Category Archives: Ugniversal Themes

Folklore, trends and traditions – and musings on other people’s musings on wine.

A Glass With Jancis Robinson

Jancis through the good-looking glass: Robinson in Melbourne. Photo: Elizabeth Clancy

It was an utter thrill to sit down for a chat with Jancis Robinson during her spring 2019 visit to Melbourne. She was here to attend a Chardonnay visit in the Yarra Valley, promote her range of glassware and launch the 8th edition of Bonnezeaux Gonzo’s favourite wine book, The World Atlas of Wine.
We had a chance to talk on the way up to the Yarra, following a couple of days’ tasting superb wines from her glass with sommeliers in Sydney and Melbourne.
She began by telling me she never imagined she’d one day put her name to a wine glass. When she was introduced to young British product designer Richard Brendon a few years back, she offered up a few thoughts but that was that. She wished Brendon luck and sent him on his way.

BONNEZEAUX GONZO: So, what changed your mind?

JANCIS ROBINSON: He was very persistent. He came back and I realised I had more than 40 years’ experience tasting wines, and some pretty strong opinions about the perfect wine glass.
One of my fervent beliefs is that logically there’s only a need for one glass. I’ve never understood why white is served in smaller glasses than red – except to swell the coffers of glass manufacturers – because white wine’s every bit as subtle and needs the space and all that. The process of tasting white wine is exactly the same as the process of tasting red wine.
And then I’d been noticing over the last few years that Champagne producers – certainly the ones I most respect – all want their Champagnes to be tasted in a proper wine glass rather than in a narrow little flute, which can be jolly difficult to get your nose into. To me, the man who’s revived fine sherry, Jesús Barquín of Equipo Navazos, I remember him saying to me very strongly that he wanted all of his sherries to be tasted in a proper wine glass. And any decent aged fortified, like Port, deserves to have real space to express itself rather than to be crammed into a tiny little glass.

Decision made, then: It had to be a universal glass. Aside from ultra-fine glass to minimise the barrier between wine and taster, what else goes into making the ultimate instrument of drinking pleasure?

I think anyone who understands wine will know why a tulip shape works well, why you want the rim to be narrower than the bowl. And I was pretty adamant that it should be a nice, smooth curvature that really encouraged the aroma up to the nose, however low or high the fill level, and delivered all that the wine has to express to its optimum.
It had to be a handmade, mouthblown glass to be thin enough, but I was also adamant that it had to be dishwasher friendly because I’m no fan of polishing glasses myself. And that’s when most glasses get broken. We’ve had the glasses at home for two and a half years now, always wash them the dishwasher, and we are yet to break one. And we’re quite clumsy.

The imperative to be both sturdy and user-friendly entailed certain design features: It couldn’t be too tall, so as to fit in commercial and domestic dishwashers; the stem – the most fragile part of the glass – could not be perilously thin; and the base had to be relatively broad, to ensure stability. What about the finishing touches?

Richard’s got a brilliant eye and the last refinements were tiny but aesthetically important things I wouldn’t have suggested or noticed but he did. I think people who’ve tried them really do appreciate how they look, and I feel very confident that they look great in any setting, whether it’s a classical setting or a very modern setting.
They also feel nice; the weighting is very good. I would say to have a wine glass designed by a wine professional really does make a difference. The whole point of our glass is that it is for wine lovers. It’s for people who want to get the most out of every glass.

Thus the definitive wine glass was born – but Brendon got his wish, with a few complementary pieces added to the range. There’s the stemless glass – ideal for water, G&Ts or, I suppose, next-level glamping. And then he suggested a decanter?

I said, “No, I think it’s got to be two decanters,” because there are two very different jobs that a decanter does. One is if you’ve got a really old wine with some sediment, you want to pour the wine off its sediment and then protect it from oxygen. So  a tall, narrow decanter with a stopper is needed.
And actually I use a decanter even more for aerating young wine, whether it’s red or white – and I think white wine looks absolutely gorgeous in a decanter. That’s a much broader decanter with a friendly neck which allows you to – I call it “swooshing” – grasp it, swish it about, really aerate the wine and accelerate its development. The young-wine decanter will hold a magnum quite easily, so that’s quite useful. They both reflect the shape of the wine glass, so it’s all a set.

Even if the ultimate wine-lover believes in an ultimate wine glass, I’m guessing there’s more than one grape in your life. What varieties enjoy most regular airplay chez Robinson?

I suppose I do often actively seek a glass of Riesling, as a refreshment or aperitif – and, of course, now we’ve got so many great dry Rieslings from Germany, as well as Australia and Alsace – with food as well. I think they go really well. I admire lots of Chardonnays and I enjoy lots of Chardonnays but they’re not as natural food partners in most cases as a good dry Riesling.

What about reds?

I just like the variety, really. I don’t think there’s anything I would choose automatically. It’s just pretty magical to me that the fermented juice of a single fruit can produce such an extraordinary array of flavours and styles. I suppose the one style of red wine that I probably drink less of is high-alcohol, heavily-wooded young wines.

Between the last update of the World Atlas of Wine and the brand-new 8th edition, there must have been some lesser known grape varieties that have come to the fore. Which of these have the most exciting potential in Australia?

I think there are probably a lot more Portuguese varieties to be experimented with. Touriga Nacional just happens to be the most famous of them but the Portuguese don’t necessarily think it’s the best. There’s Touriga Franca – I don’t know if anyone’s planted that in Australia. There’s a whole host of varieties just in the Douro, let alone in other regions of Portugal, so I would be trying those. And Greek varieties as well. Again I think Steve Pannell’s trialling some, isn’t he? Although of course not all Greek wine regions are boiling hot – quite a few of them are high altitude – but they’re really interesting, with masses of character. And there are presumably some more Italian varieties still to be experimented with, even though I know Chalmers has made a special effort with Italian varieties. What about Corsican/Sardinian varieties…

What is it that makes an Atlas an apt medium to show the story of wine?

I always say there are very, very few things that we buy and consume that allow us to know exactly, from the label, which point on the globe it’s produced in, as well as who produced it and when. Wine is wonderfully geographically specific, and I’m delighted that more and more Australian wine producers are wanting to put geography in the bottle, on the label, and express a place. And then it will take time to establish characteristics and so forth, but it’s such a healthy development.

The Atlas is also an extension of the notion that travel and wine go hand-in-hand, giving us the opportunity to literally taste a region and listen to people’s philosophy on nature and creativity. Are you nourished by the experience of collecting these stories?

Oh, it’s lovely. Wine people do tend to be pretty interesting. There are very few boring people in wine. There are some very strong characters – sometimes too strong – but it’s not a boring world. And it’s a very generous world. People want you to try their wine, they want you to enjoy it, preferably with food. And wine is such a sociable thing. It’s all about sociability, really.

Does everyone always tell you that they’d love to have your job?

I think most people understand that I do quite a lot of work. I spend hours each day on, I’ve got my weekly column for the Financial Times, and then I must say, having spent two years updating the Atlas, I’ve completely forgotten – it’s a bit like childbirth – I’ve completely forgotten what it was like trying to shoehorn two years of updates into my life.

Presumably there are constant surprises to keep the challenge fresh?

Oh, I learn things every day! I suppose that’s one plus point of the world of wine expanding so much, and then there are all the new consumers. I was told solemnly at the beginning of my career that Asians would never drink wine – that there was something about the physiology of the Asian palate that precluded any love of wine and that they would stay with spirits and beer. Well, how wrong was that?

Where have the biggest changes taken place since the last edition of the Atlas?

Everywhere has changed. There’s no stasis at all. And everywhere’s producing better and better wine, which is fantastic for the consumer. We have 68 local experts around the world feeding in suggestions as to how the text from the seventh edition should be updated, and my job is to interpret those suggestions. I don’t accept all of them. The local experts are varied in how much they sell their region and how much they criticise it. I hadn’t realised, until reading closely what the Czech and Slovak consultants fed in, how many new varieties had been bred in that part of the world – and how popular natural wines were there. Although when I was last in Shanghai, I was served a Czech natural wine which I wasn’t expecting!

Robinson models the 8th edition of the definitive wine atlas. Photograph: Elizabeth Clancy

Plenty of exciting developments, then. Any bad news?

Sherry! Poor, poor sherry, which is Spain’s most distinctive wine. They’re still struggling. In fact there used to be a map of the sherry vineyards in old copies of the Atlas. In the sixth or the seventh edition we were pressed for space and wondered whether people were really interested, so we didn’t include it. In the eighth edition we’ve reinstated the map as a mark in the sand about how important sherry should be, and there are signs of a few green shoots there. But the sad thing is, if you were to compare the extent of the vineyards as they used to be, and the extent now, it’s very dramatic. I think they’ve shrunk by two-thirds or something.

In addition to the map updates and modified lists of notable producers for each region, what else is new in the 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine?

I thought it was high time to completely revamp the introductory pages, not least taking into account climate change and weather, really, which is so important. Those pages are completely new.
We’ve also got a couple of pages on wine and money, because wine has become, sadly, an investment vehicle. So there are quite a lot of charts like the index of how the average price of fine wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, California and Italy have risen, comparatively. You can see how and when Burgundy has overtaken Bordeaux. We also compare vineyard land prices around the world, and I thought it would be fun to have a graphic that shows how many hours the average person would have to have worked to buy themselves a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux in each of the years that the Atlas has been published.

One last question on the meaning of wine in the today’s world: With all the dreadful news out there at the moment – all that fuel for pessimism – does wine stand up as a celebration of humanity?

There’s still not much diversity among the people who work in wine. I think we ought to work on that a bit more. And maybe we should add the caveat that wine producers of the world could be, should be, more conscious of sustainability. There are far more things to consider, quite apart from cutting down on agrochemicals, to take a more holistic approach to not just waste but employees, finances, whatever – rather than churn out the returns for shareholders as reliably as possible.
But then I think wine has an elemental aspect to it, and hence all these rich businessmen wanting to start their own vineyard and winery. And it’s got a strong link to religion, the Eucharist and all that. It does seem a rather beautifully simple thing that you plonk a vine in the ground and it can eventually yield this liquid that can transport you to amazing mental places. And I love the annual miracle of a vineyard that is little black stumps in the middle of winter and then becomes so luxuriant in spring and then summer, and drips with these ripe grapes and then turns these gorgeous colours.
It is all wonderfully sociable and all pretty nice…

**Disclaimer: This article first appeared on the website of CellarHand, which is both the author’s employer and the Australian importer of the Jancis Robinson Collection.**

Maps & Legends

It doesn’t look like much – a tatty little paperback with smudges of colour seeping through the grazes of its cover – but there’s perhaps no book that’s had a greater influence on my life. It was a Big Bang moment when the Usborne Pocket Atlas of the World turned up in my Christmas stocking as a kid in England. There and then, the universe unfolded into infinity. My imagination exploded.
It had all the usual headline stuff – continents, oceans, countries and capitals – but what really got me were the details. After the depiction of each region, there was a double-page spread on its currencies, populations, largest cities, industries and products. The diversity made me dizzy. All those languages and currencies. Pre-Euro, Europe alone was swimming in exotic money – francs, marks, pesetas, escudos and lire. The facts on industries and products were particularly evocative. It was somehow refreshing that the USA – which seemed to have the 1980s in its pocket – was actually not number one in everything. Bigger and wealthier than Brazil, but the latter had way more sugar and coffee. (No mention of wine there, though. That was France.)
Some lessons from the book:

1. The world is massive
2. There are many differences
3. These are interesting
4. Different places grow and make different things
5. There is more than one way to be ‘rich’
6. I gotta see some of this for myself

Simple points, but they sank in deep. I read Modern Languages at university, cycled round the world and became a journalist. These days I live by the beach on the Mornington Peninsula with my Australian wife (she wishes I hadn’t learnt point 5), work for a wine importer and have just completed my WSET Diploma.
The Diploma is the fourth and final level of a global course run by the London-based Wine & Spirits Education Trust. The course covers every aspect of wine in its still, sparkling and fortified guises – from viticulture and winemaking to business and culture, with most exams split into a tasting and theory component. It’s thorough and demanding. Not hard exactly, in that students are not set up to fail; if you do the work, you should go OK. But it’s the work that’s the hard bit.
From where I live amid sea and vines, it’s more than an hour’s drive to the city where I work most days. The question of how to cover the hours of study on top of full-time work and full-on family (a six-, four- and one-year-old when I started the course two years ago) had to be solved somehow. The only way was to breathe life into the dead time of commuting.
Late at night I’d record myself reading the key texts, then play them back in the car next day. My basic, bloody-minded method was to start with the course book, back it up with the corresponding pages of The World Atlas of Wine, and then hammer the points home with the Oxford Companion to Wine. I made no attempt to jazz up my presentation; it was about ploughing through. On an on I’d trudge through heavy yawns and the stumbling of a torpid tongue. More than once I fell asleep, map in hand, another lost explorer defeated by exhaustion.
The revelation came in the car. The course book itself is dry as the most mouth-sucking Chablis (but nothing like as palatable). Every time I hit a passage from the atlas, however, the pace picks up and the flat-lining delivery jolts into peaks and troughs. It’s the invigorating force of passionate, purposeful prose.

“Certain wines have within them a natural vigour, an inbuilt eloquence, that expresses as nothing else does the forces that made them,” writes English wine writer Hugh Johnson in his foreword. “You cannot trace a strawberry to a field, or a fish to a stream, or a gem to a mine, in the act of enjoying it. It is possible with wine, and not only to the place where it was made, and to the fruit that gave it flavour, but to the year the fruit ripened and even to the vintner who conducted operations. Does anything else so fully justify an atlas of its origins?”

Without doubt the aptness of an atlas to tell wine’s story is part of it. But listen again to the cadence of Johnson’s sentence, its articulacy and sheer good sense, and you see why he and co-author Jancis Robinson are such brilliant guides on a tour of the world of wine.
They transformed the freeway into the Rhône, the Rhine, the Danube and the Douro. Towering above me were the Mayacamas, the Vosges, the Hottentots Holland and the hill of Corton. You see the sights and hear how geography, geology, topography and climate intertwine. History and tradition are seamlessly woven into every tapestry. Fortunes rise and fall, pioneers are praised and the odd admonishment is dished out. Thus Germany is chided for confusing people and Italy for its leniency towards “dreary” Trebbiano Toscano.
chablis-shotThe writing is rich and respectful, precise but not stiff. It’s inviting, flinging open its doors and impelling you to stay. Always authoritative, it wears its learning lightly.
“The element you will find missing from this book, for lack of space, is an attempt to describe the beauty of its prime subject,” writes Johnson in his foreword. It’s one of the few things I disagree with. Take this, for instance: “In one of the marriages of grape and ground the French regard as mystical, in Beaujolais’ sandy clay over granite the Gamay grape, undistinguished virtually everywhere else, can produce uniquely fresh, vivid, fruity, light but infinitely swallowable wine. Gouleyant is the French word for the way fine Beaujolais slips ineffably down the throat.” Or, on Middle Mosel Riesling: “The greatest of them, long-lived, pale gold, piquant, frivolous yet profound, are wines that beg to be compared with music or poetry.”
This is the kind of nourishing sentiment that prevents the intense, gruelling nature of study from sucking the fun out of wine. Like the best hosts – and the humble winegrowers who entreat you to drink deep from their well of hard-won wisdom – the authors of The World Atlas of Wine make you feel utterly at home no matter where in the world you are. I’m grateful to them for carrying me on their fluent, cultured tide to the latest port on my journey.
Anyway, it’s almost time for a glass of wine. I wonder what to have? “There is a sad segment who never want to pay more than the minimum for their drink, or indeed their food. Battery chickens were invented for them – and indeed battery wines,” writes Johnson. “For those who travel, though, those who eat out, cook, and share pleasures with friends, it is choices that matter: the choices between flavours and cultures.”
When I think of that dog-eared atlas from all those years ago… What choices it inspired!

Imagination & Wine

Imagination was the theme of Davis McCaughey’s speech when the Victorian Governor of the time opened the brand-new Stonier winery back in 1991. It was imagination that led to the planting of grapevines in the hills of Merricks, imagination that dreamt up a building “important for its function and a place of beauty in itself”.
In that speech Dr. McCaughey quoted British philosopher Mary Warnock, author of Imagination & Time, and her assertion that the great end of education is to stop people being bored. I wonder what the two of them would have said about wine education. You needn’t be an expert to enjoy the stuff; perhaps it’s an indulgence too far to spend time studying it. And what if an analytic approach were to drain wine of its joy? Or worse, turn you into the kind of wine-gargling know-all you go out of your way to avoid having a drink with?
Wine education is booming. Everywhere you look someone’s offering a masterclass, short course or meet-the-maker evening. Then there’s the formal side of things, from the multi-tiered Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) awards to the revered Master of Wine. WSET now offers courses in 17 languages across 62 countries. Just shy of 50,000 people sat for one of its qualifications in the last academic year, representing a fourfold increase over the past decade.
So why take the plunge? Len Evans, the late, great Australian wine evangelist, offers a typically blunt response: “You bother to learn about wine in order to enjoy it more.” Assessing wine from a technical point of view is just one aspect of this, but it’s an important one. This means understanding the interplay of a wine’s sensual and structural elements. It’s not about putting every drop that passes your lips under the microscope. But knowing what you like gets you nowhere. Knowing why you like it is a step on the journey to more wine you’ll enjoy.
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The idea of a journey is an important one, since history and geography are written into every detail of wine. Where were the grapes grown? Why do they grow those varieties? And why does the wine taste the way it does? Already we’re travelling through time and space, broadening horizons and drawing a map to aid further exploration.
It’s all the more pleasurable to explore when you move with self-assurance. Let’s face it: wine can be intimidating, with its arcane language, traditions and hierarchies. Gaining a sense of ease about your palate leaves you to relish the prospect of choosing and sharing a bottle, with no heed to fashion or 100-point scores. The rules of service can seem like another minefield, but seeing the rationale behind convention – serving temperature, stemware, food pairing – frees you from blind obedience. Stick to rules that make the wine more enjoyable and ignore the rest.
If the fear persists that wine education will turn an exercise in fun into a dreary lesson in facts and figures, I say this: education doesn’t douse imagination, it ignites it. And to return to Mary Warnock, imagination’s the key if we’re to go beyond witnessing beauty to actually feel beauty. “The difference is this: in feeling the beauty of objects, we enjoy not only the common, shared pleasures of the senses, but also the private pleasures of the imagination, peculiar to ourselves, and such that we have to struggle to articulate them.”

This piece was first published in the Stonier Newsletter Autumn 2014 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the winery.

Slaking Thirst For Novelty

Innovation: a word from Silicon Valley, not the Barossa. Yet it peppered my conversations with bosses of Australia’s biggest wine companies over recent weeks. The interviews were for the Top 20 feature in April’s Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. You’ll find no spoilers here, merely a reflection on a recurring theme. This is about fleet-footed giants who know consumers won’t hang around if you don’t give them a reason to.
Many producers preach intimate knowledge of vineyard site and hands-off winemaking. But the major players juggle this with a markedly different mantra: intimate knowledge of consumer tastes and hands-on engineering of bottled novelty. Their preoccupation with relevance is understandable. In an industry where competition is fierce and margins razor thin, they have to build their “share of throat” anyway they can. Any throat will do, of course, but those belonging to so-called millennials – who make up a quarter of the drinking population – are particularly coveted. Last week a UK Wine Intelligence report found these 18- to 35-year-olds “have an overall lack of engagement with wine” and could easily be driven to beer, cider and spirits.
BONDI RD Range with Glass
Which may help explain why Casella, the group that gave us Yellow Tail – and which copped some flak for relying too heavily on the 8.5 million cases it flogs to the US each year – has brought out a sangría at 5.5% alcohol and a Bondi Rd Sauvignon Blanc spritzer at the same strength. This latter comes as a four-pack of 275mL bottles including the improbable flavours elderflower & mint and ginger & green tea. Better they drink something grape-related and graduate to wine than be lost for ever, the argument goes.
Casella’s spritzer isn’t alone in playing with alcopoppy packaging. Some notable debuts this year include the “naughty but nice” labels for De Bortoli’s 330mL Sia Moscato bottles and the piccolo-format bottles for Brown Brothers’ popular, and very good, Prosecco. Brown Brothers, like fellow Australian First Families of Wine member McWilliam’s, has also given its labels a mass makeover. Staid is gone, making way for a colourful, contemporary look. Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) went a step further for its Yellowglen Peacock Lane bubbles, drafting in jewellery designer Samantha Wills. The bottle looks good enough to drink.
TWE says consumers are looking for solutions for mind, body and spirit. These might be portion-controlled (à la piccolo format), calorie-counted (as with TWE’s own Lindeman’s Early Harvest or US brand Skinny Vine) or lower alcohol. Moscato and friends fall under this last heading, and both Jacob’s Creek (Twin Pickings) and Brown Brothers (Moscato with Sauvignon Blanc) have made new forays into semi-sweet territory this past year. The plan here is to bridge the gap between sweet and dry in the hope that sweet-toothed sippers will become committed wine drinkers when they, err, grow up. It’s an interesting area, and one often looked down upon by serious winelovers (see previous sentence).
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That’s not to say all the innovation is directed at this younger, dynamic segment in the market. Jacob’s Creek has been busy in the kitchen, rustling up a couple of wines to match Asian cuisine. Its white Wah wine for sushi now has a red brother for Japanese red-meat dishes. I’m yet to try the red but liked the white: citrus and tropical notes, savoury, grippy with a fittingly briny finish. Then there’s Lamoon, a Grenache-based, plum-sauce-and-five-spice wine that works well with a Thai beef roll. Beef’s also on the menu at TWE, where a pair of Pepperjack Shirazes have been created to go with two different cuts of steak.
Big Wine is also engaging in more small-scale, sustainable practices as people apparently become more interested in the origins of their booze. Hence Angove will soon add another organic wine alongside its Sauvignon Blanc and Peter Lehmann is working on its first carbon-neutral wine. The Barossa company has made a concerted effort to shake its blokey-red-and-Semillon tag in recent years, building a strong following among women and younger drinkers. Meanwhile Victoria’s oldest family-owned winery Tahbilk, which achieved carbon neutral status in 2012, released a pair of new wines to trumpet its green credentials. The Tower Shiraz (RRP: $17) is a fresh, bright-fruited, peppery affair and I was really taken with the Marsanne Viognier Roussanne: creamy, rich, harmonious and brimming with orange blossom, peaches and apricots (RRP: $15).
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Mainstream companies are also getting to grips with fringe varieties such as Carmenère, Grüner Veltliner and Montepulciano. “I’m an idiot. Am I on drugs?” said one CEO as he ran through the weird and wonderful grapes he’s planting. The likes of Fiano, Vermentino, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Tempranillo have tended to be boutique territory; now they’re anything but. Exhibits A and B: Jacob’s Creek Classic Fiano and Classic Sangiovese.
In general the cognoscenti applaud efforts to push boundaries on sustainable practices and wine styles. They tend to be more dismissive of gimmicks they see as dumbing down wine. But is there a clear-cut distinction? The success of these companies is built on a readiness to serve popular taste. On this evidence their thirst remains undiminished.

Cabernet Reshuffle

I grew up in a time and place where “wine” meant Bordeaux. Sure as Champagne set the stage for a celebratory meal, Cabernet Sauvignon was the majestic protagonist brooding in the decanter, waiting to steal the show. It smelt at once of pretty things and the world of men: flowers, redcurrants, blackcurrants, dad’s cigar box and leather brogues. It filled your whole head.
Cabernet is not by any stretch an appropriate yuletide beverage in Australia. And yet some internal seasonal sensor set this particular pom yearning for it. Throughout the festive season it’s vital to know there are no chinks in your hosting armour; you need the right bottle at hand at any given moment. But we had no Cabernet of acceptable calibre and maturity hanging around.
That was when it dawned on me: in a year of wine, I’d heard sommeliers, winemakers, journalists and friends gush over just about every grape under the sun bar one: Cabernet.
At first glance it appears odd that this should be the case. Global plantings have doubled since the 1990s to make Cabernet Sauvignon the planet’s most popular grape. It makes some of the world’s most expensive, revered and long-lived wines. So why’s it getting so thoroughly dissed by people whose job it is to love and share wine?
In a world where cult rules, ubiquity is uncool. Cab’s rise to top spot on earth’s vineyard prompted Time magazine to brand it “the Coca-Cola of viticulture”. “Cabernet is conformist,” young Sydney sommelier Julia Sewell tells me. “Buying Cabernet is buying into the commercialist aspect of wine.” Another young somm, Leanne Altmann of Cutler & Co in Melbourne, wonders if overfamiliarity has left drinkers unconvinced of the grape’s capacity to surprise. “The cool kids will drink Cabernet – if it’s Franc,” she jokes.
My fellow Cab-loving pom Dan Coward, currently a vintage cellar hand at Shaw + Smith, thinks it’s possible that Cabernet has rested on its laurels for too long. That means trading on its Bordeaux image, when for many Bordeaux is “boring and alienating”. “Cabernet Sauvignon’s not communicating itself well at the moment, so people are drawn to more seductive targets,” he says.
And there are plenty of those around. Cab’s world domination makes any grape exotic in comparison. And that’s before you go busting wine stylin’ moves. Other grapes get the full Kama Sutra thrown at them; Cabernet is strictly missionary.
And then there’s the perception of Cabernet drinkers as older people who “know what they like” – which is probably to have sex with the lights off and their clothes on. The herd of rude, red-faced old men who elbowed their way through a recent public tasting of Coonawarra wines did little to dispel this myth.
But Cab doesn’t just lack hipster drinkers; where are the with-it winemakers when you need them? Probably with their head in a vat of whole-bunchy Syrah or skin-contact Savagnin. Wherever, they’re certainly not standing on their soapbox for contemporary claret.
If Chinese millionaires and imposing Châteaux lend Bordeaux an air of aloofness, Cabernet in Australia may suffer from a different kind of inaccessibility. Coward points out that Coonawarra and Margaret River, Australia’s finest regions for the variety – and the ones hell-bent on championing it – are also bloody miles from anywhere. The cellar doors of the country’s Chardonnay and Pinot havens – think Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania – are abuzz with trendsetting daytrippers. There’s brilliant Cab tucked into the valleys of Eden, Clare and Yarra, of course, but it’s often overlooked.
And then there’s one other theory, perhaps one that could only have come from someone who’s slowly discovering he should have stayed in the Cabernet closet. But here goes: maybe they’ve forgotten that there’s nothing quite like great Cabernet because they haven’t had one in a while. And by “great” I don’t mean Bordeaux and I don’t mean expensive. I mean a good producer and region, good bottle age and an auspicious time and place – think food, company, even weather.
Looking at that, yes, it’s a demanding old bugger. In the age of “smashable” wines, that’s not going to win it many friends. “I guess it appeals to my head,” says Altmann. “But despite the delicious Cabernets I’ve been lucky to try, it isn’t a variety that appeals to my heart. I want a glass of Burgundy in my hand.”
But Coward’s still with me, lustily reminiscing about a “luxurious” 2001 Cabernet he and his wife recently enjoyed with lunch. The perfume, depth, complexity, length and chameleon-like quality in the glass: how could one not covet it?
“All retro habits eventually become cool again. I just don’t think it’s Cabernet’s time at the moment,” says Coward.
No, but that time will come; it has to. It’s taking over the world, or hadn’t you heard?

Contributors’ Cabs To Try:

Leanne Altmann

Oakridge Local Vineyard Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Yarra Valley $35 “Crunchy, bright, and oh-so-gluggable.”
Bellwether Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Coonawarra $49 at Cloudwine in Melbourne. “Classically-styled, drinking so well now but built for the long haul.”

Dan Coward

Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Clare Valley $20 “Good luncheon-claret style.”
Wantirna Estate Amelia Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2011 Yarra Valley $70 from Prince Wine Store, Melbourne. Cooler-climate beauty.

Julia Sewell

Man O’ War Ironclad Merlot Cabernets 2009 Waiheke Island, NZ $45 from Vinaffairs “I was once told by a very happy diner that it was like running with wolves through a pine forest.”
Yeringberg 2010, Yarra Valley $75 from Prince Wine Store. Bordeaux blend from historic Victorian winery.

Ed Merrison

Tim Adams Cabernet Malbec 2008 Clare Valley $24 Regional style released with bottle age; perfumed, approachable, delicious.
Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Margaret River $90 at Cloudwine Profound Western Australian classic.

Riesling And Nothingness

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

So wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in L’Être et le Néant. When it comes to philosophy, Sartre was no slouch. But he never quite nailed it like Paul Grieco of New York wine bar Terroir, who had this to say on the subject of freedom and responsibility: “By drinking Riesling, you become a better person.”
Sartre of course should have known this, being of good Alsatian stock. And yet not once in his aforementioned existential treatise does he point out that the human condition improves immeasurably with the regular intake of Riesling.
Thankfully, Sartre has been succeeded by thinkers like Grieco and Aussie counterparts Jason Hoy and Stuart Knox. Grieco founded Summer of Riesling in 2008 and the concept arrived down under in 2011 thanks to Hoy, of boutique wine distributor AWR, and Knox, the sommelier behind Sydney institution Fix St James. The idea, as explained in my article in the Guardian, is simple: to get people to drink more Riesling. Hence we’re being treated to two months of events across the nation, with a host of bars, restaurants and producers involved. The showpiece is a dedicated pop-up bar called Bottle and Beast, which opened its doors in Sydney in mid-January and features 125 Rieslings accompanied by Jared Ingersoll’s cuisine.
One of the movement’s many sponsors is Kerri Thompson, who heaps praise on Hoy, Knox & co for their efforts to sire a new generation of Riesling tragics. Thompson’s been around Riesling since the start of her career. She spent her first ever vintage at Quelltaler Estate (now Annies Lane) in Clare Valley and later spent eight years managing Leasingham, an exemplary producer in the same region. Her first commercial release under her own Wines by KT label followed in 2007. The range now includes five different expressions of Clare Riesling made using organic and biodynamic principles. “Drinkability is at the core of my love of Riesling,” she says. “It comes in so many shapes and sizes but always has this beautiful fruit purity.”
Another endearing trait is its honesty. It speaks candidly of the place where it’s grown, which explains Thompson’s decision to name her entry-level wine 5452 after the Watervale postcode. She also produces two single-site Rieslings named after the Churinga (planted 1954) and Peglidis (1970) vineyards. “There are very few tricks you can hide behind. And Riesling doesn’t suffer fools,” says Thompson.
So you’d think it unwise to go playing games. But despite her deep respect for the variety, Thompson’s Melva and Pazza wines prove she’s not in thrall to it. In both cases, fruit from the Peglidis vineyard in Watervale “gets thrown about a bit and treated pretty meanly”.
The first vintage of Pazza was 2012, a kind of experiment to see how far she could push the indigenous yeast, barrel-fermented, lees-stirred style of her glorious off-dry Melva. The Pazza is oxidatively handled and fermented in a mix of stainless steel and ten-year-old French oak barriques, where it spends about three months before being bottled without filtration.
The name means ‘crazy’ in Italian. That would’ve seemed apt when her first attempt turned bright orange, giving the distinct impression she’d buggered it up. She needn’t have worried though. It came good and the craze is set to continue. “I just find the imperfections sometimes create something so captivating,” says Thompson.
No way could Sartre have summed it up better.
2014-01-18 19.34.20
Pazza by KT Riesling 2013 Clare Valley

Pale lemon in colour and a touch turbid, the nose is bright and pronounced, with lime blossom, tangerine, lemon sherbet, ruby grapefruit, bath talc and creamy yeast. Dry and medium bodied with a chalky minerality, it’s immensely alive and fresh on the palate, with all the lifted citrus evoked by the nose plus some white peach beneath. And then the texture: soft, creamy and somehow broad enough to carry several clear and delicious signals at once, while the fine natural acidity ensures no slackening of pace and focus. It finishes with savoury kaffir lime, grapefruit pith and a murmur of lemon soufflé. Mind-expanding stuff.

Costs $29 from Wines by KT or $31 at Barrique in Healesville – Alcohol 12% – Tasted 18/01/14

Barolo Travel Cheat Sheet

Seems strange now, but I used to be daunted by Barolo: that authoritative label bearing down on you from a high shelf, like a hilltop fortress. I suppose the price tag – not astronomical in the UK, but enough to intimidate a scavenging journo – played a part.
In reality, the region is extremely accessible. I’ll be writing about some of the fantastic people and wines I came across on my recent visit, but first want to put together a basic guide. Though sketchy – especially relating to prices – I hope it’ll persuade some to discover the region for themselves.


Barolo is a village just over an hour’s drive south of Turin or 15km south of Alba, in the region of Piedmont in northern Italy. It’s also a DOCG appellation for wines made from Nebbiolo grapes sourced within the immediate vicinity of Barolo itself, including famous villages such as La Morra, Castiglione Falleto, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba. These villages are an easy 10-minute drive away. It’s a fabulously picturesque area, strewn with steep vineyards and hilltop castles.


For my money, it’s agriturismo all the way. These local farm stays are often well situated, give good guidance on food and wine and offer great value, starting at about €45 a single and €55 a double. I stayed at – and heartily recommend – Gioco dell’Oca, 2km from Barolo, and Il Quarto Stato, in the heart of the village. Friends stayed at Casa Svizzera a couple of doors down. Another one that caught my eye was Le Viole, but there’s nothing to stop you staying in La Morra or Serralunga. For a more complete listing go to Agriturismo.It


The villages are small but have quite a few options. You may need to book on Friday and Saturday night, especially in Barolo. My favourite in Barolo was La Cantinetta, while L’Osteria del Vignaoiolo in La Morra was sensational. Value across the board is good – primi piatti (pasta ribbons with porcini mushrooms or ravioli with butter and sage, say) start around €9, and secondi piatti might start at €12. As you’d expect, the wine lists are superb and the mark-ups thankfully modest – say, €20-€25 for a lovely drop of Nebbiolo. For Barolo you’re probably looking at more like €40+. There are also by-the-glass options – Dolcetto and Barbera from €3.50, Nebbiolo from €4 and Barolo from €8.


It’s common for wineries to close the doors for a couple of hours for lunch. In any case, it’s best to email or ring ahead to make sure it’s OK to visit. You’ll often find the ensuing welcome embarrassingly warm. Many will show you round the winery and chances are there’s unlikely to be any hard sell attached to your tasting. For those meaning to buy, price lists are not prominently displayed, so here’s an idea of what you might be in for: Dolcetto d’Alba from €6, Barbera d’Alba from €7-8 basic Nebbiolo from €10-12, Barolo from €25-€30 (climbing much higher for single-vineyard wines from best sites and producers).

This is red territory. Some producers have a token international white in their stable – we tried a good Chardonnay and Riesling – or else a white from further afield in Piedmont, such as a Gavi, Arneis or Moscato d’Asti. But really it’s all about these varieties:

Nebbiolo: High in tannin and acidity, low in colour, with typical aromas of roses, tar, red fruits from strawberry to plum, and liquorice. Producers may offer a Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba, often approachable, ready to be drunk young and spectacular value. Barolo is the cream of the crop, produced from a designated area and released after at least three years (minimum 18 months in wood). It has the potential to change your life and, with age, do things you can’t even imagine.

Barbera: High in colour and acid, low in tannin. Varies in quality but can be extremely juicy, lively and fresh and food friendly. Some producers also make a Superiore version, a little more complex, ready to drink a little later, perhaps with some oak, perhaps able to age well over an extended period.

Dolcetto: Low-acid grape producing early-drinking wines that are fragrant, soft, round and juicy. Typical aromas of cherries and plums, liquorice and almonds. As one winemaker quipped of this and Barbera: “They’re family wines. You can drink them all day.”

Freisa: A slightly weird and much-maligned local grape, which you can read about on the blogpost, In Praise Of Freisa.

For more information about wineries, the Barolo di Barolo website is good for producers in the village itself, but you’d be missing out on lots of other great Barolo makers on your doorstep. Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion has good recommendations, including contact details. Bear in mind, too, that Barbaresco has Nebbiolo to rival these, and is just a few miles up the road…

Australia’s Growing Pains

Southeast England, early 90s: I was a smitten schoolkid and should’ve seen it coming. The exchange student waltzed in from Down Under and bowled my beloved over. It happened every year; these sprightly, laidback Aussies won hearts without seeming to try.
Australian wine did much the same thing back then. In 1994 it was the third favourite country among readers of UK magazine Decanter. Now, I’ve just learned, it’s slipped to sixth. The reasons are complex and manifold. I touched upon many of them in my piece on Savour Australia, and won’t go into them again here.
Instead, I wanted to share some words of realism and encouragement. I had the pleasure of speaking to UK-based Master of Wine Sarah Abbott a couple of weeks ago, following her stint as guest judge at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards. She summarised Australia’s position pretty well. “I think what you’ve had in Australia is huge, rapid and unprecedented success, coming from nowhere to having a fifth of all wine in the UK in the space of 15 years,” she told me over the phone from England. “You introduced a whole generation to it. It had accessibility, fun and enjoyment and came with a coherent message.”
But times have changed. Australia’s at a stage where it wants to differentiate and go upmarket, moving away from what Abbott calls “cheery stuff that’s price driven”. Regionality and quality are key, as we heard time and again at Savour Australia. Abbott says – and I couldn’t agree more – that Australia has a lot to shout about on both of these counts. But getting the message across is tough, not least because Australia’s New World rivals – notably Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa – are capable of producing stunning wines and have a compelling story of their own. “It will be a painful time,” Abbott warned.
But Australian winemakers can’t influence the exchange rate or wait for their competitors to fall out of favour. They need to make the most of what they’ve got. The tricky part is working together as an industry – easier said than done when big players and boutiques are wont to act like enemies. I also agree with Abbott when she says we need to promote regionality while maintaining an overarching country identity. “Those things should go together, not fight against one another.”
But there are grounds for optimism. Abbott praised the “dynamism, drive and great sensitivity” of the winemakers and “the thrill, diversity and elegant generosity of great Australian wine”.
Wine consumers – and the girls I went to school with – are no longer easy prey for Aussie charm. But Australian wine has done a lot of growing up since then, too. It’s day should come again.