The kingdom of the blind

Most wine professionals have a story of when they aced a blind tasting, a well-worn tale of olfactory deduction that would have Sherlock Holmes slack-jawed in amazement. It inevitably concludes with a self-deprecating comment along the lines of ‘normally I get it completely wrong of course’ in the hope that the taster can both impress and not come across as a shameless show-off. Blind tasting is not only an entertaining sport; it’s widely accepted as the best way to run major wine competitions and it’s often the way that consumers prefer critics to taste wine. When it comes to wine criticism, however, blind isn’t always best.

There are some undeniable benefits to blind tasting. Removing the producer’s name and any indication of market value from the equation gives a taster the freedom to assess what’s in the glass with greater objectivity. It makes it easier to reward little-known or relatively modest estates when they excel, and simpler to reprimand the big names when they slip up – two of the most important functions of any wine critic. Blind tasting makes the critic focus on every bottle; there is no space for laziness or sloppiness. And it continually hones the skill and knowledge of the taster in the process which is beneficial for the critic, the producer and the reader.

It’s worth noting that double-blind tastings, where you don’t even know a wine’s country of origin, aren’t terribly instructive. It makes it impossible to judge a fundamental characteristic of any great wine: typicity. How can you tell if a wine is a good example of its type when you don’t have the slightest clue what it is? When tasting blind, it’s important to taste within a defined style.

Blind tasting does have its drawbacks however. The most irritating – but least discussed – downside is the unpalatable fact that wine doesn’t always behave the way it’s meant to. (If this weren’t a fact, there’d be far fewer wine merchants around selling disappointing Burgundy.) Some wines show inexplicably well on the day of tasting; others show peculiarly badly. It can be attributed to any number of factors: the wine going through a ‘closed’ or ‘dumb’ period, the critic’s mood, even atmospheric pressure or tasting on a root day… But often there’s no obvious explanation.

Also, critics make mistakes – and it’s more common to reach the wrong destination when you’re travelling blind, with no landmarks or directions to lead the way. Until we can design a more reliable instrument than the tongue, we will have to rely on men and women to critique wines, and that means having to accept a degree of human error. Some critics would never admit to such a thing in public; professionally it’s safer to project an image of infallibility. But in private, most will admit to calling it wrong from time to time, particularly when tasting blind.

Critics of blind tasting state, quite correctly, that it bears no relation to how most normal winelovers approach a bottle of wine. Tasting a wine when you’re aware of its identity is a more natural and less convoluted way to go about it. And, after all, the enjoyment and value of a wine isn’t just about what’s in the glass.

Crucially, when judging a wine, knowing its identity gives you context. When you know the producer, you can see how the wine in question compares to previous vintages, if it’s above or below their usual standard, if there’s a change of style or direction... Importantly, you can make a judgement regarding value for money. It also lets you take into account outlying styles that flirt with winemaking faults which could risk getting thrown out of blind tastings.

There’s a danger however of critics giving a wine ‘the benefit of the doubt’ when they can see the label on the bottle but what’s inside isn’t performing as they’d expect. In this way, sighted tastings can unjustly end up favouring the status quo – the longest established, most revered producers tend to come out top. If there’s any doubt over how a wine is showing, it’s better all round for the wine to be removed from the tasting and looked at again at a later date.

Blind and non-blind tastings have their own particular advantages and disadvantages. As always in wine, it’s best not to be dogmatic: I’d argue that the way to get the best advice to the prospective wine buyer it to combine the two. Firstly, to taste wines blind, to mitigate confirmation bias as much as possible. Then to reveal the identities of the wines to see if this sheds any light that would further inform the decision-making process for buyers. Knowing the wine’s track record would also help refine drinking windows.

To some critics, this might sound like ‘cheating’ – adding in commentary to a tasting note after their judgement has been passed. But it’s important for tasters to remember that the process isn’t about them. It’s about getting the best possible advice, by whatever means, to whomever is considering spending their hard-earned money on a case of wine.

Neither blind nor sighted tasting is perfect when it comes to wine criticism. It’s a well-known fact that the most reliable way to grade a flight of wines is to drink them with a bunch of wine-loving friends over dinner and see which ones get finished first. But when that’s not possible, tasting with one eye open could be the best option.

Image © Chris Nguyen via Unsplash

First published in timatkin.com.


Images of Vinsobres, Feburary 2019

Vinsobres, the most northerly Cru of the Southern Rhône
In the village of Vinsobres
L-R: Laurent Reinteau, Cellier des Dauphins; Anais Vallot, Domaine Vallot; Philippe Chaume-Arnaud, Domaine Chaume-Arnaud; Pascal Jaume, Domaine Jaume; Mickaël Jaume, Cave La Vinsobraise (standing far right).
Lieu-dit Les Préaux, on the Plateau
Cédric Guillaume-Corbin of 6-ha Domaine La Péquélette - 'the smallest' in Provencale

 


Images of Séguret, February 2019

Séguret
Different terroirs: mountain, première terrasse, vin de pays at the bottom
On the slope near the village, Domaine de Cabasse

 

A view of the Dentelles from the top of the mountain

 

 

Domaine Jean David, co-owner and winemaker Jean-Luc Auffrut in the background

 

Christian Voeux, Domaine de l'Amauve

 

From the mountain
All images © Matt Walls

Images of Beaumes de Venise, January 2019

Beaumes de Venise
Beaumes de Venise terroir, near Lafare
Rocalinaud
The view from Rocalinaud
Romain and Elisabeth Hall, Domaine des Bernardins
Romain Hall, Domaine des Bernardins
Sabine and Isabelle de Menthon, Chateau Redortier

All images © Matt Walls


Crab brains and Cabernet

The last twenty metres of road aren’t yet tarmacked on the way to He Jin Zun winery in Ningxia, northern China, so we get out and crunch over the gravel on foot. Consultant winemaker David Tyney bounds out to greet us and walks us through the building site past rows of gleaming steel tanks into the noisy winery. He’s from New Zealand but most other employees are locals. A dozen women in colourful headscarves are huddled over the speeding sorting table, an older man forks piles of discarded stalks, some younger ones tip crates of grapes into the press. Tyney surveys the busy scene. “None of this was here two weeks ago,” he says, “it was just a dirt floor.”

Other vast buildings are being hurriedly pulled up nearby. “We’re waiting for the concrete to dry before we can pick the Cabernet,” says Tyney, only half-joking. This year they’ll produce 800,000 bottles. Next year they’re aiming for 2 million. For a wine region, the scale of ambition and the pace of change are breathtaking. Ningxia faces significant hurdles: a mismatched food culture, an extreme climate and uncertainty over grape varieties. But they have proved that good wine can be produced here and I’ve never seen a region so determined to succeed.

From desert to vineyard

The jagged Helan Mountains run north to south, rising to over 3,500m. They represent the border of Inner Mongolia and northern China. To their west, Alxa League in Mongolia; to their east, Ningxia province in China. Ningxia’s wine region inhabits a dusty strip of land around 120km long that lies between the foot of the mountain range and the Yellow River.

Thirty-five years ago, this was a coal-mining community in a desert. The soils are a beige sandy loam that get rockier the closer you get to the mountains. It doesn’t rain much – at best 150mm a year. By itself, the land supports little more than some tufty dry grasses. But by tapping the Yellow River local governors realised they could grow much more. The poor soils weren’t suited to all crops. But grapevines prospered.

To begin with, winemaking was led by large government projects set up with help from the armed forces. Observing the possibilities, private companies and family enterprises followed. The floodgates really opened when Helan Qingxue winery won the ‘Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10’ International Trophy for their Jiabeilan 2009 Cabernet blend at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards. In 2012, the government set up the Ningxia Wine Bureau to support the burgeoning industry. Now it’s home to 86 operational wineries farming 38,000 hectares of vines, and this is expected to double in the next 10 years. The capital Yinchuan has been re-imagined as a pristine modern city housing two million people.

Looking west

With little in the way of winemaking history in China and no indigenous wine grapes, where do the people of Ningxia look for guidance and inspiration? A drive around the region makes it abundantly clear. Some wineries, such as Château Changyu Moser XV (who part funded this trip, along with the Ningxia Wine Bureau) wouldn’t be out of place in the Médoc. And that Decanter Trophy has confirmed their belief that Bordeaux blends are the future. Some might scoff that a region that can’t survive without irrigation isn’t naturally suited to making wine. But once upon a time, Bordeaux was a swamp.

Cabernet Sauvignon is by some margin the most popular grape, followed by Merlot. Carmenère, known locally as Cabernet Gernischt, is also fairly common. Red wine makes up 90% of production. White wines are mostly made from either Chardonnay or Welschriesling, referred to locally as Italian Riesling (unrelated to the Riesling of Germany). They also make a little icewine.

Culture clash

Though red wine is more popular here, at the dinner table white wine often feels more suitable. Large dishes to be shared are delivered when ready, and they keep coming – fried egg with fresh tomato, deep fried eel, lambs’ trotters, honeysuckle buds, fish cooked in boiling stock, spicy soups… it makes any efforts at wine matching redundant. I can confirm that crabs’ brains and Cabernet are not a match made in heaven.

I found myself thirsting for off-dry Riesling, Fino Sherry and sweeter sparkling wines, but even though white wines are a more natural fit with spicy, sometimes oily dishes, its unlikely we’ll see plantings increase. Warm or hot drinks are considered healthier than cold drinks, and red is seen as a lucky colour in China – and these things matter.

Beer and baiju (a high-strength spirit) are much cheaper and more popular than wine. I was told that total baiju sales top €80 billion a year, while wine sales were just €8 billion. Wine tends to be stocked only in high-end restaurants and is still seen as a prestige drink, but it’s growing in popularity.

Mastering the vineyards

Cabernet Sauvignon might be king, but Bordeaux this is not. High altitude viticulture (vineyards sit at around 1,100m, higher than England’s highest mountain), a lack of rain and a continental climate make for extreme conditions.

There are some benefits – big differences between day and night temperatures bring freshness to the aromatics. There is little in the way of disease or pests to contend with – even 135ha vineyards such as Pernod Ricard’s Helan Mountains can operate organically except from some fertilizers.

The main challenge is the climate. “Minus 15 is when you expect to see damage,” says operations manager Mike Insley. “At minus 18 you expect to see some vine death.” With temperatures regularly dropping to -25 ̊ C in winter, like everyone in Ningxia, he has to get the vines pruned and buried under half a metre of earth by late November. That’s right; all the vines in the 135ha estate are taken off their wires, lain down flat, the earth between the rows is dug up and piled on top of them as insulation. It’s a laborious and expensive yearly exercise but without it the vineyards wouldn’t survive. The oldest vines in the region were planted at Legacy Peak winery in 1997; I wonder whether vines much older than this will withstand such treatment.

When the vines are dug up again in March, budbreak happens within days. But the growing season is short – and the grapes must be picked before the frosts that can hit as early as mid-October. Summers can be hot but some estates still have difficulty in achieving physiological ripeness, resulting in green, herbaceous flavours and bitter tannins. Huge sums have been invested in top-of-the-range winery equipment all over Ningxia, but what’s needed now are skilled vineyard managers with the local knowledge necessary to tackle these unique challenges.

Grape expectations

There has been some early success with Cabernet, but experimenting with earlier-ripening grapes would be sensible. Charismatic ex-fashion designer Shao Qingsong at Lilan Winery believes “we still need to find suitable varieties for this region.” Like many local winemakers he’s trialling Marselan, a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. There are some successful examples but it’s a puzzling choice for such an ambitious region – after all, who can name a world-beating Marselan? Looking for a grape that your region can ‘own’ is understandable, but I wonder how much South Africa has really benefited from such a close association with Pinotage.

Château Mihope has had some success with Viognier. Silver Heights are testing out Grenache, Mourvèdre and Zinfandel. Helan Quinxue is trialling Malbec and Tempranillo. According to Ian Dai, the only Natural winemaker in Ningxia, “Syrah has huge potential”. Personally speaking, I’d give Cinsault a try. But Lenz Moser, Austrian consultant winemaker at Château Chengyu Moser XV, believes Bordeaux blends are here to stay. “Why reinvent the wheel?” he says. “Let’s be pragmatic.” And he’s proved that consistently successful Cabernets are possible here.

Land of opportunity

So what is the unique style of Ningxia Cabernet – the goût de terroir? “I’m still looking for that Ningxia stamp,” admits Insley at Helan Mountains. “That’s one of the challenges for Ningxia – [defining] what makes Ningxia wine special.” The Cabernets I tasted were broadly a little lighter in body than those of Bordeaux, with concentrated bright fruits and a spicy vein running through them. But this is a young region with young vines, and any attempt at a definitive description of Ningxia’s style at this stage would be premature.

There are already five sub-regions and a nascent cru system, but it feels too early for this kind of detail. Very few Ningxia wines are yet exported, but as more find their way out of China this will shine a light on how the wines stack up in terms of style, quality and value. Dai agrees that wineries “have to be willing to compete with imported wines – and to export.” Despite the extraordinary amount of money, determination and energy being invested here, there are some things – like vine age and viticultural experience – that only come with time. “It used to be America,” says Moser, “but for me the new land of opportunity is China.” After visiting Ningxia, I can see why.

Some of the best of Ningxia

Château Chengyu Moser XV ‘Grand Vin’ 2017 (Ningxia, China)
RRP £65.00, speak to Berry Bros. & Rudd, soon to stock the 2015. 

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 100% new French oak for 24 months. 
Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser has become something of a figurehead for the Ningxia wine industry and it’s not hard to see why. Under his consultancy, Château Chengyu Moser XV is now producing the best wines in the region, an impressive range from top to bottom. The 2015, 2016 and 2017 Grands Vins are all excellent wines, but the 2017 shows particularly well, the most refined of the three vintages. It’s powerful but lifted in character with a gentle spice aromas ingrained into the black fruit. Silky in texture, tailored, with a long finish. Should age with interest.
93 points, 2020 to 2033

Silver Heights ‘Summit’ 2014 (Ningxia, China; 14.5%)
NA UK 

60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 24 months in new French oak. 
Yuan Gau’s husband worked for 23 years at Château Calon Ségur in Bordeaux – she met him while she was doing a winemaking stage there. They now own a 70-hectare organic estate together in the north of Ningxia. Their inexpensive Last Warrior wines are good value; Summit is their top red. It’s a touch reductive on the nose but opens up with air. Medium-bodied, good freshness, actually quite light-bodied but has a good concentration of bright berry fruit and fine-grained tannins. A hint of greenness on the long finish but is nevertheless a very good wine.
91 points, 2018 to 2022

Helan Qingxue ‘Jiabeilan Reserve’ 2015 (Ningxia, China; 14.5%)
NA UK

100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 16-year-old vines, 14 months in 70% new oak. 
Their Jiabeilan Reserve 2009 won the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards Best Bordeaux Varietal over £10 Trophy, a turning point for Ningxia wine that kicked off the development of the modern industry. Their 2015 is has a distinctly minty nose, alongside fresh and lifted blackcurrant fruit. It’s a light- to medium-bodied style of Cabernet with fine tannins and balanced acidity, leading to a tapered finish. Elegant and fresh, with less concentration and body than a typical Bordeaux, but also fresher than many.
90 points, 2018 to 2023.

Château Lanny ‘Reserve’ 2013 (Ningxia, China; 13%)
NA UK 

90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. 
Menthol, polished woods and black cherry with an unusual and distinctive fresh herbal touch. Medium-bodied, fully mature now but still lively, with some mushroom and beef stock on the palate. Good acidity, good balance, some length.
90 points, 2018 to 2019.

Legacy Peak ‘Kalavinka’ 2014 (Ningxia, China; 14.5%)
NA UK 

85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot. 14 months in new French oak. 
Owners of the oldest vineyard in Ningxia; a plot of 21-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon near 1,000-year-old stone tombs dotted across the landscape nearby. Their Kalavinka is named after a stone icon found buried in the vineyard. Mature black fruit compote aromas, a touch minty, with some oak spice. Medium-bodied, good energy and concentration of fruit on the palate.
89 points, 2018 to 2020

Domaine Pu Shang Marselan 2016 (Ningxia, China; 14.5%)
NA UK 

90% Marselan, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. 50% new French oak.
A small family-owned winery established in 2009 which specialises in Marselan. Their 2016 has an attractive nose; raspberry and plum skin with a marked cedar note from the oak. Persistent bright red fruits on the palate pepped up with marked acidity but the overabundant oak leads to a slightly pinched finish. An easy thing to fix for future vintages – one to watch.
89 points, 2018 to 2020

He Jin Zun ‘Helan Hong’ White 2016 (Ningxia, China; 12.0%)
NA UK 

100% Welschriesling, unoaked.
The first vintage of this new government-owned estate run by energetic young New Zealander Dave Tyney. It’s a light, fresh, style with pear and a touch of banana. Light-bodied but good fruit on the palate and balanced acidity. A straightforward wine with good drinkability.
88 points, 2018 to 2019

Château Mihope Chardonnay 2017 (Ningxia, China; 13.0%)
NA UK 

100% Chardonnay.
A 100-hectare estate planted in 2013 by the electronic appliance manufacturer Midea Group. Their 2017 Chardonnay has a light macadamia oak sheen on the nose and a silky feel on the palate. Elegant, well balanced peach and apricot fruit.
88 points, 2018 to 2020

Chandon China Brut NV (Ningxia, China, 12.5%)
NA UK 

70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir.
Moët & Chandon’s 68-hectare outpost in Ningxia produces a white and rosé brut and a white and rosé medium-sweet style called Me (translates as ‘besties’). They only make traditional method sparkling wines, all for the domestic market. The white Brut in the best; soft fizz, well balanced, just dry enough to be described as a Brut. Good acidity and a touch of autolytic character. Pleasantly drinkable international fizz.
88 points, 2018 to 2019

Helan Mountain ‘Premium Collection’ Chardonnay 2017 NV (Ningxia, China; 12.5%)
NA UK 

100% Chardonnay.
Helan Mountain is a large estate now fully owned by drinks behemoth Pernod Ricard. Head winemaker Linda Ren made the 2017 Premium Chardonnay after a winemaking stage at Church Road in New Zealand. Tasting some older Chardonnays, it’s clear the new techniques she picked up have really benefitted her wines. It’s 60% barrel fermented, some old barrels, some new. Part whole bunch pressed direct to barrel. Part controlled juice oxidation, part wild ferment, part malolactic. It’s oaky on the nose, with some citrus notes. Medium-bodied with good intensity of fruit. It’s also pretty oaky on the palate, but has real vibrancy of fruit underneath.
88 points, 2018 to 2019

Yuanshi ‘The Soul of the Mountain’ 2014 (Ningxia, China; 14.2%)
NA UK 

72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Gernischt, 8% Merlot, 18 months in French oak.
Yuanshi is an extensive 1,500-hectare park (encompassing winery, hotel and 100-hectares of vineyard) established in 2008 by a local businessman who made a fortune in tree production and quarrying. Beautifully designed with expert local craftsmanship with incredible attention to detail, it’s one of the most visually stunning wineries I’ve ever visited. The 2014 Soul of the Mountain is lightly peppery in aroma, with vanilla-flecked blackberry and blackcurrant. It’s a medium-bodied, concentrated, fairly tannic style, not too green, with a savoury finish.
87 points, 2020 to 2025

Lilan Winery ‘Lan Cui’ Cabernet Merlot 2016 (Ningxia, China)
NA UK 

80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot. 12 months in French oak, 50% new.
A new project by fashion designer Qingsong Shao, this 100-hectare estate was planted in 2011. Medium ruby, fairly deep in colour. Blackcurrant and blackcurrant leaf. Medium to full-bodied. Acidity is firm, fruit is quite lush, but then slightly herbaceous on the palate, with some green tannin on the finish.
87 points, 2018 to 2020

All images © Matt Walls. 

First published on timatkin.com.


2017 Rhône Report - results now live

Is 2017 a great Rhône vintage? The shortest answer is 'sometimes'. No vintage is 100% consistent but 2017 is particularly variable, oscillating from the phenomenal to the undrinkable. It was a very warm and exceedingly dry year, yielding a small crop of powerful wines, the best of which will last for decades.

My take on the vintage and a selection of the Top 300 most notable wines (from over 1,000 tasted) is now available on Decanter Premium. Until now I've included Côtes-du-Rhône/Villages appellations in my annual vintage report, but due to the ever-growing number of samples, this year I've concentrated solely on the 9 Southern Rhône and 8 Northern Rhone Crus. It ranges from top Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côte-Rôtie to overperforming cave co-operative wines selling for less than £10 a bottle.

It's certainly a vintage worth buying, but buy with care. Access here (Decanter Premium subscription required).


Decanter article on sweetness in wine

The Mosel Valley in Germany - home of some of the finest sweet wines in the world

Here's a recent article that I wrote for Decanter on sweetness in wine - how do you know how sweet your wine will be before you pop the cork? I spent a few weeks tasting loads of different wines of various sweetness levels from all over the world, and it delivered some of the most memorable drinking experiences of the year. Makes me wonder why we've become so insistent on drinking dry wines all the time, when it's just one end of a spectrum, with amazing bottles all the way from one end to the other. Here's a link to a PDF of the article.

Decanter Sweetness November 2018

Now all you have to do is decide which cover of Sweetest Taboo by  80s soul diva Sade to listen to while you read... the Jackson State University Marching Band or Shola Ama ft. Glamma Kid?


Eccentric current

English sparkling wine producers collectively present a terribly well-to-do appearance, all smart chinos and glasses of fizz on the lawn. But Pythonesque tendrils are creeping through the cracks in the patio… From Sussex Pinotage, to Tooting rosé, all the way to orange wine from Surrey, the irrepressible English sense of eccentricity is alive and kicking in its increasingly peculiar and wonderful still wines.

Leonardslee Pinotage, Sussex

Twenty-five years ago, Penny Streeter (above left) was a single mother of three children living in sheltered accommodation for the homeless, with nothing but two deckchairs to sit on. Since then she’s developed a thriving medical recruitment business and now she’s No. 744 on the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated fortune of £157m. After returning to her native South Africa she bought Benguela Cove vineyard and resort in Hermanus, and two properties in Sussex: Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens and Mannings Heath Golf Course. Both now are home to vineyards, 16 hectares mostly planted with varieties for sparkling wine. And half a hectare of Pinotage.

When I first saw the press release declaring England’s first Pinotage vineyard, I actually thought it was a practical joke. It’s not as if UK demand is so strong that South Africa can’t cope… Johann Fourie (above centre) is cellar master for all of Streeter’s properties, so I asked him – why Pinotage?

He laughs. “I’ll be the first person to put up my hands and say I have little experience of English viticulture,” he says, “so I might make a complete fool of myself.” But he works with viticulturist Duncan McNeill who has over a decade’s experience in the UK. “We’re pushing the boundaries,” says Fourie, and the more he explains the thinking behind it, the more Pinotage makes sense.

Together, Fourie and McNeill were surveying a site on their property trying to figure out the optimal variety to plant to produce a still wine. They considered the marginal English climate; the threat of spring frosts, the short growing season, occasional poor weather at harvest. It got Fourie thinking. “Pinotage is fairly late with budburst… it ripens quickly – we always pick it first in South Africa – and it has fairly thick skins, it’s really disease resistant which is important in the UK… and it doesn’t have any of those leafy, green flavours if you pick early.” It ticked all the boxes. He got on the phone and managed to source some vines in Switzerland of all places (he adds that it’s grown in other cool climate countries such as New Zealand and Canada.)

He points out the trend in South Africa is towards a more elegant style of Pinotage, which is what he’s aiming for here; more like a Pinot Noir, “not a big 15% alcohol red wine.” And if the weather doesn’t play ball some years, he can use it as base wine for sparkling instead – Pinotage does have Pinot Noir as a parent variety after all, and he points out that Simonsig already make a good one. “It might be a total fail, but if we don’t try, we won’t know,” he says. All being well, the first release will be in 2023. And I can’t wait to try it.

Château Tooting, London

Richard Sharp and Paul Miles, two friends from the unglamorous borough of Tooting in South London, were observing a harvest whilst on holiday in France and asked each other if it was possible to make a wine back home in the capital. Sharp had a grape vine in his garden and wondered if he could find other contributors who might want to turn their unwanted grapes into wine. Sharp says “we were just messing around really” for the first vintage in 2009, but they’ve stuck at it and now they produce up to 3,000 bottles a year.

Château Tooting now has over 250 contributors who bring in grapes from all over London, and not just from gardens. They’re harvested from schools, hospitals, allotments, community greenhouses, railway sidings – anywhere really. “People bring their grapes in many weird and wonderful ways – on the tube, on bikes, in old cars, on the bus in backpacks… it’s a really random collection of people but it’s very inclusive.”

Some people know which grape varieties they have, but most have no idea. All are brought to a central collection point on a specific day each year, and they’re trucked to Halfpenny Green Wine Estate in Staffordshire who makes the wine. The grapes are all vinified together to produce a still rosé. This year they plan to make a sparkling one too. Members are allocated a number of bottles they can buy for £9.00 each according to the weight of grapes they supply. Non-member can buy via their website urbanwineco.co.uk for £15.99, and you can also find it in some London restaurants.

Considering the jumble of grape varieties involved and the limited control they have over cultivation, the wine is much better than it has any right to be. Harvest day this year is 29th September in Battersea – if you’re a Londoner with a source of grapes, get involved.

Litmus Wines Orange Bacchus, Surrey

If Château Tooting was born out of sheer enthusiasm, Litmus Wines have a rather more technical foundation. Established in 2008 by merging the winemaking consultancies of John Worontschak and Sam Harrop MW, it’s quicker to list the wine-related activities that Litmus don’t do: they are winemaking consultants, contract winemakers, they supply biotech solutions, import and distribute wine – and they make some too. And with this kind of knowledge and expertise, it’s no surprise they’re coming up with some off-the-wall styles.

They occupy a facility in one of the UK’s largest wine estates, Denbies in Dorking, Surrey, so they have plenty of fruit at their fingertips. They make a red Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay/Bacchus blend, but their two latest editions are more esoteric: a still white Pinot Noir and an orange wine made from Bacchus.

General manager Mike Florence simply explains that “we love Blanc de Noirs, and John thought there’s no reason not to make a still version.” The fruit needs to be riper than that destined for sparkling wine production, so they can’t make it every year, but they make a few thousand bottles when nature allows. Aromatically speaking their 2015 is between floral and smoky, it has a serious demeanour, very dry with firm acidity running through it like a blade.

The Litmus 2015 orange wine – their first vintage – is more easy-going. Made from hand-harvested Bacchus grapes, it spends two weeks on the skins after fermentation; to the eye it’s close to a white wine, though with deep yellow colouring, but on the nose it’s something else. It’s highly aromatic and gently grassy with white pepper, grapefruit and elderflower all jostling for attention. It’s fairly full-bodied with a gently oily texture that helps counterbalance the fine tannins, and finishes dry, crisp and slightly saline. You could accuse them of chasing trends, but when it’s well made and relatively inexpensive – £15 a bottle isn’t a high price for a good orange wine – who cares.

So do they have any exciting new projects? “I can’t tell you all the secrets!” says production manager Matthieu Elzinga, “But this will be a very big year…” Watch this space.

‘The best weather we’ve ever seen’

There are plenty more examples of innovative styles: Albariño from Chapel Down, Kent; a fortified wine from White Castle Vineyard, Monmouthshire; a Bordeaux blend from Sharpham, Devon; a Reichensteiner pet-nat from Oxfordshire by Vagabond; the list goes on.

Some experiments are less successful. Stephen Skelton, the leading expert on English and Welsh wine, cites the Barclay Brothers’ 60ha vineyard planted on the island of Sark in the Channel Islands in 2010 at great expense. It has since been abandoned.

The boom in planting we’ve seen in the UK – from 430ha in 1984 to 2,275ha in 2017 – has largely been Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wine production. When it comes to still wines, we still don’t really have the climate – “there are not that many varieties we can grow,” admits Skelton. But things are looking up. He describes 2018 as “the best weather we’ve ever seen” which is great news for still wines. The UK is increasingly well-known as a source of world-class sparkling wines – as it should be. But for me, the more beguiling side of English and Welsh wine is found in the still.

First published on timatkin.com.


I’ve made a wine documentary for BBC’s Inside Out!

Despite the fact so many of us regularly drink and enjoy it, wine rarely features on UK television. So I’m really pleased to be part of a 10-minute documentary on the historic 2018 vintage in England and the advent of London’s urban wineries for BBC London’s Inside Out. Watch the video here.

As a nation, we can still view wine with suspicion, like it’s some kind of ‘elitist’ drink compared to locally-produced beer and spirits. But the spread of vineyards across the UK close to peoples’ homes and the growth of urban wineries is helping to demystify it. And as more of our family and friends are employed in this flourishing industry – growing, making or selling the wines – we'll soon realise it’s just another craft drink made by normal British people like you or me. And we’re good at it– especially when nature gives us an incredible harvest like this one.

This is my first stab at presenting, and it turns out TV drops you into some unexpected places: riding tractors at dawn, snipping bunches from vines (my first time believe it or not), foot-stomping grapes in a press… It’s also much harder work than it appears, particularly ad-libbing pieces to camera – it’s amazing how easy it is to mangle your words when you have an unblinking lens in your face!

Thanks to Dippy Chaudhary, Victoria Holden and Andy Richards at Inside Out for giving UK wine some room to breathe.

Watch the documentary on Inside Out, 7.30pm Monday 29th October, BBC London –available on iPlayer shortly after.


Undeniable class

Imagine trying to buy a bottle of Burgundy if appellations didn’t exist. You’d have the producer, the vintage, maybe a brand name. But with no agreed village boundaries, let alone Premiers or Grands Crus, how well could you really get to know the region? Wine classifications may not be the sexiest topic, but admit it – you’d be lost without them.

Not long ago there seemed to be as many different systems as there were major wine regions. Not all were based on villages and vineyards; some were based on sweetness, some oak ageing, others market value… Some were intuitive and helpful – others less so. But one by one, if not abandoning the old order completely, many wine regions around the world are beginning to classify their vineyards along similar lines to the Burgundy pyramid: regional wines at the base, then Village wines, on to Premier Cru vineyards and finally Grand Cru vineyards at the peak. But what is driving this change, why is Burgundy an inspiration, and who, if anyone, benefits?

Outgoing models

Over the years, most wine classification systems have become gradually less relevant. In Germany, the Prädikat system of classifying wine (or at least grapes) by sweetness once made sense, but as changes in vineyard techniques and climate have made ripening more reliable, it’s not as critical as it once was. And in terms of guiding wine drinkers towards wines with specific levels of sweetness, it was only ever barely fit for purpose. The VDP (the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, an association of top producers), took it upon themselves to improve matters. Their system retains the same terms, but they refer to the sweetness of the finished wine and are only used for non-dry styles. To this they’ve added four levels of vineyard quality: Gutswein at the base, up to Ortswein, Erste Lage and Grosse Lage. Clemens Busch, a prodigiously talented winemaker in the Mosel, is a member of the VDP. “I think the classification system is working well inside the VDP…” he says. “I think everywhere you go it is possible to go in four steps of the quality of the vineyards and grapes.” A model for Germany as a whole to adopt? Time will tell.

The authorities in Rioja have been even busier. As oak ageing becomes increasingly unfashionable with winemakers and wine lovers alike, aligning wine quality with time spent in barrel now appears distinctly old-fashioned. Like the German Prädikat model, there were once sound historical reasons to use this model. But classifying by place is now gaining ground. In 1998 they allowed labelling by one of the three zones of production; then in 1999 by village. In 2017 they introduced Viñedos Singulares, defined ‘singular vineyards’ with more stringent production criteria. Winemakers appear broadly welcoming. Until now, discussions have so often returned to barrels sitting silently in darkened cellars; I hope this development will lead the conversation toward sunlit Riojan vineyards and the individuals that work them.

Alsace has had vineyards designated Grand Cru since 1975, but in the next year or two it’s likely to be joined by Premiers Crus, then perhaps later by Village wines, completing the Burgundy pyramid. Labelling by grape has served it well in the past, but with its ‘noble varieties’ now seeing competition from around the world, refocussing on place seems prudent. What remains is the task of further dividing its largest parcels – 80 hectares for a single Grand Cru stretches the limits of credibility.

These are just three examples. Others include Priorat and Bierzo, which have both recently launched four-tiered pyramid vineyard classifications. And at a seminar last week in London, Italian wine critic Walter Speller and representatives from nine estates in Brunello di Montalcino put forward a convincing argument for creating official subzones there. The New World is not exempt either. Kumeu River in New Zealand for example has three labels for its peerless Chardonnays: Village, Estate and three single vineyard wines. Winemaker Michal Brajkovich MW says that although he’s glad to be free from an official appellation system – a “legal straightjacket” that would stifle innovation – he believes that “terroir-based wine production… will still set the standards for what can be achieved in terms of wine quality, and if anything will grow in popularity and influence.”

Why Burgundy?

Classification systems are nothing new. Early examples are Jurançon in South West France in the 14th century, and in the 16th century Gattinara in Alto Piemonte. They reflect the simple fact that within a region, there is diversity of style and quality.

But if any system has stood the test of time, it’s Burgundy’s. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, its vineyards “are the most minutely parcellated in the world”. It has been farmed this way for centuries, and by vinifying different plots the same way and noting enduring differences between the resulting wines, Burgundian winemakers have given us the concept of terroir. Today it’s made up of 84 different appellations – more than 23% of all AOCs attributed to French wines.

Winemaking techniques improve, tastes change; terroir, if not immutable, is at least relatively constant. The Burgundy classification isn’t perfect; it’s possible for a winemaker to make a poor quality Grand Cru wine, and the system promotes status quo over creativity. But at least it remains a more effective way for the shopper to select a quality wine than any other classification system. Furthermore, the market still largely agrees with it.

Who benefits?

In theory, classifications help lead consumers to the style and quality they’re looking for. But as far as drinkers are concerned, there are clear drawbacks as well: I’ve never heard wine lovers clamouring for more. They add complexity to what can already be a confusing subject. And the wines that get rated top inevitably increase in price. When a group of local winemakers proclaim ‘we want to be the Burgundy of Italy/Spain/Moldova’ what they mean is they want their region to be recognised for it’s diversity and quality. They want their locality to be recognised as a ‘fine wine’ region – and no doubt for the price of their land and their bottles to increase accordingly. But for the most faithful wine lover, this is not all bad – higher prices mean more inward investment, and, in time, better quality.

The main function of any worthwhile wine classification system is beneficial to both growers and drinkers: they help wines with a proven track record find their market. Interest in sweetness, oak ageing and grape varieties has waxed and waned in the past, but a wine’s place, its terroir, is unchanging. As Walter Speller said at his recent seminar, “what makes a fine wine? It expresses its origins.” And a fine wine’s origin is its ultimate USP.

I would add that expressing its origin is not enough; a fine wine must also have a consistent track record. Wine is a slow game, with just one swing of the bat each year. It takes decades, if not centuries, for us to uncover a land’s potential and translate it into wine. A classification of Rioja makes sense; one of Sussex, not yet. But when the time comes, you can be sure which region they’ll look to for inspiration.

First published on timatkin.com.