The Mistake

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Recently, I had the immense pleasure of visiting Mayfair’s best premium wine shop, Hedonism. I came with the sole intention of buying a single half bottle of red, but was tempted by the immense selection, and knowledgeable staff. The wine was to be drunk at Hawksmoor, the renowned steak restaurant which offers £5 corkage on Mondays (a serious rarity in London). This was a special occasion, and required something interesting and good. In the end, I opted for ‘New Zealand’s best pinot noir,’ from Ata Rangi.

The story of Ata Rangi’s pinot is the stuff of legend. Back in the 80s, Clive Paton (the founder and owner), called on the help of winemaker Malcolm Abel. Fortunately for Paton, Abel had identified some exciting pinot cuttings, brought over illegally from Burgundy in a Kiwi’s boot. In fact, it is thought that these cuttings came from non-other than the world-famous estate of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. These confiscated vines were bought by Paton, planted in his estate, and have been called the ‘Gumboot clone’ or ‘Abel clone’ ever-since. The estate now employs the characteristic of several different Pinot clones, including the Dijon clone for its perfume, and clone 5 for its structure.

These wines has been incredibly well received in the press. Here are the experts’ opinions:

  • Hugh Johnson explains it as ‘seductively fragrant’ and ‘powerful.’
  • At the 2010 International Pinot noir Conference, it was given the title ‘Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa,’ translating from Maori as ‘Grand cru of New Zealand.’
  • Bob Campbell, MW writes: ‘Ata Rangi produce one of the country’s greatest wines’
  • James Suckling calls it ‘a materpiece’, giving the 2013 vintage 98-99 points.
  • Tim Aitkin and Nick Stock have both called it ‘New Zealand’s best pinot’
  • New Zealand experts Sam King and Raymond Chan reward the 2013 vintage 98 points

So, what is the hype about? I gave it a try… below are my tasting notes.

Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, 2013, Martinborough

Visuals: Ruby-purple, clean and medium viscosity.

Nose: Austere primary fruit: blackberries, cherry. Very light touch of oak. Peppery and herbacious. Obvious smoked bacon fat. Alcohol is quite strong.

Palate: Some cherry fruit. Very peppery, almost Rhone like! Dried oregano. Good acidity, great tension and minerality and extremely long finish. Masses of tannin; the most tannic Pinot I have ever tasted.

Conclusions: This is clearly very youthful and primary. Overall, actually rather difficult to drink. So intense, so tannic and overall, rather overpowering for steak. This would probably need something gamey to pair with. I am no expert in anticipating a wine’s potential to age, but based on the structure, the tannin, and the primal nature of this wine, I can at least see why the experts suggest you leave this for a bit in the cellar.

Learning Points: Don’t be greedy. Yes, you can drink wine young, but if everyone is telling you to wait, just wait! To quote Decanter: ‘it would be ‘Sacrilegious to drink it [Ata Rangi 2013 pinot noir) now, despite its deliciousness.’

Sharpham Vineyards, Devon, UK

Continuing my tour of British vineyards I made my way to Sharpham Vineyards on the river Dart for a delightful summer afternoon.  Sharpham Estate is known in equal measure in the local area for their efforts in wine and cheese.  A few years ago I tried the Summer Red after friends visited the vineyard so it was great to get back and sample more widely across the range.  Sharpham Estate offers wine tasting, cheese tasting and walking trails by the river and through the vineyards.  If you are here in time for lunch then there is also a small cafe serving locally sourced produce and seafood.

Several of the whites are based on the unusual variety of Madelaine Angevine which makes interesting whites here in the UK.  At nearby site Beenleigh, the Sharpham team also make a Cabernet/Merlot blend under polytunnels, but this was not available for tasting.  I came away with a hearty cheeseboard and a bottle of the Barrel Fermented White which proved a delicious partner for a summer BBQ.

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Price: £6 for a flight of 4 wines, £2.50 for a flight of 3 cheeses.  Prices for wines listed below are based on the website but I believe they are slightly cheaper if you purchase them in the vineyard shop.

Impression: A delightful spot on the edge of the river Dart.  Well worth a visit if you are in the South Hams area of Devon and have even a passing interest in wine and cheese.

Wines Tasted: Sharpham Sparkling 2013, Sharpham Estate Selection Dry 2014, Sharpham Dart Valley Reserve 2014, Sharpham Valley Barrel Fermented 2013, Sharpham Red 2014, Sharpham Pinot Noir and Précoce 2013.

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Even if wine is not your thing the cheese is well worth the visit.

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Nutbourne Vineyards, Sussex, England

I was looking for somewhere to take my Grandfather on a May afternoon, and I could not resist making it a vineyard. I knew very little about Nutbourne Vineyards before visiting but it transpired to be a gorgeous spot on the South Downs.  The wines are not to be scoffed at either with Nutbourne producing a full range of wines from English sparkling to a still Pinot Noir. The quality of English sparkling wine seems to rise year on year and Nutbourne were among seven UK producers receiving Gold Medals at this years IWSC competition.

Nutbourne Vineyards was founded in 1980, with a new modern winery completed in 2010. The wine is currently made by ex-Chapel Down winemaker Owen Elias, who has a host of awards in his name, including quite a few whilst at Nutbourne.  The wine shop and tasting room are based around a disused mill with covered seating and the opportunity to walk between the vines. The member of staff that served us was courteous and knowledgeable making the visit a very enjoyable afternoon. Nutbourne Vineyards also provide guided tours/tastings of the vineyards and winery with prior reservations for a cost of £15.

Wines Tasted: Nutty Brut 2013, Sussex Reserve 2014, Bacchus 2013/2014, Chardonnay 2013, Hedgerow 2013, Nutty “Wild” N.V., Pinot Noir 2014

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The range of wines at Nutbourne – the illustrations on the labels are gorgeous.

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Côte de Beaune Burgundy

Burgundy is best known for two major grape varieties – Chardonnay, responsible for the white wines, and Pinot Noir for the reds. Burgundy is divided into a patchwork of appellations, some making white wine, some making red and some split between the two. The wines tasted below are both from the Côte de Beaune (towards the south of Burgundy) and are both made from the less characteristic grape variety in their respective appellations.

Savigny-lès-Beaune is located South of Corton hill, and north of the village of Beaune. This is an appellation I identify with pretty, elegant red wines, and the appellation produces approximately 85% Pinot Noir.  When I saw a white Savigny-lès-Beaune reduced to £6 as a bin end wine at Gauntleys I took the plunge, despite my fear that the wine may now be beginning to tire.  At this price point although the wine is fading it is hard to go wrong.

Chassagne-Montrachet is  famed for its proximity to the Grand Cru vineyard Le Montrachet, home to some of the greatest Chardonnay in the world.  Whilst Le Montrachet produces only white wine, Chassagne-Montrachet produces approximately two thirds white wine, and one third red.  Whilst I have been tasted white wines from the appellation this was my first opportunity tasting the Pinot Noir and it sure did impress.

Savigny.jpgJean Michel Giboulet, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Burgundy 2004.

The colour of this wine has a gorgeous golden hue and is clear with tartrate crystal deposits in the bottle. This is a dry wine and the fruit has faded substantially.  The Nose is muted with echoes of Chardonnay and some richer nutty aromas. This has high acidity and a long reasonably intense mineral finish. There is not really much fruit found on the palate either although there is a note of stonefruit kernels. I think this would be better 5 years ago but it works as a wine for food and a dry digestif/aperitif. What has not faded are the minerality and precision on the finish which set this apart from the younger, lesser wines.

Conclusion: For the price I’d still take this fading bottle over cheap over-oaked new world stuff especially to accompany food.

Score: 85-86/100 as it is- but it’s faded so not really a fair test.

ChassagneMontrachet.jpgBachey Legros, Les Plantes Momières Vieilles Vignes, Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy 2009

This wine was served over dinner, and had been bought back from a trip to Burgundy. From some research online it appears that the vineyard is situated below the  “Abbaye de Morgeot” Premier Cru, and the plot of Pinot Noir vines used for this wine were planted back in 1946. The age of the vines, quality of the site and careful vinification have made the best of low yields to produce a high intensity of flavour, rich tannins, and a pure expression of the terroir.

This wine was superb. Ruby in colour and throwing a thick sediment. Aromas of stewed raspberry dominate the nose with the slightest vegetal nuance suggesting bell pepper. The palate is dry and showed cherry and raspberry on the palate with capsicum underlying. This leads to a spicy finish with salinity and minerality giving length and persistence. The wine has moderate (+) silky tannins leaving the mouth dry whilst high acidity gives focus. There was a slight green nature to this evoking grape pips/stalks which I found pleasing.

This is a powerful wine yet it is most definitely feminine in nature. I felt this wine was not so far from the Grand Cru Chambertin I recently reviewed but on a shorter evolution with less weight and intensity.

Day 2: By now this wine was tasting boozy and rich with the tannin continuing to give structure. The aromas were intensifying and starting to get almost animalistic in nature with increasing complexity verses the more fruit driven presentation on day 1.

Conclusion: This really is a top drawer wine.  I wish I was successful enough in choosing Burgundy that I got hold of wines like this – I feel a trip to Burgundy is in order.

As I wrote in my notebook at the time (after a few glasses I hasten to add):  “Rather bloody superb.”

Score: 93/100

Learning Point: Red Chassagne-Montrachet may not be as famed as it’s white siblings but is well worth seeking out a good example.

German Pinot Noir and Grand Cru Chambertin

Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to grow and low yields result in high prices. This grape is responsible for my both my best and worst wine experiences.  The best Pinot Noir is always perfumed and may combine this with intensity, elegance or even a beguiling ethereal nature.  At its worst the wines become thin and acidic. It is a grape that adapts phenomenally to terroir.  The patchwork appellation system of Burgundy is an attempt to categorise the myriad expressions of this noble grape.

The Grand Crus of Burgundy hold a hallowed place in the world of wine, but that is not to say they are alone as the top expressions of the grape. Indeed given the cost most of us will need to look elsewhere for anything but the most special of occasions.  The German wine from Stepp below would not be a bad place to start and the new world is also beginning to find its feet.

The below wines were tasted at The Sampler during my recent visit.  I have only minimal exposure to both German Pinot Noir and Grand Cru Burgundy so this was quite a treat. Check out the main article for a review of The Sampler.

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Stepp Pinot Noir, Pfalz, Germany, 2014:

No formal notes on this one but this is a producer I have been very impressed with over the past couple of years.  This was my first chance to taste the Pinot Noir and given it costs around £15 this is top flight for the price point .  I found this savoury, tasty and well balanced with a lot more complexity than I would expect at this point. I will be buying again soon. Bravo.

Leflaive & Associe, Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru, Burgundy, 2011:

I think this was probably too young to really get into.  It had an intensity but seemed somewhat closed.  Strangely this also had a strong note of capsicum running through both nose and palate, overlying rich fruit and good structure.  Medium body and tannin, warming rich and well balanced. At the moment I am unsure where this one is going but it has potential and is an interesting semi savoury, semi sweet expression of Pinot Noir.  Hopefully time will pull all the elements together.

Domaine Rossignol-Trapet, Chambertin Grand Cru, Burgundy, 2011:

Aromatic, sensuous, deliciously rich red fruit. In contrast to the wine above this was 100% together. The body was medium and the balance impeccable. Given this is so young I dread to think how good this can become with time. They talk about Bordeaux being cerebral and Burgundy being well, something else. My lack of tasting note says it all – this had us all with smiles from ear to ear: Simply Marvellous.

‘If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving!’

If you were to offer Miles Raymond a bottle of 1982 Petrus, I would suspect he would change his mind. However, when the lead character of the Hollywood film Sideways made this remark, he was really making a jibe at the over-produced, easy-to-make, easy-to-drink, generic, sweet, simple expressions of merlot that we all know and avoid.

Instead, Miles and I pursue the ‘haunting and brilliant and subtle’ flavours of the temperamental, thin-skinned grape pinot noir. Growing pinot noir is notoriously difficult. In cold climates, there is a risk of under-ripeness; in hot climates the grapes ripen too quickly, preventing the development of complex flavour compounds.

There is a great deal of pinot noir being made in warm-climates. As these are cheaper than Burgundian expressions, I popped a bottle yesterday in sincere hope that I would find something charismatic.

2016-03-27 00.01.16Newton Johnson, Walker Bay Pinot Noir, Upper Hemel-En-Aarde Valley, South Africa 2012

100% matured in French Oak, pH 3.5, residual sugar 1.9, alcohol 13.95%

Light-mid ruby colour. Sour cherries and raspberries on the nose. A subtle touch of manure and some thyme. Lovely acidity on the palate with buckets of red fruit. Sweetness on the mid-palate (which is not a bad thing as it is balanced by the acidity).

Conclusion: I enjoyed this. It had some of those herbal aromas that you remember for days to come. However, you can tell that this is Newton Johnson’s more simple pinot . The palate is fruit driven, forward and slightly sweet. I would love to try their ‘family vineyards’ pinot noir to see how it compares. 88 points (BP)

Learning Point: Jancis Robinson is, as usual, correct when she says about South African pinot noir: ‘the coastal regions show promise.’

Meerlust Estate, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Prior to visiting South Africa I had already tasted Meerlust Rubicon, and this wine helped set the yardstick to judge against. The visit to Meerlust came towards the end of the trip so I felt a certain trepidation for how the wines of the estate matched both expectation and memory.

Wine has been grown on this estate to the south of Stellenbosch since 1756. The estate has been recognised as a national monument since 1987, although we did not stop long enough to see more than the tasting room. Meerlust has been long recognized as one of South Africa’s top estates. The range at Meerlust is simple: 4 varietals (1 white and 3 red) and the flagship Rubicon (a Bordeaux blend). Here in the UK I have also seen an entry level Meerlust red although this was not available for tasting.

We travelled to Meerlust Estate from False Bay having followed the stunning R44 along the coast around the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. False Bay is still visible from the turning into the estate and this proximity to the sea is key to the wines. A sea breeze and mist keep the vineyard temperatures in check through the summer permitting a longer ripening season. This translates into a great intensity and permits elegance in the wines.

The tasting room and shop are in one of the estates historic buildings and are accompanied by an exhibition of photography and articles about the cape and the estate.

Opening Hours: Monday to Friday: 09h00 – 17h00, Saturdays 10h00 – 14h00.

Tasting fee: R30 per person refundable on purchase of wine.

Stockists in UK: The wines of Meerlust are relatively easily found in the UK.  The price disparity across the range is less here than in South Africa and so Rubicon is relatively more keenly priced.  I have included a link for each wine as some are slightly tricky to find.

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Wines Tasted: Meerlust Chardonnay 2014, Meerlust Pinot Noir 2015, Meerlest Merlot 2013, Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Meerlust Rubicon 2012

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Iona Winery, Elgin, South Africa

When we were recommended Iona it was with the caveat that it was somewhat difficult to find. We happened upon the sign to the winery on the main road and took a chance detour.  After following a dusty dirt road approximately 7 km uphill we arrived at the gates. The winery was empty and the tasting manager was out on other business.  Luckily the accountant was on hand and was kind enough to present the wines free of charge. It is great to see all members of the team engaged in the product and eager to show off the wines.

Production at Iona is not diluted by too many different varieties or cuvees –  they only list 4 wines – and it would appear this allows them to focus.  Compared to other wineries this was a no frills tasting experience.  There is no restaurant, art gallery, delicatessen: the wines are allowed to speak for themselves   Hell, they don’t even need a paved road.

Pride of place in the tasting room goes to a vintage Porsche, owned and renovated by the proprietor.  The car and wines both had a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi‘, the sense of something classic, elegant and refined.  I suspect much is of this is the result of cool climate and high altitude as well as diligent winemaking practice.

I would certainly visit again if in South Africa, and I will certainly be getting hold of some of the wines of Iona here in the UK.  Indeed, based on our pretty small sample, the wines of Elgin include some real gems at very competitive prices. Unfortunately the Chardonnay was out of stock at the time of our visit, although I understand it is also very well regarded.

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Wines Tasted: Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Pinot Noir 2013, One Man Band 2010

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