Coming of age

Orange wine. Grower Champagne. Biodynamics. Trends come and go in wine like anything else. Some are clearly gimmicks (blue wine, anyone?) Others, like Natural wine, feel more significant. One global trend in red wines has taken hold over the past ten years with all the inevitability of a rebellious teenager. Power and concentration are out; freshness and drinkability are in. On the face of it our change of taste is simply a kneejerk reaction to the macho wines of the 1990s and 2000s, but it’s caused by a combination of different factors. And in turning our backs on these more robust styles we might be inadvertently spurning one of wines defining characteristics: it’s ability to age.

Wines such as Bordeaux and Port that have traditionally been built to last are losing favour; those that are approachable young like Jura and Beaujolais are in the ascendant. These latter styles sometimes age well, but this is often incidental rather than their raison d’être. And to really reap the benefits of what time can bring to a wine, it needs to be made with ageing in mind.

With the growth of Uber, Netflix and even wine apps such as Drop, much has been made of the ‘on-demand economy’. What we want, we want now. Since most wine is shipped shortly after bottling, that’s when it usually gets drunk, so it needs to be delicious on release. Waiting for a decade or two before your wine is drinkable feels like the behaviour of a bygone era.

This focus on early drinking wines isn’t just about impatient Millennials. It reflects the subtle change in consumer attitudes to wine over the past twenty years. There has been a gradual shift in emphasis from collecting wine to drinking it. Collections demand concentrated and structured wines – wines with longevity. Wine lists in bars and restaurants don’t – they need wines that meet the needs of the diner; charm, refreshment, drinkability. The powerful critics of the 90s and 2000s with their trophies and icon wines feel increasingly irrelevant.

The dynamic nature of the restaurant scene might also be driving this trend. According to Harden’s Restaurant Guide, London saw more new openings in 2016 than any other year since its records began in 1991. Finding restaurants or wine bars with cellars for ageing wines is increasingly rare, and not just in the UK. As inner city rents spiral, its simply not a cost-effective use of space. The same is true for high street wine merchants. And for private homes. I’m not sure exactly who is ageing wine in the UK these days.

People are drinking less aged wine because there is less of it around. Fewer drinkers will have the opportunity to taste mature wines, so they won’t develop a taste for them. The trend toward drinking young rather than aged wines is deep-seated, and likely to endure.

As a drinker, it’s refreshing to see more of these vibrant, youthful styles emerging from the shadow of so many monolithic Cabernet Sauvignons. As they become more popular with drinkers, many winemakers will be liberated to make better wines. Ageability has long been a critical measure of quality in wine; less emphasis on this will free producers to make lighter, more drinkable styles that might better suit their terroir or personal ethos.

But if this trend means fewer aged wines on the market, then for most wine lovers it can’t be an entirely positive development. Some of the most unique and unforgettable wine experiences come from the complexities and flavour profiles that can only be derived from mature wines. They can’t be rushed or faked. Any wine scene that has fewer of these wines to explore is impoverished – like a library or music collection that only houses new releases.

Some producers of ageworthy wines such as Château Latour in Bordeaux and Bodegas López de Heredia in Rioja only release their wines when they’re ready to drink. Châteauneuf estate Clos des Papes holds back parcels of mature wines specifically for the restaurant trade. I hope this becomes more common, and for supplying retailers too. It’s vital for the vibrancy and variety of local wine scenes, but just as important for producers, to help ensure that the styles of wines they produce remain visible, relevant and viable. New developments, trends and even technology are what keep the wine scene exciting. But we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

First published on

My first week in New Zealand

Sunday 29th January

Geisen Clayvin Syrah 2012

New Zealand is a friendly place. Before I’d even landed in Auckland, a guy in the passport queue had taken my details and promised to send me a list of his favourite Syrahs. And within ten minutes of finding a wine bar the owner had poured me a generous taster of the Giesen Clayvin Vineyard Syrah 2012, one of the best reds from Marlborough. It’s my first visit to NZ and it has a disarmingly friendly and uncomplicated vibe.

Call me a curmudgeon, but these are two characteristics I’ve never valued in wine – the wines that I’ve grown to love aren’t friendly, they’re awkward bastards that don’t care what I think – they don’t go out of their way to please. “Oh, you don’t like me?” they say with a passive-aggressive Gallic shrug; “then drink something else ffs.” Wines like Barolo, Sherry, Savennières. ‘Uncomplicated’ is great when it comes to train ticket machines and online tax forms, but when it comes to things like plots and wines, I’ll take complicated any day.

Perhaps this is why I haven’t yet got into New Zealand wines. Will I learn to love the friendly and easy-going? Or will I find some difficult bastards to revel in?

Monday 30th January

Waiheke Island

Wine has taken me to some remote places, and Waiheke Island off the coast of Auckland is certainly one of them – remote and beautiful. It's small – just an hour’s drive across – and inhabited almost exclusively by tourists and winemakers. Duncan McTavish, CEO and winemaker at Man O’ War Vineyards, picked me up in his battered pickup to go and taste his Syrahs.

They’re the biggest producer on the island and they make some serious wines. We started with the 2009 Dreadnought Syrah, his first vintage, and went through to the 2014. The turning point was the 2012; they started including a proportion of stems, stopped acidifying and extended the time in barrel (500l French, 25% new). The 2012 and 2014 are both excellent, robust styles with structure and fragrance. They also make the vibrant Bellerophon, which includes 3% Viognier, and the single vineyard Kulta Syrah. Both are worth a look, especially the Kulta in a couple of years when it’s had time to develop. Duncan is clearly having a whale of a time, which isn’t surprising as he’s basically making wine in paradise.

Man O’ War is a hard act to follow, but I dropped in at Villa Maria on the way to the airport. Their new visitor centre is impressive and the wines are as consistent as ever. They’re experimenting with some new varieties; their restrained, firm Single Vineyard Ihumatao Verdelho 2014 has real presence and their new flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, Ngakirikiri 2013 from Gimblett Gravels in Hawke's Bay, is phenomenally good (but not cheap). I flew into Wellington straight after the tasting and readied myself for three days of pure Pinot…

Tuesday 31st January

Craggy Range

Gazing at its natural beauty, it’s easy to forget just how new things are in New Zealand. The islands have only been populated for 700 years. There was nobody there before, not even the Maoris. And the modern wine industry has only been going for 40 years. At the first day of the conference, I bumped into some winemakers who were responsible for planting the vines and fashioning these first tentative wines. It’s like chatting to Dom Pérignon, but this being New Zealand, everyone’s so relaxed you could easily forget just what they've achieved.

The conference got off to a striking start with a traditional Maori welcome and some exceptional presentations from the likes of Professor Dame Anne Salmond, New Zealander of the Year 2013, who gave us an unforgettable lesson in New Zealand history and culture. In the afternoon I concentrated on tasting wines from Marlborough and Nelson. Things are changing quickly here. If you think Marlborough Pinots are all light-bodied wines with simple, sweet red fruits, then check out the latest from Clos Marguerite, Seresin, Giesen and – my discovery of the day – micro-negociant Corofin. Marlborough is transforming itself into New Zealand’s Côte de Beaune.

Wednesday 1st February

Pinot NZ 2017 Conference

If you ask a top international panel to choose two non-NZ wines to illustrate greatness in Pinot Noir, how many Burgundies do you think will be selected? Just one, it turns out – and that was made by an Australian. The panel consisted of Jancis Robinson MW, Ken Ohashi MW, Mike Bennie and Marcel Giesen, and delivered plenty of food for thought.

Blind tastings are always humbling and instructive, and this one served as a reminder of the potential for quality outside of Pinot’s French heartland. Highlights for me were Domaine de la Côte 'Bloom’s Field' 2014, Santa Rita Hills, California; Dr Mayer Pinot Noir 2014, Yarra Valley, Australia; Meyer-Näkel ‘G’ Spätburgunder 2014, Ahr, Germany; and Aussie Mark Haisma Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru Les Chaffots 2013, Burgundy, France. Giesen rounded off the session by comparing New Zealand winemakers to the students of grand master painters who are now beginning to find their own voice and expression, particularly as vines reach maturity.

New Zealand wine journalist and sonic artist Jo Burzynska was up next to demonstrate how the same wine can taste different when listening to different types of music. I think many of us instinctively feel that music can subtly alter our enjoyment wine (and food for that matter) but it was fun to try it out live, working through a glass of Pinot firstly with silence, then dubstep, then baroque, then hard rock, and finally ambient. Turns out that ambient music is a Pinot’s best friend – it was a piece that she’d composed herself in fact. And now I know why they don’t serve Pinot Noir at dubstep raves…

Thursday 2nd February

Stephen Wong MW

The final day of the conference started with a half-a-dozen highly diverse and captivating talks. Michael Brajkovich MW of Kumeu River Wines spoke about indigenous yeasts; Janis Robinson MW updated us on microbial terroir; Stephen Wong MW talked about the language of wine lists; Andrea Frost suggested ways that our communication about wine could progress; and Elaine Chukan Brown explained that we should do our best in our work for our descendants, some of whom we’ll never meet.

Dom Maxwell, winemaker at Greystone Wines in North Canterbury, was the first to speak and told us about his unique approach to fermentation. The use of indigenous yeasts that live in the local environment, rather than shop-bought yeasts, is a growing trend around the world. Converts believe it can better express their terroir, or that indigenous yeast is even a part of terroir. Greystone is taking it one step further however: to avoid the influence of yeasts that live in their winery building, they are fermenting their wines in the vineyard itself instead of the winery. It’s quite possibly unique in the world of wine, and they believe their wines are better for it, with lower alcohols and more precise reflections of site and vintage.

A tasting of Central Otago Pinot Noirs that afternoon showed a range of different styles. Trends toward whole bunch fermentation and away from new oak are both positive developments. That ‘fruit bomb’ style that has been a calling card for some Central Otago Pinots seems to be on the wane, and more savoury, medium-bodied styles are on the rise. If that sounds encouraging, seek out wines from Akitu, Surveyor Thomson, Prophet’s Rock and particularly Rippon, whose 2006 Sagesse Pinot Noir was one of the most impressive wines at the entire conference.

Friday 3rd February

Marlborough Sounds

With the conference over, it was time to fly to Napier for the Classic Reds Symposium. Getting there was part of the fun: a chartered Air New Zealand jet flew us over Nelson, Marlborough, Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay at 5,000 feet so we could get a better understanding of the vineyards. All this with a commentary by ‘Captain’ Bob Campbell MW, a world authority on New Zealand wines, and wines matching the vineyards we were flying over. I was even lucky enough not to be sitting next to one of the travellers who turned an unhealthy shade of green. Bit too much Pinot the night before!

We landed 86 years to the day that an earthquake measuring 7.8 devastated the town of Napier, killing 256 inhabitants – New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster. It lasted two and a half minutes, during which the land was raised by two metres, and some 40km² of sea bed was pushed skywards, becoming dry land. Imagine witnessing that. New Zealand still feels very much ‘Earth in progress’.

Saturday 4th February

Syrah tasting

Today centred around the tasting I’d been waiting for: 16 Syrahs, 12 from New Zealand, 4 from other cool climate regions, all tasted blind. Most New Zealand Syrah is grown in Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island (both on the North Island) with a splash found in most other regions, even Central Otago. A chirruping fantail bird hopped among the rafters above us in the Trinity Hill barrel room where we sat as if to remind us which country was hosting us.

The New Zealand wines were from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke, and there was certainly a stylistic variation between the three: Marlborough delivers a lighter-bodied, aromatic and peppery expression; Waiheke wines tend to be fuller and denser with darker fruits. Hawke’s Bay sits between the two and has a greater breadth of styles.

The two Rhône ringers were both from Chapoutier; Saint-Joseph Les Granits 2013 and Ermitage Les Greffieux 2013. Neither were showing terribly well, the Granits in particular, which is a shame as normally this is an excellent wine. The Greffieux was unmistakably Rhône in the line-up; it had intense weight and texture of tannin, and also flirted with faults – two things that contrasted it against the New Zealand wines. Some stand-out New Zealand Syrahs were John Forrest Collection Gimblett Gravels 2013, Bilancia La Collina 2013, Trinity Hill Homage 2013, Craggy Range Le Sol 2013, Man O’ War Dreadnought 2014 and Passage Rock Reserve 2013.

From here I'll be travelling around Hawke's Bay, to Martinborough and Marlborough to see what their Syrahs are like in a bit more detail - I’ll be back in a couple of weeks for a full report on

Decanter Regional Profile: Hermitage

Hermitage hillside

It's hard to beat Syrah from the greatest sites in the Rhône, but I've tasted a few from New Zealand recently that have been really impressive. I'm on my way over there tomorrow for a couple of weeks for a closer look - my first visit, so I'm hugely excited. I'll be tweeting as usual from @mattwallswine

In the meantime, here's a recent article I wrote for Decanter magazine - a regional profile on Hermitage.

Decanter Hermitage Jan 2017 edition

How the other half drinks

Is there a quicker way to get to know someone than by flicking through their music collection or browsing their bookshelves? Both feel like a little glimpse into their soul. For wine lovers, rifling through someone's cellar can be equally enlightening. I’ve spoken to some of the best wine writers in the UK; they advise us on what to buy, but what do they spend their own money on? Where do they put it all? And what will they be digging out on Christmas Day? Tim Atkin MW, Oz Clarke, Richard Hemming MW, Victoria Moore, Olly Smith and John Stimpfig all agreed to give me a virtual peek into their cellars.

Whether it’s art, wine or Pez dispensers, most collections start out with an innocent purchase. You develop an interest, individual items build up, and before you know it you need somewhere to house it all. It’s not surprising that Victoria Moore and Richard Hemming, the youngest of our group and both living in London, have the least space to dedicate to wine; both rely on a wine fridge. Moore’s has been full since she bought it. “I don’t really have a wine collection. I have nowhere to put the bottles once they arrive in my flat,” she says, “which is a HUGE disincentive when it comes to buying wine. I’ve madeirised too many bottles to feel good about having nice wine sitting here.” Wine writers are bound by practical considerations just as much as anyone else.

Richard Hemming’s Eurocave houses “pretty much 30 single bottles of wines from all over - Barolo, Côte-Rôtie, Port, Bordeaux, Napa Cab, Riesling from Mosel, Australia, Hermitage Blanc, Manchuela, English fizz, Swartland, Croatia, Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, Bulgaria, Croatia, Naoussa, Itata, Châteauneuf-du-Pape” and “a bottle of Sake that I don't know what to do with.” I’m sure every wine collection has such a bottle: one that you don’t want to get rid of, but whose drinking occasion never seems to arise.

Of the 1,000 or so bottles that Oz Clarke can squeeze into the old coal cellar under his stairs, at least 800 of these are also single bottles, from as far afield as Canada, Georgia and Jordan. “I don’t normally want 12 bottles of anything nowadays – too much wine, too little time!” he explains. There is one region that features particularly strongly however. “Bordeaux – partly because I like Bordeaux, it’s where I started out… And I write a book [on the region], so each year I have to buy a certain amount so I can check out how the vintages are developing.” He tips 2014 as a recent vintage that will age well thanks to its acidity and hint of underripeness.

Tim Atkin’s collection is larger still, with over 1,500 bottles kept in a Spiral Cellar at his home and a further 60 cases of fine wine in a professional storage facility. “There’s a lot of Burgundy (red and white), Barolo, German Riesling, Rioja and South African reds and whites,” he says, “but I have very broad tastes. So there’s a bit of (almost) everything in my cellar. The only thing I don’t buy are “natural” wines, although there are some Georgian Qvevri wines down there.”

An equally large but rather more esoteric cellar is owned by Olly Smith. “I have a wall of Tokaji, lashings of Greek wine, and 80% of my fizz stash is now English bubbly”, he says, not to mention “a secret Cognac hole which glows the colour of glory when it winks at me”.

John Stimpfig’s collection is rather more classic – Rhône, Loire, Burgundy, Champagne, Rioja, Italy, Australia amongst other things. “However, one of the most interesting things about it is where it is stored. I live in West Oxfordshire and don’t have a cellar. Fortunately though I have friends in the next-door village who bought the house which belonged to Edmund Penning-Rowsell which has a magnificent double cellar. And that’s where I keep most of my wine. On the door, you can still see the original labels of great Bordeaux bottles which Eddie opened and kept from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Most of my wine is also red Bordeaux but not quite in the same league as EPR’s!”

One benefit of keeping a cellar is being able to mature wine in the right conditions until it’s ready to drink. Another feature of Oz Clarke’s collection is the amount of mature Australian wine it contains. “Stuff going back to the 70s,” he says, “and all in fantastic nick. The stuff from the 70s is in better nick than most of the stuff from the 90s because it wasn’t made in an overripe, high pH, residual sugar style – the style that has been the curse of fine, warm climate reds from the last 20 years and that – thank god – seems to be fading at last.” Wines like this are very difficult to find, so keeping your own cellar can be the source of rare insight into regions and styles you enjoy.

Some wine collections are built with investment and resale in mind, but that’s not the spirit of these cellars. Only one of our candid collectors even mentioned selling wine, and that was Atkin: “It’s very rare that I sell wine. And when I do, I tend to regret it, like the case of 1990 Chave I sold to buy a second-hand car.” Personally speaking, I’ve only one bottle on the market: a jeroboam of Bollinger RD 1995, which I’m hoping to sell to fund my 40th birthday party. If I can’t shift it, it will effectively become my 40th birthday party. Either way, I’m pleased it’s wine that I collect; try basing a party around a philatelist’s favourite stamp.

As for buying wine, four of our journalists are members of The Wine Society. And everyone I spoke to buys from at least a couple of different independents. Berry Bros. & Rudd got four mentions; Flint Wines got three; O.W. Loeb, two; and the following were all mentioned once: Armit, Butler's Wine Cellar, Charles Taylor Wines, Corney & Barrow, Genesis, Goedhuis, Handford Wines, Howard Ripley, Justerini & Brooks, Lea & Sandeman, Roberson, Symposium Wine, WineTrust100 and Yapp. As for brokers, Bordeaux Index and Farr Vintners were both mentioned twice. Two large chains were popular: half of our six journalists bought from Majestic and two of them from Oddbins. Supermarkets aren’t ignored either; both Aldi and Waitrose were named twice, with single mentions for Asda, the Co-Op, Lidl, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s. Canny Mr Smith also buys from auction, where he recently bagged a bargain magnum of Cos d’Estournel 1982 to go with his Christmas turkey.

And what will everyone else be drinking on Christmas Day? Yet again, practical matters tend to trump personal taste. Moore is ordering in “lots of cheapish French reds which my parents love to drink… and my brother has asked me to pick a white wine that goes well with soda.” She’s sneaking in some St Cosme Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc and a bottle of St Emilion for herself though. Hemming sums it up: “Family drinking calls for value. And volume.”

Clarke will be drinking English fizz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, “some decent Australian and Chilean and a bottle of 1982 just for the sheer joy of it” all washed down with a cleansing Asti Spumante. Stimpfig’s list is Christmas classics all the way: “I’ve got my eyes on some Gonzalez Byass Fino, vintage Taittinger for fizz, Chablis (domaine TBC) and a couple of smart Italians from Tenuta San Leonardo (2004) and Castello del Terriccio from 2001. Oh, and let’s not forget the tawny (Graham’s 20-Year-Old) and some Suduiraut 2003.”

Atkin is looking forward to choosing closer to the time. “Part of the pleasure of entertaining (not just at Christmas) is to go down into the cellar and ferret out a few bottles. It’s not quite a lucky dip, but there’s all sorts of stuff down there that I’ve forgotten about. It’s part serendipity and part impulse.” No two wine collections are the same: each is very personal. When somebody raids their cellar to share a bottle with you, you can be sure it’s not an entirely random selection. To a collector, every bottle has its own back story, and they are choosing to end that bottle’s story with you. The funny thing about a wine collection is that the real pleasure comes not in building it up, but getting together with family and friends, and, bottle by bottle, gradually depleting it.

Image © Shutterstock

First published on

2015 Rhône: bargain buys from a stellar vintage

Dumas Syrah 2013
The best value Rhône I've drunk this year

"I do believe that it is a year where the 'lesser' terroirs will shine, as we have great colour, concentration, fruit and balance pretty much everywhere. A 'great' terroir will be great throughout various vintages like 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 but a lesser terroir much less frequently and that is for me one of the 'markers' of this vintage." Claire Darnaud, winemaker at Delas

For one of the classic wine regions of France, the Rhône is still a fertile hunting ground for bargains, and this is particularly true in a bountiful vintage like 2015. I tasted over 1,000 wines for my recent 2015 Rhône Special Report, the finished document being a selection of the 255 most notable wines of the vintage. Up against the best of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Châteauneuf, inevitably many very good AOC Cotes-du-Rhônes I taste get left behind, even though they offer excellent value for money.

As such, I thought I'd compile a list of my Top Ten Red AOC Côtes-du-Rhône in 2015, with a maximum UK retail price of £12 per bottle.

Prices quoted are per bottle when buying a case of 12, includig duty and VAT but excluding delivery. Many aren’t yet available in the UK, so I’ve quoted a stockist and price for the vintage they’re currently selling. I’d wait for the 2015 rather than buying a previous vintage blind.

In reverse order…

Domaine Brusset Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Laurent B.’ 2015
Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan; 14% ABV
£9.86 at Great Western Wine
Fairly subtle on the nose for now, but rounded and concentrated juicy black and red berry fruits on the palate and well managed tannins. This is a large-framed Côtes-du-Rhône that needs another 6 to 12 months in bottle before really showing its best, but will be thoroughly enjoyable after that – excellent value at less than a tenner a bottle.
88 points, 2017 to 2020

M. Chapoutier Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Belleruche’ 2015
Grenache, Syrah; 13.5% ABV
£7.99 at Majestic
This Côtes-du-Rhône from Chapoutier often punches above its weight. It has plummy red fruits, and isn’t overly concentrated in fruit or tannin. It’s straightforward but well balanced, juicy and enjoyable. The tannins have a firm, finely-knitted character. Fabulous value at the £7.99 deal available at time of writing.
88 points, 2017 to 2019

Domaine de l’Espigouette Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Latour Bel Air’ 2015
45% Grenache 30% Syrah 20% Carignan 5% Mourvèdre; 14% ABV
No UK listings at present, but should be around £12; ask Thorman Hunt
Bright and spicy style thanks to the generous proportion of Syrah. Full of fruit, lovely acid balance and fine tannins. Well-crafted and well balanced. This cuvée is often a good pick, and it’s a banker in 2015.
89 points, 2017 to 2019

Domaine Saint-Amant Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Les Clapas’ 2015
50% Grenache, 50% Syrah; 14.5% ABV
£11.50 for the 2013 at Swig
Gorgeous high-toned nose, floral (violets) and lightly peppery. Lovely shining beam of acidity running through it, and some length of liqueur red fruits. Alcohol is a little raised but only very slightly; this is nonetheless a lovely wine, elegant and very drinkable. From some of the highest vineyards in the Southern Rhône, and you can feel the freshness in the wine.
89 points, 2017 to 2019

Domaine de Verquière Côtes-du-Rhône 2015
80% Grenache, 20% Syrah; 14% ABV
No UK listings at present, but should be around £12.00; ask Buon Vino
Straightforward but authentic fruits on the nose with a touch of earthiness and spice. Silky tannins, fine structure and pure fruit. Superb balance, very drinkable.
89 points, 2017 to 2019

Domaine Alary Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Gerbaude’ 2015
65% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 15% Carignan; 14% ABV
£8.30 at H2Vin
Intriguingly smoky, slightly farmyardy nose, but not overtly so. Lush, with a flowing but not heavy texture, bright acidity and fine tannins. Long in fruit, this is an expressive, slightly rustic Côtes-du-Rhône. Staggeringly good value for money.
90 points, 2017 to 2020

Domaine Chaume-Arnaud Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Petit Coquet’ 2015
80% Grenache, 20% Cinsault; 14% ABV
No UK listings at present, but should be around £11; ask Berry Bros. & Rudd
A young vine cuvée from an excellent producer in Vinsobres. Light and floral cherry, raspberry and strawberry aromas. Medium-bodied, very juicy. A tight squeeze of fine tannins and a lovely redcurrant acidity running through this wine would make it a lively, eminently drinkable, delicious ‘house wine’.
90 points, 2017 to 2019

Château de Montfaucon Côtes-du-Rhône 2015
50% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 15% Carignan, 10% Cinsault, 5% Counoise; 14% ABV
£11.58 for the 2014 at O W Loeb
This is really well done. The blend has been put together with the care of a florist making a bouquet of flowers, all varieties in balance and on display. Blueberries, raspberries, loganberries, all backed up with hints of spice and floral top notes. Full-bodied, but no heaviness; fine-grained tannins, and juicy, raspberry acidity. Great balance, superb winemaking.
90 points, 2017 to 2021

Domaine Roche-Audran Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Nature’ 2015
100% Syrah; 14% ABV
£11.87 at Christopher Piper Wines
No additions, no sulphur added, biodynamic. All destemmed, no oak. Earthy currant on the nose. Lovely textural fruit across the palate with lightly grainy tannins and a savoury, dry finish. Some high toned floral notes over beautifully juicy raspberry and blackberry fruit. I could drink this all day. Really nicely done - nothing added, nothing taken away, nothing missing. Some hints of reduction at this early stage, but a joyful wine. (Since this has no SO² added, it might be sensible to try a bottle to see how it has travelled before buying a case.)
90 points, 2017 to 2019

Le Clos de Caveau Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Les Bateliers’ 2015
70% Grenache, 30% Syrah; 13.5% ABV
£11.95 for the 2012 at Fingal Rock
Made by one of the best producers in Vacqueyras, this has inviting aromas of spiced plum on the nose. Very round, generous fruits backed up by a serious spine of acidity and fine but weighty tannins. Long, pure finish. It’s punchy; and punches above its weight.
90 points, 2017 to 2020


In the full report:

• The 255 wines that you need to know about this year, split into six categories: Northern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Other Southern Rhône, both in red and white.
• All wines have a full tasting note, score and drinking window; where available they also include varietal blend, alcohol level, stockist and price.
• The ten things you need to know about 2015 in the Rhône.
• The Top Ten Value Reds, Top Ten Value Whites and Top Ten Estates to Watch.
• An updated vintage guide.
• Winemaker tips on up-and-coming estates.
• Dozens of colour photographs of the region and portraits of some of its most respected winemakers, all taken this year.
• All this for just £15.

Download here

Producer profile: Clos des Papes

Vincent Avril, owner and winemaker of Clos des Papes, on the right

I'm currently putting the finishing touches to my annual Rhône Report - over 1,000 2015s tasted, just some final analysis to go. It should be available via in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, here's a link to an article I wrote for Decanter magazine, a producer profile on one of the best producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape - Clos des Papes.


A travel guide to the Northern Rhône

As you may have gathered by now, I have a bit of a soft spot for the Rhône. I spend more and more time there every year (six weeks in 2017), so I'm getting to know the place fairly well. I often get asked about where to stay, where to eat and who to visit. If you're visiting the Northern Rhône, here's a link to a travel guide that I produced for Decanter (October 2016 edition). Any other questions, pop them down in the comments section and I'll get back to you!


Lost in translation


What fabulous nectar does the following tasting note conjure up?

“…notes of tangerine, candied orange, cooked peach, stone fruits and hint of lavender on the back of palate.”

A sweet Loire Chenin Blanc? A Muscat de Beaumes de Venise? Perhaps even a Tokaji Aszú? Nope; it’s the Equinox Seasonal Blend from Union Coffee Roasters.

If you went back to read the note again, that makes it one of the few tasting notes, of coffee or of wine, ever to be read twice by the same person. That’s because although they are the primary building blocks of wine communication, all too often they are soul-sappingly dull to read. There are several reasons for this, but as writers – and as readers – there are ways we can improve the lines of communication. As we’ve already seen, context is vital, but it’s not the only consideration when writing, and reading, a tasting note.

Unlike an image or a sound, smells and flavours aren’t easy to record. I’d love to email you a high-res copy of the smell of the Condrieu I’m drinking, but instead I can only describe it. Tasting notes are a necessary evil.

There are two stylistic camps of tasting note. Both attempt to communicate the characteristics of a wine, but their respective methods are very different. Firstly there is the analytical approach. The intention here is to produce a clear and relatively objective depiction of the wine. It’s a laudable aim, but the results are often repetitive and joyless; the jottings of a jobsworth with a ruler for a tongue.

Secondly, we have the impressionistic tasting note. No ‘medium minus acidity, medium plus tannin’ here. Rather than what was registered with the senses, what was felt takes precedence; the impression that the wine made upon the taster and their reaction to it. These notes are more likely to include emotion, memories and cultural references, which makes them more human and entertaining. But they risk being so subjective that they alienate readers: at their worst they sound like the ramblings of Kate Bush on magic mushrooms.

The first style is the product of the left hand side of the brain; the second most certainly born of the right. The most useful and readable notes tend to combine the two. But however hard we try, the result can never quite capture the essence of a wine. Wine has its own language; one of aromas, shapes and textures that speak of a place and time, the depiction of a landscape and man’s effect upon it. Translation into any earthly tongue robs it of colour and anchors it in the mundane.

We remember a great wine with all the colour and intensity of recalling a vivid dream. Reading someone else’s tasting note is as second rate as hearing them tell you about the dream they had last night.

So what is the best way to describe a wine? It depends who you’re writing for, but some of the following ingredients will help:

  • Factual information. Grape varieties, soil types, oak regime and so on for sure, but any point of interest that might pique someone’s interest could be included.
  • Aromatic descriptors. Those that make the wine stand out among similar wines are most useful. It’s interesting that we use these more when writing about a wine than when talking about one.
  • Shape and course. Smelling, sipping then hanging on to the resonance of a wine takes time; tasting doesn’t happen in an instant. Like the structure of a song or the plot of a film, can you describe the shape of the wine or the course that it takes?
  • Balance and harmony. Does it leave you feeling satisfied? If not, why not?
  • Ageing potential. If you had some in your collection, when would you drink it?
  • Someone will read your note – raise a smile if you can.
  • Flavour stimulates memory; did it remind you of anything?
  • Did it taste how you expected? Did it surprise you? How?
  • Did you like it? Would you buy it?

But it’s not all down to the writer; there are also some points that the reader too should bear in mind.

Tasting notes have a shelf life. They are a sketch of a wine at one point in its life. They should be dated; if they are a few years old, it’s likely the wine is now in a very different state.

Know your critics. They will naturally gravitate to styles they personally enjoy. Recommendations from some critics have me running for my wallet; glowing reports from others have me running for the hills. If you’re making a buying decision, it’s worth consulting more than one opinion.

Context is crucial. An excellent Alsace Pinot Noir would look pretty average in among a line-up of Grand Cru Burgundies. Tasting like with like gives fairer results. Wherever you stand on scoring wines, in large tastings scores are invaluable. Effectively they rank the wines in order of preference, and quickly answer that essential question; which ones performed the best?

Wine, that most sociable of drinks, is also the most indescribable; it is literally too wonderful for words. So it’s not surprising that so many tasting notes lack sparkle; it’s hard to stay enthusiastic when you know the task is essentially futile. But it’s the only way to answer those two most basic questions, for somebody else or for yourself: what does it taste like, and if you like it – why? Although rare, a good tasting note is a joy to read. Whether it’s about wine – or even coffee.


2015 Rhône: my week in the South

I’m currently in the Rhône researching my annual report for; this will be the fifth consecutive vintage I’ve covered for the site. It’s a packed two weeks of tastings and visits, and by the time I’ve included several London tastings, I’ll have worked my way through over 1,000 wines from the 2015 vintage. If you’re thinking of buying any Rhône this year (spoiler alert: you should be) then you might want to download it. Here’s a sketch of what I got up to last week.

Sunday 16th October


An early start; my local train station a little oasis of light in the dark morning, rain whispering on the leaves. I took the train all the way to Avignon this year with a brief pause for some frites in Lille while changing trains. On arrival in Avignon, it was a full five minutes before I overheard Bongo Bong by Manu Chau being played somewhere, so a few minutes longer than usual. Avignon on a wet Sunday night isn’t the most welcoming place, so I went straight to the AOC bar for a glass of Saint-Péray and a bite to eat before a long week of tastings.

Monday 17th October


Today is the first day’s tasting in earnest after the logistical confusion known as the hotel breakfast. Professional body InterRhone does an excellent job of organising large tastings for me at their offices in Avignon. Around 100 Southern Côtes-du-Rhône reds today, and largely the picture is good, despite a few casualties of the hot, dry summer. I paid a visit to Le Sang des Cailloux (above), one of the best estates in Vacqueyras, to get their take on 2015; it’s a good place to get a matter-of-fact, unvarnished report of vintage conditions. Dinner tonight with Adrien Roustan from Domaine d’Oréa, Cécile Dusserre from Domaine Montvac (they both make Gigondas and Vacqueyras) and Ann and Sebastien Barbara from Plan Vermeersch. Considering he only has half-a-dozen vintages under his belt, Adrien’s wines are hugely impressive; they’re full of energy, rather like Adrien himself. Cécile’s domaine is has been passed down from mother to daughter for four generations, and hers are some of the most elegant wines in Vacqueyras. Ann and Sebastien are relative newcomers to the region, but have grown the family business quickly (Ann is the daughter of ex-racing car driver Dirk Vermeersch); they make some good Côtes-du-Rhône, but specialise in varietal wines – unusual for the Southern Rhône.

Tuesday 18th October


I finished off the remaining Southern Côtes-du-Rhône reds today and all of the whites. In 2014 the quality of the whites was very good, but generally speaking 2015 is more a vintage for reds. I caught up with Jérôme Bressy at Domaine Gourt de Mautens (above) at his small winery near Rasteau. A mini-vertical of reds; 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. Amazing consistency; there’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of the great estates of the Rhône. I met with two Cairanne producers over dinner; Jean-Marie Astart from Domaine les Hautes Cances and Laurent Brusset from Domaine Brusset. They are both excellent domaines, in contrasting styles. Jean-Marie makes expressive, detailed, authentic expressions of Cairanne. It’s the Rhône’s youngest AOC, having been promoted just this year, and the only appellation in France to place a limit on sulphur levels in the finished wines. Laurent is the third generation winemaker of Domaine Brusset, and they make Ventoux, Rasteau, Gigondas and Cairanne. His is a rounded, polished style with good depth and purity of fruit.

Wednesday 19th October


An early drive to Châteauneuf to get started on their 2015 reds. It quickly becomes apparent 2015 is a very good vintage, with deep, expressive fruit and relatively consistent quality. This was a hot year though, and with that can come problems with acidity levels, overmaturity and heaviness – which some domaines suffered from to varying degrees. I’m staying at Wine B&B again this year, which is a great option for wine lovers visiting Châteauneuf – a charming family home in the heart of the village with a welcoming host. No visits or meetings this evening – a night off to catch up on admin over a beer and a pizza.

Thursday 20th October


Four visits today: Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, Domaine de Marcoux and Château Rayas.

Beaucastel – All the wines are looking good here, not least the Hommage à Jacques Perrin, their top cuvée, which they only make in good vintages. They are no longer working with Berry Bros. & Rudd in the UK; instead they are employing Andrew Bayley as an individual agent in the market to work solely on their wines.

Clos des Papes – A decent-sized crop at last in 2015 (well, decent for Clos des Papes; 22 hl/ha!). His old vines are finally producing as normal again after being hit hard by the spring frosts of 2012 – it’s taken them until 2016 in fact to fully recover. We tasted from a number of barrels, then some reds in bottle; an elegant 2014, powerful 2009 and delicious 2005. Vincent Avril compares the 2015 vintage to the 2005, and I see why.

Marcoux – Previously run by two sisters; Catherine Armenier has now retired, and Sophie Armenier is working with her son Vincent (above); a down-to-earth family with ancient roots in Châteauneuf. They don’t always produce their Vieilles Vignes bottling, but they did in 2015; an particularly elegant Cuvée Spéciale.

Rayas – Emmanuel still hasn’t finished harvesting his 2016 – very unusual in the village, but then this is a cooler spot, in amongst the woods. We taste component parts of Fonsalette and Rayas, and both whites. No big changes here; no need. Spellbinding wines.

Henri Bonneau – no visit this year after Henri’s passing in spring. No official news, but I hear that the estate is continuing for now in the hands of his son, Marcel.

Friday 21st October


Last day of tasting in Châteauneuf. Again, it’s a stronger vintage for reds, but there are some highlights among the whites. A quick visit to the impressive new cellar of Domaine La Barroche, then to La Table de Sorgues. If you’re visiting the region, don’t miss this restaurant – the food is fantastic; creative but deliciously digestible and brilliantly executed. Julien and Laetitia Barrot (brother and sister) run La Barroche, and considering this is a young estate (albeit with old vines) what they’ve achieved in such a short time is incredible; but then the wines speak for themselves. They’re working on a new project; bottlings of old vines from just outside the appellation area. Guillaume Gonnet joined us from Domaine Font de Michelle, a reliable, underrated estate. He’s just bought some vineyards himself and has started making a range of wines under his own name in 2015; a slightly different style to Font de Michelle, but just as good – they’re worth seeking out. Domaine La Janasse was also at the table, represented by Christophe Sabon (above). His 2010 and 1999 Châteauneuf Rouge Vieilles Vignes and his 2012 Châteauneuf Blanc Prestige blew me away, some of the best wines I’ve tasted this year. An illuminating and hugely enjoyable evening with some of my Châteauneuf heroes.

Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd October

Some time off in Avignon to catch up with other work, prepare for the coming week and get some downtime. Next week: Vacqueyras and Gigondas on Monday, then up to the Northern Rhône for three more days of tastings and visits.

For full details of all the wines mentioned above and many more, the 10 things you need to know about the 2015 vintage, vintage chart, several top ten selections and dozens of colour photos, download my 2015 Rhône Report from, available late November.

The Gold Standard

The Hunter Valley Wine Show

On the first day of the Hunter Valley Wine Show, Major Al Lynch, in full military fatigues, explained to the wine judges what was expected of them: “if you are given an order you will follow it without question.” I’ve judged wine competitions in many different settings but this was my first time in an army barracks. Thankfully our host was describing what we should do in emergencies, rather than how we should award medals. I’ve been judging UK wine competitions since 2008, but my trip to Australia in August showed me what we could learn from their approach – and them from ours.

There are dozens of wine shows held on a yearly basis throughout Australia, some regional, some national. In the UK however, when you see a shiny medal stuck to a bottle of wine it’s likely to come from one of our big three international competitions: the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), the International Wine Challenge (IWC), and the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA). I judge at all three; here’s a peek behind the scenes.

They all follow the same basic premise. Successive line-ups or ‘flights’ of typically around 12 wines are tasted blind; panels quietly work through each flight giving a score out of 100 and making notes; scores are then read out by each judge in turn; where there is disagreement, there is retasting and discussion to ascertain the right result. The panel chairman or chairwoman has the final word. They all strive to recognise excellence of course, but each competition has a unique feel.

The IWSC operates daily over seven months of the year out of offices on the edge of an airfield and racetrack in countryside outside Guildford. Many of the staff and judges are long-serving, which gives the competition something of a family feel. Judging is sedate and considered with no more than 60 wines tasted per day.

The innovative IWC takes place over three weeks each year in a capacious hanger at The Oval, an international cricket ground. Medal winners are tasted multiple times by different judges to help deliver reliable results. There’s music in the background, judging takes place standing up, and every flight is different; you never know what’s coming next, from red Bordeaux to Taiwanese Moscato. This all adds up to a lively, dynamic vibe.

The DWWA takes place at Tobacco Dock, an airy events space in East London. It’s held over one intensive week, which makes for a buzzy atmosphere. The 204 judges fly in from 25 different countries; 94 are either Masters of Wine or Master Sommeliers. If a bomb went off during judging, the global wine scene would be in serious trouble.

All three are very sociable events, with plenty of chat, and catching-up over drinks afterwards. By contrast, Australian wine shows have a distinctly scientific feel. Judges wear long white lab coats, taste rapidly in studious silence, and long flights (or ‘classes’) of wines often stretch into the distance – over 40 wines per flight isn’t unusual. Panels are small and usually made up of winemakers, often from the region being evaluated. This makes for a highly technical approach, one that champions regional typicality and is merciless when it comes to any perceived winemaking faults. It’s arguably a style of judging that produces consistent results.

Rewarding typicality and rejecting faulty wines are key functions of any judging panel, but some say the Australian approach goes too far. Victoria Sharples, founder of Melbourne wine merchant The Wine Station has judged at both UK and Australian competitions and says “I think Australia could benefit from the British approach, reducing the size of flights and offering greater discourse when deliberating on scores.”

British Master of Wine Richard Hemming has also judged on both sides of the globe. “The Australians could learn to be less narrow-minded about typicality,” he says. “Yes it’s important, but atypical wines aren’t therefore immediately without worth.” I agree; the danger with a constricted view of what is stylistically acceptable is that innovation can be stifled.

But PJ Charteris, chairman of the Hunter Valley Wine Show, says that the Australian approach is evolving. “There is a strong technical approach, however that has changed significantly over the last 10 years with more judges from the media and trade… as a team of judges we are ultimately looking for depth of character, balance and completeness, the things that are the hallmarks of any great wine.”

It’s undoubtedly a strength of the big UK competitions that judges come from such different backgrounds and bring with them broad and varied tasting experience, but after tasting in Australia I feel we could benefit from more judges with practical experience of winemaking. We could also learn from Australia’s commitment to the development of trainee judges. To my knowledge there are no professional courses designed to develop the skills of future wine judges in the UK, or to help them taste the very finest benchmark wines that are increasingly out of reach due to stratospheric prices. Charteris points out that Australia benefits from the Australian Wine Research Institute and the Len Evans Tutorial to tackle both of these areas that are vital to the future of wine competitions.

The UK and the Australian methods both have their own strengths and weaknesses, but what everyone seems to agree on is the hopelessness of the system used in many European competitions, known as the International Organisation of Vine and Wine system (OIV). Natasha Hughes MW, a particularly incisive taster, explains “you’re given a scorecard that lists various criteria for assessing the wines, and allocates scores for each of these criteria. For instance, you might be asked to rate the intensity of a wine’s nose on a scale of 1 to 5… Rating a wine like this doesn’t address the issue of what score you should give if the wine has a very intense nose, but its aromas are unattractive.” Hemming agrees it’s “an utterly absurd approach.”

Wojciech Bońkowski is editor-in-chief of and the Polish Wine Guide and he is also disparaging of the OIV system. He points out that another problem some European competitions face is sourcing good judges. “Some competitions are so desperate to man their juries that I know literally of a taxi driver who sat on an Italian jury competition!” Thankfully this is rarely an issue for Australian or British institutions.

Tasting at the Hunter Valley Wine Show reminded me of the impressive appetite for ongoing improvement amongst Australian winemakers. The wine show model exists not just to guide consumers, but also ‘to improve the breed’, and it has no doubt helped to mould and deliver unique Australian wine styles like Hunter Valley Semillon. What I love about the UK system is that it puts wines in an international rather than just regional context, is more open to rewarding originality, and can react to, and help steer, the trends that keep the global wine scene fresh and exciting. In a nutshell, the Aussie system is ruled by the head, whereas the UK system is ruled by the heart. But a competition is only as good as its judges, and most winelovers would agree you need to engage both head and heart to really understand what’s in your glass.

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