Monday, 16 December 2013

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars: Keeping the Faith?

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars: the Fay and SLV vineyards looking
east to the Pallisades
Five years after its acquisition by current owners Antinori and Chateau Ste Michelle from founder Warren Winiarski, Adam Lechmere visits
pioneering Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and asks whether its reputation as a beacon
of California elegance has survived the transition to more corporate ownership.

Read the article here

This article is published in current issue of The World of Fine Wine

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Stoner, and California wine

Julian Barnes writes an interesting essay in the Guardian on Stoner, the surprise 50-year-old bestseller about an American academic who remains stoic in the face of disappointments. It’s a wonderful book (I’ve just bought half a dozen copies for Christmas presents), written in a minor key. The opening sentences set the tone – ‘Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now…’ – it’s rather like a Victorian watercolour, all washed greys and delicate greens, but no less striking for that. But back to Barnes: he makes the point that the novel’s success in Europe (it was published in 1965 and has taken off in the last six months or so – I bought it when I happened to catch Ian McEwan on the radio praising it) is not matched in America. The short story writer Lorrie Moore patronisingly calls it ‘a terrific little book...but minor’, (pretty rich since it’s vastly better than anything I’ve read of hers). Barnes quotes the novelist Sylvia Brownrigg saying its ‘reticence seems very not American… we’re such a country of maximalists’.
Stoner: 'reticent'

It makes me think that the much-touted ‘style change’ in California, given momentum by the cool and difficult 2010 and 2011 vintages (I’ve written about it as much as anyone else), is never going to take hold. The reasons Americans like the big, fruity style are so much more than Robert Parker, and Jim Laube in Wine Spectator, championing it in the 80s and 90s. Yes, California can and did produce elegant wines. I've had Spring Mountain Vineyard 79, Inglenook 61 and Newton 81 (all Cabernets) that weighed in at 13% or so, were vibrant and fresh and had many years ahead of them. But were they the norm then? Surely their peers were as hot and opulent as they are now, and the reason we don’t see them is because they’ve fallen apart, or indeed were drunk within a few years of being made?

For the style change to become widespread, so much else is going to have to change. American food, for one. I’m not talking about the rarefied Michelin top levels but the mid- to high-end $20-30 main course sort of operation. Ingredients are of the very highest quality but they are so made and each dish is such a cacophony of flavours that a wine has to shout to be heard.

I had a rainbow trout the other night that I imagine was delicious – it was beautifully cooked  –  but it came smothered under a pillow-sized heap of fried vegetables, carrot and bean, cashews, six different kinds of squash, a riot of taste and texture. Anything short of the 15.5%-proof Parador Tempranillo we were drinking would have been swamped.
Darioush: not reticent
Brownrigg describes the character of Stoner as passive, and suggests that’s what Americans find difficult. So too with wine – the big California style is active, bold, even strident, the wine shoulders its way onto the table in a bottle that demands attention with its weight and heft and a punt that swallows your fist entire. The contrast is restraint, acidity, structured tannins, austere fruit. Wines that don’t shout.

But. ‘There are always old boys down in Texas that like the big style,’ a Napa winemaker said to me. To paraphrase Julian Cope (talking about a band improbably called Tight Bro’s From Way Back When), ‘These guys don’t do low’. Indeed – and not only Texas. If your wine has a healthy domestic market, why on earth would you change its style? Doug Shafer intimated at a London tasting this year that perhaps to his personal taste the Hillside Select would be more pared-down, but every vintage sold out, so he’d be stupid to do anything different.

Reticence and maximalism are held in the balance; the scale might tip a degree here and a degree there but it’s going to take a lot more than a couple of cool vintages and some quietly striving winemakers to have any noticeable effect.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Napa mountain vs valley floor: a tasting held at St Helena in the Napa Valley to determine stylistic differences between Cabernet Sauvignon grown in mountain appellations and on the valley floor.

I chaired this tasting in early November 2013. Panellists: Chris Howell, Tim Mondavi, Cathy Corison and Jean-Charles Boisset. Organised with superb efficiency by Patsy McGaughy at Napa Valley Vintners.

The purpose of the tasting
The idea was to tease out the differences between mountain – or hillside – Cabernet Sauvignon, and valley floor or benchland fruit. In the morning we did a walkabout tasting with around 40 wines, blind but separated and labelled mountain or valley floor, with one table of ten wines completely blind. The afternoon panel tasting featured 12 wines, non-blind, which we tasted in flights of four: two valley floor and two mountain. List of wines below.

Diamond  Creek, Diamond Mountain District
The first thing to note is that it is extremely difficult to single out characteristics unique to valley floor or mountain in Napa. This is partly due to the singular topography of the region, of which more later, and partly – I think – due to the relative youth of winemaking in the region. As Chris Howell said – and Tim Mondavi echoed – ‘Napa is still in its adolescence’. What was remarkable about the panel line-up was that the 12 wines should show such a wide range of characteristics, from the opulent perfume of the Raymond to the pared-down elegance of the Corison. Howell’s mantra that ‘site will prevail’ must be tempered by Mondavi’s comment that ‘the hand of the winemaker is evident’, and Howell’s own contention that ‘when we talk about place we are essentially talking about winemaking.’

Diamond Creek: Red Rock Terrace (foreground),
Gravelly Meadow (left)
Red Rock Terrace (beyond lagoon)
Newton, Spring Mountain District
Master Sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson agrees: ‘The hand of the winemaker can have a huge impact and it seems to take one of two paths: uber-ripeness/excess (sacrificing much in the way of other detail/layers/interest in fragrance, flavor and complexity), or emphasis on new oak introducing wood tannins and raw fragrances that dominate the fruit.’

Various definitions of mountain and valley floor fruit
In two weeks of Cabernet Sauvignon tastings in the horseshoe of Napa mountain AVAs, from Mount Veeder in the south (from whose southern vineyards you can see see downtown San Francisco) to Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain in the north, back down to Pritchard Hill and Atlas Peak in the south, I heard as many definitions of mountain or hillside wine as I had conversations. There is the political, as succinctly put to me by Stuart Smith of Smith Madrone: there’s a conflict between lowlands and highlands. Producers on the valley floor resent us up in the hills, mainly because with the current draconian Hillside Ordinance they can’t get up there themselves (the Smith brothers, or Peter Newton, would never have been able to plant their high vineyards had they not done it before the ordinance came into effect). Further  development is hamstrung with bureaucracy. Many would disagree of course – if it wasn’t for the regulatory constrictions, the hills would be carpeted with vineyards.

Newton: the gardens
Rudy Von Strasser at his winery on Diamond Mountain has another view: mountain wine is more of a marketing hook than anything else. His point is that there are so many stylistic variables – some mountain vineyards have very expressive fruit, some valley floor wines have the elegant austere profile that you would expect from altitude – that searching for stylistic pointers is difficult if not impossible.

There are five AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in Napa that can be described as hillside or mountain. On the Mayacamas range on the western side of the valley are Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain, and on the eastern side – the Vaca range – are Howell Mountain to the north and Atlas Peak to the south. Just north of Atlas Peak is Pritchard Hill, not an AVA, but home to Colgin, Bryant, Tim Mondavi’s Continuum, Dalla Valle, Chappellet – the latter one of the great Napa pioneers. The mountain AVAs average 600-2000ft [182-609m]); the highest vineyards sit at around 2,600 feet [792m] on Atlas Peak.

Cimarossa: rock breaks the surface
The differences between mountain and valley can be roughly defined in terms of topography, style, viticulture and winemaking as follows:

The hills are more exposed to prevailing winds, giving more stress to the vines. Slopes are steeper – sometimes even vertiginous - terracing is common.
There is greater variation in soils in the mountain AVAs – from volcanic tufa, white volcanic ash, to loam, limestone – what they have in common is that they are generally poor, very rocky, with good drainage – depths vary from no more than a foot

Chappellet winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus
and formerly buried rock (Pritchard Hill)
to several metres. In many areas, rocks break the surface of the ground. Use of dynamite and drilling equipment is common when planting. Ann Colgin told me it took a year to prep her land on Pritchard Hill, using '12 giant earthmoving machines and a bit of dynamite'.

It’s worth mentioning that  this makes mountain viticulture a very expensive business – planting is difficult when you have to remove several hundred tons of car-sized rocks (preparing and planting a mountain vineyard can cost anything up to US$200,000 an acre) and different  ripening times within blocks require many passes at harvest. Some vineyards will be separated into a dozen or more blocks for separate picking and vinification. Mountain wines tend to be produced in small quantities from land that is extremely expensive to farm: from Colgin to Bryant Family, many of the Napa ‘cult’ wines are from the high ranges.

Orientation is very varied. A vineyard like Dino Cimarossa’s on Howell Mountain  curves around  the hilltop facing four different ways at once.
Cimarossa aerial view with vineyards facing every point of the compass

One the most interesting characteristics of Napa mountain AVAs is that they are anomalous: unlike many other mountain regions around the world, they can’t be described as cool climate regions.

The inversion layer means that cooler air in the valley pushes hot air upwards: night-time lows can be higher than valley lows (up to 11C warmer), but the daytime highs are lower than on the valley floor – afternoons tend  to be cooler. Temperatures hardly ever get above 100F, considerably cooler than valley summer temperatures.

The fog line from Colgin
early morning, November, Pritchard Hill
Mountain regions tend to be drier - there are no summer days of intense wetting from the fog – and they are seldom affected by frost.

There’s variation in temperature between the AVAs. Diamond Mountain in the north is one of the warmest regions, while Mount Veeder, which abuts Carneros and is a few miles from the Bay, is cooler.

The Napa Valley Vintners website has a good clear summary of each AVA here

Robert Craig: rock, Howell Mountain

The Vines
Vines in the mountain AVAs are stressed, by wind exposure and by lack of water. They are smaller, less vigorous – six- or seven-year-old vines can look like two-year-olds.

Bunches are smaller, especially Cabernet: it’s common to see bunches no bigger than a fist.
Berries are smaller with  thicker skins – the skin to juice ratio is half what it is down in the valley.
Yields are much lower – typically 1.5 to 2 tons per acre

Winemaking and viticulture
Cain: the terraces
Harvests are later than below in the valley – generally by about two weeks – the grapes hang longer but typically are picked at lower sugar levels - 25 degrees brix, as opposed to 27 degrees and higher on the valley floor.

If red winemaking is all about tannin management then this is never more true than for mountain fruit – every winemaker I have spoken to has the same story: the biggest challenge is handling the tannins in Cabernet. Peter Rubissow describes his vineyard on Mount Veeder as 'like a racehorse - very powerful and difficult to handle'. Intervention is minimal; cold soak, gentle pumpover and punchdown and infrequent racking are common.

Wines have fresh natural  acidity and tannic grip and often a mineral character.
Red or blueberry fruit (there's much debate about this: Dawnine Dyer on Diamond Mountain for example reckons 'fruit is more black than red'; others see blueberry, red cherry, redcurrant. My notes tend toward the red side of things, even to raspberry in the older wines); green spectrum – herb, hay and sage rather than capsicum or fresh-mown grass.

Inherent structure: mountain wines tend to have defined, grainy tannins and lower acidity – the tannins are precise, often kick in late in the palate after a rush of bright fruit; I see it as the scaffolding that holds up round, warm fruit

There’s also often a certain rusticity, as put to me by Chris Millard at Newton. He  describes his wines as rustic, a term that can be pejorative in Europe, but Millard sees it as the difference between wild rather than cultivated fruit: a wild briar with small intense blackberries and those big, perfect, clean cultivated blackberries you buy in the supermarket.

Again, there are different views. Here’s Robinson on tannin and fruit differences: ‘I felt the hillside wines had better integration of their tannins so that, while brooding, their intensity was well-harmonized with the rest of the wine’s components. Generally I get darker fruits and greater salinity and savoriness on the hillside wines, more red fruit and candied qualities on the valley floor.

It quickly became apparent that there would be no simple conclusions. Cathy Corison suggested mountain and valley floor wine could be distinguished by the ‘broadness in the fruit’ of the former and the ‘snappy acidity’ of the latter. Chris Howell said the difference resided in the quality of the tannins mountain fruit produces: thick-skinned mountain-grown grapes give powerful tannins that need careful handling in the winery. ‘The fruit from the valley envelops the tannin structure, while the mountain tannins are truly different. Valley wines are more flattering, more approachable and friendly.’

There was some discussion as to whether winemakers in the valley were achieving this approachability by picking later and riper, but Corison disputed this. ‘There’s a difference regardless of how long you leave the grapes to hang.’

For Corison, this is due in large part to relative acidity and pH values. Unlike many mountain regions, Napa’s high vineyards, because they tend to be warmer at night, produce lower acidity than in the valley. So the two styles can be distinguished by their structural differences, Corison said. ‘We are in the fog, we have cooler nights, and we keep this snappy acidity.’ The higher pH of mountain wines was the one ‘consistent thread’ that ran through the tasting, she concluded.

Ovid: the stony soils of Pritchard Hill
The hand of the winemaker
The role of the winemaker in setting style was discussed in detail. ‘When we want to talk about place, we are essentially talking about winemaking choices,’ Howell said, though he felt that ‘site will prevail’ more in the mountains than in the valley. At Cain, winemaking ‘is not purely a quest for fruit. I am always thinking what is beyond the fruit: not just structure but texture as well.’ Mondavi agreed that often, ‘the hand of the winemaker is evident’, and his marketing chief, Burke Owens, agreed. He pointed out that Corison’s single-vineyard Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon ‘has many of the markers found in mountain-grown wines as a result of vine age and grape growing choices. It is more burly, has a richer and broader palate impression and …a dense structural core and length of finish that is highly reminiscent of mountain fruit.’

Tannin structure and acidity aside, the most significant finding of the tasting was how difficult it is to define differences between mountain and valley fruit. Winemaking practices, relative age of vines and other variables ‘add to the complexity of the topic,’ as Mondavi said. The twelve wines showed considerable variation in style. This, he said, was evidence of the ‘wonderful diversity of Napa. We are still young and finding our own niches.’ Howell compared Napa Valley to an adolescent: 'You're young, you're finding things out. It's going to take a few years before you really know yourself.'

Stephen Brook, Jancis Robinson and Margaret Rand did a similar exercise in London for World of Fine Wine in 2010 (Issue 28). Their conclusions were equally opaque: a trio with many decades of experience behind them, they were able to distinguish mountain from valley or benchland Cabernet only 50% of the time. 'In theory, it should not have been too difficult,' Brook said.


All 2009 Vintage

Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Fresh hay, some green notes, bright dark fruit, sweet plum, damson, fresh cherry and blackcurrant. Very light and fresh palate with racy acidity and suave tannins, some perfume – light violet and pot pourri but not nearly as pronounced as the Kronos

Corison Winery Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena
Deep opulent nose with damson and black cherry and some spice, defined, grippy tannins and robust acidity, earthy freshness to the palate, damp forest floor, even garrigue, hints of parma violet and cedarwood.

Continuum Estate Red Wine Blend, Napa Valley
Perfume of parma violets, palate of plum and black cherry and this lovely ripe open breathy freshness. Late-developing dusty, structured tannins that pick up the fruit and carry it through to a solid food-friendly finish. A hint of alcohol imbalance but that slight burn dissipates with the acidity. Very fine

Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District
Fresh minty nose with dense dark fruit, minerality and sour-mash red fruit on palate. Acidity dominates the suave, elastic tannins while the length is saline and intense. Very fine, warm, mouthfilling, powerful but delicate.

Kapcsandy Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Cuvée, Yountville
The nose is very perfumed with cigar box aromas, which carry through  to a palate dense with sweet dark briar and stone fruit: blackberry, blackcurrant, damson and plum, agreeably balanced with notes of bitter coffee,. Tannins ripe and juicy with fine acidity.

Cain Vineyards and Winery, Cain Concept, Benchland, Napa Valley
A true multi-terroir wine. Bordeaux blend, with fruit purchased from Beckstoffer vineyards in Rutherford, Oakville; Carneros;  St Helena; Stagecoach on Atlas Peak. Gouts of blackberry and damson on the nose with savoury notes continued to the palate which becomes almost pungent, with animal skin, woody rot and elegant decay. Very powerful young tannins. Precise, young, needs at least three years

Cain Vineyards and Winery, Cain Five, Spring Mountain district
Bordeaux blend. Classically restrained nose (Howell: ‘We’re not purely on a quest for fruit – we’re thinking what’s beyond the fruit’). Sour plum and damson on the palate, some redcurrant, mineral tones, robust, firm, intense, dry young tannins which promise mouthwatering juice to come. (2016-20?)

The Hess Collection Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder
Tar and violets on the nose, restrained, elegant rustic but fine late-developing tannins (rustic in the sense of a fine artisan earthenware pot compared to a bone china teacup). Sweet dark fruit with hints of red – wild raspberry, cherry and nice acidity. Straightforward, precise, not complex.

Raymond Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon District Series, Rutherford
Sweet red fruit  - strawberry marinaded in balsamic vinegar – on the nose. Some resiny notes on the palate, all very aromatic and opulent: tar, wood and chocolate. A dense, rather sensual wine.

Raymond Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon District Series, St Helena
What is the difference between the terroirs? It would take a more sophisticated palate than mine. In this St Helena offering I see the same tarry, opulent, perfumed notes as in the Rutherford. The tannins have slightly more grip, I would say, but swap my glasses round and give them to me blind and I’d need many years of tasting the neighbouring AVAs to distinguish them. Lovely wine.
Alta Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Oso Malo’, Atlas Peak
Produced in tiny quantities, 24 months in oak. The one slight disappointment of the lineup. An aromatic tarry nose gives way to a bold, bright palate with perfumed, highly-spiced and even raisined fruit. An old-fashioned feel to the wine – dense, powerful tannins and pronounced alcohol burn at the end.

Duckhorn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Very bright open nose with dense, opulent briar fruit. Very polished, black and red fruit on the palate – redcurrants, cherry, some attractive leafy notes. Classic mountain tannins come late in the palate and give the whole  a robust structure. Excellent.


Cathy Corison
Founded the Corison label in Rutherford in the mid-1980s. Described by San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonne as ‘a folk hero among those seeking a reprieve from Napa’s overwrought Cabernets’.

Tim Mondavi
Director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery until 2004. Now on his 9th vintage of the Pritchard Hill Bordeaux blend Continuum.

Chris Howell
Longstanding, highly cerebral winemaker at Cain vineyards on Spring Mountain.

Jean-Charles Boisset
President, Boisset Family Estates, Burgundian owners of Raymond Vineyards, de Loach in Russian River Valley, the ancient Buena Vista in Carneros, among others

Chair: Adam Lechmere
Former editor, freelance journalist

all panel pics by Ashley Teplin, Teplin + Nuss  Public Relations

Company Profile: and its founder Mike Osborn, the largest retailer of imported wine in the US, founded by entrepreneur Mike Osborn, is now the biggest retailer of imported wine in the US, finds Adam Lechmere. And as the growth in Millennial spending power converges with the growth in mobile technology, it’s tipped to get even bigger.

Read the interview here

First published in Meiningers Wine Business International

Interview with Jared Liu of Chinese website

Jared Liu, co-founder of
Jared Liu co-founded, China’s biggest wine retail website and its third biggest imported wine retailer, in 2008. With the Chinese e-commerce market expected to reach 250m by the end of the year,, with six
million registered users, is set to continue its domination of the sector. The five-year-old site’s statistics are impressive: it sells an average of 20,000 bottles a day, peaking at 120,000, and it has a considerable presence amongst female wine buyers. Yesmywine. com has just broken even, and a stock market flotation
is on the cards.

Read the interview here

First published in Meiningers Wine Business International

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Cooking with Cormac McCarthy

As the Counsellor comes out and is generally panned (shame - the screenplay is brilliant) I thought it time to revive this gem from Vanity Fair a few years ago:

Cooking with Cormac McCarthy

But Good.

And salt.
And water.
And Fire.

Place the pasta in the water and the salt in the water and the water in the pot and the pot on the fire.
In the pot? The fire in the pot?
No. The water in the pot. The pot on the fire.
The pasta in the water?
Yes, in the water.
And the salt in the fire?
No. The salt in the water.
And the water on the fire?
No. The water in the pot and the pot on the fire. Not the water on the fire. For then the fire will die and dying be dead.
Nor will the water boil and the pasta will drain dry and not cooked and hard to the teeth.

The salt falls nor does it cease to fall.
The water boils. So be it.
Cease from placing your hand in the boiling water. Place your hand in the boiling water and it will cause you pain.
Much pain?
Very much pain.

the pot the bubbles bubble up and bubble some more. The bubbles are
bubbly. Never more bubbly bubbles bubbling bubbliest. And having
bubbled the bubbles still bubbly.
Or bubblier?
Or bubblier.
Across the kitchen a board intended for chopping. Here. Take it. Chop.
What will I chop? There are no ingredients to chop.
Just chop. Don't cease from chopping. To chop is to become a man.

After 10 minutes. The pasta stiff and dry and upright no more. The pasta lank and wet and soft. In the eternal damp of water.
Pour water free like some ancient anointing. The pasta left alone in the pot. Alone and naked.
The salt? Where's the salt?
The salt is gone. Lost to the water and gone forever.
I grieve for the salt.
It is the salt for which I grieve.

Tip the pasta out.
The pasta?
Yes. Tip it out. Onto.
A plate?
Yes. And stop.
Finishing your sentences?
Because it's so.

in your memory anywhere of anything so good. Now the pasta is eaten.
Disappeared. The pasta disappeared as everything disappeared. As the
comma disappears and the semicolon disappears and the inverted comma
disappears and the apostrophe disappears and the adjectives and the
pronouns all disappear.
Leaving just full stops and And.
And And?
And And.
And And.

(first published in Vanity Fair, 2008. By Craig Brown, I think)

Friday, 22 November 2013

Tim Mondavi - the Decanter Interview

His left foot: Tim Mondavi with a bottle of Continuum
Interview with Tim Mondavi for Decanter magazine, December 2013

After the sale of Robert Mondavi Winery,
Robert’s son Tim could have gone anywhere.
But with his love of terroir, he chose to stick
close to home, as he tells me...

Interviewed at Continuum on Pritchard Hill, Napa, February 2013

Read the article here

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Savour or Saviour? Report on Savour, Adelaide, September 2013

(This article first appeared in Meiningers Wine Business International, print edition)

From the moment Master of Ceremonies Jeremy Oliver stepped up to the podium and addressed 750 delegates in language more suited to the bedroom than the conference hall, the tone of Savour 2013 was set.

Australia has grown up, Oliver said. ‘We are more mature. When we get your confidence back we will treasure it. When you wake up in the morning expecting us to be beside you in the bed, we won’t be. We’ll be out and about, doing things, getting you coffee.’

For the last few months the unkinder wits in the international  wine world have suggested the addition of a letter ‘i’ to the title of the conference would be appropriate: the Australian wine industry seems to be in no doubt that it's in need of a saviour. Over the last five years exports have plummeted due to the combination of world recession and a strong Australian dollar, and while producers and marketers squabbled about the way forward – should they chase value, or promote sub-regionality, or varietals? – Australia lost its ability to charm the world’s press, which became bored with endless new strategies and briefings, each more complicated than the last.

Savour promised to be different, and from Sunday’s opening party in the market halls in downtown Adelaide to the Grand Tasting of hundreds of Australian wineries on Wednesday, journalists, critics, winemakers and buyers from dozens of countries have been left in no doubt that – as Oliver said – ‘Australia is open for business again’.

'spine-tingling' - Nick Cave

A look around the packed amphitheatre on the opening Monday – after a spine-tingling showing of South Australia tourism’s AUS$6m ad featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – showed that the international wine world is keen to see what the country has to offer. Delegates from the two key markets that Australia wants to entice back to bed were there in substantial numbers – more than 10% (82) were Chinese, and nearly that number (75) were from the US. The latter figure surprised some commentators, given that the US market has been particularly hard for Australian producers over the last five years. ‘It’s been almost non-existent for us,’ one prominent producer said.

Savour 2013 was conceived and executed in much less than a year, driven by the exigencies of political funding priorities: in the last quarter of 2012 a federal grant was made available for Wine Australia and Tourism Australia for an international event – but it had to be spent by June 2013. ‘It was like organising the Olympics in seven months’ one member of the organising committee said. The board – whose members included globetrotting consultant Tony Jordan, and Robert Hill Smith of Yalumba – rapidly conceived the idea of a conference that would be not just a talking shop but a showcase for pan-Australian wine and food. ‘We wanted to break the mould. We wanted not just business  sessions but long lunches as well,’ Wine Australia marketing general manager James Gosper said.

By the end of the third day it was clear that Savour had lived up to Oliver’s initial promise to seduce - although many delegates fell in love despite, not because of, the business side of the conference, which sometimes seemed to be no more than an add-on to the task of demonstrating with verve and imagination the potential of Australian wine and food.

The business sessions actually took up no more than two mornings, and could seem frustratingly cursory and hurried. In that time, however, Wine Australia and Tourism Australia between them hammered home their key message: Australia is selling itself short, and it must find new ways of telling its story.

‘We under-promise  and over-deliver,’ said Nick Baker of Tourism Australia, quoting research showing only 27% of people who have not visited Australia associate it with good food, a number that increases to 60% with those who have visited. He announced that in a joint venture Wine Australia and Tourism Australia intend to double the current AUS$70bn spent annually in ‘overnight spend’  to AUS$140bn. One of the main planks of the campaign will be a promotion entitled ‘Restaurant Australia’, selling the country as a foodie destination.
The tasting took place in the stunning 1880s State Library of South Australia.
Shiraz the Australian way (image:  Wojciech Bońkowski)
The business sessions may have been hurried, but they were thought-provoking. On selling wine in China, for example David Andrews of Hong Kong’s Macro Wines and Spirits stressed how Chinese wine consumers tend to value personal endorsement from peers, from family or from bosses – and from social media such as weibo and weixin – more than promotions from traditional media and wine companies. Alex Lu of Shanghai City Wine Shop contrasted the strength of Bordeaux in China with Australia’s image. ‘Australia hasn’t got a strong identity except for Shiraz. You need a backup story – you need to get across the diversity of style in Australia.’

Elsewhere Mike Osborn, founder of, the world’s biggest online wine retailer, said value is increasing in website sales. ‘Previously, online has been about clearance of inventory, with low cost being a key driver. But now, with the increase in customers, the average bottle price is increasing. We’re proving that online can be a mechanism to increase value as well.’

Overall, panellists and speakers were of the highest level. There were retailers such as Osborn, or Jared Liu, CEO of the huge Chinese website,  Jeremy Stockman of Watson’s Wine, Hong Kong’s largest specialist wine retailer, and Yang Lu of the Shangri-La group. They shared platforrms with winemakers and wine professors such as Chinese academic Li Demei, or those from the auction sector such as Simon Tam of Christie’s China, and critics and commentators such as MatthewJukes, Meiningers' own editor-at-large Robert Joseph, Hamish Anderson of Tate Modern, and wine communicators Leslie Sbrocco and Sarah Ahmed.

The conference covered a wealth of topics: How Australia is placed to take advantage of global trends; The role of social media; Australian economic update; Australia on the global stage; Re-booting a mature market; Retaliers – friend or foe?

It was this very richness of subject matter, together with the quantity and knowledge of participants that caused some of the talks to misfire. ‘Mythbusting’, for example, saw eight renowned winemakers and commentators, including Prue Henschke of Henschke, Steve Webber of de Bortoli, Bernard Hickin of Jacob’s Creek and Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrells lined  up on stage. Once each had had their say there was no time for any audience feedback, something which left many delegates frustrated. As one put it, ‘it’s a common problem of conferences – you overload the proposition so it gets diluted.’

But Wine Australia had promised to provide ‘more than just business sessions’ and it amply fulfilled that part of the bargain. Lunches were lavish while the all-day ‘Providores’ Market’ showcased foods from around Australia. Before and after the conference, week-long ‘immersion tours’ of the regions – including Langhorne Creek, Mount Benson, Robe, Coonawarra, Barossa, and McLaren Vale - were impeccably put together, with well-thought-out tastings and visits, and quality access to key winemakers.

Afternoon sessions – ‘Landmark tastings’ – aimed to cover the enormous variety of wines commercially produced in Australia, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Merlot to Riesling, Pinot Noir, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris and Viognier. One session presented Shiraz from every wine producing region – and not just any Shiraz but some world-renowned names: Spinifex La Maline 2010, Torbreck The Factor 2009, the scarce Craiglee 1996 from Sunbury, Victoria, Rockford Basket Press 1996, Henschke Hill of Grace 2004 and Grange 1999, among others.

Savour was conceived with good intentions and – considering the timescale – well-organised. Of the more than 750 delegates including 111 distributors, importers and wholesalers, 120 representatives of trade outlets, 89 media and 304 wine producers, it was difficult to find anyone to say anything negative beyond cavils about the layout of the business sessions or the selection of wines at a particular tasting. Most came away enthused by the Australian wine industry. Jared Liu of, for example, said the conference was ‘a big success’.

‘I can see vividly how active Australian wineries and Australian government are, in the promotion of Australian wine to the China market and other international markets.’

Liu said networking was crucial, both in terms of growing the business: ‘I got to know a lot of wine makers and wine companies which will definitely help our import business’ – and building relationships: ‘potential cooperation between Yesmywine and Australian online leaders is also under discussion.’

The fact that Asian delegates were so numerous was testament to Australia’s importance in the region, but some delegates felt there was not enough effort made to break down barriers.

‘They needed to be engaged, instead of leaving them interacting among their grouping,’ Singaporean wine consultant Lim Hwee Peng said. ‘I was probably one of the few attendees that mingled among the Asian grouping (China, India, Thailand, and my home country - Singapore), as well as with
Australian wine producers and other nationals' representatives.

For Australia’s winemakers – and there were many celebrated names there, Jeffrey Grosset, Prue Henschke, Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg, former Grange winemaker John Duval and  many others – networking was also vital. One producer, Derek Hooper of the Mount Benson winery Cape Jaffa, told Meiningers that his conversations over dinner with a Canadian wine consultant ‘prompted me to revisit old markets. I’ll be watching the north American market closely and I’ll also be  getting on board one of Wine Australia’s export programmes.’

Derek Hooper of Cape Jaff
If the conference was seen as a success by Hooper, whose winery is a 70 acre (28ha), 30,000 case biodynamic operation in one of Australia’s smallest appellations, his enthusiasm was shared at the other end of the spectrum by Neil McGuigan, who runs Australian Vintage, lately McGuigan Wines. The last few days had ‘kicked up a lot of dust,’ he said.

‘It’s refocussed us. It’s back to basics. There are a lot of people who have just discovered what a great country we are, and we have to build on that. I’m halfway through a letter to Wine Australia and the Winemakers’ Federation [of Australia] saying “Great job – now what’s the plan?”.’

How precisely to capitalise on the fund of goodwill released by Savour is the subject of much debate: should the conference be repeated every two years, or every four years? McGuigan said the next thing should be a programme of intense ‘immersion tours’ of 40 or more people at once, while the majority canvassed thought bi-annually would be ideal. The key factor, as ever, is funding. ‘Should they repeat it? I don’t know,’ a major South Australian producer said. ‘The problem is, Wine Australia doesn’t have any money, so it will probably be a Tourism Australia event with Wine Australia piggybacking.’

A timely reminder that politics will be a major factor in how Savour progresses. South Australia was a natural home for the conference – it has more than half the country’s premium wineries – and it was delighted to win the bidding to stage it. If the goodwill created by the first Savour is not to be squandered, the other wine producing states should get more heavily involved. The first Savour has laid the foundations, and now the building must begin.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Shiraz tasting at Savour 2013. Every wine a beacon - just drink the bloody stuff

There are tastings that are merely excellent, and there are tastings that are memorable. This was one of the latter. It took place in the splendid galleried Mortlock Wing of the State Library of South Australia. Mark Davidson of Wine Australia handled a panel which included Huon Hooke (aka ‘The Trusted Voice in Wine’) and  Peter Barry of Jim Barry Wines, as well as critic Bruce Schoenfeld and sommelier Kim Bickley of Black by Ezard in Sydney. 100-strong audience down great central table. John Duval sitting at the very end (Davidson hauls him up to talk about the Grange). A huge, leisurely (three and a half hours) tasting, which is repeated the next day. Six bottles each per day of some very fine and very expensive wines.

What a line-up. Every wine was a beacon of excellence – I had two cavils with the Plantagenet and the De Bortoli, which I found short in the tannins, but I was knocked back by Hooke and Davidson, who said just drink the bloody stuff.

Some old favourites like the pre-eminent Jamsheed Garden Gully, and some I’d never tasted like the Craiglee and the Bests No 0. If I had to choose one to take home with me? The Hill of Grace. Or the Jasper Hill. Or the Craiglee. Frankly, if I was given any one of those bottles for dinner tonight I would count myself lucky.

[The tasting was part of the Savour 2013 conference in Adelaide, September]

Plantagenet 2010 Mt Barker WA
See-through garnet hue
Wonderful leather and cedar nose with stewed pruney fruit and pencil lead. Very linear precise tannins, ripe and soft but with good grip. Cooked dark fruit. Slightly disappointing length – fall off of tannins.

De Bortoli Estate Reserve 2010 Yarra Valley VA
Lovely rich garnet, almost like Pinot in transparency.
Stem inclusion.
Sweet attractive jammy nose with green notes of very juicy capsicum, sugar snap pea, dissipating quickly. Full-bodied round more pepper with plum and prune. Pepper notes persist, tannins very very soft. Length a ghostly presence, though fruit goes on.

Jamsheed Garden Gully 2010 Great Western VA
Dark purply red
Minimal treatment, minimal oak, no fining, no added yeast
Nose has notes of hay, old leather, cedar. Sweet cassis, blackberry compote.Notes of sweet tar and pencil lead. Tannins more insistent than what’s gone before – but not dominant, holding up the fruit which has jam and sweetness, some red fruit, cooked raspberry with balsamic, and a bit of salinity. Very attractive juicy finish. Loved it in May in London and love it now.

Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock 2009 Heathcote VA
Purple with lighter ruby rim
Attractive notes of green pepper, mown grass, hay on nose, then ripe fruit on the briar with leaves. Lovely pot pourri and and fresh acidic palate – the whole very fresh and clean with leafy dry notes. Tannins dry then dissolving on the tongue to release juice. Lovely dusty length. Soft and in a minor key: everything there for a purpose.

McWlliams Mount Pleasant Old Paddock and Old Hill 2010 Hunter Valley NSW
Bright reddish purple, see through
Blackberry and cream nose, sweet vanilla oakiness with acid heft on palate, creamy sweet palate with spicy clove tannins with grip and density. Soft plum fruit, blueberry and dark stone fruit.

d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz 2009 McLaren Vale SA
Nose quite closed but hint of brooding fruit there. Mighty tannic palate but not aggressive. Rich alcohol-soaked fruit, raisins and plums and black cherry. Splendid dry tannic end. Needs time

Spinifex  La Maline 2010 Barossa Valley SA
Includes 2% Roussanne
Lovely powerful licorice and violet nose, old-style perfume. Fresh open palate with plums, damson, bright dark fruit with no hint of red, sour dry tannins with juicy finish. Excellent, long, drinking well now but will last for ever.

Torbreck The Factor 2009 Barossa Valley SA
Tar and piney resin on the nose with eucalyptus. Medium huge palate with fresh acidity and dry tannins. Ripe black porty fruit, sweet but dense and leathery, elegant even delicate length, mouthwatering dissolving tannins. Amazing. Length goes on for minutes.

Craiglee 1996 Sunbury Victoria
12.5% alcohol
Cold winters and long hot summers. Sunbury is a GI but tiny.
Handharvested handmade. Included in Langtons. Gorgeous perfumed nose with lovely peppery, leathery spice. Deep red fruit – old cooked strawberry, almost fermented  summer berries – some age on this nose – secondary fruit coming over. Highly acidic, almost sour palate with powerful dense fruit on the red spectrum. Not hugely long but very pretty.

Best’s Bin No 0 1997 Great Western VA
Aged in big puncheons 2 years. Vineyard planted 1886. (Huon Hooke: 'This was planted in 1886. Or was it 76? I should know, I worked a vintage there'. Davidson: 'In 1886? You're looking good on it, mate')
Nose a bit tight and giving little. Rich perfumed palate with mint and candied licorice. Lots of bright lifted red cherry fruit and sweet integrated tannins. Very fine, very fine unassertive juicy length. Like the Craiglee seems aged beyond its years – settled, delicious, but settling into a harmonious and long journey into old age.

Mount Langi Ghiran Langi 1996 Grampians VA
Made by Trevor Mast who died last year.
Wonderfully expressive nose, savoury and smoky. Bright, secondary flavours on the palate, sour dark cherry. Shows great maturity – seems a good 10 years older.

Rockford Basket Press 1996 Barossa Valley SA
Smoky savoury leathery nose, great gouts of powerful smoky spice on the palate with plums preserved in aromatic spices – cinnnamon and clove – very ripe textured tannins, dense sweet tart tannins with tremedous juice and power. Very fine, powerful length. Will get better and better over the next 15 years. Will reach peak in 3-5 years.

Jim Barry The Armagh 1998 Clare Valley VA
This vintage was watered twice. 12 months 50/50 oak, 14.5% alcohol
Peter Barry –‘we don’t tell anyone how much we make because we charge quite a lot and then people would be able to work out how much money we make and why would we do that? To make this quality it’s all about what you leave out  - we don’t harvest the end rows because they have more soil and so a bigger canopy for example.’
Lovely rotted bretty nose – rain-soaked forest floor, mushrooms – delicious aromas, really powerful. Great heft of tactile spice on the palate, with blackberry compote and black pepper. Set off by soft, precise tannins, fine grained and elegant.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2005 Canberra District NSW
12ha of vines
Sweet candied lemon perfume on the nose. Hint of slightly unctuous spice on the palate. Blackberry fruit, very open aspirated palate – a refreshing mintiness. Seems more delicate and precise than the previous one. Lovely juicy tannins.

Henschke Hill of Grace 2004, Eden Valley SA
Now under Vinolok glass closure
Bramble greenness on the nose with mint and blackberry, exotic  spices, a cedar box with compacted candied sweets. Very fresh very elegant palate, with saltiness and such perfumed acidity and fresh ripe tannins.Primary fruit characters, lovely dry fine tannins moving into juicy length. Lingering dust and pot pourri at finish.

Penfolds Grange 1999, SA
John Duval – ‘99 was a sleeper vintage- it crept up on us. For me this is still a bit young,  a bit arms and legs – this wine’s  got a lot of potential.’
100% new American oak.
Tarry nose with plum and blackberry notes. Strong spicy tannins on the palate, dry tannins getting juicy as they develop in the mouth – not exploding (as they will in time) but dissolving to juice. Fruit submerged at the moment - all arms and legs as John says –but when it comes up it will be dark and sweet – a dark and sweet core with raspberry and strawberry touching the edges.   

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Historic Vineyard Society of Sonoma: Do old vines make better wine?

How many times have I asked this question, and how many different answers have I had? Sometimes a winemaker will look at you askance, as if you've voiced a heresy, but usually they treat the question seriously. 
120-year-old Tempranillo at Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero
Winemakers prize old vines for reasons that seem obvious but, on closer examination, are more complicated. It is assumed, for example, that the older the vine, the better the wine. The root system on a 100-year-old vine, depending on the type of soil, can be extraordinarily deep, in loose soils, gravel or loam, they can go up to five metres or more. The vine tends to produce far fewer bunches with smaller, concentrated grapes dense with flavour.

Above and below: 1891 Cabernet Sauvignon, Brothers in Arms,  Langhorne Creek, South Australia. Unusually, the vines were trained and not bush-grown, hence the contortions

So it would seem to be a given that old vines make better wine. But is that simply a question of yield, and if so, wouldn’t a 30-year-old vine, properly stressed and sparingly irrigated, produce grapes of equal intensity?

Some, like Walter Schug, who founded Sonoma’s Schug Winery in 1980, are in two minds.

‘Sometimes it’s a thing that’s praised too highly. It’s got great value in consumers’ imagination and  it increases value of the wine but it’s very rare that you can actually see the difference in the taste of the wine.’
Lytton Springs. Now irrigated
Schug’s point is that a 15-year-old vineyard with rigorously-controlled yields will produce grapes of equal quality to an ancient vineyard whose yields are controlled by age. ‘At 15 years old you can get as good a wine as at 70 years.’

An interesting perspective on the question comes from Bordeaux, where – at least in the Medoc – vines are routinely replaced at 45-50 years. Olivier Darcy, winemaker at Chateau Teyssier in Pomerol (where the oldest vines are 80-year-old Merlot), says it all depends on the roots. ‘Where the root system goes deep in search of water, the quality seems to be better.’

But, he adds, a 20-year-old vine with perfectly adapted rootstock in good terroir ‘will give a result that in a blind tasting that would be hard to distinguish from wine from an older vine.’

Crucially, Darcy says, there will be little difference between a 50-year-old vine and one twice the age. ‘The roots don’t go any deeper after 50 years.’

100+ years Zinfandel at Ridge's Lytton Springs Vineyard, Sonoma County
It’s in the New World that the oldest vines in the world can be found, and in Somoma, where vineyards date back to the 1880s, a group of wine professionals and keen amateurs formed the Historic Vineyard Society, an organisation dedicated to preserving not only Sonoma’s old plantings but old vines across California. The Society’s mission statement is simple: to ‘compile a comprehensive, fact-based and consistent directory of California’s Heritage Vineyards’. Jancis Robinson is on the board, as is David Gates, head of viticulture at Ridge.

The society has some 200 members to date. ‘They are trickling in slowly but surely,’ Gates says. The oldest are concentrated in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek and Russian River Valley. The Society lists 26 vineyards in Napa, 12 in Lodi and a handful in Paso Robles.

Old Hill Ranch, for example, was established in 1852 by William McPherson Hill, the first viticulturist to import non-Mission grapes into Sonoma. The HVS says Old Hill is ‘possibly the oldest continuously farmed vineyard in California.’

The vineyard’s page on the HVS website is a distillation of old Sonoma. The varietal composition of this 6.1ha (40 acre) parcel is 71% Zinfandel, 10% Grenache, 7% Alicante Bouchet, 2.5% Petite Sirah and Peloursin, 1.3% Grand Noir, 1.2% Tannat, 1% Mourvedre. Then, the HVS goes on, there are ‘1% various table grapes, 5 % Carignan, Syrah, Trousseau, French Columbard, Cinsaut, Charbono, Lenoir, Palomino, Chasselas, Tempranillo, Petite Bouchet, Muscat and various unknowns’.

Gates admits it can be difficult assessing  the age of a vineyard. ‘It can be really hard to tell when it was planted. If it’s over 50 years old you get a good sense, but documentation is important.’ Those vineyards that have had ‘good families’ running them are the easiest. ‘They had a lot of pride in their work and they kept records.’

The first vitis vinifera - a mix of varietals known as mission grapes, used for sacramental wine - were planted in Mexican-owned northern California by Franciscan missionaries in the 1770s. Those early vines were decimated by phylloxera, with the result that the oldest vines today date back to the replantings of the 1880s. Many of these vineyards are incredibly diverse. Zinfandel is a mainstay: early on vignerons recognized its adaptability, but, as HVS board member Mike Dildine says, ‘in the late 19th Century, vineyards were often planted as “field blends” containing a hodge-podge of grape varieties, typically including Zinfandel, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Alicante, Grand Noir, Tannat, French Colombard and many other miscellaneous and even unknown varieties.’

Vega Sicilia again
The greatest acreage of old vines is actually in the vast and fertile Lodi appellation in the Central Valley. But growers there can be resistant to signing up to a society like the HVS. ‘A grower may sell most of his grapes to a big winery, and keep a small old block to sell to others but he worries most about his contract with the bigger wineries.’

Similarly, the big wineries have little interest in their growers protecting their old plots as they are mostly interested in volume.

There is a resolution at present working its way through the California state legislature , but Gates says he prefers the ‘carrot not the stick’ approach: some sort of tax break, for example, but he admits that would be very complicated.

Whether the softly-softly approach works or not is a moot point. Even the most artisan of growers can be dismayingly cavalier, Gates says. After the 2012 vintage Andy Beckstoffer, one of Napa’s most renowned growers, pulled out a 60-year-old block of Petite Sirah in the Hayne Vineyard in Napa’s St Helena, to replace it with Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘It breaks my heart to pull those old vines out,’ he told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné. ‘But we couldn't do it. On the upside, those soils will produce some outstanding Cabernet.’

1889 Genache, Tri-Centenary Vineyard, Yalumba,  Barossa Valley, South Australia
‘I would have liked to protect that,’ Gates says. ‘But it’s all about the economics.’

Then there was Trentadue in Alexander Valley, where about 350 vines of 1890s Carignane were removed ‘to square off a block. I tried to stop them, but there wasn’t much I could do.’

What the HVS tries to do is stress the viability of old vineyards. To qualify for HVS membership, a vineyard must be ‘currently producing’. Dildine clarified this: ‘Ultimately, vineyards can only be preserved if they are valued in the marketplace’. These are not museum pieces: the 200-plus listed vineyards on the registry provide grapes for some of America’s most famous wines.

Here is Monte Bello, for example, a 1.6ha (4 acre) parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that is all that remains of a 1949 planting by a theologian from Stanford called William Short, subsequently bought by the group of families that founded Ridge Vineyards. ‘These blocks,’ the HVS says in a typical understatement,  ‘were part of the 1971 Monte Bello that showed well in the 1976 Judgment of Paris.’

Or Pagani Ranch, whose 100-year-old Zinfandel goes into Seghesio’s rich wines, or the ancient Alegria Vineyard, mainly Zinfandel but with a rainbow of other varieties – Alicante Bouschet, Negrette, Trousseau Noir, Petit Bouschet, Carignane, Petit Syrah.

The biographies accompanying each vineyard are evocative. You get a palpable sense of the pioneer grit behind these biblical lists of names and quill-pen transactions. Alegria ‘is part of the 1841 Sotoyome land grant from the Mexican governor of California to Henry Delano Fitch, an immigrant from Boston who married Josefa Carrillo, sister-in-law of General Mariano Vallejo…Summers Brumfield sold 85 acres… in 1895 to George Davis, who sold … in 1896 to Elizabeth Moes…Moes built a small winery on her property. After she died in 1924, her daughter Ernestine and son-in-law Adolph DiNucci maintained the vineyard during Prohibition and until 1943. The vineyard then passed through a series of owners…’

Old vineyards, then, are the business of the HVS, and its members’ definitive answer to the question of whether old vines make better wine can be summed up as: you don’t need old grapes to make great wine, but they can add depth, complexity and site-specifity.

There are many reasons, the HVS says, why this happens. Old vines are more resistant, less influenced by weather and fluctuations in temperature, their roots are deeper, their ability to absorb nutrients better. The grapes they produce tend to be more balanced and lower in alcohol.

Mike Officer, who makes wine from 90-year-old vines at Carlisle Vineyard, has studied the question.

‘Are old vines a prerequisite for making great wine? Obviously not. But when it comes to Zinfandel and the often associated mixed blacks, it certainly seems to help. In several of our old-vine vineyards in which we have replaced misses, we pick the replants separate from the old vines. We know the replants are in a great terroir. The replants are vigorously farmed. Yet, the juice chemistry is completely different from the old vines. Compared to the juice from the young vines, the old-vine fruit is simply much better balanced in terms of acids, sugars, potassium, and nutrients, resulting in a more complete and harmonious wine.’

He goes on, ‘The interesting question then is at what age will the replants produce wine equal to the old vines? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? Hopefully I will find out in my lifetime.’

The answer, as with so many aspects of wine, lies in experimentation and accumulation of knowledge over generations. What is certain, in a region where the average age of a vine is 17 years, vineyards that have survived a century and more should be respected. As Walter Schug admits, there is a nobility to an old vine. ‘I walk past an ancient vineyard every day. It’s wonderful to see those old trunks.’

Tasting with David Gates at Lytton Springs
I meet David Gates on a perfect Sunday morning in February, at Ridge’s Lytton Springs vineyards in northern Sonoma. The vines up here are some of the oldest in California, with a bewildering mix of varietals: Zinfandel, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Tinturier Grand Noir, Mataro, Grenache, Syrah, Petite Sirah and some scattered white varieties, Picpoul, Burger, Palomino. About 5% of that particular block went into Ridge’s Lytton Springs 2011. ‘It’ll make it into the 2012 as well,’ Gates says.

In the cellars at Lytton Springs we taste the 2012s in barrel, some ‘mixed blacks’ from old vines, then the Lytton Springs Zinfandel blend, a Petite Sirah, and Carignane planted in the 1940s, all in American oak. We contrast it with Zinfandel from a block they call the east bench, planted in 2000 and 2001. In another comparison, we taste Zinfandel from the Ponzo vineyard in the Russian River Valley – one barrel from a block planted in 1952, and another from ten-year-old vines.

In general, the old vines show bright dark fruit and sweet, dense, very present, lush and juicy tannins with no dryness at all. When it comes to the younger vines, the fruit is brighter and sweeter but there’s a marked contrast in the tannins, which are dryer, firmer, and chalkier than the tannins from their older cousins. I would not say either wine is superior.

‘There is less on the mid palate with younger vines,’ is Gates’s opinion. ‘The tannins show more, and the fruit is brighter and more lifted.’
Lytton Springs

This article appears in modified form in the latest Meininger's Wine Business International