Wednesday 28 May 2014

"La mayonnaise prend": Bertrand Girard and the remoulding of Val d'Orbieu

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Val d’Orbieu is one of  those companies that everyone has heard of but no one can quite put a finger on what they do or who they are. Many wine professionals, even those who know the Languedoc well, are hard put to name a Val d’Orbieu wine, apart from the Cuvée Mythique, a blend of vineyards from across the Languedoc which 20 years ago became the first wine from the region to be given more than 90 points by Robert Parker.

It is surprising that a company of the size of Val d’Orbieu is not better known. It is the biggest cooperative in France, with 2,500 producers on its books producing 1m hectolitres of wine annually in the South of France,  and as a negociant it sells 3m hl. It also owns 17,000ha of vineyards (equivalent to about half the total vineland of New Zealand).

It supplies myriad own-label wines to big operators across France. In the UK, Tesco lists several of its wines, and considers Val d’Orbieu ‘a lovely company to work with’. The reason it is slightly ‘under the radar’ compared to its major competitor Les Grands Chais de France, a spokesman told Meininger’s, is that ‘they don’t have any strong brands but are more of an own-label specialist’.

'Benevolent presence': Bertrand Girard
Even the company’s strongest brand – the Cuvée Mythique - is looking a bit dusty. UK Languedoc expert Rosemary George MW makes the point that the Cuvée was brand new in the 1990s when multi-regional blends were less common. ‘But it doesn’t seem so exciting now.’

But recognised or not, Val d’Orbieu has tremendous assets. ‘We don’t pretend to be the biggest in France. We are the biggest,’ Bertrand Girard, the company’s managing director says. They are pioneers, he says, in just about everything. What makes them unique is the possession of such swathes of vineland. As Girard says, their smaller competitors own vineyards but not on such a scale, and their bigger competitors like Castel or Les Grands Chais de France own little or no vineland. GCF, for example, actually owns some 1,500ha.

Their holdings, Girard says, allow them control over their product: ‘We are totally vertically integrated from vineyard to bottling to distribution.’

Val d’Orbieu owns vineyards from Coteaux du Languedoc in the north to Cotes du Roussillon in the south, taking in Faugeres, St Chinian, Minervois, Corbieres and Fitou along the way. The 2,500 growers include 11 cooperatives and 60 estates and chateaux. Members can call on central marketing resources in order to sell their wines, and there are various wines – notably Cuvée Mythique – which are made centrally.

Founded more than 40 years ago, the company went through a period of retrenchment at the beginning of this century. In the 1990s it looked very different, Girard says. ‘We were the rising star, just behind Castel.’ As well as the holdings in the south, it also owned 12 grands cru in Bordeaux.

But by 2000, labouring under enormous debts, faced with falling prices for wine, and losing market share to Australia and Chile, ‘there was a big panic and they had only two things in mind: paying the bills and getting some cash, so the assets were sold off, including the chateaux in Bordeaux, for €100m.’ When Girard joined the company in 2010 he was told the debts were still formidable, and a new strategy was needed. ‘We needed to rebound, to re-invent our future.’

Girard seems diffident and is softly-spoken. The simplicity of his sentences belies the complexity of the task they describe. ‘We have two aims – first to make sure our growers get a decent revenue, which was not the case before, and second, to make customers happy.’ Later on, a third aim is put on the table: to move the company into icon territory.

The three targets obviously go together, and it is the third which is most ambitious. Val d’Orbieu is known – in France at least – ‘as reliable supplier of brands to the supermarkets’, Girard says. But he sees his job as changing the company from a supplier to a winery. ‘We have the resources. We have the wine. A winery can still work with the supermarkets supplying wines and brands but it also has something which is additional in terms of value - it can also have the novelty and the differentiation. We want  to be recognised as a reference winery in France.’
Cuvee Mythique: looking dusty?

To do this, Girard intends to ‘rewrite the strategy’ of the company, concentrating on the shape of the sales pyramid, which ‘doesn’t look the way I would like it to look. We are strong at the bottom, and we are strong in the centre with the brands. But it you go a bit up I think we are not good enough in terms of style – we are far from what the market needs in terms of marketing and storytelling.’

In short, value has been neglected in favour of volume, and this must change. Val d’Orbieu’s most expensive wines at the moment are in the €12-15 range, and Girard wants to change that. To achieve this aim he is exploiting the company’s great asset: the vineyards. Within that portfolio, he says, there must be parcels that are capable of producing icon, single-vineyard wines. To this end he is employing a team of consultants to ‘look at the incredible asset of the vineyards’ and to search out the finest parcels.

The cuvées that will come from this are known as the ‘Black Réserve’ [sic] range. It is another perfectly simple plan, and one that Bordeaux consultant Olivier Dauga, for his part, is very excited by. ‘It’s like the Sleeping  Beauty,’ he told Meininger’s. ‘There is land all over Languedoc which is not being properly exploited.’

M le Couturier: Olivier Dauga
Dauga – Val d’Orbieu somewhat grandly calls him un couturier du vin - is surveying some 350ha of vineyard in a rolling programme that takes in all the appellations of the region. He visits the property, tests the grapes, then vinifies different parcels in small tanks to pinpoint the highest-quality parcels.

To date he has made seven new wines for Val d’Orbieu and will add three more next year. He cites the ancient Chateau Pouzols – owned by the de Fournas family since 1437 – which is under contract to Val d’Orbieu. ‘It’s an incredible place, with wonderful terroir and soils.’ The first new wine to come out of the programme is the AOC Corbières Château de Jonquières 2012, a grenache-syrah blend which was bottled at the beginning of the year. Jonquières, also an ancient domaine, is wholly-owned by Val d’Orbieu. Chateau Pouzols will be released later this year.

Dauga is also working on a new, dedicated brand to be called Avant Garde, an icon successor to Cuvée Mythique, a blend of terroirs in quantities of some 20,000 bottles. He is looking for the right parcels at the moment.

The Black Réserve wines will retail at around €11-15. It’s not quite the dizzy heights Girard is aiming for, but in terms of style and presentation the wines are firmly at the premium end, with matt black labels and gold banding. It is a start of a plan, he says, ‘to be iconic, with wines from €30-50, to compete with the Médoc.’

Girard has something else he intends to exploit: there is a wealth of grape varieties in the vineyards of the South of France, at a time of burgeoning global interest in new, unusual and indigenous grapes. He believes in the cyclical nature of fashions in wine, and that the decade-long enthusiasm for single-varietal wines from the New World is waning.

‘At the moment the English-speaking countries want Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Malbec from Argentina, but that will change. Maybe the next surprise will be a Merlot from the south of France.’

Or, indeed, a Roussanne, Marsanne, or Chenin Blanc. ‘We have all of these. There are so many ways we can surprise the customer.’

This is not to say that Girard is losing sight of the mainstay of the company – the mid-range, mid-price wines that make up the vast rump of Val d’Orbieu’s products. He’s not sentimental about it – ‘Wine is a craft product that can be in some areas industrialised’, he says – and he loses little time in worrying about the finer points of organic and biodynamic viticulture. About 120ha of the Val d’Orbieu holdings are certified organic. For the rest, ‘Everything is measured,’ Girard says, ‘it is responsible viticulture but it’s not organic, which I don’t consider is that important, except for in the niche markets in northern Europe and Japan.’

In terms of the mid-market he points to the wine pouch, another of the innovations the company is proud of. The three-litre aluminium bag has been developed by Inno’Vo, a dedicated group set up by Val d’Orbieu, and claims to have all the advantages of a bag-in-a-box, but without the box. Is it working? ‘The response is not that big, but innovation is a long process, and you need luck and determination,’ Girard says. ‘It could be the next big thing.’

The wine pouch aside, Girard’s reforms are obviously working: the balance sheet looks healthy. Sales in China have doubled to more than €6m since he arrived, and since 2010, he says, ‘We have doubled the export business from €150m to €300m’, gaining market share in France and other international markets.

Val d’Orbieu exudes the assurance of a company that knows where it’s going. Its clients notice this. The UK distributor Copestick Murray, which supplies Tesco, is impressed by the way it works. ‘They have an open, transparent trading relationship which goes down well with customers – it’s the complete opposite of the more traditional model of building a wall between customer and producer,’ Copestick’s commercial director David Peek says.

Working with Val d’Orbieu is ‘collaborative’, he adds, citing the example of the own-brand Corbieres Tesco has just taken on. ‘It wasn’t purely a cost exercise. It was a collaborative process at every level, with winemakers involved as well.’

In terms of the more premium products, Peek makes clear that though at present they are just taking supermarket own-brand and private label wines in the £5-8 range, ‘we will certainly build to distribution of the more premium wines to put into independents and the on-trade. That’s very much part of the partnership.’

While his clients like the way the company works, Girard is a popular, low-key chief. At the company’s fairly riotous annual dinner at the Vinisud wine fair in Montpellier, he’s a benevolent presence. As his staff down powerful mojitos and swing each other round the dance floor, he smilingly declines invitations to join them.

He obviously understands people, the greatest asset of any company. He recognises that ‘the grower is the most important person, and it’s not that complicated [to get them behind the new strategy] because they know what we are aiming for. The magic of the strategy is showing people what we want to do and how we want to do it. Then it all comes together. As we say, la mayonnaise prend.’

Friday 9 May 2014

Scaffolding and bare brickwork: Structuralists shine at Roberson's New California tasting

‘Looking forward to hearing what’s new in the “new” California,’ Claudia Schug tweeted just before Roberson’s London tasting last month. Of course, there’s nothing new about restraint and structure in California – everything in wine is cyclical. Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and author of the seminal The New California Wine made that clear at the beginning of the three seminars he chaired at the tasting, referencing the ‘first modern revolution’ – the coming of Robert Mondavi, Paul Draper, Warren Winiarski, the founding fathers of modern California wine, and the subsequent ‘decadent phase’ starting in the late 1980s, when big money first started arriving in Napa.

'it doesn't have to be outré'
Bonné had the vision to recognise a shift in the tectonic plates that underpin the vast mass of the California wine industry. There was the moment, as he put it, when ‘what were fringe experiments were starting to change the conversation. People [like Steve Matthiasson, Cathy Corison or the philosopher-winemaker Abe Schoener - the latter covered in this blog] were starting to change the conversation’. They’d been plugging away at it for years, and what they all had in common, it seems, was an instinct – nurtured by exposure to fine European wines – that California didn’t have to be outré.

Matthiasson: 'translucent'
 And there’s nothing new in that. Stephen Brook, author of another seminal book, 1999’s The Wines of California, has been banging the drum of restraint (as it were) for years. I chaired California (particularly Napa) panel tastings at Decanter through the decade of excess from 2000 onwards and lost count of the number of times Brook, faced with yet another ripe glassful said, ‘but it doesn’t have to be like this.’ Indeed, anyone who has tasted old Napa Cabernet (Inglenook 61, Spring Mountain Vineyard 79, Newton 81 to name just three I’ve had in the last year) knows how the last 15 years can be seen as an aberration.

Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator are convenient bugbears, but it's not clear-cut, Bonné said. 'I always come back to the industry’, the massive injections of ‘cash and ambition’ in the late 80s and early 90s, coinciding with the last phylloxera epidemic, the ‘billion dollar round of replanting’ and thousands of acres of young vines producing a flood of exuberant, sweet and fleshy wines for a newly-aware market. This was the beginning of a ‘populist connoisseurship’, as he put it.

The debate will continue. ‘We are starting to see diversity: wines that will show we can have a more detailed conversation about what California can represent,’ Bonné said.

the conversation's getting louder
So in answer to Claudia Schug, daughter of Walter Schug, another Napa pioneer, inaugurator of Phelps Insignia and maker of fine Carneros Pinot Noir, amongst many others, what’s new in the new California is the fact the conversation is getting much louder, and has moved out of the barrel cellar and into central London venues like the handsome rooms of the King’s Fund in Cavendish Square, where we’re sitting.

Tatomer: 'coolest label in the house'

The tasting buzzed with enthusiasm. London journalists, Brook, Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin, Jamie Goode, Steven Spurrier, a big crowd from Decanter, buyers like Greg Sherwood of veteran California specialists Handford Wines, sommeliers: Andrea Briccarello of Galvin, Andres Ituarte of Avenue, Charlie Blightman of Hawksmoor, Claire Pancrazi of MASH and half a dozen others.

doggedly pursuing structure for decades
A fascinating line-up of wines, a range which showed the risk-taking mind-set of Mark Andrew, the crusading Roberson buyer. So alongside established classics like Corison and Hirsch, and those like Arnot-Roberts who are rapidly gaining fame as two of the most fascinating winemakers in Sonoma, or the Spring Mountain men Smith Madrone, doggedly pursuing structure for decades, or the brilliant Steve Matthiasson, are wines from Moobuzz in Monterey, part of the Sebastiani family’s The Other Guys project, which lack the confidence of precision of many of their neighbours, and among the only wines in the room I would class as ‘experimental’ in the sense that they don’t quite work. Oddly enough the first word that came to mind was ‘old-fashioned’ when I tasted the Moobuzz Chardonnay 2012, in that its notes of sweet fruit are instant, and insistent, compared to Smith-Madrone’s ethereal Cabernet 2009, say, where the sweetness is a high chord that only becomes apparent when the structure, the delicate girders and light scaffolding of acid and tannin, has been established.

Arnot-Roberts: 'Ghostly hint of strawberry compote'
How to describe these wines? ‘This is a classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,’ Matthiasson said of his ruby-red, perfumed 2011, adding that he was using the word advisedly, not to refer to the more “classic” classics of the last 15 years. So this is classic as it should be – Cabernet that has herbal notes (these guys don’t subscribe to the received wisdom that green equals unripe), precise tannins, elegant visible structure and bracing acidity. And they are lighter in colour than we’ve been conditioned to expect – many of the reds on show today (Matthiasson’s in particular) are translucent.

There’s also exuberant variety. As the wines of the Jura are increasingly popular amongst the metropolitan wine elite, so the region’s native grape, Trousseau, seems to be appearing more and more on the tasting tables. Arnot-Roberts’ rosé-hued Luchsinger Trousseau is possibly the finest expression of the grape I’ve ever tasted.

that Shakespeherian rag...
Pace the severe In Pursuit of Balance movement (started by Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr and others), which focusses on Chardonnay and Pinot, I think the wider movement should be called the New Structuralism. The word ‘structure’ comes up again and again in my notes, describing wines that are the very opposite of ‘fruit-forward’. Sure there is fruit, but it takes its rightful place as a component of the whole, not strutting about in the footlights but waiting in the wings, to come on just so. It’s like the difference between those old greasepaint and kohl Shakespeherians of the 1930s, and Peter Brook’s productions, all scaffolding and bare brickwork.


This is the full line-up. Except Jamie Kutch’s superb Pinots which I somehow missed. Kristen Kutch has said she will send them over so I can update...

Moobuzz Chardonnay 2012, Monterey
Old-fashioned nose with easy peachy sweetness, very open though and fresh on the palate, interesting hints of lanolin

Moobuzz Pinot Noir 2012, Monterey
Spice and pepper on the nose, good robust fruit palate with damson, not as structured and precise as I’d like

Jolie-Laide Pinot Gris 2012 Sonoma
Fresh dense chalky acidity, grapefruit and saltiness on the palate, even savoury and earthy. The length falls slightly short

Jolie-Laide Trousseau Gris 2012 Russian River Valley
Honeyed nose very promising but there’s a slight misfire on the mid-palate, with bright stone fruit and honey and sweet spice not quite carrying through.

Lioco 2012 Chardonnay, Sonoma coast
Buttery aroma becomes fresh and grassy with woody perfume. High notes of tropical fruit playing above precise structure, dry acidity and fresh open lightly tannic heft. Tongue-tingling acidity and consistent persistent length

Lioco 2012 Pinot Noir, Sonoma coast
Bright light ruby colour, very open and breathy mouthfeel, lovely delicate red fruit – sour strawberry – structure to the tannins and a juicy, food-friendly finish

Lioco 2012 ‘Savaria’ Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
Open, fresh, full of elegance, red fruit set off by peppery notes, balanced, nervy, precise, long.

Arnot-Roberts Watson Ranch Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley
Herb earth and grapefruit on nose, hint of grass, hay lying  in field slightly damp. Surprising peach and pineapple on palate –sudden rush of fruit over powerful  defined acidic and tannic structure. Fruit overlays structure leading  to dry and juicy finish. Very fresh and breathy combination of sweet honeyed fruit and intense nervy acidity. Tightly wound

Arnot-Roberts Syrah 2012, North Coast
Lovely earthy rotted stink to nose – truffles – dry, grainy tannins, minerality, very dark sour black cherry, wonderfully structured wine, very fine

Arnot-Roberts ‘Luchsinger’ Trousseau 2012, Clear Lake
Incredible bright hue more akin to rosé. Sweetness and dryness with a tropical character at first and then ghostly hint of strawberry compote and essence of raspberry. Acidity and tannin in perfect order, overall impression of controlled intensity finishing in delicate tannic dryness dissolving to juice on the tongue. Superb

Arnot-Roberts ‘Bugay’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Sonoma County
Sweet red fruit on the nose, lovely structure and grip, earthy open palate, ripe damson fruit at first giving place to structured tannin, very elegant and delicate. Another triumphant modern classic

Hirsch Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Fresh and open nose, surprising heft of tropical fruit but any hint of fatness moderated by precise acidic structure. Wood is present and correct, finish sharp and elegant.

Hirsch Vineyards 2011 San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Very ripe red cherry nose with earthy notes – hint of decay – sweetness on palate with cherry, red fruits and an overwhelming impression of mouthwatering juiciness anchored by minerality. Very very good

Hirsch Vineyards 2011 West Ridge Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Again ripe cherry on the nose but the palate has alluring savoury, bacon notes. Gouts of juice after a toasted cherry wood attack, earthy, powerful but for all that light and delicate. Robust, fine

Copain Tous Ensemble Syrah 2011 Mendocino County
Bright and dense with a peppery rush on the attack, then ripe damson and cherry fruit. Fine dry tannins, excellent length

Copain Les Voisins Syrah 2011 Yorkville Highlands
Intense white pepper nose, with a palate lighter than you’d expect, some red fruit and darker notes of damson, hints of hay and more white pepper, nice dry tannins, good length. Tight

Copain Halcon Syrah 2009 Yorkville Highlands
100% whole cluster fermentation on this one. Again there’s white pepper on the nose but this turns into sage after a beat or two. The tannins are fine-grained and elegant, the length with garrigue, the whole very structured and elegant. Fine.

Matthiasson Linda Vista Chardonnay 2012 Napa Valley
Impression of precise acidity and sweet, delicate hint of oak (barrel fermented). The structure is provided by minerality and acidity, on which sit sheer flavours – juicy cut pear, apple, and then high tropical notes. Lovely.

Matthiasson Napa White 2012 Napa Valley
Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, Tocai Friulano
Deceptively light with excellent body, some fine green flavours, citrus (lime), grapefruit, pineapple, fresh sweetness underpinned by minerality. The component grapes are there to see, but there is no disjoint – more an elegant, revealed structure

Matthiasson Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Napa Valley
20% Merlot
Bright, almost translucent ruby hue, fresh mineral palate with abundant though never insistent fruit – wild blackberries and damsons, some welcome sagey herbal notes, violet perfume, excellent structure, ripe tannins carrying the whole wonderful understated cornucopia of flavours right to the end. Steve Matthiasson happily describes it as ‘rustic’, which it is, in the best sense, unmanufactured.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Napa Valley
Cathy Corison is one of Napa’s most eminent and respected winemakers, steadily crafting elegant Cabernets at her handsome green-painted ranch on Highway 29, between Rutherford and St Helena. Antonio Galloni described her Kronos 2010, from her famous vineyard, as one of the most ‘hauntingly beautiful’ Cabernets he’d ever tasted
The Cabernet here is sourced from Rutherford and St Helena benchland. Herb and even hay on the nose with a creamy undertow – still there are herbs on palate, with definite warmth and structure, very fresh, juicy, exuberant but anchored with dry tannins dissolving into juice, mint-laden freshness at the end. Bonné: ‘this could not be anything else than Napa Cabernet’. Serious tannic grip and length. One of my favourite of all her Cabs.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley
Full, dense, minty blackcurrant palate. Grainy tannins and a depth of acidity. Nearly ten years old and utterly fresh and beguiling, still with primary fruit but with the tannins showing a hint of fuzziness round the edges, a softening to come.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Napa Valley
Along with classic black Napa fruit there’s sour cherry on this 06 which isn’t so noticeable on the others – 06 was a cooler year. The palate is tarry, intense, with precise but serious tannins that are softening (they were pretty tight for a few years, I imagine), and wonderful juiciness. Mouthwatering.

Smith- Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009
'Bearded pioneer...' Stuart Smith
The Smith Madrone ranch high on Spring Mountain is a piece of Napa history, unchanged since bearded pioneers Charlie and Stuart Smith (on a quiet evening you can hear their guns booming from miles away – the estate is dotted with buckshot-peppered targets) arrived in the 1970s. The tasting room is a comfortable, ramshackle barn with armchairs you sink into. They have an extraordinary list (their Spring Mountain Riesling is renowned, and delicious, though not as original or unusual as their Cabernets). This 09 has a classic nose, blackcurrant and mint vibrating in the glass, then flavours that can only be described as Bordeaux-like, cassis and coffee, but with an additional layer of perfumed fruit that stamps it indelibly as Napa. High vineyards, long hot days and cool nights bring sharp acidity to the structure. Superb.

Broc Cellars ‘Skin Contact’ Roussanne 2011 El Dorado
From the Sierra foothills. Sweet and fresh nose, tactile, even grainy acidity, palate of pineapple, melon and apricot. Mouthwatering acidity. Charming

Broc Cellars ‘Cuvée 13.1’ Syrah 2012 Santa Lucia Highlands
Blended with the Chateauneuf variety Counoise. Palate with high notes of turkish delight, black pepper, spice, dark fruit, elastic though powerful tannins, sweet acidic length

Broc Cellars ‘Whole Cluster’ Cabernet Franc 2012 Lucia Highlands
Amazingly light, lively hedgerow perfume of nettles, cow parsley (how can a wine made in California taste of England?), white pepper, and then red cherry, lovely freshness, a delight

Broc Cellars Vine Starr Zinfandel 2012 Sonoma Coast
Creamy earthy damson on nose, very full palate with white pepper, spicy plum and damson, vibrant fruit and dry, structured but supple tannins and juice at end. This is not fat but voluptuous and elegant. Dry length ending in juiciness

Viano Hillside White 2012 Contra Costa AVA
Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Colombard
Bright and approachable and packed with good brisk fruit – some citrus and sweet stone fruit - not complex, but with juicy acidity. Rather too much toasted character at end palate

Viano Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Contra Costa AVA
Fresh and open nose with dark fruit, rustic leathery blackcurrant fruit and grainy tannins, not complex but fresh and very attractive and a very good price

Mount Eden Domaine Eden Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Cruz Mountains
Lovely grassy nose with hedgerow aromatics, complex palate with black fruit, blackberry, menthol, garrigue (sage, thyme), grainy tannins showing all the way through to a fine, long-lasting finish. Excellent

Mount Eden Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Santa Cruz Mountains
Intense deep fruity palate with black fruit, more evolved than the 2010 – ripe dark plum rather than blackberry, herbs drier, but lots of juice after dry, tight tannins. Very good

Mount Eden Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Cruz Mountains
30% whole bunch fermentation. Very sweet cherry on the nose with red fruit compote and raisin. Unusual raisined palate along with earthy notes and very attractive ripe strawberry; the mid palate slightly hot

Tatomer ‘Kick-on Ranch’ Riesling 2010, Santa Barbara
Winemaker Graham Tatomer says ‘some skin contact’ on this one, which gives it its dry grip. Creamy fresh secondary aromas on nose – not petrol but perfumed wool – open breathy palate with lime, grapefruit, saline hint of boiled lobster, full and mouthfilling, dry tannic length with juice at end. Overall dry length. Serious tannic grip

Tatomer ‘Kick-on Ranch’ Riesling 2011, Santa Barbara
Like its sibling but less evolved – less secondary petrol aromas, more sour lime, cut apple and pear, cooler, lighter, flavours more tail-wagging than quietly welcoming. Still with that attractive dry tannic length. Coolest labels in the house, by the way

Tatomer ‘Meeresboden’ Grüner Veltliner 2013, Santa Barbara
A lovely example of the dry style. Intense minerality, spicy lime, fresh white flowers (jasmine, hibiscus), structured acidity. Restrained but very expressive. Delicious

Sandhi Wines Chardonnay 2012 Santa Barbara
Some of the finest Chardonnays to come out of California are made by Sashi Moorman and star sommelier Rajat Parr, who also own Domaine de la Côte in the Santa Rita Hills. This has a daub of light cream on the nose, dense, sweet tropical lime, apple and a hint of tropical ripeness. Lovely power and body

Sandhi Wines ‘Sanford & Benedict’ Chardonnay 2011 Santa Rita Hills
Very, very fine nose with toasted notes (the wine spends 11 months in 500-litre barrels), sweet citrus, spicy cedar, some earth and floral notes. Excellent

'elegant rot': Dme de la Côte 
Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Rita Hills
50% whole bunch ferment. Lovely deep nose with elegant rot - cream and sweet very ripe cherry – utterly beguiling sweet violet perfume, fresh, minerality and some salinity – mouthwatering juice at end after dissolved chalky dry tannins. Endless length

Domaine de la Côte Lompoc Wine Co Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Rita Hills
Fully destemmed. Superb bright fresh cherry and perfumed spice. Exotic. Full warm length, dense and creamy with mineral buzz

Domaine de la Côte ‘Bloom’s Field’ Pinot Noir 2011 Santa Rita Hills
90% whole bunch ferment, unfiltered and unfined. Bright hue, robust grippy tannins, sheer minerality, raspberry and damson and this lovely spicy plum. Delicious

Domaine de la Côte ‘La Côte’ Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Rita Hills
Whole bunch ferment. Herbal aromatics on the nose, very delicate cushioned juice (bolstered by fruit), supple ripe tannins carrying through to a fine open and generous finish

Piedrasassi Syrah 2010 Central Coast
Made by Sashi Moorman. Powerful stink on the nose, earthy and elegant, reminiscent of the farmyards of my youth (as distinct to the industrial silage stink of a huge modern farm). Wild briar fruits, black pepper, but the whole slightly reduced and not showing its best

Piedrasassi ‘Rim Rock’ Single Vineyard Syrah 2010, San Luis Obispo County
This is more like it, herbal aromas on the nose, more blackberry and dark forest fruits, exotic spice notes (sandalwood is there), white pepper, powerful knitted tannins exploding juicily at the end. Elegant and muscular