Thursday 31 July 2014

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc - balance, complexity and a welcome respite from cat's pee

[This is a digested version, though with more recommendations, of a longer article on the US website]

Was there ever a danger of Sauvignon Blanc going the same way as Chardonnay – of an ‘Anything but Sauvignon’ movement to match the ABC craze?

Here’s the former Slate columnist Michael Steinberger, for example, mocking the grape's "chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth … a limp, lemony liquid that grows progressively more boring with each sip." Articles with titles like '10 Alternatives to Sauvignon' are more and more common; I've heard independent merchants talking about increasing requests for a crisp white, 'but not Sauvignon'.

But there's no evidence to suggest Sauvignon is in danger of even the smallest blip in sales. Bibendum, the Wine Society and many other retailers reports sales as strong as ever.

A tasting (in July at London Cru, the capital's first urban winery) comprised 32 oaked wines from Australia, New Zealand, California, Chile, Loire, Bordeaux, South Africa and Turkey.
All the wines had oak treatment of some kind. Some were barrel-fermented, some spent 10 months in new French oak barriques, others far less time, 50% second-use barrels, others eight month medium toast, others 15 months in old oak. … With oak, the variables are infinite.

Looking down the list, a common factor was restraint. I didn't expect such freshness and restraint in the American wines, for example, although the New Zealanders showed their classic colours -- gooseberry, robust sweaty aromas, nettle and grass. Surprising also was the complexity on show: judicious use of oak tempers the green pepper or asparagus flavours that people can find offensive, and bring more of what UK critic Sarah Ahmed calls "the Bordeaux style, more lemon oil notes -- it's a striking feature."

"Limp and lemony … devoid of complexity"? Not at all. The best of these wines have bracing acidity and fine complex fruit. I noted the following flavours: apple, pear, sour apple, sugared pear skin, honey, apple custard, fresh hay, salinity, river mud, lemon, lemongrass, apricot, sweat, earth.

I used the descriptor "gooseberry" three times, "cat's pee" not at all.

Top 10 oaked Sauvignon Blancs
Prices are approximate; oaking regimes as supplied by winery

Larry Cherubino ‘Cherubino’ 2013, Pemberton, Western Australia
100% Sauvignon Blanc
100% new, 3 mths ageing
Delicate gooseberry and hint of oak on the nose. Sour apple and pearskin palate leading to tropical notes – sweet stone fruit. Long and elegant, very fine
Alc 12.5% £25.99 UK: Inverarity Morton, Drinkmonger ; US n/a

Château Talbot  Caillou Blanc 2012, Bordeaux blanc, France
74% Sauvignon 26% Semillon
35% new oak barriques, 35% 1yr old, 30% 3rd fill for 8 mths
Unexpressive nose but quickly a lovely interesting palate with honey freshness salinity, good ripe acidity, mouthwatering sweet pear and peach and fine, sophisticated weight
Alc 14% £15/$27-30 UK: Fine & Rare; US: Millesima, MacArthur Beverages

Château Brown 2012, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
64% Sauvignon 36% Semillon
8 mths in medium toast barriques, 50% new, 50% 2nd fill.
Really fresh impression of intense chalky acidity, fine pear and apple (Granny Smith) with an almost tannic heft. The mid-palate is dry with promise of a dissolve to juice. Lovely, mouthwatering wine
Alc 13.5% £25/$36 UK: Soho Wines, Ellis of Richmond, Tesco; US: Owen’s Liquors, Kessler Wines and Spirits

Huia Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Wairau, Marlborough, New Zealand
100% Sauvignon Blanc
A portion was fermented in neutral French oak barrels.
Elegant refined nose with nettle and hint of green mown grass. The palate unmistakeably New Zealand, with gooseberry, lime and more nettley, hedgrerow flavours. Fine fresh acidity, fine weight
Alc 14% £13/$15-20 UK: Winedirect, Quintessentially Wine; US: Astor Wines, Lincoln Fine Wines

Yealands Winemakers Reserve 2013, Awatere, Marlborough, New Zealand
100% Sauvignon Blanc
30% fermented and aged in French oak barrels, 5% new
Classic sweaty nose with gooseberry, intense and powerful palate with dancing acidity. Lovely fresh, fearlessly classic Marlborough Sauvignon
Alc 13.5% £14.95 UK: Great Western Wine;  US: n/a

Valdivieso Wild Fermented Single Vineyard 2012, Leyda, Chile
100% Sauvignon Blanc
Aged for 6mths in 500l French oak barrels
Powerful aroma of struck match at first, hint of reduction, earthy smell of river mud, not overwhelming, then on the palate lime and lemon, vanilla, robust acidity, very open and refreshing, good length, complex and very fine
Alc 13% £13.95 UK: Winedirect;  US: n/a

Chimney Rock, Elevage Blanc 2010, Napa Valley, USA
47% Sauvignon 43% Sauvignon Gris
Two thirds Fermented + aged for 6mths in Fr oak, 1/3 new, 1/3 old
Fresh with honey and creamy notes on the nose, repeated on the palate with grainy, dense acidity, passion fruit, kiwi, excellent weight and mouthfeel, good zippy acid length
Alc 14.5% £24.99/$22-25 UK: Cellarvie, Matthew Clark;  US:, Saratoga Wine Exchange, M&D Fine Wines and Spirits, widely available

Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2102, Napa Valley, USA
83% Sauvignon 17% Semillon
15% barrel-fermented in new oak, 5mths sur lie
There’s noticeable oak on the nose and early palate serving to enhance the pear and spiced apple flavours. Good weight and length. Fine
Alc 13.5% £28 UK:;  US: Gramercy, Wally’s Wine and Spirits, widely available

Mondavi Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley, USA
87% Sauvignon 13% Semillon
Barrel fermented
Fresh and creamy, tropical, creamy notes of apple and custard, then spice (sandalwood), giving an exotic character. Very well-made, nice racy acidity at end
Alc 13.5% £16/$9-12 UK: Templar Wines, Matthew Clark;  US: widely available

Lis Neris, Picol, Friuli Isonzo, Italy
100% Sauvignon Blanc
Some of wine aged for 11mths in 500l Fr oak
Classic grassy aromas, hay (fresh hay), savoury denseness to palate, good weight, citrus character rounded out by ripe apple, excellent zesty length with good acid balance
Alc 14% £24 UK: Fields Morris and Verdin;  US: Mister Wright Fine Wines and Spirits, Wine Ranger Cellars

[For a fuller version of this article see]

Friday 25 July 2014

Smart wines: Ten Years of Vilafonté

A tasting of Vilafonté Series C from 2003-2012, with Zelma Long, Phil Freese and Mike Ratcliffe. London 16 July 2014

(see also my interview with Zelma Long on

Zelma Long says she’s reading a book by furniture maker Peter Korn, called Why We Make Things And Why It Matters. ‘He talks about his craft and how he uses his heart, his intellect and his hands and how this fulfills a basic human need to exercise the emotional, the physical and the intellectual.’ She finds winemaking the perfect route to this rather practical karma.

The heart? Zelma Long
The head, the heart and the hands. It’s tempting to stretch the analogy (possibly to breaking point) to see which of these roles is filled by the trio that founded Vilafonté. Long and her husband Phillip Freese met Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch in the 1990s, and some time after that they decided they should make wine from the ancient soils of the northern flank of the Simonsberg Mountain. They bought 40ha in 1997, and planted to four Bordeaux varietals, leaving out Petit Verdot. ‘We knew the site would produce rich enough wines,’ Freese says.

They share out the jobs: Long is the winemaker, Freese in the vineyard, and Ratcliffe on marketing. They’re very good at what they do. Ratcliffe for one is a tireless ambassador for the winery, for Warwick and for South African wine in general. The fact he’s a born marketeer is evidenced by the tasting mat in front of me, where each wine is labelled with a two-word plug, ‘seamless and firm’ for the 2010, ‘balanced and expressive’ for the 09 and so on. I’d say he’s the head, in our (stretched) analogy.

Mike Ratcliffe, Zelma Long and Phil Freese
Freese was Mondavi’s vineyard guru for 13 years, designed and planted Opus One’s vineyards next door, and likes his technological aids. He pioneered a ground-penetrating radar system called EM38 which detects variations in soil, they use the Leaf Water Potential measuring system, as well as deploying the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a system developed by NASA, which uses satellite imaging to measure relative vigour of the vines. He has that rare gift of combining vast knowledge with an avuncular manner and an ability to explain complex subjects simply. Vine stress, he says, is a matter of ‘subjecting the vines a near-death experience without them actually dying. They’re psyched-out by that.’

Long herself is measured of speech and quick to laugh. Her career started in the late 60s with UC Davis, an internship with Mike Ggrich at Mondavi, an offer of a job, a decade there as chief winemaker, subsequently CEO of Simi in Sonoma, founded Long Vineyards with Bob Long, a host of international consultancies, together with Vilafonté. She’s now embarked on a PhD in performance art at Davis, because, she says, ‘If you’re a confident individual with an active mental capacity you need new challenges through your life.’

Vilafonté is a 42ha vineyard planted on ‘vilafonté’ soil, which according to Ratcliffe is one of the oldest soil types in the world, between 750,000 and 1.5m years old. ‘It has been stripped of much of its inherent capacity, with a low production potential.’

They make two wines, the Merlot-dominant Series M and the Cabernet Sauvignon-based Series C.

'Psyched-out vines': Vilafonté 
The vineyards are the highest-density in South Africa. Vines are stressed, berries are small and intensely-flavoured. ‘Smart wines,’ Robert Joseph said as we tasted. You have the feeling you’re in good hands. There was not a single disappointment in the ten-year line up. ‘We look for clarity and purity,’ Long says, and uses the rather lovely image of the ringing of a bell: ‘You get that brilliantly clear clear sound.’ And as with a bell, you know instinctively if there’s the tiniest flaw in the metal – a false note introduced in the clarity. There are none of those. Take the 2007, and early-ripening, low-sugar year, 74% Cabernet Sauvignon. At first you wonder where you’re going as your palate deals with the structure – the insistent tannins and bold acidity – then you catch glimpses of fruit, and you realise where you are, and can see the life ahead for the wine.

Structure, elegance and purity of fruit characterise the wines. There is considerable vintage variation both in fruit character and tannic and acidic levels, as well as grape proportions. Cabernet Sauvignon is always the majority of the blend, but it can be as low as 51% (11) and as high as 75% (10).

These are smart, modern (in terms of their structure), beautifully-made, serious wines, and they are astonishingly cheap, at less than £35 for later vintages. Wines of this quality, of this pedigree, from Bordeaux, or Napa, or, increasingly,  Sonoma, or Tuscany, would be twice, three or four times the price.

Vilafonté is a work in progress. The vineyards are getting older and are becoming ‘more balanced’, Long says, ‘and we have become more expert. We have learnt how to work with the tannins, to refine the structure. We feel we are beginning to master this site.’

The wines
Available from FellsCoe Vintners,, and extensively in the United States. From £35 bottle

Vilafonté series C 2003
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec
Rich savoury nose, exotic spice and perfume, cassis. Lovely sour damson and sloe palate – rich acidity and soft tannins. Very juicy length, elegant, goes on and on stimulating the palate. Sensational finish – 5 minutes and after that still flashbacks. ‘This exemplifies the potential and future of the vineyard’ (Long)

Vilafonté series C 2004
52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec
Deeper, rounder nose with the same rich spice as 03, and some delicate hay notes. Sour damson and sloe, also some very high notes of balsamic raspberry. Very fine tannin, less concentration at end than 03 but soft and very charming

Vilafonté series C 2005
66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec
Dense, tannins grip on the attack rather than develop in mid-palate. Structure very evident here – not a hint of roundness but precision, austerity, sour salted dried plum flavours. Tightly-wound and rigid, powerful sour length giving little juice. Bordeaux-like, St Estephe or Pauillac at their most ascetic

Vilafonté series C 2006
54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc
Delicate ‘old armoire’ nose. Very pure, cassis, damson, sour plum, sloe. Grainy, very textured, tactile tannins giving great gouts of oak-infused tobacco-flavoured juice. Intense and young. ‘It has its own kind of grace’ (Long)

Vilafonté series C 2007
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec
Tannins hit instantly and form a scaffold through which glimpses of austere fruit can be seen. Intense, wild, giving little away, juice at end. Very concentrated, leave for at least three years for tannins to work some suppleness. Great concentrated  juicy length with hints of sweetness to come. Classy

Vilafonté series C 2008
66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 6% Malbec
Lovely savoury edge to nose that’s  been missing in the last few vintages. Even the aromas have length and memory. Tannins after 15% of palate come in fighting, delicate juicy heft, powerful. Dark fruit, stewed damson, bitter lick of sloe. Length  gentle but still insistent – much more feminine wine at the end

Vilafonté series C 2009
54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec
Round, more of an international approachable bent, sauve tannins which nevertheless grip tight, but the fruit takes equal billing here – fine sandalwood box, violet, plum skin marinaded, continuous juice from mid-palate

Vilafonté series C 2010
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec
Hint of chlorine and salt on nose, tannins have robust sour edge, more lick of sloe and salted plum, then hay-juice and tobacco juice, leaving impression of soft old wood at end. ‘When I made the blend for this I thought it would be the finest Bordeaux blend I had ever made. I don’t think it’s there yet. It’s very tight and compact and unevolved.’ (Long)

Vilafonté series C 2011
51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 9% Malbec
Rich, rich nose, redolent of tar and muscovado sugar and marinaded dark fruit. Intense concentration, more tar but tannins, smoke and nettley green leaf and juice kick in at same time, leading to a comprehensive symphony of taste. An eager puppy. Will be magnificent as tannins and juice find their place

Vilafonté series C 2012 (not yet released)
52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Franc, 7% Malbec
Wonderful complexity to the nose, salt and smoke, hints of balsamic, crushed raspberry leaf. Tannins soft at first then getting grip but never overwhelming. Juice released in sweet and sour spurts, tannins gripping and insistent to end.

(see also my interview with Zelma Long on

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Impeccably turned out: Corney & Barrow company profile

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

In 1992 Corney & Barrow did something that earned it the opprobrium of its peers. ‘Bastards, renegades and traitors was what our noble friends in London called us,’ Adam Brett-Smith, the wine merchant’s managing director recalls.What Corneys had done to provoke such fury was to break ranks and set up one of the first wine broking businesses in the UK. In those days broking – buying and selling on behalf of clients – was a cosy and lucrative business. As Brett-Smith puts it, ‘you bought from anywhere and sold to anywhere.’ No attention was paid to provenance, an issue of such all-consuming importance in today’s fraud-ridden fine wine world that it’s incredible to think it was once seen as a mere detail. In setting up Corney & Barrow Broking Services, the merchant turned that on its head.

‘We tried to redefine the way the broking business operated. We set up standards on broking with absolute emphasis on provenance. We would never buy from auction, never buy from America and never buy from Asia. They were very expensive rules, and it cost us a lot of money, but it was the right thing to do.’

English renegade: Adam Brett-Smith
This of course put the comfortable practices of Corneys’ competitors into unwelcome focus – hence the string of pejoratives. In conversation with Brett-Smith, who joined the company in 1981 as a junior salesman and was made managing director before the decade was out, such epithets are the last thing which come to mind. A man for whom the word ‘urbane’ could have been invented, impeccably turned out, almost cartoonishly tall, he is the very picture of an Englishman. Does he – and the company – trade on that Englishness?

‘I don’t think any of us feel we need to drape ourselves in the Union Jack but there is a subconscious push. One of the legacies of history is that on the whole the Brits are quite well liked. No one’s quite sure why they like us but there are indefinable virtues that still exist.’

He defines those virtues as ‘trust, knowledge and the trading culture’, the British ‘trading instinct, the desire to go elsewhere and build businesses in other areas. It’s not odd to deal with a British wine merchant in Hong Kong, for example.’

Corney & Barrow is the third in the triumvirate of great and long-established British wine merchants. Established in 1780, it is about a hundred years younger than Berry Bros and Justerini & Brooks. It has offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Edinburgh, Yorkshire and East Anglia, and – under the Corney & Barrow Group umbrella, a thriving wine bar business. Turnover last year was £49.7m, with the eleven wine bars, all concentrated around the City of London financial district, adding £16.3m to the bottom line.

Like its peers (between them they have just short of 800 years’ experience selling wine) Corneys appears both old-fashioned and resolutely modern. The first to set up a provenance-based broking service, it was also the first to recognise the importance of sole agency, a concept that was ‘much derided at the time’, Brett-Smith says.

‘The pursuit of exclusive representation was something the traditional British wine merchant didn’t do.’

It started with Petrus in 1978 or 80, and taking on the Pomerol icon was something even they didn’t quite understand – ‘it was the exception that proved the rule’. A decade later Corneys wooed Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and set the mould for a strategy that is now the company’s unique selling proposition. Of the 600-plus wines on the list, there are 50 agencies, chosen using the simple criterion, ‘wherever good and great wine is grown’, and taking producers of 10,000 cases or less.

If the list is impressive – DRC and Petrus, Comte Georges de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, Champagne Salon and Delamotte, Conterno in Piedmont, Dominio de Pingus in Ribera del Duero, Achaval Ferrer in Mendoza, Hyde de Villaine in Carneros, and dozens of other resonant names – there’s also something slightly claustrophobic about it.

There’s barely a claret, for example, that doesn’t come from the J-P Moueix stable (Christian Moueix and Brett-Smith have known each other for years), and you’re hard-pressed to find anything from California that isn’t either Hyde de Villaine (a partnership between Carneros mastermind Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine of DRC) or bona-fide blue-chip like Colgin or Harlan, or indeed Moueix’s Dominus.

In the words of one well-placed London professional, ‘part of me thinks it’s brilliant, and the other half thinks it’s absurd. I love Champagne Delamotte, but do I want to drink that to the exclusion of all others? No.’ 

Brett-Smith makes no apologies. ‘We don’t want to be an enormous basket of every fine wine in the world. Our goal is simple: to supply to the end consumer wines that are exclusive to Corney & Barrow in all the markets in which we operate. We want to be an inch wide and five miles deep, rather than five miles wide and an inch deep.’

It’s the very definition of ‘specialist’, but what about nurturing new talent? ‘We love taking something that is derided, or no one knows anything about, and believing in it and communicating it,’ he says, remembering how Pingus was once unknown, ‘a domaine in Spain’. The bodega’s founder Peter Sisseck salutes Brett-Smith’s vision: ‘They had a lot of courage. I couldn’t have done it without them.’  

Sisseck is anything but an iconoclast now – his latest vintage is on the list at not much less than £300 a bottle – and some may raise an eyebrow at the thought of Corneys as a champion of the derided and misbelieved.

But it’s well to remember that the company’s business model has held good for some decades. One of the reasons for this is the care it takes with the clientele, which Brett-Smith puts in the 35-55 age group. As people get older, he says, they buy less fine wine that requires ageing, so the list of private customers (there are about 550 active on the DRC list) is self-regulating. At the same time, he has an active policy of employing younger people, on the basis that ‘the age of a client is closely linked to the age of the salesforce – usually about eight or twelve years older.’

Keeping your clientele young is vital for survival in any business, as is looking to the future. Brett-Smith predicts that in generations to come (‘When I’m long gone’) his successors will be faced with two developments. The first is logistics. It’s quite possible that, as is happening in Bordeaux with Latour and others opting out of the negociant system, ‘domaines will access the end consumer without any intermediaries,’ and merchants must build storage facilities against that eventuality, just as the big negociants in Bordeaux are doing. ‘We have a shed in Scotland,’ he says.

The second development is that merchants may become growers and producers themselves. Is this something he’s considered? ‘It remains an option. We’ve looked at a shareholding in production.’

Brett-Smith will say no more, but he seems to have been right on a number of counts already, and there’s no reason to suppose he’s lost his touch.

Friday 4 July 2014

For all my friends and colleagues turning 50...

From Four Quartets (Little Gidding)

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
First, the cold fricton of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Regional profile: Navarra

Navarra: Garnacha to the fore?

This diverse region struggles to compete against Spain’s most powerful brand, Rioja. Is it time to forgo the emphasis on ‘serious’ red blends and international whites so that its native varieties can come to the fore?

Read the full article here

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Decanter magazine