (Aus$55) and it was packed with what I presume were locals. The food was exceptional.

The wine list here is pretty interesting too. We drank Mada Wines Sui Generis IV Whole Bunch Grenache 2018 from Murrumbatemen (quite a nice link for our visit to Clonakilla in the next article). This is a one-off wine from Hamish Young, aged in used French oak and bottled early (February 2019). Deliciously concentrated Grenache from cool climate Canberra District.

Tallwood is at Shop 2/85 Tallwood Avenue, Mollymook Beach, NSW. See the web site Here.

Just a few dozen paces along the road towards the beach is Bannisters by the Sea, one of two Bannisters outposts. Within this luxury hotel is what they describe as the “iconic” Rick Stein Seafood Restaurant. We’ve not tried it. I’m sure it lives up to the hype as everyone talks about it. It’s just that…we went to Tallwood instead.

The village of Milton, and the town of Ulladulla, both on the highway, offer a host of cafes and small restaurants worth exploring as well.

If you find yourself drawn down here, then Mollymook Beach is one of those near perfect expanses of pure white sand. I say “near perfect”. Next beach north is called Narrawallee Beach. It’s equally long, an expanse of sand bordered by the ocean on one side and a small strip of bush on the other, giving the illusion of a desert island. Mollymook is where you will find the surf school and families in summer, but Narrawallee has always been almost deserted when I’ve been there. On a stroll from end to end one morning I counted just four dog walkers.

Just a minute or two further north by car and you get to Narrawallee Creek. This stunningly beautiful inlet boasts mangrove trees and an expanse of shallow water. At low tide you might catch a thousand strong army of soldier crabs appearing from under the sand, along with an attendant flock of long billed waders looking for dinner. Just follow the same road that passes Narrawallee Beach until you reach the car park at the end, near the children’s play park. Look for the steps down and you’re there. Watch the tide.

Narrawallee and Mollymook Beaches, near Milton, NSW

Soldier crabs, Narrawallee Creek

One final recommendation. We drove up into the hills for about twenty-to-thirty minutes off the highway to go on the Mount Bushwalker bush walk. It is described as one of the best bush walks in the state, and it was certainly the best I’ve been on. It’s an eight kilometre walk in total, through varying types of bush and over rock along the top of a ridge, ending with a spectacular view of the flat topped mountains of the Budawang National Park. Because the track is on a ridge the walking is fairly easy, and yellow arrows keep you on the path on the flat rocky parts of the trail. We went up at 7am to avoid the heat and we saw not one soul (nor, thankfully, any snakes), though the bird song was a wonder to listen too, as were the views we soaked up. After half an hour just staring at the Budawangs we managed to tear ourselves away with some difficulty. We were lucky. The following day all the National Parks were closed because of the fire risk. For walk info see Here.


Budawangs, Mount Bushwalker – just two people and lots of birds and butterflies. Otherwise a magical silence.

We stayed on Narrawilly Farm, at one of the Narrawilly Farm Cottages. These are two well equipped and comfortable. but simple, mud brick cottages on Narrawilly dairy farm, about three or four minutes north of Milton. If you are interested, check them out on airbnb here.

For Cupitt’s Winery and Restaurant see Here. They can be found at 58 Washburton Road (off Slaughterhouse Road), Ulladulla, NSW. The cellar door is open seven days a week. The winery is signposted off the Princes Highway, both outside of Milton and Ulladulla.

The other wineries on the Shoalhaven Coast Wine Route are (north to south):

  • Yarrawa Estate – Kangaroo Valley
  • Silos Estate – Berry
  • Mountain Ridge Wines – Shoalhaven Heads
  • Coolangatta Estate – Shoalhaven Heads
  • Two Figs – Shoalhaven Heads
  • Cambawarra Estate – Bangalee
  • Bawley Vale Estate – Bawley Point




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