Has the sun set on UK wine blogging?

What does success look like for the UK’s best wine bloggers? Gaining ever more readers? An endless stream of free samples? Or perhaps earning money from advertising? It’s different for everyone, but for many wine bloggers it turns out that real success is signified by going on to do something other than blogging.

In 2012, I helped organise a competition in conjunction with The Table, a restaurant in London Bridge where I advise on the wine list. The Wine Bloggers’ Cup pulled together twenty of the UK’s finest to test their wine knowledge, writing skills and tasting prowess to crown the UK’s top wine blogger. It was mostly an excuse to get together and drink some brilliant wines then crank up the sound system, dance outrageously (that’s you Christina Pickard) and belt out some tunes (yes you, Joe Wadsack). Five years on, I thought now would be a good time to get in touch with some of them to see where they are now and whether wine blogging helped them get there.

Paola Tich started blogging for reasons that will be familiar to many. “I was frustrated at the lack of interest my friends had in what they drank,” she explains “and needed an outlet for my wine obsession.” Like many wine bloggers, she didn’t come from a wine background. “I’d gone from news journalism to corporate communications and had just set up on my own when I started blogging. It opened up a whole new world to me.” After a year’s research, she took the plunge and opened a wine shop, Park & Bridge, in West London followed by a wine bar, Vindinista. “I wouldn’t have done this if I hadn’t started blogging,” she says. Updating her blog has taken a back seat since launching her business, and if she does return to blogging it will be with a professional, rather than consumer, viewpoint.

Natural wine expert Simon Woolf wrote his first blog post to enter a competition, but got sucked in to a whole new life. “Through writing my blog, I met loads of people in the London wine scene – and internationally – which got me on a plane to a bloggers conference. The networking was fantastic and eventually changed my life in many ways. Back then I had a career as an IT professional, now I have a (much less lucrative) career as a wine writer and journalist. But I’m having fun!” His first book, Amber Revolution - how the world learned to love orange wine, is now fully funded on Kickstarter. As for blogging, “I do still blog, but I'm not sure I'd call it blogging anymore. I was never very good at the daily/weekly discipline so I think really it's just writing.”

Effi Tsournava started blogging about wine soon after arriving in London from Greece. Knowing nobody in her new home city who shared her love of wine, blogging helped her reach out to other wine lovers. “Back then I was looking for my next job,” she says “and I was trying to figure out my way in the wine industry. Now, I work as a Brand Manager for Maisons, Marques et Domaines. It doesn't feel like five years ago, more like ten, as so much has changed in the meantime! I believe that blogging has played an important part in where I am today, not so much due to my actual blog per se, but due to the focus and drive it gave me to keep going.”

Tsournava admits she no longer posts as frequently as she once did. In fact, of the 20 contestants in the competition, less than half are still blogging, and only a quarter with any regularity. Woolf believes “we're well past the golden age of blogging”. They both attribute it largely to the growth of social media and micro-blogging sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Vivino. Jamie Goode, who has been blogging about wine since 2001, does too – and he is even more damning: “Wine blogging is dead, I’m afraid. I’m not sure it was really alive.” It’s true that as more and more wine bloggers have stepped away from the discipline, the budding UK wine blogging scene has somewhat withered.

It didn’t help that the broader wine writing community wasn’t always welcoming; bloggers are often considered second-class citizens. “There's a view amongst established wine critics,” says Woolf, “that bloggers are either stupid or dangerous – or both. Stupid because the quality of the content is highly variable or unreliable, and dangerous because they mostly give away content for free. I wouldn't necessarily agree as there's the same range of quality even in mainstream media – from tragically misinformed and poorly researched to amazing.” In certain circles, blogging has become a dirty word.

I spoke to the owner of a respected drinks PR company who gave me her perspective. “Certainly, there is a big change since it first started. You saw numerous people jumping on the bandwagon, many of whom had little in-depth wine knowledge. They were initially courted by brands and PRs, but this gradually fizzled out. I think those courting them began to question how much consumer reach and influence these bloggers actually had; and the bloggers realised that they couldn’t make a living from doing it.” It’s true that wine blogs motivated solely by money don’t last long; I’m aware of just one UK wine blog that generates any meaningful revenue.

Nevertheless, some bloggers press on regardless thanks to an undimmed enthusiasm in helping others find good wine, or simply for the love of writing. The rate of new wine blogs being launched over the past couple of years appears to have dropped but it hasn’t stalled completely. David Kermode launched his blog Vinosaurus 12 months ago “with the simple aim of sharing my enthusiasms and a little knowledge. The reality,” he goes on, “is that it was also a bit of a ‘mid-life crisis moment’ having burnt myself out in the broadcasting world.” The wine blogging scene may have largely disbanded, but publishing a blog is still one of the best ways to realise a change of careers. He now talks about wine regularly on BBC radio.

Blogs remain the perfect sandbox for creative expression and finding your voice without worrying about another platform’s house style or readership. They allow you to express your opinions in the kind of detail a tweet does not. Blogging proves your enthusiasm for your subject and demonstrates your desire to share it with others. It takes guts – your ideas are out there for anyone to pick apart, shoot down or ridicule. But if they stand up it gives you confidence. And all of this despite being labelled ‘just a blogger’.

Restaurant critic AA Gill once described blogging as “karaoke journalism” and there’s a kernel of truth in that. But most UK wine bloggers don’t aspire to be journalists. They are simply a collection of wine obsessives from disparate backgrounds using the web – which happens to be a text-based medium – to express and share their love of wine. Publishing a blog involves a considerable investment of time, money and effort, so it’s not surprising they are ephemeral. Most wine bloggers who attended the competition who wanted to move on and explore a successful career in wine have done exactly that. Their blogs were a springboard rather than an end in themselves. The patchwork of the UK wine blogging scene may be frayed, but I agree with Paola Tich when she says, “I would still encourage people to start a blog if they’re obsessed with wine – who knows where it could lead.”

Four other UK wine blogs worth reading

Richard Hemming MW
Approachable, insightful and entertaining in equal measure

Vinolent
Sharp writing on fine wine

Sediment
'Two Gentlemen and their Mid-Life Terroirs'

InvestDrinks
If you're new to investing in wine, read this first

First published on timatkin.com.


Floral testimony

Basket press

In the car park on my street there is a rose bush. Every so often when walking past I pause to cup one of the red flowers in my hand, bring it to my nose and inhale. The scent of a rose in bloom is as universal a pleasure as birdsong. So why are floral whites so unfashionable? Having spoken to various professionals and wine-loving friends, it would appear it’s not just the aromatics that people take issue with, but floral styles of wine face a whole charge sheet of allegations. In our thirst for all things dry, lean and mineral, is it possible we’ve become unfairly prejudiced? I’ve been reacquainting myself with floral styles recently to see if these accusations hold water, or if the time is right for a reappraisal.

Countless white grape varieties invite floral allusions from time to time, but some, such as Argentinean Torrontés, Greek Moschofilero or Romanian Fetească Regală, are more innately and assertively perfumed than others. There are two that are both potentially great and widely available – Alsace Gewurztraminer and Rhône Viognier (namely Condrieu) – so I’ll focus on these.

Allegation No.1: They don’t work with food

If you want to play it safe when matching food and wine, a relatively neutral style of white is more prudent. It’s also more boring. Floral whites are trickier to get right, but no more so than aromatic varieties like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. And when it does work you can expect fireworks – floral wines bring an array of flavours and aromas to the table that you’re unlikely to find on your plate. Paul Amsellem of leading Condrieu estate Domaine Georges Vernay recommends asparagus, lobster, scallops, goats cheese and certain fish for his wines, but the important thing is to avoid highly acidic sauces as they draw attention to the naturally low acidity in the wine.

Colin Wills of London wine merchant Uncorked says “one of the main strengths of Gewurz is its exoticism… It can also have depths of flavour that make it so useful with aromatic foods, particularly from Asia.” Slightly sweeter styles of Gewurz go well with a broad range of cheeses – try it next time instead of your regular option. Whereas Viognier is almost always dry, Alsace Gewurztraminer can be anything from dry to medium dry or even sweeter. When there’s no advice on the label you can get caught out with a style you didn’t expect, which can throw a pairing out of whack. Thankfully within the next couple of years it will be obligatory to state the sweetness level on the bottle.

Verdict: when they work, they work brilliantly.

Allegation No.2: They don’t express terroir

Because floral grapes are strongly aromatic they are sometimes charged with expressing their variety rather than the site on which they’re grown. There is some truth in this. They are not quite as fluent as, say, Riesling, in expressing terroir. And when young, their natural exuberance can mask subtle differences in site. Floral styles love a sonorous terroir, and certainly can express it, as a tasting of various Alsace Grand Cru Gewurztraminers will show.

Viognier also needs a specific terroir to really shine. It reaches unrivalled peaks of quality when grown on the terraces of Condrieu in the Northern Rhône. In this sense, it’s not oxymoronic to dislike Viognier but to love Condrieu. The wines here have a freshness, precision and drinkability that other Viogniers can lack. Amsellem says it’s due to the granite soils, particularly those rich in black mica, that give the wines a saline, mineral edge.

Verdict: they do express terroir, especially when grown on powerfully assertive sites.

Allegation No.3: They lack drinkability

David Clawson is owner of The Remedy wine bar in London, where they list very few, if any, floral styles of wine. “The reason is both our preference but also that of our customers,” he says. “You can drink a glass, but it is very difficult to drink a bottle. First and foremost, we want to sell wines with great (and delicious) drinkability.” Gewurz and Viognier share certain characteristics: they typically have opulent textures and low acidity. It’s true these aren’t characteristics you’d typically associate with the most drinkable vin de soif.

The best are still balanced of course, with freshness, energy and salinity. But if you’re looking primarily for something to quench your thirst, you might be better off starting with a Chablis… or perhaps a light-bodied, low alcohol, lightly floral, dry Muscat?

Verdict: it’s a fair cop – there are more immediately drinkable styles out there.

Allegation No.4: They don’t age well

Inexpensive floral styles that have little more to offer than aromatics alone tend to be best drunk young. But floral styles from great terroirs can develop real complexity in bottle. In the words of Eric Kientzler from Domaine Kientzler in Ribeauvillé, Alsace, “it’s more the land that makes wines that can age, not the grape.” Jean Boxler of Domaine Albert Boxler proved the point by pulling the cork from a 1994 Alsace Grand Cru Brand Gewurztraminer. “If you like the Gewurztraminer aroma, try it young, he said; “if you like it complex, you have to wait a bit.” The bottle corroborated his claim with a cascade of honey, camomile, cumin, curry leaf and turmeric; a reminder that gewürz is German for spice.

Alsace Grand Cru Muscat can age just as well, building layers of spearmint, green tea and its signature aromas of grass and orange flower water fall away. Condrieu is the Dorian Gray of white wines. A 1996 Georges Vernay Condrieu 'Coteau de Vernon' tasted in 2014 was still full of fruit and verve. Many Condrieus can last without degrading, but whether they markedly improve with bottle age however is debatable.

Verdict: they can age well, Gewurztraminer in particular.

Allegation No.5: They are too intensely aromatic

When I hear this charge levelled at floral varieties, I’m reminded of the advert for Wychwood Brewery’s Hobgoblin dark ale: ‘What’s the matter Lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?’ Intensity of aroma is no drawback if that aroma is enjoyable. I suspect some wine drinkers shy away from floral styles through misplaced machismo.

Some wine lovers simply aren’t keen the aromas in question. Will Hargrove of London wine merchant Corney & Barrow says of Condrieu “the analogy I use is that it’s a bit like a flavour of ice cream someone doesn’t like (I love pistachio, lots of people don’t). I have liked some but they appear to have been ones that are atypically mineral (less Viognier flavour!)” He touches on an important point here – some of the best Condrieus, such as those of Domaines Georges Vernay, André Perret and René Rostaing, are relatively restrained examples. Not all floral wines are riotously aromatic.

Verdict: there is a range of aromatic intensity, from the subtle to the explosive.

Summing up

It’s easy to be put off by floral styles. Often these varieties have other quirks; they can be prone to low acidity or oily textures and these need to be managed by strong terroirs and capable winemakers. At the cheaper end, it’s easy to find bad examples of these grapes. What’s more, a bad Viognier is memorably grotesque, whereas a bad Gavi is merely forgettably dull.

It’s not easy to put Gewurztraminer’s lengthy criminal record to one side and pluck up the courage to trust in a top bottle. But if you haven’t tasted one for a while, they can be hugely rewarding. These are extreme styles of wine, and therefore bound to divide people. Some drinkers won’t like them. But those that do, are likely to love them. Whatever your taste, it is a fact that these are some of the most distinctive white wines imaginable, with vivid aromatics, power, complexity and an unmistakable sense of place. And you can buy stellar examples from top producers for less than £40 a bottle. They might not be fashionable right now, but life is short – don’t forget to smell the roses.

Eight floral wines to try

Domaine Albert Boxler Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Brand 2015 (Alsace, France; 13.5%)
Lay & Wheeler, £45.80 

Incredibly fresh and lifted, enlivening like a rose in bloom. Full-bodied, very rich, medium dry, balanced with firm acidity and ample fine ripe tannin. Wonderful perfume, with citrussy acidity throughout, ending on bitter orange. Exceptionally long. There is no question that this is one of the greatest producers in Alsace, I can’t recommend Jean Boxler’s wines highly enough. 2017-2030, 95 points.

Kientzler Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Osterberg 2016 (Alsace, France; 13.5%)
H2Vin has the 2015 for £29.25 

12g/l residual sugar but the wine tastes dry. Flavours of fresh Muscat grapes and almonds with a touch of Turkish delight. Restrained aromatics: "that’s how the grand cru makes it," says Eric Kientzler. Medium-bodied, mineral, straight style. Long and saline. Resonant finish. 2017-2025, 94 points.

Domaine André Perret Condrieu ‘Chéry’ 2015 (Northern Rhône, France; 13.5%)
JN Wine, £45.50 

20% new oak. Pure perfumed apricot and a touch of peach. Slightly fuller and silkier that his Condrieu ‘Clos Chanson’, with more concentration of fruit. Deep, yet fresh and piercing. Beautifully balanced, combining fruit, acidity, oak and alcohol all in good measure. Very long finish. 2017-2021, 95 points.

Domaine Georges Vernay Condrieu ‘Terrasses de l’Empire’ 2015 (Northern Rhône, France; 13.5%)
Yapp Brothers, £52.00 

Matured for 8 months in wooden tanks and barriques. Jasmine, peach and some integral citrus that brings some welcome sobriety to proceedings. Fairly full-bodied with green almond flavour and some tannic grip on the finish that really holds everything together and provides some genuine structure. Very long finish, with more almond and peach. A touch of saltiness keeps things refreshing. 2017-2020, 94 points.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Muscat Grand Cru Goldert 2002 (Alsace, France; 12.5%)
JN Wine has the 2008 for £28.99 

Alsace Muscat is essentially always dry. It can be made from either Muscat d’Alsace (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) or Muscat Ottonel, or a blend. This is 95% Muscat d’Alsace, grown on an east-facing slope in Gueberschwihr on clay-rich Oolithic limestone. Dry – 3g/l residual sugar. Still beautifully citrussy, with orange zest, iodine, menthol and spearmint. Medium-bodied, but lovely intensity of fruit. Lovely light tannic structure with notes of pickled ginger and green tea on the finish. Perfectly balanced, still detailed and expressive. So young still. An exceptional wine. 2017-2025, 95 points.

Domaine Dirler-Cadé Muscat Grand Cru Saering 2015 (Alsace, France; 13.0%)
Vine Trail has the 2012 for £21.54

50% Muscat d'Alsace, 50% Muscat Ottonel. Grapey, grassy, with lemon verbena and mint though slightly reductive on the nose at this stage. Medium-bodied. Very fresh, good acidity. Elegant and fine. Touch of noble bitterness, elegant floral finish. 2018-2020, 91 points.

Colomé Estate Torrontés 2016 (Salta, Argentina; 13.5%)
Slurp.co.uk, £11.95 

Delicate rose, pink peppercorn and citrus, a restrained nose. Dry, light-bodied, but full of flavour, refreshing and drinkable thanks to the marked acidity and slightly salty tang. Tiny touch of sweetness to the fruit flavour makes it all the more drinkable. It's not hugely complex, but it's vibrant, well balanced and refreshing with a tiny touch of pleasant bitterness on the finish. An excellent example of Argentinean Torrontés. 2017-2018, 90 points

Semeli ‘Feast’ 2016 (Peloponnese, Greece; 12.0%)
Oddbins, £9.00 

100% Moschofilero. Gently floral pink peppercorn aroma. Medium-bodied, just a touch of oiliness to the texture giving it added weight and length, with ripe lychee fruit matched with taut acidity. A very well-balanced wine, made with precision, offering exceptional value for money. 2017-2018, 89 points.

First published on timatkin.com.


Red wines to chill

Seems like summer's still with us, at least for now - here's an article I wrote for Decanter on red wines to chill:

Licence to chill: 25 best reds for summer drinking

Enjoy!


Great Red Hope: New Zealand Pinot Noir

Here's an article that I wrote for Imbibe (drinks trade magazine) on New Zealand Pinot Noir...

Helen Masters, winemaker at Ata Rangi, Martinborough, February 2017

If red Burgundy were a car, it would probably be a handsome vintage Jaguar. New Zealand Pinot, by contrast, would be a souped-up VW Golf: desirable yet affordable, built to perform – and it moves fast. Considering the quality of some of the wines, it’s hard to believe that the first commercial vintage of Pinot Noir in New Zealand was as recent as 1987.

Adam Willis at the Michelin-starred Bath Priory describes himself as a big fan of New Zealand Pinot Noir. After spending some time there, he returned to find that “an understanding of these styles hasn’t fully made its way to the UK yet” – an impression shared by both Jess Kildetoft MS from MASH and the Providores’ Mel Brown.

But for professionals, understanding the distinct characteristics of each main region is invaluable when choosing the right wines to suit your cuisine and your customers’ budget. After all, no other country outside France has the stylistic diversity of Pinot Noir across such a range of prices.

Which is why, as it becomes increasingly difficult to find serviceable Bourgogne Rouge for less than £15 ex VAT, it’s worth keeping up-to-date on developments in Kiwi country to see which styles best suit your venue and who are the producers that need to be on your radar. After all, many of these wines are coming from young vines, and as they mature, they will only improve.

Marlborough

With 2,590 hectares, Marlborough has by far the most Pinot Noir of any region in New Zealand. Some would say too much. Following the explosion in popularity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir was planted with abandon – and not always in the right places.

As a result, Marlborough acquired a reputation for making light and simple Pinots – but does this still hold? “It’s a valid statement on Marlborough of old,” says Kurt Simcic, viticulturalist at Giesen, “but we’re moving away from those sites. We’re planting smaller blocks with better clones. You’ll see a change.”

Producers such as Seresin, Fromm and Giesen are looking to the Southern Valleys rather than the plains that are Sauvignon’s heartland. Instead of alluvial deposits, the soils here are rich in clay which gives deeper fruit and firmer structure.

Marlborough winemakers are pushing towards a more candid, textured style, too, thanks to less new oak and more whole bunch. Mike Paterson, former winemaker at Jackson Estate, started micro-negociant label Corofin in 2012 and makes three single vineyard wines from the Southern Valleys. He uses 20% whole bunch and no new oak, and the results embody Marlborough’s new wave. Instead of ‘light and simple’, think ‘pure and fine’. Things are changing here, and changing fast.

Established names: Dog Point (Fields, Morris & Verdin), Greywacke (Liberty Wines), Seresin (Louis Latour Agencies).
Under the radar: Clos Marguerite (Clark Foyster), Corofin (Flint Wines).

Central Otago

By comparison, Central Otago only has 1,500 hectares of Pinot Noir but it has an enviable reputation for its wines. Certainly, they’re hard to ignore: high sunshine, low rainfall and hot summers make for powerful Pinots.

Jess Kildetoft MS at MASH London says “We had a Central Otago Pinot by the glass over Christmas and it was spot on with the steaks and the guests really loved it… I would generally recommend the bigger more tannic styles from Otago or Nelson with meat and the simpler more feminine styles from Marlborough with poultry and fish.”

This boldness of style can lend itself to strongly flavoured dishes, but for all its vivid fruit it can sometimes lack the subtlety and savouriness that makes Pinot Noir such a food-friendly variety. Blair Walter, winemaker at Felton Road, explains that there’s a growing trend towards “toning things down” in Central Otago. “That kick of sweet fruit will be a thing of the past as vines age,” he says, “we’re starting to see wines with a lot more texture and subtlety, more of a sense of place.”

There is considerable stylistic diversity in Central Otago, sometimes derived from winemaking, sometimes from sub-regional terroir, but overall the trend is away from oak and extraction towards a more hands-off approach. As vineyards reach maturity the differences between sub-regions of Central Otago is becoming clearer and the wines are increasing in sophistication.

Established names: Felton Road (Cornish Point Wines), Two Paddocks (Negociants UK), Rippon (Lea & Sandeman).
Under the radar: Akitu (New Zealand Wine Cellar), Surveyor Thompson (Berry Bros. & Rudd).

Martinborough

Compared to Marlborough and Central Otago, Martinborough is relatively steady – it has the feel of a region that knows where its considerable strengths lie. The collection of small, mostly family-owned producers that inhabit the tiny town that gives the wine region its name make highly-regarded, structured Pinots that work particularly well with food.

They’re not cheap – you’ll struggle to get one on a wine list for less than £50 - but quality can be exceptional, and they can still rival or beat Burgundy at the same price. That said, if it’s cheapness rather than pedigree you’re after, Mel Brown, wine buyer at The Providores suggests targeting Marlborough.

Most New Zealand Pinots are not built for longevity. This has the benefit that they tend to be approachable on release. But Martinborough wines are an exception: they are good when they first come out, but can age beautifully as well. For Roger Jones at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, “succulent Welsh lamb with an aged Martinborough Pinot” is a classic match.

Established names: Ata Rangi (Liberty Wines), Kusuda (Fields, Morris & Verdin), Martinborough Vineyard (Negociants UK).
Under the radar: Julicher (Berkmann), Schubert (Berry Bros. & Rudd).

North Canterbury

Compared to Marlborough, Martinborough and Central Otago, North Canterbury has less stylistic consistency when it comes to Pinot Noir. Shaun and Marcel Giesen came here specifically for the limestone, and in 1997 established their Bell Hill winery. They now produce some of the best, and most expensive, Pinot Noirs in New Zealand.

Biodynamic producer Pyramid Valley Vineyards are more ‘natural’ in style but also demonstrate the potential of North Canterbury. After working with some of Europe’s best winemakers (Vincent Dauvissat, Jean-Michel Deiss, Ernie Loosen…) Mike and Claudia Elze Weersing settled in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000. Mike attributes the quality of their wines to the diverse soil types and being at “the cultivable limit” of Pinot Noir production, meaning the vines struggle for ripeness.

North Canterbury is a close-knit community of small growers, which Penelope Nash, owner of Black Estate, calls “a wine geek’s region, we’re free to do what we like, we’re a bit more experimental”. It might be less well-known that its neighbours, but it’s home to some excellent Pinot producers who are pushing the boundaries.

Established Names: Pegasus Bay (New Generation McKinley), Bell Hill (H2Vin, Armit), Pyramid Valley (Caves de Pyrène).
Under the radar: Black Estate (Indigo), Waipara West (Waterloo Wines)

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New Zealand red wine vintages at a glance

2010 Excellent quality, structured and ageworthy.
2011 Warm, damp year; large yields, average quality.
2012 One of the coolest years on record – some thin and green, some fine and fragrant.
2013 Excellent vintage, concentrated and structured wines.
2014 Very good to excellent vintage, particularly in Hawke’s Bay.
2015 Good warm vintage with concentrated wines, great in Canterbury.
2016 Good vintage, especially in Martinborough.

First published in Imbibe magazine.


The winelover’s secret map

Standing in his sun-drenched hallway, my friend and I stood before the newly-hung painting that he bought not long ago. “With a bit of luck, it might even go up in value,” he said, with an arched eyebrow. I couldn’t help but think of the altogether stranger investment of my wine collection.

It’s not much to look at – a couple of hundred dusty bottles behind a mop and a vacuum cleaner. It’s outwardly illegible to all but other wine lovers. Unlike a record collection or a library, you can’t pull out individual entries and enjoy them from time to time. Once you extract the cork, that’s it – with every bottle opened the collection is depleted. Will it increase in value? It’s a moot point – I’m going to drink every bottle, one by one. The drinking of each bottle is the pleasure it provides of course – but not the only pleasure.

The collection isn’t the aim, it’s not even the real investment. The true asset is an ever-growing network, a puzzle solved, a map gradually sketched out. The winelover’s most prized possession isn’t his or her rarest, most expensive bottle, it is this – the glorious, sprawling, detailed, internal wine map. I once tried to replicate just part of it infographically with the help of someone far smarter than me, but it proved impossible – it’s too complex and dynamic to pin down. It has multiple dimensions, comprising regions, varieties, styles, producers, vintages and more. And it’s constantly changing; producers hone their styles, bottles gradually mature and a new vintage is delivered every year.

With every bottle drunk this network gains intricate new connections. As it grows, the map gives greater context and meaning to every bottle drunk.

Each individual bottle is a tasty breadcrumb that guides you down a path towards better and better wine. The wine map encourages you to extend your reach to outlying styles, and emboldens you to stretch for higher levels of quality. It leads you to glimpses of the ancient, the bizarre and the beautiful.

Part of the enjoyment of creating the internal wine map is the challenge. Some set out purposefully to explore the undiscovered country; others stumble upon it by accident and become enthralled. Perversely, part of its appeal is that you can never know it all; there is no destination, you can’t complete the collection, it’s a game that can’t be won. But wine exists, and it is wonderful; you might as well grasp of it what you can, no matter how vainly, rather than ignore it.

Sure, there’s a geeky element for some winelovers; there is a certain crossover between the record collector and the wine collector. But a wine collector who doesn’t drink his bottles is like a record collector who doesn’t listen to his records – both are joyless exercises. And beware of collecting wine with speculation in mind – you can easily find yourself mired in the tourist traps of Bordeaux and Burgundy. It’s better to follow your heart than your wallet.

The internal wine map is an artifice built of memory, experience and pleasure. Unlike other collections it’s weightless and goes everywhere with you. It’s invisible: to be shared and displayed it must be discussed – no wonder wine is famous (or infamous) for its vocabulary. Wine is intrinsically sociable, and the map needs words to breathe life into it. Each map is unique to its owner, and they’re best compared over a bottle of wine; an anchor, a benchmark, a starting point to commune over.

Although the ever-growing wine map can’t be stolen or mislaid, it is only as permanent as a memory. It dies with us – it can never be sold or bequeathed. And it can be expensive to produce and maintain. I’d rather not calculate how much money I’ve invested in mine.

Do I regret it? Not for a moment. It’s not just a map but a prism through which you can experience the world. Mine has led me to villages, cities and breathtaking countryside. It’s introduced me to fascinating people. Looking back, many of my most treasured memories were generated or accompanied by brilliant wines. The internal wine map I’ve invested in may never increase in value like my friend’s piece of art, but to me it’s worth much more than any painting.

Image © Shutterstock

First published on timatkin.com.


Are you on the list?

There’s so much to enjoy when you visit a restaurant: a friendly welcome, the convivial atmosphere, catching up with friends… then some smiling bastard hands you the wine list. Pages and pages of wines you’ve never heard of, at prices you’d baulk at in any shop, and it’s your job to pick one to please yourself and your guests. Some wine lists offer tasting notes, but others give no such clues. There are some useful points worth remembering, however, that can lead you to a smart choice when handed even the weightiest of leather-bound tomes.

Plotting a course

If the head chef writes the menu, then who writes the wine list? It could just be the salesman the restaurant buys their wine from. It might be a wine-savvy restaurant manager – or an indifferent one. It’s hard to tell how seriously a restaurant takes their wine offering just by looking at the list. The name of a sommelier or wine consultant within tends to be a good sign – like Martin Lam, who consults to Brindisa, the Zetter Group and Grain Store in King’s Cross.

If there are no tasting notes, where does he suggest you begin when choosing a wine? “They should at least be grouped in some kind of useful way,” says Lam, “hopefully by style. This should steer you towards the wine you’re looking for or put you in contact with something you don’t know that you might like.” A list laid out by country or region he thinks is “next to useless – it presupposes knowledge.”

Choosing a wine by sticking to a grape variety or region that you know and love can be a safe option, but you risk getting stuck in a rut. Jade Koch is an independent wine adviser to restaurants such as Trullo in Highbury and Padella in London Bridge, and she recommends trying “something new to you from a region you have heard little about. The wine will normally be good because it has had to earn its place on the list amongst the more well-known names that sell themselves, and will generally be priced more competitively.”

Famous names such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Chablis rarely offer the best value – these wines can be glorious, but the best always come with a hefty price tag, so beware of buying cheaper examples blind. For reliable quality at sensible prices in red wine, consider Côtes-du-Rhône, Languedoc, southern Italy, Portugal and Chile; in white, look to the Loire, Germany, Greece, northwest Spain and South Africa.

House swap

When it comes to house wine, it’s impossible to generalise. Lam explains “I know some people that would swear by their house wine, but it can go the other way, it can be deplorable, just the cheapest option.” As for the urban myth about the second cheapest wine on the list having the most inflated price, he says “I’ve never met anyone who’s admitted to that.”

The house wine tends to be the cheapest, but the sweet spot for value is generally between £30 and £100. The grander the restaurant, the higher their running costs, so the steeper their mark-ups need to be; as such, wines in restaurants tend to be pitched anywhere between twice and four times their retail price. Consequently, you’ll be hard pushed to find a genuinely exciting wine in most London restaurants for less than £18 a bottle, or less than £30 at more exclusive addresses.

Koch points out that the house wine “is often also available by the glass, so feel free to ask for a taste and then you start a discussion from there… do [they] have anything lighter, fruitier, etc.” Asking your server which wines they personally enjoy is worthwhile, even if they’re not qualified sommeliers.

Lead by the nose

If there is a sommelier on hand, so much the better. Sommeliers are sometimes unfairly maligned, but their advice can be invaluable – particularly at restaurants like The Greenhouse in Mayfair where there are 3,700 wines to choose from. Elvis Ziakos is their head sommelier. The Greenhouse opened in 1977, so he inherited the wine list from his predecessors, and has since built on it. “Always have a conversation with the sommelier,” he says. “Wine is like food,” he continues, “always having the same wine is like always having the same food… trying something different is the only way to develop your knowledge, palate and experience.”

If you have a budget in mind, spell it out – sommeliers in their monochrome liveries might resemble magicians but they aren’t mind readers. If you’re worried about sounding stingy in front of your date, just state a broad price band and choose one of the less expensive suggestions. Some of the rarest wines at The Greenhouse are worth thousands of pounds, but “good value, even for me, is exciting,” says Ziakos.

Orange is the new white

As with food, wine also follows trends and enjoys new innovations. Two new developments that you might encounter are Coravin and orange wine. Coravin is a wine dispensing system that extracts a small measure from a bottle of wine while keeping the remaining liquid fresh. This means restaurants can offer a broader range by the glass or small serving. It’s a relatively affordable way of experiencing rare wines without shelling out for a whole bottle.

Orange wines are white wines that are made more like red wines. Normally the skins are quickly removed from the juice when making a white, but with orange wine the skins are macerated for a period of time (like in red wine production) to extract more texture, flavour and colour. The resulting wines are varied in style, but tend to be more powerful and notably more tannic – dry and textural – than white wines. Some can be challenging but a shared glass can be a mind opener.

Another trend we can all be thankful for is that wine lists are getting shorter, making wine selection quicker and easier. In respectable restaurants at least, the house wine should be a safe choice; but for better value and a more entertaining night, skip over the famous names and try something off the beaten track. If it’s available by the glass ask for a small sample first. And don’t forget to state your budget and ask for advice – your waiting staff have probably tried enough to give you a steer even if there’s no sommelier. Keep trying different wines and soon enough the wine list will read more like a novel than a telephone directory.

Wine list Dos and Don’ts

1. Decide on what you’re eating first. You might wish that you ordered a bottle of red wine rather than white if everyone around the table then orders a steak.

2. Ask questions. There’s no reason anyone should know anything about wine, no question is stupid.

3. Try something new. Unusual regions and grape varieties tend to offer better value compared to famous names. You’ll expand your repertoire and discover new favourites if you always try something different.

4. Don’t feel under pressure. Advice can be useful, but you’re under no obligation to follow it; only you know what you feel like drinking.

5. Spend as much as you can afford. Unlike some luxuries, with wine, you tend to get what you pay for.

First published in Foodism magazine, but with way better images.


J.L. Chave Sélection 2015s

Jean-Louis Chave makes some of the greatest wines in the Rhône. The Hermitage and Saint-Joseph he produces from his family estate are among the best of their respective appellations. Naturally this level of quality doesn’t come cheap, so they are a rare treat even to committed Rhône lovers like me.

Although he doesn’t produce second wines, Jean-Louis does have a négociant label, J.L. Chave Sélection, a range of wines produced from younger estate vines and sometimes bought-in fruit as well. They are made just as diligently as the wines from his estate, but are considerably cheaper.

There are six wines in the collection:

Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge ‘Mon Coeur’
Crozes-Hermitage Rouge ‘Silène’
Saint-Joseph Blanc ‘Circa’
Saint-Joseph Rouge ‘Offerus’
Hermitage Rouge ‘Farconnet’
Hermitage Blanc ‘Blanche’

The 2015 vintage was exceptionally good in the Northern Rhône, and the 2015 vintage of the Cotes-du-Rhône, the Crozes-Hermitage and the Saint-Joseph Blanc are now available in the UK. All are excellent and well worth getting your hands on. I’ll write up the remaining three when they’re released.

J.L. Chave Sélection Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge ‘Mon Coeur’ 2015 (14.5% ABV)
£80.00 per 12 bottles in bond (equivalent of £10.60 per bottle including taxes), A&B Vintners
45% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre mostly from the Southern Rhône villages of Vinsobres, Rasteau and Cairanne. Blackberry, loganberry and the faintest whiff of bonfire, all very enticing. It's the palate that really makes an impression though, this is a remarkably well tailored and sophisticated Côtes-du-Rhône – one of the finest I've tasted labelled under this modest appellation. Lush, but well balanced, with a richly textured mouthfeel and juicy berry acidity. Very good value at under £11 a bottle – essential mid-week drinking.
90 points, 2017-2019

J.L. Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage Rouge ‘Silène’ 2015 (14% ABV)
£130.00 per 12 bottles in bond (equivalent of £15.60 per bottle including taxes), A&B Vintners
Sleek, cool and fragrant, this is a very pure expression of Syrah from Crozes-Hermitage. Plenty of ripe berry fruit and a straight, tailored profile make for a considered and precise wine. Well balanced and well judged. Good value at less than £16 a bottle.
91 points, 2017-2020

J.L. Chave Sélection Saint-Joseph Blanc ‘Circa’ 2015 (14% ABV)
£25.25 per bottle including taxes, Yapp
Pure Roussanne. A discrete nose of honeycomb and vanilla over yellow pear and quince, with integrated oak. Unashamedly full-bodied, rich in glycerol and flavour; acidity is on the low side, but it retains a sense of freshness. It takes its time to saunter over the senses. Dry yet generous on the finish, which is lengthened by an ember of toasty oak. Fairly priced at £25 for a wine of this class.
92 points, 2017-2019


Martin Lam: The chef that writes wine lists

Martin Lam

Which comes first: the celebrity chef’s animated persona or their success in television? Martin Lam has largely eschewed the media over his 45 years in the restaurant business. Perhaps it’s how he’s remained so down-to-earth; at 62, he has the affable but astute demeanour of a QC on his day off. Another consequence, however, is that he is not as widely recognised as his peers. Nonetheless his career has been exceptional – head chef at Le Caprice and L’Escargot, owner of Ransome’s Dock – and he deserves to be as well known outside the restaurant trade as he is within it. But what really makes Lam unique as a chef is that he has an equal grasp of both food and wine.

Footholds and hands up

Born in Bristol in 1955, Lam’s father was a food importer. While still at school he had a job as a kitchen porter, and was a full-time chef by the age of 18. After a few years cooking around the west of England, he moved to London to work at the pioneering delicatessen of Justin de Blank. “Justin was Anglo Dutch,” says Lam, “he worked for J. Walter Thompson in advertising, he worked alongside Terrance Conran. He left advertising to open a traiteur in Belgravia. They were way ahead of their time, importing stuff that only places that Fortnum & Mason even touched on, but not with the depth and accuracy that he had. We [the staff] were able to use their produce and develop our repertoire.”

It was here that Lam developed an interest in wine. Justin Le Blank was a friend of Aubert de Villaine (co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée Conti) and stocked de Villaine's own label collection. “Justin encouraged me to learn about wine, sent me off on a WSET course. Because he saw I was interested… we really got into it, tasting regularly. He was a real inspiration, as was his partner Robert Troop, in showing how it was possible to work with people and encourage them. Cooking in those days wasn’t a particularly attractive area to be in, you did it because you wanted to. They encouraged people to think, and to be good to each other.”

Talking to Lam reminds you that the catering business is precarious and unpredictable, but also companionable; when thinking of a restaurant, we imagine the enduring façade of a building, but it's really more like a human pyramid. He mentions countless people who have given him a hand up over the years, his gratitude still warm.

From Justin Le Blank’s, Lam moved to the English House, a restaurant in Chelsea that focussed on antiquarian English recipes, where he was promoted to head chef at just 26 years old. The food writer Elizabeth David lived opposite and was a regular. “We were hand-churning ice cream, she said ‘come over, you can borrow my electric one’. I was trembling in my boots! But she was incredibly nice to me.” She allowed him to use her library – a priceless resource before the days of the Internet.

Le Caprice and L’Escargot

Elizabeth David’s library proved particularly useful when he needed to learn how to make pasta before he joined Le Caprice in 1981 as opening head chef. “Chris Corbin was working at Langham’s. Jeremy King was working at Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden. They hatched an idea with a customer of Langham’s with a dream of opening a restaurant…. It was Joseph Ettedgui, a sweet guy, a Moroccan. He was a hairdresser that sold frocks in the back of his salon, that eventually became the Joseph clothes range.”

But after several busy opening months, disaster struck. “Joseph pulled the plug and he closed the doors after a falling out with Jeremy. We were in shock... I had a 6-month-old daughter at the time, I remember falling asleep at my chef’s desk at 2am after doing the ordering. Chris and Jeremy found alternative finance, but I ducked out.”

Shortly after leaving Le Caprice, Lam visited a friend who was working at L’Escargot in Soho, which had just been opened by Nick Lander and Jancis Robinson. “They were desperately looking for a chef. I said, ‘not me, but I’ll help you out for a bit’.” After making some changes, “it all just went click. It was one of the best working relationships, teams, that I’ve ever had in my life.” He ended up staying for 10 years. “It was so unpretentious – great food and wine and no bullshit… It was Jancis who persuaded Nick to write the menus in English – it was quietly revolutionary. Up until then, everything was in French.”

For his last three years at L’Escargot, Lam was responsible not just for the menu, but also the wine list. “I used to send it to Jancis to check it over for me,” he says. Jancis has fond memories of the time. “It was a real delight to me,” she says, “to see how interested in wine he swiftly became. The list there was initially all-American and was distinguished by being one of the first to group wines by style and to include brief descriptions of each wine.” His wine lists today are still designed with the casual wine drinker in mind, using layout, groupings and descriptions to help guide customers towards something they’ll enjoy.

Ransome’s Dock

By the time Lander came to sell his share in L’Escargot in the early Nineties, Lam also owned a significant stake. Lander initially offered to sell his to Lam, but it would have meant raising a cool £1m. Instead, Lam took a gamble on opening a new restaurant at a riverside site in Battersea, far away from the busy West End. “I got friends and family to chip in, we all got paint brushes out to get it open,” he says, and along with his wife Vanessa, he opened Ransome’s Dock to glowing reviews.

Lam worked behind the stove, but at the same time he built up an award-winning 400-bin wine list, every wine with its own description. His understanding of wine and how to create menus to work with diverse styles made it a popular venue for wine merchants to hold winemaker dinners and events.

Ransome’s Dock rapidly became known as ‘the wine trade canteen’. “I find it weird that there aren’t more chefs who are wine savvy… It’s a shame, as someone that works with food and flavour all day long has a natural affinity to finding those things in wine. I’m yet to find a winemaker that doesn’t think about the food to go with their wine. There’s such a synergy between them, a natural fit.” There aren’t many other chefs with a solid grasp of wine, but Lam gives the nod to Roger Jones, Rowley Leigh and Bruce Poole.

Making the restaurant welcoming for families was just as important to Lam. “One of its greatest successes was seeing three or four generations of the same family at Sunday lunch all eating together. And having people coming up to me saying ‘this is my 18-year-old child, I taught them about food here’… we made a difference to people.”

Albert Bridge connected the restaurant to much of its loyal clientele in Chelsea over the River Thames. When the bridge closed for 22 months, it severed this crucial artery and they lost 25% of their business overnight. Then a large company next door that yielded many customers relocated. After 21 years in business, “it was time to stop, before we became seriously ill – longer and longer hours, but still putting in 100%... It was a hard decision to make, but we were resolved to do it, and we haven’t regretted it since. It was all-consuming – very little holiday, and seven days a week... The only reason we’d have hung onto it was if [our daughter] had expressed a desire to take it on herself – but she’s too sensible for that!” They closed the doors for the last time in 2013.

Paying it forward

Freed from the confines of the kitchen, Lam now consults to other restaurants, currently working on wine lists for Brindisa, the Zetter Group and Grain Store, with several other collaborative projects in the pipeline. “One thing I’d like to do more of is to find people that are in the first stages of planning their first business. I have no plans to be a restaurant doctor, but I’d love to stop people becoming a casualty in the first place, by nurturing them and giving them a helping hand.” When discussing previous Ransome’s Dock staff members who have since gone on to open their own establishments, his face lights up.

When asked how he managed to stay successfully operating for over twenty years, he replies “well we wanted to, aside from anything else. I would say when you have a skill or a talent or training – it’s your metier, you earn your living from it. You don’t just bring in equity finance after 3 years and roll it out.” In the era of the popup and the microtrend, Lam is a reminder of the timeless and universal attributes of the restaurateur – to nourish, and quite literally – from the French, and the Latin before that – to restore. His customers, staff and clients will no doubt benefit from these qualities for years to come.

First published on timatkin.com.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape's rock n' roll excess

When I listen to electro I crave Riesling. The precise polished perfection of the sound somehow recalls the technicolour citrus acidity of the wine. Châteauneuf-du-Pape however suggests the gothic aesthetic, excess and volume of hard rock and early metal – Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Uriah Heep. Châteauneuf has never been a retiring wallflower, but over the past couple of decades its rock n’ roll attitude has stepped up a gear; it is now one of the most alcoholically potent of all dry red wines. How did it get to this point – and with the alcohol cranked all the way up to 11, where does it go from here?

More Than A Feeling

For such a bold style, the wines are built around a surprisingly impressionable grape. Grenache, sometimes referred to as ‘the Pinot of the South’, produces very different wines depending on where it’s grown, how it’s made and who has a hand in making it. One thing is for certain – it will never give low alcohol wines: in Châteauneuf, Grenache needs to reach around 14.5% potential alcohol before it’s fully ripe. But it often doesn’t stop there; of the 200+ red Châteauneufs I tasted last year from the 2015 vintage, over half were 15% ABV or above. One came in at a thunderous 16.5%.

Fabrice Brunel of Domaine Les Cailloux acknowledges “it’s true, the average degree of alcohol has increased in the last 15 years”. He believes global warming is a factor. Warmer temperatures and less rain are leading to a higher concentration of sugars in the grapes. Picking them earlier might sound like a sensible solution, but the grapes still need to reach aromatic maturity, and this hasn’t advanced at the same rate. He also points out that “the vines are quite old in Châteauneuf (around 60 on average I think) so the production is low and the berries very concentrated… that leads to high degrees.” Old vines are usually cherished for the quality of their fruit, but in this sense, they are a mixed blessing. Florent Lançon of Domaine de la Solitude points out two additional factors – clonal selection and fertilisers are also to blame for high sugar levels, and in turn high alcohols.

But the increase in alcohol isn’t just to do with climate and viticulture, it’s also been unwittingly encouraged by critics who favour this style. One producer cited Robert Parker as a “driving factor”; another mentioned the “race for the biggest wine for the biggest score” which pushes winemakers and consultants to pick later and later to please the palates of particular journalists.

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Alcohol levels may be high, but this isn’t a problem for everyone. Véronique Maret from Domaine de la Charbonnière sums up the sentiments of almost all the winemakers I spoke to in saying “it’s all a question of balance.” That’s to say, if you don’t perceive the alcohol and the wines taste balanced then this is what really matters. She points out that the alcohol level shouldn’t be seen as an indication of quality; in fact, for previous generations the higher the alcohol level, the better the wine.

Californian winemaker Rajat Parr, who led the In Pursuit of Balance movement, agrees that balance can be achieved at relatively high alcohol levels. But when it comes to high alcohol Châteauneuf, he admits “it doesn’t fit in my eating and drinking profile”. Drinkability and context matter, and as Châteauneuf alcohol levels rise, it becomes harder to match them with a broad range of foods. They can also render you inconveniently sloshed at the end of a meal. I’ve heard winemakers counter that we should simply drink slower, or less; but in practice it’s not easy to alter the way you enjoy a meal just to cater for one style of wine.

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

I have encountered wonderful, balanced Châteauneufs at 15.5%: it can be achieved. But I’ve tasted some Special Cuvées and pure Grenache wines that taste almost like caricatures of Châteauneuf – the contemporary persona of Ozzy Osbourne compared to vintage Black Sabbath. But there are several approaches that winemakers are taking to reduce alcohol levels – and some of these have the added benefit of adding complexity, interest and individuality to the finished wines.

If Grenache is Châteauneuf’s front man, then it’s the rest of the band who hold the key to reining in his most excessive behaviour. Guillaume Gonnet makes wines under his own label ‘Guillaume Gonnet, Vigneron’ and for his family winery Domaine Font de Michelle. With 13 varieties to use, he says “it comes down to blending… you need to pick the Grenache when it’s ripe, not overripe, but when it has reached its peak. Then you can blend it with a Syrah and Mourvèdre at 13% (yes they can be beautiful at 13%) and the average comes down... I think it is entirely possible to make really great Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine with an alcoholic percentage of 14.5% (still pretty high!). When you push the alcoholic maturity too much, you miss out on complexity, elegance, the terroir effect; all the things that make wine interesting, and that’s a shame.”

Both he and Véronique Maret have been co-planting their vineyards with other varieties to help rebalance the Grenache: Gonnet is focussing on Cinsault, Counoise and Vaccarèse; Maret on Cinsault, Counoise, Mourvèdre, Clairette and Bourboulenc. For Maret, it’s “to increase the complexity of our wines but also to prepare of the future.” Another way to reduce alcohol levels is to include a proportion of stems in the ferments – used well, this can also bring further texture and complexity to the finished wine.

For such a classic style of wine, Châteauneuf can sometimes lack a little self-confidence; it’s at its best when it ignores the capricious tastes of critics and the homogenising hand of the consultant to concentrate on wines that winemakers want to drink themselves, with their families, at the dinner table. Châteauneuf, rather like Lemmy from Motörhead, can take more alcohol than most and still perform. Like these classic rock and metal acts, we love these wines for their power, volume and sheer grandiosity – but we don’t want to see them go off the rails completely.

First published on timatkin.com.


New Zealand's hothouse Syrah

Stonecroft

In 1984, a man called Dr Alan Limmer was doing some work at a government viticultural research station on North Island, New Zealand. One day he heard it was about to be closed down due to lack of funds and the vineyards bulldozed. He raced over there to see what he could salvage. He rescued nine Syrah vines from the bonfire – the only ones in the country at that time. They still had plastic name tags around them like babies’ ankles. He took them home and planted them in his own estate, Stonecroft, in Hawke’s Bay. These original vines are still there today, bearing fruit and providing cuttings. No-one knows for sure how Syrah came to be established in its heartland of the Rhône – but we can be reasonably sure it didn’t turn up in a cloud of dust in the back of someone’s ute.

The New Zealand wine industry may be young, but it has quickly become something of a talent hothouse for French grape varieties; first Sauvignon Blanc, then Pinot Noir. Syrah has taken a little longer to find itself, but it appears to have finally found its voice.

When it comes to red wine in New Zealand, Pinot Noir dominates the scene with 70% of plantings. After this comes Merlot at 16%, but plantings are shrinking as the results are rarely distinctive. Syrah comes in third at just 6% of plantings, and this figure is rapidly increasing as its potential becomes clear. It has spread from its Hawke’s Bay homeland to all the principal New Zealand wine regions and it’s already showing identifiable regional and even sub-regional styles; Hawke’s Bay, Waiheke Island, Martinborough and Marlborough are the regions to know.

Hawke’s Bay

Three quarters of Syrah plantings are found in Hawke’s Bay. This is the fruit basket of New Zealand, warm and sunny, with most of the vineyards found on the flats that spread inland from the sea. The meandering paths of four rivers have laid down diverse soils. One sector of deep gravelly stones has a particularly inglorious CV; previous occupations have been a rubbish tip and a drag strip – it was too infertile even for grazing sheep. This was until someone thought of growing vines on it – and since then it has revealed itself as one of New Zealand’s most promising terroirs. This sub-region is known as Gimblett Gravels.

Trinity Hill is one of its stand-out Syrah producers. It was established by Robyn and Robert Wilson, owners of the Bleeding Heart restaurant in London, and their friend John Hancock, an Australian winemaker. He worked a vintage with Rhône legend Gérard Jaboulet in 1996, and brought back a cutting from one of Jaboulet’s best Hermitage vineyards. Their top Syrah, Homage, is a tribute to Jaboulet who died the following year. Although the region is responsible for some well-regarded Bordeaux blends and Chardonnays, Hancock believes that “we can own that spicy, peppery style of Syrah, and that’s probably what’s going to make Hawke’s Bay’s name internationally”.

Warren Gibson is head winemaker at Trinity Hill, and also makes wine with his wife Lorraine Leheny under their own Bilancia label. That addictive peppery Syrah signature is emphasised in many of New Zealand’s best Syrahs, and none more so than with Bilancia’s La Collina Syrah 2013. Hawke’s Bay is the opposite of the Rhône in that the vines are largely grown on the flat rather than the hillsides; this steep vineyard is one of the rare exceptions to the rule. It’s an experiment that has paid dividends. It was made without destemming (using a proportion of stems in the ferments is common practice with New Zealand Syrah), which has added to an exuberant fragrance that would give some Côte-Rôties a run for their money.

A newer sub-region that borders Gimblett Gravels is Bridge Pa. The deep gravels here are overlaid with greywacke, wind-borne silt and volcanic ash which gives the Syrahs here their own distinctive character; still peppery, but more floral, slightly lighter, with more red fruit flavours, notably raspberry. Te Mata Estate’s Bullnose Syrah is a vibrant example. We’ll surely see more sub-regions developing their own unique voice as the region develops – the consistently excellent Elephant Hill is building a case for bright, silky Syrahs of Te Awanga, a stone’s throw from the sea.

Waiheke Island

With 60 hectares under vine, the second largest region for Syrah in New Zealand is Auckland & Northlands, in particular the small island of Waiheke, 10km to the east of Auckland itself. It’s a beautifully picturesque spot, green and hilly with peaceful sandy bays. There are 29 small wineries on the island; Man O’ War Vineyards is the biggest by far. “We don’t feel like we need to be part of the Pinot Noir conversation,” says winemaker and chief executive Duncan MacTavish, “Syrah has been going from strength to strength. We can’t make enough.”

A vertical tasting of their Dreadnought Syrah shows that the 2012 vintage was a turning point. They stopped acidifying, started using a proportion of stems and lengthened the wine’s time in 500l barrel from 12 to 24 months. The jump in quality could also partly be down to vine age. As vines mature, MacTavish is noticing “we’re moving into subtleties, not just blasts of fruit”. This bodes well for the future, and not just for Waiheke.

Waiheke isn’t quite as sunny as Hawke’s Bay, and it’s relatively humid; there’s less of a difference between night and day temperatures too. This climatic difference, coupled with heavy clay and volcanic soils, leads to a different style of Syrah. It’s bigger and bolder, with polished dark fruits, somewhere between Syrah and Shiraz. Passage Rock and Hay Paddock are other names to watch.

Martinborough

The tiny town of Martinborough is found close to the southern tip of the North Island, 65km east of New Zealand’s diminutive capital city Wellington. It’s home to 1,600 inhabitants who live in a collection of pretty one and two storey wooden houses centred around a central square laid out like the Union Jack. The town is hemmed in by some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir vineyards; no producer yet hangs their hat on Syrah, but there are some highly promising examples now cropping up.

One of the most distinctive is made by Kusuda Wines. During his time as a law student in his native Japan, Hiroyuki Kusuda took some time out to backpack around Europe, developing a love of wine along the way. He finished his law studies back home and got a job, but his interest in wine grew until he couldn’t ignore it any longer; wine fought the law and the wine won. In 1997 he learnt German and left to study oenology and viticulture in Geisenheim University. His thesis on New Zealand Chardonnay eventually led him to Martinborough, where he eventually returned to rent, then eventually buy, some vineyards. He makes Pinot Noir, Syrah and Riesling. His production methods for Syrah are “much like Pinot, but with more air”, and it shows. It’s an unshowy, neat style of Syrah, with a sunny vibrancy and intense freshness.

There are only 10 hectares of Syrah in Martinborough, and Kusuda doesn’t expect this to increase since the area is wedded to Pinot Noir in the minds of both producers and consumers. But there are several other examples worth tracking down: Martinborough Vineyard makes a juicy, pretty Syrah cofermented with 4% Viognier; Dry River’s Lovat Vineyard Amaranth is a fuller-bodied, more textural style with expressive aromatics; and Ata Rangi has just started bottling a pure Syrah called Juliet from the 2013 vintage. On tasting it from barrel, winemaker Helen Masters saw “for the first time what I always thought Martinborough Syrah should be”. It’s a beautiful wine that demonstrates that Martinborough has the potential for world-class Syrah.

Marlborough

Marlborough has 19,047 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc. When the renowned soil scientist Claude Bourguignon visited Fromm Winery, he told them they should actually be growing Syrah. To their credit, they ignored their neighbours and heeded his advice; their Fromm Vineyard Syrah is a beacon of Syrah in a sea of Sav. Their 1999 is glorious and still going strong.

As the valley floors of Marlborough become fully planted, it’s the land at the fringes that’s in the sights of many wineries. Happily, the hills to the south of the Wairau Valley with their clay-rich soils are proving to be good sites for red varieties. The Clayvin vineyard is only the second hillside vineyard to be planted in Marlborough, but the wines grown here from both Fromm and Giesen show great promise.

There are now 10 hectares of Syrah in the region, the same as Martinborough. Both regions are relatively cool for successfully ripening this variety, but the style is different. Martinborough tends towards a floral yet savoury medium-bodied expression; Marlborough tends towards a slightly lighter, more peppery example. With the Marlborough name so strongly connected with Sauvignon, it’s unlikely that Marlborough will ever be a major hotbed of Syrah. Anna Flowerday of Te Whare Ra explains “the potential is pretty huge, but at a premium price… it’s always going to be the small independent wineries.”

The future’s bright

New Zealand has developed a unique national style of Syrah that makes total sense within its broader wine lexicon and cuisine. If Australian Shiraz has traditionally emphasised the variety’s black fruit flavours, weight and depth, then New Zealand Syrah underlines its red fruit register, acidity and fragrance. What makes it truly exciting is the way that it’s already expressing subtle but marked stylistic variances across different regions and vintages.

Thanks to their upfront aromatics and bite, New Zealand Syrahs are rarely low on impact. What they occasionally lack is weight and length of fruit on the palate, and their tannic frame can sometimes be fairly slight. I’m confident that this will naturally (if slowly) be addressed as vines mature. Occasionally winemakers are overly keen with new barrels and overgenerous with the Viognier used in blends, but these issues are quicker and easier to rectify.

Many of the wines aren’t just good, they have the breezy character and flawless looks of the Hollywood child star. I’m looking forward to seeing how these wines develop on a producer level; the lines and scars, the characterful asymmetries the unapologetic quirks. One of my favourite vintages in the Rhône is 1983 – those first Stonecroft vines weren’t even planted then. New Zealand Syrah has come a long way in a short time, and its adoptive country is proving to be a natural and exciting new home.

Some top New Zealand Syrahs to explore

Waiheke Island

Man O’ War Dreadnought 2012, 2014
Man O’ War Kulta 2012
Passage Rock Reserve Syrah 2013

Hawke’s Bay

Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2010, 2014
Trinity Hills Homage 2015
Bilancia Syrah 2014
Bilancia La Collina Syrah 2013
Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2014
Craggy Range Le Sol 2011, 2014
Elephant Hill Reserve Syrah 2012, 2014
Elephant Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2013
Elephant Hill Ariviata 2009
Vidal Reserve Syrah 2014
Vidal Legacy Syrah 2010, 2014
Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 2015
John Forrest Collection Gimblett Gravels 2013
Cypress White Label Syrah 2015
Paritua Syrah 2014
Ash Ridge Premium Estate Syrah 2015
Element Syrah 2015

Martinborough

Kusuda Syrah 2013, 2014
Martinborough Vineyard Syrah Viognier 2014
Ata Rangi Juliet Syrah 2013
Dry River Lovat Vineyard Amaranth Syrah 2013

Marlborough

Fromm La Strada Syrah 2014
Fromm Fromm Vineyard Syrah 2010, 2014, 2015
Te Whare Ra Syrah Singe Vineyard Syrah 2015
Wairau River Reserve Syrah 2014
Giesen Clayvin Syrah 2012, 2013

First published on timatkin.com.