Category Archives: Xeno Files

Wines and their creators from around the world, plus Australian renditions of matters foreign.

Emma: The Full English

“Emma, your brains are not your asset. Your personality and your looks are your assets.” It’s hardly the advice you’re holding out for the day after a double magnum of ’79 Krug has persuaded you to ditch your old life and make a break for the wine business. Whatever else it might be, it’s also way off the mark. Emma Rice is sharper than a swig of Cumbrian Cabernet.
She’s since proved it beyond doubt, having twice earned the UK Winemaker of the Year title and turning Hattingley Valley into a spearhead of the world-class English sparkling scene. It takes deep pockets and nerves of steel to compete when operating in a fledgling industry in a marginal climate. It also takes raw smarts on a grand scale to pull the strands together to create a rich and seamless tapestry. And Emma wouldn’t flinch for a second.
Perhaps all that time spent in the pub initially concealed some of that cleverness; certainly it was enough to sharpen her pool skills at the expense of a university place. Instead she did a catering course and started out in hospitality. Then that fateful Krug came along. “I thought, ‘This is why people spend money on wine’, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” she says.
Furious, though, with the aforementioned job-hunting tip, Emma quit her service role and got a job at Oddbins, before working her way up to the position of sales and marketing coordinator at London-based Burgundy specialist Domaine Direct. Things went a step further when she scored an editor role at Mitchell Beazley and Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book became “my baby”.  “I got so inspired reading about all these wine writers and photographers who were off travelling, looking at wineries and talking to winemakers. I just thought, ‘I want to do that. I don’t want to be sat in an office in Canary Wharf anymore’.” Amid the magic of that little book, the expanding section on English wine caught her eye. Within it, Plumpton College loomed ever larger. And then, in 2003 at the age of 29, she moved to Brighton and joined the first intake to graduate with a full degree in Viticulture & Oenology.

emma-staff-training-city-wine-shop
Her first job after Plumpton was supposed to be as lab intern at Cuvaison, in Calistoga at the top end of California’s Napa Valley.  Upon arrival she immediately showed the blend of pluck and savvy that’s taken her so far, so fast. “I got there and they said, ‘Well, the oenologist left last week, so now you’re the oenologist. There’s your lab, we’ve got 1,000 tonnes coming in, we’ve got 12 different winemakers, off you go’,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, OK’. No idea what I was getting myself into.” It was supposed to be a three-month gig but she ended up staying two years. “That was fantastic – a wonderful lifestyle in California. Good wines, nice people. I would’ve stayed there if I could’ve done, but my visa ran out so I had to move on.”
Next destination was Tamar Ridge, then owned by fallen Tasmanian timber giant Gunns. This wretched stint (“The worst experience of my life. Working there was horrible”) turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After just three months, she chucked it in and went back to Blighty to regroup.
This was 2008, and in the intervening years the English wine industry had taken off. Emma seized the opportunity to start her own lab and consulting company, Custom Crush. She also appeared on the radar of ex-City lawyer Simon Robinson, who’d planted a vineyard on his King’s Farm property in Lower Wield, Hampshire. “He asked me to build a winery for him,” recalls Emma. “Every winemaker’s dream is to start from scratch.” So it was that Hattingley Valley was born, with a cutting-edge winery that could accommodate three times the production of the estate’s own vineyard. Just like in Napa, Emma wasn’t going to let the enormity of the task stop her. “I was inexperienced but I was a damn sight more experienced than anyone else. It’s all relative,” she says. “If I’d stayed in California I would not be head winemaker at a winery now. In such a small industry – such a rapidly growing industry with so few qualified people – I was catapulted ahead of where I should’ve been at the time. There was a certain amount of bravado involved when I started out my business.”
A dose of bravado is prerequisite in a climate where wine-growing is as risky and expensive as it is in the UK. This is a place where it rained for 28 days straight in June 2012, a year in which Hattingley Valley made not a drop of wine. This vintage just gone, yields were slashed in half, largely down to a lethal frost that also hit the Loire and Chablis. “Jim, the vineyard manager goes from the severe highs of ‘Oh my God we’ve got a fantastic crop out there’ to ‘Oh shit, it’s going to be frosty’. Managing him and his emotions is one of my biggest jobs.” The whims of nature add to the already considerable costs of a fine sparkling wine program. Emma estimates that Hattingley Valley’s own vineyard output from 2016 exceeded £3,000 (about AU$5,125) per tonne of grapes. To put that into perspective, that same vintage Australia’s cool to temperate regions averaged less than AU$1,200 per tonne.
So what’s England got going for it? Well, there’s the soil for one thing. The South Downs, where many of the best vineyards of Hampshire, Kent and Sussex are to be found, sit on the same chalky soils on which Champagne’s fame is built. As for the climate, it’s cool and capricious but conditions are held by many to mirror Champagne 20 or so years ago. Climate change may continue to play into English hands.  The growing season is longer, too, with British pickers traipsing out in their jeans and thermal underwear a good couple of weeks after their Champenois counterparts. Long, slow ripening gives the grapes depth of flavour that belies their modest sugar levels. It’s more than mere curiosity that’s led the likes of Pommery and Taittinger to dip their toe into English sparkling.
One way of mitigating against the fickle weather is to source grapes from different parts of the country. Emma has something of an advantage in this. Custom Crush, which she operates from the Hattingley Valley site, takes in grapes, juice and wine from clients right across the country. She also sits on the management committee of the UK Vineyard Association “because I’m nosy and I like to know what’s going on”.  She’s firmly opposed to rushing into stricter appellation system that would apply a straitjacket to English winemakers while they’re still getting to grips with the tools at their disposal. “We do a lot of experimentation at Hattingley, which is great, given we’ve got carte blanche to try things.”
Hattingley Valley embraces the freedom of the English Quality Sparkling Wine designation, which means the wines are made from UK-grown grapes from the same principal vine varieties as Champagne, and using the same “traditional method”.  The estate has 26 hectares of its own but also takes in grapes from vineyards spread far and wide under various contract winemaking arrangements. “It’s brilliant for me as a winemaker because it gives us a wider palette to choose from when it comes to blending.  It’s very much on the Champagne model.”
Site selection is crucial to any winegrower that aspires to greatness, but it’s arguably more so in such a precarious environment for ripening grapes. “If you don’t get that right, then you don’t stand a chance,” says Emma. Hattingley Valley’s two main sites both sit on solid chalk, about 20 to 30cm down.  The eponymous vineyard at King’s Farm was planted in 2008 on clay-loam topsoil, at an elevation of 180m. It’s a beautiful site, if a touch exposed. “It produces fantastic quality fruit in terms of ripeness and fruit flavours but the yields are just ridiculous. They’re just so small.” The other key vineyard is Cottonworth, at 40 to 70m elevation. Again, it has loamy topsoil, this time strewn with hunks of flint known as Hampshire diamonds. “That’s our grand-cru site. There are four distinct parcels which produce fantastic quality fruit – some of the best in England, I’d say.”
vineyard-from-insty
A defining characteristic of English sparkling wine is the piercing acidity. Winemakers from more conventional climes struggle to get their heads round the numbers. The grapes might be ripe enough to give 11% alcohol while acidity soars at 17g/L. “They can’t comprehend it; it would never happen that you’d get that that much acid and that much sugar at that pH level,” says Emma. “There’s disbelief that it can happen in grapes, but it does in England. In very few other places would you get figures like that, and especially along with the flavour development we get.”
That invigorating acidity is a virtue but only if coaxed into balance. The intensity of flavour in the grapes is one factor in this endeavour. Another is the texture that Hattingley Valley builds into the wines through various techniques. After the fashion of Champagne houses like Krug, Jacquesson and Bollinger, the team doesn’t shy away from exposing the juice to oxygen, which renders it more robust but softer. In a similar vein, Hattingley uses a portion of barrel-fermented wine in all of its cuvées, with old oak favoured because feel, rather than flavour, is the point. That said, the team takes the unusual step of putting the pressings in newer oak. This more phenolic part of the juice is handy for lending weight to the wines, which the acid is more than capable of carrying. Then there’s the use of acid-softening malolactic conversion, which select parcels undergo. Last up comes a well-judged squirt of dosage for taut, knife-edge balance.
emma-at-pws
The result is wines with great fruit purity, unexpectedly rich mouthfeel, and complexity from skilful blending of varieties, vineyards and winemaking parcels. As for that fabled acid, it gives them tremendous zip but comes across as fine and lingering.
Medals alone don’t tell much of a story, but it’s a measure of their pedigree that all three of the wines now available in Australia – the 2013 Classic Cuvée, 2013 Rosé and 2011 Blanc de Blancs – all won gold at this year’s Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships (the latter two were also best in class). This competition, the brainchild of Tom Stevenson, one of the world’s most-respected Champagne authorities, in fact propelled Hattingley Valley to global fame a couple of years back when its 2011 pink fizz won the trophy for best vintage rosé from anywhere.
It all goes to show that looks and personality can go a long way. Seriously, though, what has been the secret of Emma’s success? She had her first inkling that she might have the knack back in Calistoga. This mere novice from across the pond, green as a Hampshire paddock in spring, had the Californians remarking how good it was to have someone in the lab who knew what she was doing. “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m taking each day as it comes and hoping for the best and reading a lot of books’.”
Logical, methodical and matter-of-fact, Emma reckons much of what goes into making good wine is sound organisation and logistical nous. Press her, and she’ll just about admit that there’s more to it than that. “It’s in the tasting, I think. It’s in the blending. I don’t know how that happens, it just happens. It’s almost an instinct… That sounds a bit arsey, doesn’t it?”
She feels that she and her peers are exploring the frontier of winemaking. “It’s still a very exciting project at Hattingley Valley and it’s still very exciting being part of English wine generally.” It’s also a thrill to represent England abroad with the wines now available as far afield as Canada, Japan and Scandinavia. There are no illusions about the size of the task; the wines have to prove time and again that they warrant Champagne prices, when their French neighbours enjoy an enormous head-start in tradition, know-how and reputation. In spite of tremendous support from British wine writers, pubs, merchants and top restaurants, there are still people in Rice’s homeland who either don’t know they make wine, or else have been put off in the grim past by some German hybrid rotgut. “It can be a bit depressing sometimes when you come across people you think are relatively cultured and well educated and they still haven’t tried an English wine or think it’s all crap and acidic and nasty and they don’t want to drink it,” she laments. “Whereas if people try our wine, or Ridgeview or Nyetimber or one of the serious winemakers, then they understand that this is serious wine, especially if you can get them to taste it up against Champagne, blind, and they can’t taste the difference or they think ours is the best.” Ultimately, she’d love to see anyone who usually grabs a Champagne for a special occasion switch instead to English. “We want people to take it seriously because we’re making serious wine. This is not just a bit of fun.”
Of course there’s a lot at stake, and it’ll take plenty more time and effort to make English sparkling the toast of the wine world at large. But attitudes are changing fast, both at home and overseas, and the progress in quality has been little short of astounding. “I never ever thought, when I went to Plumpton to train as a winemaker, that I would ever live in England again. I thought I’d be living my life and career abroad,” Emma reflects. “Now I work half an hour from where I grew up. It’s very cool. I’ve got the best job in the world, really.”

***Disclaimer: This article first appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Australian importer of Hattingley Valley wines.***

Theresa’s Top Honour

Theresa in the footy dugout

“I felt so at the right place. I saw my mum and my uncle and they all said ‘Go away. Take some time off. Do whatever you want’. Nobody said ‘You have to do it’. None of the family said that. I had to actually convince them that I wanted to stay, that I wanted to be there. I just felt at home.”
It was the moment that Theresa Breuer’s fate was sealed. May 2004; she was 20 years old and her father Bernhard had just died suddenly. Setting aside the tragic circumstances that led to her premature accession to the helm of the family estate, these were enormous shoes to fill. Bernhard Breuer was one of Germany’s most respected winegrowers and perhaps the doughtiest campaigner for its dry Riesling in the global arena.
Barely a decade later, this slight and smiling 31-year-old has been named Winemaker of the Year by influential European magazine Falstaff. It’s an outstanding achievement, and one that honours her clarity of purpose and sensitivity to the people and land around her.
“Precise” is her word for what’s she’s striving for. And though she’d never claim making great wine is easy, she constantly stresses the simplicity underlying this pursuit. After all, her forebears – especially her father – discovered and distilled the precious attributes of these grand cru sites of the Rheingau.
GB_Weinberge_BergRoseneckIMG_9662 COMPRESSED
These have been nurtured even more closely since Theresa took over. A move to organic viticulture began a decade ago, and since 2011 all vineyards have been farmed 100% organically. The winery is certified sustainable and a member of Germany’s FAIR‘N GREEN scheme. She’s had to add a couple more vineyard workers and the rest now have to toil even harder. It’s paying off, though, with a more motivated team and better growing environment. “We’re just paying so much more attention. We’re a bit more on the spot with everything we do,” she explains. “There are more plants growing, the colour of the leaves is different. There’s a change going on. Really I hope we’ll get healthier fruit. I think less botrytis will be the result as the grape skins are developing a different structure, and you can see the soils are healthy again. I just want to make sure we can go on making wines for the next, I don’t know, 300 years.”
Theresa espouses “boring winemaking”. There’s no fancy technique or technology here. The cellar beneath the town of Rüdesheim is lo-fi in the extreme. When it does get rebuilt, temperature control will be one of the few concessions to modernity – but “just so we can continue to be boring”.
The treatment of the estate’s pinnacle wine, from the Schlossberg vineyard, sets the no-frills template followed across the Georg Breuer range. The family owns seven discrete plots from the bottom to the top of the vineyard, with altitudes varying from 90m to 350m. Each plot is picked by hand in separate lots on different days. The grapes are immediately whole bunch-pressed and then vinified separately. The seven wines are aged in separate old barrels. “We then start to pick out what we want. We want to be really precise on the style of the vintage.” Anything seen as less than the perfect expression of time and place doesn’t make the cut.
An incredibly close bond underpins this stylistic exactitude. Theresa’s faithful accomplices are Markus Lundén and Hermann Schmoranz. Markus was a sommelier and Georg Breuer fanboy who began an internship March 2004, two months before Theresa took the reins. Hermann was an engineering student when he joined the estate as part-time tractor driver in 1987. Ex-somm Markus is driven by flavours and sensory responses, while Hermann (pictured below) has a way with nature. The former is now happily ensconced in the cellar, the latter in his element in the fields. They are collectively the keeper of the house. “It’s been the three of us since my father passed away,” says Theresa. “There’s not been one cellar tasting where one of us was missing. We would never do a blend if one us is not in shape. It has to be the same team every time.”

HERMANN SCHMORANZ compressed
Along with her uncle Heinrich, Hermann (pictured above) played an especially important role as the bridge between Bernhard’s era and Theresa’s stewardship. “He was always like a second father for me,” says Theresa. “On the other hand he was extremely sensitive in teaching me everything but also asking for decisions. He told me the options and asked for a decision, which is I think a huge thing for a grown-up man, having this little girl there and fulfilling a role that I was not fit and able to do at all. So he really helped me through that whole process enormously.”
Theresa never got to work with her father on a similar level but she was picking grapes and helping in the winery before she even started school. She loves being in the vineyard, and the harvest days of her childhood were happy ones. “That was also the only period when my father was really home, because he was travelling quite a lot. Picking grapes was actually a chance to see him.”

Bernhard black and white COMPRESSED
Forthright, pioneering and something of a rebel, Bernhard (above) was OK with not being friends with everybody. “What I’ve learned from many people who were close to him and who’ve maybe not been friends but respected him in a really intense way, is that he really stood up for his ideas,” says Theresa. “He had a plan, and if the whole gang wasn’t following, it wasn’t a problem for him. He wasn’t one of those guys who needed to have 20 people around him because he was really strong in his beliefs and strict in the way he followed them.”
In his memoir A Life Uncorked, English writer Hugh Johnson writes fondly of those principles. “The purity of Rheingau wine was his passion,” he wrote of Bernhard Breuer. “He longed to know how best to express the terroir of his family’s vineyards.” Johnson recalls a frank, somewhat eccentric tasting with Bernhard and Heinrich, where the Breuer brothers opened unwanted orphan bottles of poor vintages going back to the 1920s. Sure enough, clear site signatures announced themselves but another motif emerged that was equally powerful: that of the grower’s humility towards his land. “It is the polar opposite of the race for high scores and gold medals that consumes the wine world today,” wrote Johnson. “Does it earn the farmer a living? Self-esteem, satisfaction and fascination, yes, but not necessarily a new Mercedes every year.”
Theresa Arbory laughing 2016
You see the same humility and tenacity in Theresa, who was honoured by Falstaff for furthering the estate’s reputation and maintaining the rare purity of its Riesling. “You start to pay so much more attention to things and you start to know the land you’re working with,” says Theresa. “I’ve done 12 vintages now and there are so many open questions, but it’s great to create a catalogue of references.”
That catalogue is being compiled year by year by the faithful Breuer team, which extends well beyond the inner circle of Theresa, Schmoranz and Lundén. Several others have been there for 10 years and they’re engaged, energetic and helping to shape the future. She wants them to stay together and keep improving together – which is easier said than done. “I’m not a fan of ‘bigger is better’,” says Theresa. “I think there’s so much more to being more precise, just figuring out the sensitive things. There’s so much more to go for, and if we realise that it will be cool.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Australian importer & distributor of Georg Breuer wines.

Everything’s Hunky Dory

It’s simply not right to talk about Marlborough without mentioning its beauty. As wine regions go, it’s far from alone in being picturesque. But this is beauty as context, an in-your-face blessedness that hits you the moment you get there. Its key export, Sauvignon Blanc, seduced the world by projecting a similarly blatant, sunshiny charm. This easy appeal is often overlooked but shouldn’t be. The wine proved that some people can’t have too much of a good thing.
That’s how Mike Allan from Huia Vineyards* feels about his adopted home. He and wife Claire didn’t mean to end up here but they didn’t stand a chance. They were studying winemaking in Adelaide in 1990 and scored vintage positions there, Mike at Cloudy Bay and Claire at Corbans. “Very quickly we fell in love with it,” recalls Mike. “It was very energised. We just realised that Marlborough had an amazing climate and it just had everything that we loved doing right smack on our doorstep.”
They saw an ad in the local rag for a block of land on an old apple orchard in Rapaura that “looked to us like heaven”. They stretched themselves to the limit and bought it. That place is now Huia, and Marlborough has paid back its promise in spades.
“Within the wine community there’s a lovely joie de vivre of wine and food and that sort of thing. Malrborough’s not just great for wine, it’s great for growing anything,” says Mike. “There’s a real international flavour because everyone’s travelling. It’s very vibrant.” Then there’s the scenery; one hour up the road is the Molesworth High Country with its lakes and mountains, a second home for keen skier Claire and their daughters, Tui (22) and Sophie (18). Just 20 minutes away are the Marlborough Sounds and 1500km of coastline. The family has a launch there for Hunky Dory – the boat that shares its name with Huia’s second label – and Mike makes the most of it. He loves to cook, and the huge vegetable garden at home calls out for the local seafood. “There’s a lot of snapper and blue cod, and the Sounds are home to green-lipped mussels which are a perfect match for Sauvignon Blanc. It just doesn’t get better.”
As for the vineyards, it took four years’ toil to get the apples out and the land ready for planting. During that time, Mike deepened his relationship with the region at Cloudy Bay and Vavasour, while Claire went from Corbans to Lawson’s Dry Hills. By 1996, they had their own estate up and running. “It was the vitality of the wines we tasted when we got to Marlborough that told us we were somewhere special,” says Mike, accounting for the motivation that got the place built. And the allure of the signature grape is as strong as ever.
“Sauvignon Blanc produces so many different characters from different areas around the valley but there’s a common thread of really fine acidity and a wide range of flavours that go from tropical fruit to gooseberry-grassy,” he says. “I always find the challenge is not to try to show how much fruit you can jam in the bottle but how the different fruits can be made into something that’s really interesting and complex. I always had a problem with wines that are short-lived – it shouldn’t be a one-vintage wonder but something with the pedigree to last a few years.”
To this point, Mike and Claire opt to press rather than crush the fruit, aiming for purity over power. Though there’s no set recipe for barrel and lees work, these both play a key role in building complexity and rounding out the wine.
It’s clear that the Allans are spurred on by the friendships borne of Marlborough Natural Winegrowers. Known as MANA, this group was founded about four years ago and comprises Huia, Te Whare Ra, Hans Herzog, Seresin, Clos Henri, Fromm and Rock Ferry. These producers are either certified fully organic or on track to achieve certification by the end of 2015. It was conceived in the wake of “a perfect storm” for Marlborough: the planting frenzy of the early noughties culminated in a massive 2008 vintage that a GFC-shaken world couldn’t soak up. A lot of smaller producers struggled to survive – not least when they’d already been finding it hard to get their voices heard over the noise of the giants.
The MANA solution was to pool marketing resources, chip in for visits from international wine writers, consolidate buying power, share biodynamic preparations and trade knowhow on the fast-moving world of organics. “Our early aspirations are exactly as it’s unfolded,” says Mike. “We thought we’d be able to share and grow and learn together and that’s precisely what’s happened. There’s no inter-winery competition; it’s very collaborative and a hell of a lot of fun.”
Another thing they share is faith, firmly repaid by results, in Marlborough Pinot Noir. “I think it’s completely come into its own,” says Mike. Producers have a better understanding of the right clones, sites and crop loads. The vines now have a fair bit of age and, as he rightly declares, good Pinot Noir isn’t going to go out of fashion. “New Zealand is very strong south of Hawke’s Bay for Pinot Noir. Martinborough, Marlborough, Canterbury and Central Otago are all going to give you incredibly fine Pinot.” And the Marlborough climate once again may be its trump card, as it tends to give more reliably favourable vintages.
The sunny optimism that lured Mike and Claire here remains undimmed. Their eyes and minds are open, and they’re enjoying themselves. They’ve been invigorated by their 2015 crop of vintage winemakers, who brought fresh ideas California, Austria and Germany. Sophie and Tui, who’ve been helping with ferments since childhood, also pour their youthful energy into the mix.
“What’s lovely is that our vineyards are reaching maturity as well. We’re getting lovely consistency in our fruit quality. We’re completely estate grown. Some of those goals we set in the early days are really coming to fruition. The challenge is to keep the life and the vitality coming through.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the distributor of Huia and Hunky Dory wines in Victoria.

Playing It Cool

Anna Flowerday says ‘cool’ a lot. Not ‘cool’ as in climate – though her journey from fifth-generation Shiraz-swilling McLaren Vale lass to South Island NZ is a big part of the story. Nor ‘cool’ meaning on-trend – in fact some of the best moves she’s made run counter to fashion (and received wisdom). No, just cool in that simple, spontaneous way that says you’re going to dig it, whatever happens.
Example: it’s “pretty cool” that’s she gets to do a job she utterly loves with her husband. The fact that Marlborough Pinot is underrated isn’t an injustice; it’s a “cool opportunity”. And it’s “a cool thing” that her two sets of twin girls get to see her excel in a role once seen as the domain of men. “I’m very conscious of being a mother of four daughters and I want them to think they can do anything,” she says.
This positivity shimmers through Anna’s perspective on Marlborough, where she and husband Jason have been running the Te Whare Ra* (TWR) winery for the past decade. When we catch up over coffee in Melbourne, I ask whether the region’s runaway success with Sauvignon Blanc has been a blessing or a curse. She concedes it’s a double-edged sword, with “savvy” stealing the limelight – and the vineyard area – from other varieties, and leading some to write off Marlborough as a one-trick pony.
But she also sees the grape, which accounts for a third of TWR production, as a wellspring of opportunity. “To me Marlborough and Sauvignon was just a lucky accident, a variety and place that gave you something a bit different and a bit special,” she says. “I think it’s introduced people to Marlborough and it’s up to us as winemakers to be a bit thoughtful about what we do with it. At Te Whare Ra we’re trying to make a long-term, really strong estate. I want to be known for a really cool range of wines and it’s kind of like my kids; I like them all for different reasons on different days, but I love them all equally.”
Girls in net
It’d be tempting to put her sunny outlook down to all that UV light but in fact the unbridled optimism goes back to where it all started: Hardys in McLaren Vale in the mid-1990s. For a young winemaker back then, it was the coolest gig in town. “Wine was king, and there were a lot of us who were all pretty young. We all knew we’d been given a massive opportunity and we worked our arses off to prove ourselves.”
She was at Hardys for seven years all up, working in a positive, collaborative culture that encouraged speaking up and trying things out. “If you look at the Hardys kindergarten and who’s come out of it – Stephen Pannell and KT (Kerri Thompson) were slightly older than me and then there was Larry Cherubino, Rob Mann, Sue Bell – a lot of young winemakers who are now in the upper echelon in Australia. Those really were the glory days,” she says.
Much of the credit goes to Peter Dawson, Hardys chief winemaker of the time and now co-owner of Dawson & James in Tasmania. “The two things he believed in were passion and palate,” says Anna. “Those are the two things he looked for in winemakers and I think they stand you in good stead. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, that’s really what this industry’s all about.”
TWR syrah and pinot
At Hardys Anna also fell deeply in love – twice. The first time was in McLaren Vale and took the form of “that old vintage romance kind of thing” with Marlborough boy, Jason Flowerday. And the other – no less significant – was when she was promoted to a position at Leasingham in Clare Valley, working with Kerri Thompson. “That’s really where the love of Riesling kicked in and I guess that just spread to other aromatic varieties.”
The Flowerdays’ aromatic white range now takes in Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, as well as a blend of all three, named Toru. Their success in this area has a lot to do with organic and biodynamic viticulture, says Anna. The vines are routinely delivering sugar, acid and flavour ripeness at the same time, so there’s no need to go chasing balance in the winery. “With Riesling you’re balancing the sweetness and the acidity; with Pinot Gris there’s a bit of that but then texture comes into it too; Gewürz has no acidity so you’re almost balancing the alcohol and the ripeness of the wine again with the sweetness. But when you get it right, it’s almost like you don’t see it. Balance really equals drinkability.”
As well as opening up aromatic options, life in a cool climate has changed Anna’s tastes. Where once she’d think nothing of knocking back youthful, ball-busting Shiraz, these days those same wines face a 10-year wait in the cellar, while whites and Pinot Noir are constant companions. “I guess one thing that I really look for – and I’ve appreciated it a lot more as I’ve matured as a winemaker – is that there’s a lot of beauty in purity. I think especially coming out of those late 90s, everything was about ‘big’ – big this, big that, big oak, big fruit – and I look now for more subtlety and nuances. I’m happy with wines that are a bit quieter, more understated.”
Vine row beautiful ground cover
True to form, she loves the challenge of the heartbreak grape. When they bought the vineyard in 2003, the Pinot Noir vines were young and not ready to deliver the wine they wanted – a fact that no amount of winery wizardry could distort. “Pinot’s about patience, that’s one thing I really have learned. You can’t force it anywhere it doesn’t want to go. If you overwork it or you cut corners you’re really going to see that in the wine. It’s very transparent like that. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity.”
Now, with older vines and better farming practices, the complexity has come of its own accord and TWR’s Pinot has won ardent fans. Thanks to greater care and investment across the region – and the annual Pinot Bootcamp where winemakers gather to compare notes on trial wines – Anna views Marlborough as the sleeping giant of Kiwi Pinot. “There’s a really strong line-up that I’d happily stand by and defend to all comers,” she says.
But if Marlborough Pinot has long “been the bridesmaid” Syrah would be lucky to even crack an invite. “It was a bit of a punt, to be honest,” Anna admits. It’s one that has paid off – but how did they come to take the plunge in the first place? Turns out the Hardys have-a-go spirit is only part of the answer. Temperature data monitoring and ripening dates had alerted them to a warm spot in the vineyard that might show promise. On top of that, TWR’s founders used to have a block they used for a Bordeaux blend, and a look at some of the old vintages showed they’d managed to ripen Cabernet almost as often as not. So from there Syrah – which tends to ripen a month or so earlier – was in with a chance. “If you asked 10 people in the region, nine of them would say you’re totally nuts to even try it. But that’s the whole point of what we’re doing. It’s not same-same and we don’t have to wear a commercial hat all the time.”
Picking the Syrah together is a Flowerday family tradition. The two sets of twins, who’ve just turned seven and ten respectively, really enjoy it – and it’s more than a clever cost-cutting scheme for their parents. “I think it’s good for them to understand what we do and why we do it,” says Anna. “Wine is such an obsessive thing. It’s our life, not just a job. And I think if you’re not into it, it’s actually quite hard to understand why you’re there for all those hours or why it’s a 360-day-a-year thing.”
A&J sorting table
And if you find your TWR wine seamlessly drinkable, then that might just be the taste of marital harmony. Anna says she and Jason make better wines together than they ever did in their individual careers. “Some of the best wines I’ve ever had were made by more than one person, because you’re not infallible and different people are sensitive to different things.” Anna and Jason agree 95% of the time – with the vexed question of when to pick being the source of most of their domestics.
And she credits Jason with what she sees as their proudest achievement at TWR: the restoration of some of the oldest vines in Marlborough to impeccable health. When they purchased the property they were “pretty near stuffed”, to the point where many would’ve given up on them. But instead those same vines live on to lend their own character to the wines. “And that’s really full credit to Jase because he’s the guru of growing things. He just has a real knack for understanding plants and what they need, and I get the benefit of that when we bring the fruit into the winery.”
Theirs is a vineyard that gets checked out an awful lot, such is the paperwork that goes with organic and biodynamic certification. But do you want to know the coolest thing? It’s when those soil scientists come with their clipboards and declare TWR the best organic vineyard in New Zealand. “Because everything we do is about being the best,” says Anna. “Not the biggest, not the loudest. It’s a long game that we’re playing, and I think we’re taking Te Whare Ra to a good place.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the distributor of TWR’s wines in Victoria and NSW.

Volnay Of The Vale

Grenache has filled a Pinot-shaped void for Steve Pannell. I know, sounds an unlikely substitution: a sun-worshipping, late-ripening, oft-blended also-ran for the crown prince of the Côte de Nuits? But over recent years people like Pannell have steadily recast Grenache as the Burgundy of South Australia.
As a junior winemaker he was “very much obsessed” with Pinot Noir at Tim Knappstein’s Lenswood Vineyards in the Adelaide Hills. “I liked that style, with power and intensity fitting within a medium-bodied frame. When I first came to McLaren Vale I was at a bit of a loss,” he says. That was in the mid-90s when he started out at Hardys, where he’d eventually rise to the position of Group Red Winemaker before establishing S.C. Pannell* a decade ago.
So he started “mucking around” with Grenache at the famous Tintara winery to see what he could do. “Grenache takes a bit more nous and work and guile to get it where you want it to be, and that challenged me.” It’s a challenge to which he’s well and truly risen, in the process helping to unearth McLaren Vale and its old bush vines as one of the planet’s few sacred sites for Grenache.
The 2010 S.C. Pannell Grenache picked up Best Other Red Varietal at the 2012 Royal Melbourne Wine Show and scored 97 points in James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion, a feat replicated by the 2012 release, which also won Best Other Red at the Wine Companion Awards a few months back. But while those titles confirm Pannell’s prowess with the grape, this “best other” business says something of the second-string status that Grenache has long been saddled with.
Grenache 2011
Pannell suggests a few reasons why it’s been left behind. There’s the so-called Parkerisation of wine, a bigger-is-better fad that did no favours for Grenache, with its modest palate weight and tendency towards boozy jamminess if not held in check. The fact that it is so commonly blended may also leave a question mark over its fitness for standalone supremacy – and here Pannell points to the lack of an obvious global benchmark wine that is 100% Grenache. He also posits that Australians may have shown a historical wariness of tannins, preferring the plush, velvety profile of Shiraz.
Conversely those tannins – a tricky thing to get right – help explain his fondness for, and success with, the grape. “I love the gritty, sandy tannins in Grenache, the savoury fruit and aromatic punch – what I see as a kind of musk and rosewater lift – in a light- to medium-bodied wine. That’s why I dig it.”
Further afield, Pannell definitely digs the wines of Clos des Papes and Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and has also enjoyed exploring the wares of Álvaro Palacios’s L’Ermita in that other old-vine Grenache heartland, Priorat. But he also marvels at the treasures on his doorstep, reserving particular admiration for Wirra Wirra, Yangarra and d’Arenberg. Fittingly, he’ll be spending International Grenache Day with fellow McLaren Vale flagbearers at Serafino, where Halliday is presiding over a grand masterclass.
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So what is it that makes this region so special for Grenache? There are the ocean breezes and Mediterranean climate, a combination that mirrors Sardinia, which claims to be the birthplace of Grenache (Cannonau as the islanders call it). There are the ancient and varied soils, too, plus the old vines.
But really, of course, who knows what the secret is? “It’s illogical. You can’t just say ‘It works here, so it’ll work there’. What makes the Côte de Nuits so good for Pinot?” says Pannell. “It’s part of the whole mystery of wine. It expresses a place and the people’s passion for that place.”
Pannell also embraces the mystery in his Grenache blends, such as The Vale (with Shiraz) and Tinto (with Touriga). “The varieties are like different colours, where you put them together and you don’t know what picture you’re going to end up with – and you don’t want to know, because in some ways that’s the beauty of it,” he says, likening the overall outcome to the experience of drinking a wine from iconic Clare Valley winery, Wendouree. “You know it’s a Wendouree before you know what it’s made of,” he says. “That’s the great beauty of having these very special pieces of dirt. The landscape is so important. It’s the only thing we have that’s truly unique.”

*This post was initially published on CellarHand’s website. CellarHand is both the author’s present employer and the distributor of S.C. Pannell wines in NSW and Victoria.

Game Of Rhones Rules

If I say “wine tasting”, this is what you see: Men – I bet it’s men – swirling and snorting, scowling and spitting in a space with all the cheer of a dentist’s waiting room. What you don’t see is the swashbuckling sauciness of the Seven Kingdoms.
But armour-clad winemakers and goblet-toting maidens are exactly what you get at Game of Rhones. This event, now in its second year, kicked off in Adelaide on 24th May before heading to Brisbane and then Melbourne on 7th and 14th June respectively. It features 150-odd drops from almost 50 Australian producers, as well as – say it quietly – fun.
The initiative is the brainchild of Melbourne sommelier and wine educator Dan Sims of Bottle Shop Concepts. It’s his act of rebellion against “boring-arse masterclasses” that cater solely for the geekiest 5% of the wine-drinking public. “We’re trying to speak to the other 95% and tell them that it’s possible to come along, enjoy yourself and learn about wine,” he says. “Plus by sticking to Rhône varieties, we’re keeping it simple.”

Dan Sims of Bottle Shop Concepts
Dan Sims of Bottle Shop Concepts
This last point is important. Beyond the theatricality – and organisers have camped up the Game of Thrones parody to the max – this is a chance to get to know some of Australia’s most enjoyable wines and the people who make them.
So which varieties are we talking about? For a start, reds rule the Rhône. Syrah (Shiraz) reigns supreme in the cooler northern end of the valley, while Grenache leads the way in the south, usually blended with the likes of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsault and others. Playing second fiddle are aromatic whites ranging from hedonistic Viognier to floral Marsanne and fashionable Roussanne.
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French wines will be available at Game of Rhones, but homegrown talent takes centre stage. It’s time to banish for good the stereotype of Aussie Shiraz as a generic big, dry red. “Shiraz in Australia is so diverse,” says Sims. “What we want to celebrate is the diversity of style within the variety.” Full-throttle blockbusters are but a detail in a tapestry that includes earthy, medium-bodied Hunter Valley wines, the peppery, black-olive notes of Victoria and evolving elegance from Adelaide Hills and Margaret River.
Meanwhile the Barossa and McLaren Vale are getting Grenache to sing right now. It loves the heat, as does frequent blending partner Mourvèdre (Mataro), and a trend away from hot, jammy numbers in favour of freshness, is allowing them to shine. “We’ve got some of the oldest Grenache vines in the world and the wines offer ridiculous value,” says Sims. “GSM is wonderful, medium bodied and goes great with food.”
Corinna Wright of Oliver's Taranga
Winemaker Corinna Wright
Let’s not forget the white varieties of the Rhône, which continue their mouthwatering march. The once isolated success of Yalumba with Viognier or Tahbilk with Marsanne is being built on by others. “Viognier is always going to be a richer style of wine,” says Sims. “Then you have Marsanne and Roussanne and blends. They’re never going to be as popular as Chardonnay but I think they offer a more savoury style, and Australian winemakers are learning to play with them better.”
Game of Rhones: you’ve got to be in it to win it. And the beauty is you can always play along at home.

Dan Sims’s Game of Rhones heroes:

Head Red GSM 2013 Barossa Valley $25

“Alex Head’s wines are going from strength to strength and this is just bloody delicious. Medium-bodied, red-fruited deliciousness.”

Voyager Estate Shiraz 2011 Margaret River $38

“While the west isn’t famed for Shiraz, Voyager is nailing it. Fuller flavour, dark plums with a savoury edge. It begs for roasted meats.”

Tyrrell’s Stevens Single Vineyard Shiraz 2011 Hunter Valley $38

“I really like Hunter Shiraz as it’s classically medium bodied without being too much. Perfumed and elegant now but long lived for sure.”

Oliver’s Taranga Shiraz 2012 McLaren Vale $30

“Superfresh, dark-fruited, slippery and slurpy deliciousness from winemaker Corinna Wright.”

Mitchell Harris Mataro 2012 Pyrenees $29

“Recently did very well in the North East Versus Western Victoria Challenge. Medium bodied, spicy, attractive fruit. Great drink.”

Shaw & Smith Shiraz 2012 Adelaide Hills $50

“Cool climate, spicy fresh Shiraz at its Adelaide best. Super smooth and seductive.”

Little Crowning Glory

I threw out something of a teaser last week when I referred to the Corte Sant’Alda Soave as “one of a couple Italian whites” I wanted to write up. Then I got a bit busy, plus May is Aussie Wine Month here so I feel like a traitor to the state even contemplating this.
But then there’s this Verdicchio. I only had a brief flirtation with it at a tasting in March and now it’s like a homeless puppy you accidentally grow too fond of. You know you’re hopelessly ill-equipped to take care of it but really, who could resist such playfulness?
The wine in question comes from the organic and biodynamic (though not certified) producer Fattoria Coroncino. This is the second Verdicchio to feature on Bonnezeaux Gonzo, the first bring the rapturously received but stylistically different Umani Ronchi. Both exhibit typical almond and brine but where the Umani Ronchi was subtle and slow to reveal itself, its counterpart is joyous and generous.
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Fattoria Coroncino was founded in 1981 by Lucio Canestrari and his wife, Fiorella De Nardo. They live in Staffolo, about 35km southwest of Ancona in the Marche region of central Italy. Verdicchio is very much their bag; their stated aim is to prove that there’s much more to Marche’s signature white than mere pizza wine. Lucio and Fiorella make a Sangiovese/Syrah blend in small quantities, but otherwise it’s Verdicchio all the way.
The pinnacle is Gaiospino, a single-vineyard wine aged for 18 months in 500-litre oak vats. At the opposite end of the scale is Il Bacco, which they endearingly call “a slave wine” because it’s always at your beck and call – any food, any mood, any time. In the right vintage they’ll also put out a passito wine, made from Verdicchio grapes left to raisin on the vine.
But back to my puppy: Il Coroncino. The fruit comes from a clay-based, north east-facing slope next to the cellar, with a view of the Adriatic. The grapes are picked by hand from the densely planted vineyard, then gently pressed and wild yeast fermented in stainless steel. The resulting wine has plenty of texture, body and acid, which means you’re laughing all the way to the dinner table. I’d like to see it again with spaghetti alle vongole or rabbit and pea risotto. But you could nudge it a fair bit further – coniglio in porchetta would be a whole heap of fun.

Coroncino Verdicchio “Il Coroncino” 2011 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico Superiore

Clear medium green gold in colour, it gives off an initial whiff that reminds me of toasted corn; not altogether inviting. Overall fairly muted on the nose, just grilled almonds and apple skin. A different story in the mouth: a juicy attack of pear and stone fruits that builds to a crescendo. That sweetness is offset by briny and bitter almond notes. The texture is waxy and unctuous, the body fullish. Fine, citrusy acidity appears to pull off the feat of balancing the richness and high alcohol. Heady orchard blossom perfume and a bitter twist linger on the long finish.

Costs $33.90 at Enoteca Sileno – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted March 2014 – Cork

Sign Of Life From Soave

This is one of a couple of Italian whites I wanted to write up before the sun set for good on the southern summer. At the end of a cold, blustery day on the Mornington Peninsula, just looking at my glass of Riesling is making me shiver, which suggests I’ve missed the boat. But it’s no big deal; it’s always summer somewhere and anyway this isn’t a mere thirst slaker. It’s a wine for food, and a delicious one at that.
It comes from Corte Sant’Alda, an organic producer from the Mezzane valley in northeast Italy’s Veneto region. The winery sits at an altitude of 350 metres in Valpolicella, where red varieties such as Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara rule. The appellation has a patchy quality record but is capable of turning out wonderful red blends in a range of styles, from light, fresh cherry- and herb-tinged wines through – thanks to the use of berries picked ripe and left to raisin in controlled conditions – to opulent, dry full-bodied Amarone and sweet Recioto.

Marinella Camerani (left) and family
Marinella Camerani (left) and family
In the mid-1980s Corte Sant’Alda’s Marinella Camerani moved to the country, rolled up her sleeves and began transforming the family estate into the dynamic producer it is today. Those reds that run the gamut of richness are her bread and butter. But she didn’t have to look far for a bit of white relief. In fact, she only had to go across the road to quench her thirst for a delicate dash of bianco. “Because I love fresh white wines, I decided to buy a little vineyard in the Soave DOC very close to Corte Sant’Alda, a vineyard still trained with the traditional pergola system for producing a simple, fresh Soave with Garganega, Trebbiano di Soave and a little part of Chardonnay,” she tells me. “I wanted to show that the terroir in this valley is suitable in certain parts also for producing wonderful white wine and that it’s possible to make a good, clean, mineral wine with native yeasts and without too much technology, in a biodynamic way.”
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Like Valpolicella, Soave hardly boasts a rock-solid reputation thanks to the glut of crisp, “inoffensive” whites that find their way onto UK supermarket shelves. I’m pleased to have been shown another side to Soave and I was on the hunt for a bottle when I chanced upon this. I’d been introduced to Camerani’s wines via the Corte Sant’Alda Ca’ Fiui Valpolicella 2008, which I had over Christmas and really enjoyed. So I pounced upon this when I saw it in the bottleshop fridge. It was drunk on the balcony with evening sunshine, good friends and homemade tapenade.
That was some weeks ago now but that summery mood is neatly encapsulated by a line I read on the Corte Sant’Alda website as I prepared this post. “It’s true, the grass in our vineyards is a bit too high, but for me this is a sign of life,” writes Camerani. “You can see colours, smell scents… of mint, arugula, chamomile. I can’t believe that all this would be dangerous for the vines. A tidy grassland is more an aesthetic need than a real necessity. I like to think that all these colours and scents are going to be characteristics of each of our wines.”

Corte Sant’Alda Vigne di Mezzane Soave 2010 Soave DOC

Clear pale lemon in colour with a moderately intense nose of white flowers, peach blossom, lemon pith and fresh mint. Pure lemon citrus, green plum and almond endure across the light- to medium-bodied palate, which has a touch of waxiness to it. The acidity is luscious and superfine, leaving floral notes to linger after the lemony finish. Delicate, lovely wine.

Costs $27 at Boccaccio Cellars* in Melbourne – Alcohol 12.5% – Tasted March 2014 – Cork

*Current vintage is Corte Sant’Alda Vigne di Mezzane Soave 2012

Hotshot Schioppettino

1976 was a big year for Schioppettino and me. It heralded the rebirth of the endangered Friulian grape variety, while that baking English summer was my first on this earth. The winery of Giovanni Dri, at the foot of Il Roncat mountain near Italy’s border with Slovenia, was obliterated by a huge earthquake in 1976, the same year that Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi won the first Nonino Risit d’Aur award, set up to encourage those in Friuli who persevere with endangered indigenous varieties.
The endeavours of the Rapuzzi family and other local growers led to Schioppettino being added to the list of permitted varieties in the province of Udine in 1981. Nine years later, Giovanni Dri’s faith and hard work paid off when he managed to construct a new winery.
And then nothing happened until 2014, when I got my first taste of Schioppettino.
A name that cool clearly needs some kind of explanation. It apparently derives from the verb schioppettare, a variation of scoppiettare, which means to pop or crackle. Scoppietta, meanwhile, is Italian for musket (sic; we’re talking guns now, not grapes), so Schioppettino (skyo-peh-TEE-no) roughly means gunshot or little crackler. It probably owes the name to the way its thick-skinned berries explode when you bite into them.
I felt an explosion of recognition when I smelt the wine and it was somewhat unexpected. It put me back in England, in the country, a childhood summer. A dual impression of coolness and comfort – leafy, floral, peppery and breezy, with wafts of wild berries ripe for the picking. It was much more than nostalgia that made me love the wine. But I defy anyone to remain unmoved by that evocative perfume.
Fittingly, it was made by a guy who calls himself a dreamer. Giovanni Dri hails from Ramandolo, home of the eponymous sweet white wines from the Verduzzo grape. Dri initially established his winery in 1968 and his website, in poetically rustic translation, suggests a man seeking with proud determination to express his birthplace. “I don’t like false appearances; I’m as I look, a truthful man,” he says. “I was born here in Ramandalo, at the foot of the mountain and maybe for this reason I have a rocky face.”
He’s actually quite handsome. And perhaps he’d crack a smile at the thought of faraway converts to the Schioppettino cause.
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Dri Schioppettino Monte dei Carpini 2009 Colli Orientali del Friuli

Medium ruby towards garnet and holding its colour well. The nose is pronounced with lifted forest fruits, hedgerow, violets and pepper. The entry is sweet with blackberries and the palate cool and medium bodied, with fresh, pippy bramble fruit and plum flowing with those counterpoints of leafiness and peppery spice. It’s high in tannins but these are fine and tamed by time, while a sharp lick of natural acidity gives a vibrant finish and length. Drinking wonderfully now, I can see it evolving nicely over the next five to eight years. Drink it with pappardelle and duck ragu (or wild boar if you can hunt one down).

Costs $65.50 at Enoteca Sileno – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 18/03/14

Romance & Romorantin

Gouais Blanc can get just about any grape’s juices flowing. This Casanova of the world’s vineyard has sired at least 81 distinct varieties, according to Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson et al. And Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir have been at it like rabbits, producing more than 20 offspring including Chardonnay and the Beaujolais berry, Gamay Noir. Less well known than these high achievers is Romorantin, the white grape of the 20-year-old Cour-Cheverny appellation in the Loire Valley.
Legend has it that François I of France ordered 80,000 plants of this vine from Burgundy for his mother’s castle in the village of Romorantin near Blois in 1519. However it came about, it’s found a good home in Cheverny, which accounts for almost all of France’s 70-odd hectares of Romorantin.
The first I’d heard of it was at a tasting of wines brought into Australia by Halle Aux Vins, which had this example from Michel Gendrier at Domaine des Huards. The family’s been on the land some 80km east of Vouvray since 1846, and Michel’s son Alexandre is a seventh-generation winemaker. La famille Gendrier has followed organic and biodynamic principles for the past 15 years.
This particular wine is 100% Romorantin from 35-year-old vines. The fruit was lightly pressed and fermented using natural yeasts, after which the wine spent six months on fine lees.
The end product has Chablis-like minerality and drive. It also has a ring of good Aussie Semillon about it, combining a young Sem’s lemon, nettliness and acidity with the texture of bottle-aged Sem. It’s drinking beautifully now, but it’s easy to imagine how these wines could age well for 20-plus years, developing stronger notes of honey, flint and petrol as they go.
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Domaine des Huards Cour-Cheverny 2011 AOC Cour-Cheverny, Loire

Clear pale straw in colour, with a nose of honeysuckle, nettles, lemon and orange zest, peach skin and creamy lees. This dry, medium-bodied wine has a soft, slightly waxy texture. The palate is supremely fresh with lemon, honey and a flinty character. It has pulsing vigour through the back palate, with grip and acidity contributing to a long and harmonious finish of honey, spice and bitter-lemon savouriness. This bright, lovely wine is pregnant with food-matching possibilities thanks to its strength and structure. Sole meunière would be a dream.

Costs $33 at City Wine Shop in Melbourne – Alcohol 12% – Tasted 29/12/13 – Cork