Sandhi, Pinot Noir 2017, Sta. Rita Hills AVA, California

It’s ‘Sta.’ with the conspicuous American full stop. As the Oxford English says, ‘If an abbreviation consists of the first and last letters of a word, the American rule is to include a full stop/period at the end.’ Being a translator, I like to get my knickers in a twist about things like this, especially when people use it in British English. However, the reason for the abbreviation is because Vina Santa Rita winery in Chile objected when this fledgling AVA was created during the 2000s under the ‘Santa Rita Hills’ moniker. To avoid litigation, the Californians came to an agreement with their South American counterparts, and the ‘Sta.’ (“Period!”) was born.

This appellation is all about cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Situated less than 10 miles from the ocean in the Santa Ynez Valley in the southern latitudes of Santa Barbara County, much of the sunny weather is tempered by the cold Pacific currents. This manifests itself in fog – or ‘sea smoke’ – seeping in from the ocean. Santa Ynez is the only notable winegrowing valley in California that runs at right angles to the Pacific (i.e. east to west), with no mountains to block the fog.

Deep ruby appearance. Savoury Old World character on the nose. Red cherry, raspberry, black cherry, blackberry, and leather. Maybe a hint of cola, but nothing too overt. Very intense yet very elegant. High acidity and medium tannins on the palate. Concentrated but silky. Supple and fine. More raspberry and black cherry. Very intense but smooth and silky. Minerality? Maybe not, but this is a savoury Pinot treat. Long, lingering finish.

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Tatomer, Steinhügel Riesling 2017, Santa Lucia Highlands, California

Graham Tatomer is also one of those rare birds: a Californian who makes Riesling. Tatomer learned a lot from working in the Wachau at Weingut Knoll, where he also became acquainted with Grüner Veltliner.

Given the wildfires that raged in California earlier this autumn, not to mention in the neighbouring US states of Oregon and Washington, there is a certain irony in the assertion that this wine comes from a cool-climate region. But the Santa Lucia Highlands is considered just that, thanks to the cold Pacific breezes and fog that funnel in from Monterey Bay.

An unassuming lemon-green. Expressive nose. Exotic floral notes (honeysuckle dripping with pollen), sweet apple, cream, hints of candied lemon, and green tea. This is not completely dry in my book – the honeysuckle is quite overt. Medium to full body, 13% abv. Luscious texture, longish finish.

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Chasselas

Chasselas is your typical mildew-prone European grape variety that shouldn’t really work in England. What could possibly go wrong?


After two years of living in rented accommodation after our return from Switzerland, we bagged our first-ever mortgage last year. My wife Jenny and I became first-time house buyers, aged over 40. We now live in Jenny’s home village in the county of Suffolk.

The front garden at our new abode is considerably bigger than the back garden. (Our address was once a council house.) Previous occupants used to grow their own produce, although the most recent owners preferred trim borders and bushes to cabbage and carrots. The grass was yellow and the borders in bloom (yet untidy and overgrown) when we arrived in summer 2019. Instead of working on my gardening skills, I hired someone with a mini-digger to rip up most of the lawn a few months later – with a view to planting vines the following spring.

Fast-forward to 18 April this year: 50 grafted vines arrive at our doorstep. I immediately start digging. Here are the details:

A massal selection of 50 Chasselas vines; prepared and grafted at the Pépinière Hebinger vine nursery in Alsace, sourced indirectly via a supplier in Somerset. We planted five rows, with the vines situated 80 cm apart along each row and a gap of 140 cm separating each of the rows. Due to space constraints, we had to plant three of the vines in a separate area of the garden. However, the planting density is still relatively high in an area measuring almost 50 square metres – that’s almost one vine per square metre.

Why vines? Because our front garden is a south-south-east-facing suntrap. The off-white/cream facade of our house (and our neighbours’ house) reflects the sunlight and protects the plot from northerly winds, yet there is usually enough breeze around to dry the vines quickly after rain. The well-draining, gravelly loam soil in our front garden also seems well-suited to tempering the natural vigour of the Chasselas vine. Massal-selected vines tend to be less vigorous anyway. This is important when the vines are spaced so closely to each other.

From a personal point of view, growing my own vines is like scratching an itch. Before becoming a translator at the turn of the millennium, I considered a career in wine. I even worked for two summers as a vineyard helper in the Pfalz and Alsace respectively. Ultimately, I ditched my viticultural ambitions in favour of a job in Basel. But the itch remained.

Chasselas is a variety with which I have considerable affinity. I used to live in the Markgräflerland region, one of the grape’s hotbeds in the south-west corner of Germany, where the locals refer to the variety as Gutedel [guut:eey:del]. Despite being one of the world’s oldest grape varieties, Chasselas has led an underdog existence everywhere except in its Swiss hotbed on the shores of Lake Geneva, from whence it probably originated.

Growing Chasselas in England is quite a challenge. Or let’s put it another way: I could have made things easier for myself by planting a disease-resistant variety. Fungicides and other synthetic treatments are a no-no. Natural, organic treatments will be frequent. Teas made from common ‘weeds’ such as horsetail, dandelion and yarrow have been part of my repertoire since planting, as has diluted milk on one occasion. These solutions help to control mildew in different ways. In the long run, I may have to ditch the milk if I ever manage to make wine and want to label it as vegan.

Any actual harvest is still a long way off. We’re talking 2023 (or maybe 2022, depending on how well the vines establish themselves). In the meantime, I need to replace the plastic roof that turns our garage into a sauna during the summer months. That’s the next project.

 

 

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Heugumber

This was our vin de soif during the lockdown – the perfect accompaniment to hours of Zoom- and Skype-inspired oblivion.

Wild-yeast fermentation in a large oak cask. I always walked past one of these casks on the few occasions I visited the winery back in the early 2010s: down the steps of the old cellar, then turn right, and there it was – the first vessel on your left. Due to a lack of space in the original cellar, Hanspeter Ziereisen built a new facility near the edge of Efringen. Apparently, space is starting to become scarce even there, what with Ziereisen’s love of experimentation with various different casks, barrels and bottlings.

Ziereisen, Heugumber 2018, Badischer Landwein, Germany
The grape is Gutedel, aka Chasselas.

Pale, matt gold – quite colourful for a wine with just 11 abv. Medium intensity on the nose. No fruit apart from an ever-so-slightly oxidised ‘natural-wine’ whiff of cooking apple. Otherwise, chalk and roasted almonds. No more than medium (-) acidity and light in body, but the residual yeasty hints and phenolic character create their own type of refreshment. Extremely dry, with the characters on the nose re-emerging like-for-like on the palate, minus the cooking apple. It’s a paradox that this wine wears its lack of acidity so lightly and feels as fresh as a daisy. Perfect quaffing material.

This is Ziereisen’s cheapest wine (EUR 6.50 ex-cellar).

 

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MG

20191204_205213Skin-fermented Gutedel? Oh yes.

Scherer-Zimmer, Gutedel ‘MG’ trocken 2015, Baden
The ‘MG’ stands for Maischegärung, which is German for fermentation on the skins, i.e. the juice was fermented before it was pressed and separated from the grape skins. As with red wine, the grape ‘solids’ are moved up, down and around the fermentation vessel to encourage the extraction of colour and flavour (among other things).

Gold/amber colour. Sherry notes on the nose to begin with. These gradually dissipate to leave caramel, strawberry, apricot and peach – a panoply of aromas, but this is really expressive. Maybe even some lacquer – it’s hard to describe but that’s the best descriptor I can find. Only a very faint hint of wood complementing the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Mild but noticeable phenolics/tannins on the palate. Medium alcohol, acidity and body, but nothing else is ‘medium’. All the above aromas return as intense flavours, complemented by some slightly dried fruit notes, a silky texture and a very long, saline finish. Delicious.

Easily one of the best wines that I have drunk this year. Maybe the best.

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You can’t beat a vomiting unicorn.

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Postscript to Lämmlin-Schindler’s Gutedel (see post of 8 Nov. 2019)

Just had another bottle. I almost feel I damned it with faint praise. This is a crystalline, assertive, concentrated, fruit-driven, pure, clean wine with a long finish. It’s also up there among the best Gutedel I’ve drunk in the clean-as-a-whistle, fruity idiom.
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Le Clocher

20191113_192053More Gutedel – this time going by its synonym Chasselas.

Blankenhorn, Chasselas ‘Le Clocher’ trocken 2017, Schliengen/VDP.Ortswein, Baden
Deep lemon in appearance. An initial whiff of apple strudel, followed by green apple and pear. Very intense aromas emerge: vanilla and lactose-like notes of cheese, along with roasted notes, citrus, white chocolate, single-malt peat and wet stone. More pear, peat and vanilla on a palate of pronounced intensity. Medium acidity with a long, silky finish that coats the mouth. This is a serious wine that is still rather young, so it is a pity I only have one other bottle left.
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Christopher Michael

20191108_194426-1Pinot Noir from Oregon is a new one for me. Although I have read a lot of good things about the wine scene over there, I hasten to add. Domaine Drouhin and Kelley Fox Wines are names that ring a bell. This random bottle was a good introduction.

Christopher Michael Wines, Pinot Noir 2015, Oregon
An interesting change from most Pinot Noirs I know. Medium ruby with reddish hints. Quite aromatic on the nose, with dominant, pronounced red cherry. There is a slightly confected touch as well, almost reminding me of cherry cola. Spicy cinnamon and some stemmy notes also emerge.

The cherry theme continues on the palate. If anything, it becomes even more intense. I also detect a sprinkling of spice. Medium acidity and medium (-) tannins. Very clean and linear. I don’t detect any secondary flavours. Did they raise the wine in stainless steel? The well-integrated alcohol (13.5%) lends body (medium [+]) and intensity (medium [+]), although the finish is middling. Maybe this is not the most complex of wines, but this is an honest, well-made Pinot with a good, silky, delicious Pinot-like mouthfeel.
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WSET & INAO

20191107_175222After passing my WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Level 2 course in Wine in 2005 in Basel, I finally got round to doing Level 3 in spring this year. Fourteen years later.

The seven-week course consisted of six daytime classes on the first floor of a pub in Bristol, plus an extra day for the examination. There were only seven of us in the class to begin with, and we were quickly reduced to six after one participant – a chirpy Welshman – dropped out for family reasons.

We used INAO tasting glasses during the course. INAO stands for the ‘Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité’ – a body that regulates protected designations of origin in France. The INAO also defined what it regards as the universal wine tasting glass. The wife and I are no stranger to the INAO glass, having accumulated a veritable stockpile of these receptacles from visits to wine festivals in countless villages from Basel to Freiburg over the years. For WSET purposes we had to pour around 50 ml of wine, which was more or less to the point on the glass where the bowl is just starting to reach its widest point. This was particularly useful when judging colour intensity. For example, place a glass containing 50 ml of red wine over a sheet of paper with writing on it: if you’re unable to see the print when looking at the wine from directly above, then you can safely conclude that the wine is deep purple, ruby, garnet or whatever.

The INAO tasting glass has other practical uses. For example, we tend to host quite a few fondue/raclette cheese feasts during the colder months. The size of these glasses means that the wine never gets too warm before you drink – although you end up pouring more wine as a result. Both fondue and raclette also involve a lot of physical interaction. You don’t want your precious Gabriel/Zalto/Schott Zwiesel/Riedel/Sophienwald glassware (tick where appropriate) caught up in a tabletop blur of arms, hands, plates and cutlery. The diminutive INAO glass, on the other hand, is perfect in this environment.

I used them again only the other night – and wrote my brief notes more or less according to the WSET Level 3 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine®:

Lämmlin-Schindler, Gutedel Alte Reben trocken, VDP.Ortswein, Mauchen, 2017, Markgräflerland, Baden
Medium lemon-green colour.
Aromas of pear, green apple and honeysuckle, along with hints of quince and maybe candied lemon. Medium intensity on the nose.
Dry on the palate, with medium (-) acidity, medium alcohol, medium body, medium (+) intensity of flavour – showing much the same fruit characters as on the nose, but with greater expression. The finish is medium.

Quality level: good, if not very good. Based on ‘B-L-I-C’ (balance, length, intensity, complexity), I think this wine has very good balance and intensity. Length and complexity are middle of the road, but this is no shame for wine still costing just under 10 euros. Objectively, ‘good’ is the very least I would give it. The wine would certainly rate higher if I were being more subjective (the only level above ‘very good’ is ‘outstanding’). Herein lies my criticism of the WSET approach: you are analysing the wine like a doctor would analyse an x-ray. There is no room for emotion. Great in the exam room, not so good for a wine blog.

In truth, this is a picture-perfect Gutedel with lovely pure fruit expression and more intensity and urgency than most others of its kind. It makes me reminisce about Markgräflerland and its culinary and vinous delights.
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Les Pionniers

20181211_190540Overall, I find the wine selection in most UK supermarkets to be rather lopsided. There is still a heavy focus on industrially produced wines from the English-speaking New World that are named after some poor animal’s tail (take your pick) or ‘carefully sourced’ from some paddle-less creek. Another gripe – although this could be said for the English-speaking wine industry as a whole – is that the cult of the winemaker also reigns supreme, i.e. you will stress at all costs that whoever ‘crafted’ the wine is also ‘heading up winery operations’. However, even in these troubled times, there are still some affordable little gems that are able to speak for themselves eloquently enough.

Co-op ‘Les Pionniers’ brut, Champagne
This is an own-brand champagne, though the label doesn’t state who actually produced it at source. Healthy medium-light yellow, with fine bubbles. Attractive brioche and butter on the nose, with hints of blackcurrant. Impressive biscuity concentration.
Pure and clear on the palate, with uplifting acidity and less stuffing than the nose might have suggested (no more than medium body). Lip-smackingly dry, with berry fruit (mostly redcurrant) and a satisfying finish. With ample structure and integrity, this fizz punches above its weight.

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