A Special Site in Somerset: Greenhill Estate

img_0384What better way to celebrate English Wine Week 2018 than by letting you know about a small but quality Somerset vineyard – Greenhill Estate, on Stocklands Farm off the A39 between Bridgwater and Glastonbury.

Despite the recent appetite for English sparkling wines, and more recently English still white wines made from Bacchus, our reds have yet to prove as appealing.  Our northerly cool climate is not a happy place for red grapes to ripen as fully as they need to for quality red wines, and the most suitable international red grape,  Pinot Noir, is far too fickle for most to risk making still red wine with it as it only ripens enough in the very best years.  It is often earmarked instead for sparkling wine for economic reasons.  But as Aldwick have recently shown (see my Judgment of Winscombe piece), maybe it is high time that more producers took the risk.

Right on cue to prove my point, Kelli Coxhead very kindly let me join her in tasting a new potential wine for her shop, submitted by Mark Thorpe of Greenhill Estate – their Pinot Noir still red.

The Wine

img_0163 We tasted the 2016 vintage in January 2018.  Despite the winter chill, we noted a pronounced nose of red and blackcurrants, wild strawberries, violets, and a herbaceous blackcurrant leaf bite.  On tasting, although the wine had very light tannins and structure, it was balanced, with plenty of juicy currant and strawberry fruitiness to savour, as well as the herbaceous character we found on the nose.  We did not detect any oak derived flavours.  The finish was surprisingly and pleasantly long and it evolved from fruit to savoury flavours – indicating ripe and very good quality fruit, as well as skilful winemaking.  “Smiley face” award duly given.

The Vineyard

img_03781It seemed to us that not only must the grapes have been fully ripe indicating an excellent aspect in our northerly viticultural extremity, but also, the grapes must have been of very good quality, probably with a low yield, to produce such surprising and evolving length.  I therefore resolved that I would visit the vineyard to see what advantages it had.  My visit eventually happened on a chilly overcast windy day in May 2018.

Small is beautiful, and the vineyard at 1 hectare in size is indeed small.  But it has an outstanding view across the Somerset Levels, being sited on a southerly slope in the Polden Hills.   Tending the vines must be a pleasure (in fine weather) with such a vista to behold. Not only does the slope enjoy plenty of sunshine, it is also sheltered, which means that the grapes achieve enviable sugar levels at harvest.  For 2017, the sugar levels were 87 for Pinot Noir, and 76 for Chardonnay, with acidity of 9.5 and 10.8 respectively.

However, the rest of the secret here is the soil, which is clay over layers of limestone.  Limestone is a recurring theme in the world’s best vineyards.  It is apparently thought that the Romans grew grapes on the Polden Hills.  I don’t know what evidence there is for that assertion.  We do know that by Henry VIII’s era there were vineyards attached to monasteries, including one at Pilton Manor belonging to the abbey at Glastonbury (these largely vanished when Henry VIII got rid of the monasteries) but I have not found reference to any others as yet.

Whatever our ancestors got up to, as of today, this site seems to have bags of potential, and as the vines mature and the estate gains in experience, the quality of the wines can only increase.

The Story

Stocklands is owned by farmers Steve and Julie Larder, who planted the vineyard in 2008 having carefully researched the soil and the vines to plant on it.  A quarter of the vines are Chardonnay, the rest being Pinot Noir (late not early ripening), planted in vertical lines running up the slope towards the farm. Details of the clones used have been lost.

The vineyard made an imposing entrance to the farm from the A39, but soon absorbed rather more time than anticipated. The wine produced in the early years showed little promise, and the vineyard became neglected.

The Larders then came across Mark Thorpe, a retired dairy farmer and latter day fencing entrepreneur from North Petherton.  When he gave up his fencing business, the Larders persuaded Mark to take on the vineyard, which he did in January 2014.  Mark freely admits that apart from liking a drop or two of wine, he had little idea of what would be involved.  He has therefore had a very steep learning curve.  He set about instituting a very strict pruning and management programme to ensure as open a canopy as possible to combat his primary viticultural hazards, downy and powdery mildew.  The trunks had been allowed to grow too tall and had to be cut back down, and the cost of hiring labour to undertake the work involved put him in debt right from the start.

The vines are pruned using a single Guyot system as in Burgundy, the classical home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Yields are low, and although 3.5 tons was achieved in 2017, the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir yields were equal – even though the vineyard area of Chardonnay is only a third of that devoted to Pinot Noir.  Mark therefore wonders whether his management regime might be a little too strict, noting ruefully that yields of at least 5 tons per hectare are said to be required in order to make a profit.

The path of true wine never runs smooth.  In 2014, Mark’s first vintage, both grapes were blended because no sane person makes red wines in England.  However, wine making sage Steve Brooksbank, who vinifies much if not all of Somerset’s grape output, persuaded Mark to keep a little Pinot Noir separate to test its potential.  The resultant still red won the Sunnybank Trophy for best red wine in the subsequent South West Vineyards Association competition, much to the chagrin of other larger more established producers.

A great start, but alas, in 2015, no still red wine was made.  The ancient sprayer borrowed from Steve which Mark had valiantly repaired, broke down at the vital juncture in mid May, so mildew ran riot.

In 2016, the grapes were vinified separately.  Sugar levels of 82 and 79 were achieved for the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay respectively.  The Chardonnay won bronze in the 2017 SWVA competition – although Mark suspects it might have fared better had he entered it in the dry, not the medium class!  The Pinot Noir Kelli and I tasted in January will be submitted for the 2018 competition, and also hopefully for Wine GB as well.  The cost and time involved in entering anything else such as the International Wine Challenge is prohibitive presently.  700 bottles of Pinot Noir and 1,500 bottles of Chardonnay were made.

In 2017, the yields were higher.  The Chardonnay is about to be released, and the Pinot Noir is still being matured.  It still needs to undergo malolactic fermentation, and in view of the cold weather thus far this year (despite odd bursts of record breaking warmth, such as the May Day Bank Holiday) this has been delayed.  Mark has yet to taste it but suspects it will be good as the grapes were even riper than 2016 (see above).  The wine won’t be released until August.

Winemaking

Mark modestly says he does not understand winemaking.  However, when I asked him whether the wines were chaptalised (i.e. sugar added) he firmly said no as that would be cheating – and the enviable sugar levels from these grapes surely make this intervention unnecessary.

When I asked Mark whether oak had been used, as regards the Chardonnay, he exclaimed that no oak whatsoever would be used while he drew breath!!

Likewise, no oak has been used for the Pinot Noir.  It was discussed, but for various reasons it was ruled out. The wine was therefore matured in stainless steel.

Sparkling wine is not made.  Why? Mark does not care for it.  Fair enough!

So – what about the Chardonnay?

img_0390I tasted the 2016 and 2017 against La Chablisienne Petit Chablis AOC 2016 – 12.5% abv as against 11.5% abv for the Greenhill Estate.  These grapes are grown on Portlandian clay and limestone, and as Chablis is a very northerly Chardonnay growing zone I thought this would make for the fairest classical comparison.

Greenhill Estate Chardonnay 2016

Pale lemon.  Delicate but defined aromas of very ripe and/or baked lemon (which I associate with Chardonnay), but also tropical fruits such as mango and papaya, and fresh apricot, elderflower and a whiff of straw. The palate is very dry, very clean and crisp, with light body, medium acidity (it seems more acidic due to dryness but on the “dribble test” this was medium plus at its highest to me), and a savoury saline character which makes it a perfect match with fish.  The finish was a little short.  Good quality overall. Delicate, so you have to concentrate to appreciate its range of aromas.

Greenhill Estate Chardonnay 2017

Very pale lemon with a little spritz on the glass.  Intense perfumed aromas of ripe peach, lychee, ripe yellow melon, lemon and lime, and elderflower with a steely mineral edge. Much more intense, fruity and perfumed than 2016.  The palate is balanced, dry, with more weight than 2016.  The flavours are intense and perfumed as per the nose, with the addition of honeysuckle, ripe pear, a balancing sharp citric bite and a white pepper kick. Overall an intriguing mix of tropical fruit salad, tanginess and crispness.  The acidity is medium.  The finish is long.  Very good quality, and one which can be happily sipped on its own – but I had in my mind’s eye a match with chicken salad containing some fruit such as mango or apricot – maybe even Coronation Chicken??

La Chablisienne Petit Chablis AOC 2016

Pale lemon but more colour than the Greenhills.  A “green” nose of lime marmalade, sawn wood, grapefruit, crisp pear, green pepper and a hint of mango.  The palate is dry with high acidity; a lean crisp light bodied wine with flavours of baked lemon and sawn wood with a saline sharp edge.  The finish is medium.  A food wine, but one in which for my taste the “wood” was a tad too dominant.  I am not sure why I could taste “wood” – Chablis is rarely oaked.  Good quality – as you would expect for Petit Chablis.

Chardonnay Conclusions

The alcohol levels and dryness of the Greenhills indicate cool climate grape growing, but the fruit flavour profile, especially for the 2017, indicate moderate climate Chardonnay – there was much more tropical fruit flavour with these than the Petit Chablis which tasted much more “green” and citric.  The acidity levels for the Somerset wines also seemed lower to me than the French example, so maybe the Somerset grapes were riper.

The style of the wines is very different.  The 2016 Greenhill and the Petit Chablis are lean crisp food friendly wines whereas the 2017 Greenhill has very perfumed stone and tropical fruit and floral aromas more akin to Viognier than non aromatic Chardonnay. While I think Mark was right to shun oak maturation for the 2016, I do wonder whether the 2017 might have benefitted from it.  The fruit could easily cope and for some palates subtle oak maturation might round off any tartness.  Maybe volumes are too low to enable an experiment with a vat, but in the right year, it would be interesting to see if oak conferred a benefit.

As for quality, when assessing these wines objectively using the WSET SAT, the 2017 Greenhill was the better wine, especially when it came to the finish.  Whether you like its tropical fruit salad/tanginess mix is another matter, but I certainly did; it was an enjoyable and fascinating variant quite distinct from other Chardonnays.

The future

Mark admits that he will continue to learn by experience, and he gains much support and knowledge from the committed grape growing community in Somerset and beyond.  He would like to explore whether yields can be increased while maintaining quality, and he would like to widen the market for the wines to secure the financial security and viability of the vineyard for future generations.

Mark tells me that a further 4 acres of adjacent land with similar viticultural advantages would be very suitable for Bacchus, the rising star of the UK still white wine scene.  As demand for Bacchus grows, this could be a useful additional revenue stream.

img_03821Mark also has an eye on succession planning.  He seemed very hale and hearty to me, but none of us are getting any younger, and vineyard work can be heavy going.  Mark won’t be able to carry on in the longer term and needs to find a younger kindred spirit to foster these young vines into maturity to realise their full potential.  The work involves pruning throughout February each year, which he and his friend Francis undertake.  Mark then works in the vineyard 3 days a week throughout spring and summer, any spare time being taken up with marketing and administrative tasks.  It would be a crying shame if a site of such potential was to fall into ruin; some of you will remember nearby Moorlynch vineyard which ceased to be when its owners felt they could no longer carry on.

So whether you are a wine lover or wine growing wannabe, do get hold of Greenhill Estate’s wines.  Mark and I would love to know what you think about them.

 

 

Strawberries & Anchovy anyone?? When Juhfark met Parmesan….

IMG_0357.jpgThus far, and despite having recently become a Distinguished Member of The Wine Century Club, I have been unable to find a Hungarian wine I like (except for Tokai of course).  I have questioned whether it is just me and my boring west European palate, or the wines I have tried which are to blame.  Until now.  For I have now encountered the fiery, savoury, uncompromising delight of Juhfark (pronounced (very carefully please!) “you-fark”).

I produced the following note about this wine on a night when I was meant to be at Browns in Bristol attending a party with former legal colleagues, but my husband was back late from London, so Cinders had to stay at home.

The Wine

Little to deduce from the minimalist (and largely Hungarian) label, save for 13% abv so this is all my own work, uninfluenced by any prior knowledge of the grape or its origin.  I was totally clueless about both.

Firm and unusual aroma profile best described as straw, pineapple, hazelnut, mineral notes and woodiness.  The aromas made me think of an en rama fino sherry.  The wine is very dry and has tannic astringency.  It would make a good appetiser with its mouthwatering acidity.  The flavours are pronounced and varied.  There is fresh lime, pineapple, red apple peel, perfumed floral freesia notes, and also brazil nut character, with a mineral edge.  The flavours linger on the palate and evolve. Overall, my kind of wine.

The wine was savoury in character, had lots of attitude, and seemed to cry out for food.   Thai food, and in particular, Thai fishcakes sprang to mind.  But as I was meant to be eating out, all I had in the house to try it with was cheese (poor Cinders).  Now you know why Arthur is lurking in the photo.

Juhfark & Cheddar

Tasting cheddar after the wine made the cheese taste unusually fruity, sweet and lifted.  When tasting the wine after the cheddar, the wine was more full bodied, the tannins were softened, and the fruit and nut flavours were stronger.  The finish was longer as well.  There were no new flavours, but it was all good.

Juhfark & Parmesan shavings

Now this is where things got funky – albeit that I had to work at it.  Tasting the parmesan after the wine made the Juhfark vanish, and at first, when tasting the wine again, all I could taste was alcohol.  Not a promising start.  However – the wine then struck back with a vengeance.  There was a very long finish of what can only be described as a bizarre but amazingly satisfying mixture of strawberry, quince paste, farmyard and anchovy.  Yes, anchovy.  This delightfully quirky experience was best appreciated upon retro nasal exhalation (when you breathe out again with your mouth closed after swallowing the wine).  So bemused was I by this outcome that I repeated my parmesan/wine tasting several times.

So – what is Juhfark?

Juhfark (which means “ewe’s tail” because its distinctive grape clusters are longer than they are wide) is a vanishingly rare white grape variety which is almost exclusively grown on an isolated volcanic hill called Somló (pronounced Shomlo) in north east Hungary, north of Lake Balaton.  According to the World Atlas of Wine, Meinklang of Austria are among some of the top producers on this hill – they make one of my “go-to” whites from Gruner Veltliner so my wine-seeking antennae are now well and truly twitching!

This particular volcanic outcrop is comprised of basalt, and this is said to create distinctive mineral character in the wine.  The wines of Somló, whether Juhfark or not, are regarded locally as decidedly masculine – so much so that according to Wine Folly, aristocrats and monarchs sent fertile women to Somló to drink its wines in the expectation that this would result in provision of a male heir.  No comment is made as to whether this proved effective, and it would almost certainly be contrary to current guidelines for women planning pregnancy.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Juhfark needs to age in order to soften its otherwise uncompromising firmness.  Fortunately, it ages well.

This particular wine is made by the Tornai family who, according to Blue Danube Wines, began with 1 acre of vineyard in 1946 and now have 56 acres.  I could not translate the data sheet on the Tornai website.  However, Wine Anorak tasted two of their Juhfarks for a blog about 33 Somló wines, and the use of new oak is evidently one of their practices.  I certainly detected some oak in this wine, so I suspect oak, quite possibly new, has been used to mature this wine.  Maybe Hungarian oak was used.  Hungary was an important source of oak barrels for wine production prior to the communist era and is reappearing.

As for food pairing credentials, I note that Serious Eats describes Juhfark as smelling of apple cider, canteloupe, dried apple slices, yellow roses, mushrooms, and a slightly smoky, toasted almond finish – it made this blogger want to eat stinky cheese.  Again, the wine was crying out for food.  Others like Juhfark with South-East Asian cuisine, particularly Thai food.

I have since tasted another Tornai wine from Somló, made with Furmint, which is one of the grapes used to make Tokai, the famous Hungarian sweet wine.  If you enjoy a drop of Tokai, you can detect some similar flavours in this wine too.  I tasted lime, pea pods, jasmine, and on the long finish, stewed apple and honey.  Again, like the Juhfark, this wine also has a decidedly mineral edge.  Also, the wine is much more elegant in style than the rather musky, pungent furmints I have tasted previously.  A furmint first – I enjoyed it!

Wine Anorak concluded that Somló is one of the world’s great wine growing terriors.  He believes it deserves greater recognition.  He based his assessment upon a tasting of 33 Somló wines.  Although my sample size is modest in comparison, the two wines I have tried certainly support his opinion, and Juhfark in particular is something to seek out.  Next time I buy it I will get (or even make!) some Thai fish cakes to enjoy with it – as well as lashings of parmesan shavings.

PS I have checked my Wine Century Club list of grapes I have tasted – Juhfark was not there and has now been added.  I am therefore up to 166.

WSET tasting practice: six wines to help perfect your tasting notes

As I prepare for the spring 2018 WSET Level 2 Wines & Spirits course, I am conscious that our students frequently ask us how they can develop their tasting skills, and in particular, how they can practice identifying the various aromas, flavours and characteristics we find in the wines we taste on the course.

I have always been taught that practice is the only way – music to my wine-hungry ears! – but some wines are much better to practice with than others.

WSET students learn that there are primary flavours which come from the grape, secondary flavours which come from the winery, and tertiary flavours which come from maturation.  But if you have only ever tasted young simple wines, however yummy and fruity they may be, you won’t have much experience of the wider range of flavours – which makes it hard to recognise and describe them.

The other limitation of simple fruity wines is that there is little to write about them.  There is nothing wrong with wines that can be described in relatively few words, but for the wine student, they don’t give much scope for learning how to write an accurate tasting note.

So here are six wines which deliver in terms of there being plenty to say about them.  These are complex wines with plenty going on, giving ample scope for eager students to sip, jot, sip some more, and create their very own vinous War & Peace.

Hayshed Hill Chardonnay, Margaret River, Australia – £17.99

This is not the oak soaked Ozzie Shard of old.  It is elegant and complex with plenty of primary and secondary flavours to record – and a long evolving finish to savour.  Make sure you jot down not only the first few seconds of fruit hit – there should be a delicate enduring range of flavours.  Don’t over chill it!  Taste it from the fridge, then taste again having left it out for a bit.  Applying BLIC I rated this outstanding.  What do you think?

Vandal Gonzo Field Blend – Marlborough, New Zealand – £27.99

This wine has it all when it comes to fruit.  As it should – they have blended Pinot Noir, Syrah, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling and Pinot Gris!  Yes, this list does indeed include three red wine grape varieties, and yet this is a white wine.  The name of the game here is to see how many fruits you can find other than grape, as well as anything else.  This is also another great example of a long finish – again, keep counting in seconds past the initial fruit hit until there is absolutely nothing left.

Chateau d’Esclans Rock Angel Rosé, Provence, France – £27.99

Rosé for grown ups sourced from the vineyards which created the reputation of sister wine Whispering Angel.  It raises the rosé bar – 10% Rolle has been added to Grenache Noir, and the wine has been partially vinified in 600 litre oak barrels.  It is called Rock Angel because you can taste the minerality from the soil.  Also look out for its texture, weight, buttery richness, and relatively grippy tannins.  Here is a link to the producer’s information sheet for you to peruse after you have done your own notes:

https://esclans.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/rock-angel-2016-sheet.pdf

The Ladybird Organic, Laibach Vineyards, Stellenbosch, South Africa – £14.99

Here we have a very ripe and well made expression of Bordeaux blend grapes led by Cabernet Sauvignon.  Think about how the classical Cabernet flavours present in this wine vary from the Bordeaux benchmark, how well-balanced the wine is, and make sure you record primary, secondary and tertiary flavours.  There is a long finish so you have plenty of time and opportunity to jot it all down!  Admire also the ladybird spotted capsule.

Fincas de Azabache Rioja Reserva 2012 – Rioja Baja, Spain – £13.99

Rioja is a happy hunting ground for tertiary flavour seekers.  The wines are released on to the market later than most other wines, which means they have often matured in bottle.  Go for Reserva, or better still Gran Reserva, from a decent producer.  I have picked Azabache as they have invested in their own winery rather than using a larger bodega, and when I tasted this at a trade fair in February 2018, it had not only fruit primary and oak derived secondary flavours, but also chocolate, coffee and even a hint of petrol emanating from maturation in bottle.  Use your SAT card to help dissect its many and varied components.  I think this is great value for money.

Ghost Corner Pinot Noir, Elim, South Africa – £21.99

Wine students of yore would have turned to the Cotes de Nuits for examples of complex Pinot Noir, but good value wines from this tiny enclave of Pinot Paradise are hard to find nowadays.  Luckily cool climate South African wines are emerging which deliver Burgundian style at affordable price points.  This one comes from a site 12 kms from the coast so the vines are cooled by the maritime influence.  The grapes therefore ripen slowly which means the wine is fresh, elegant and complex.  Look for the trademark red fruit and farmyard trademarks of the grape, the extra flavours and textures contributed by oak maturation, and tertiary chocolate, coffee and smokey hints.  Favourable exchange rates (a rarity at present) mean this comes at a relatively kind price.  A similar style of wine is Iona Pinot Noir from Elgin, another up and coming cool climate zone.

Some of these are pricier examples, due to their complexity – so make the most of these wines by doing the following:

  • Invest in a Vacuvin or similar wine saver, so you can keep the wine in decent condition.  This means you don’t have to glug it all at once.  If you buy more than one wine, buy extra plastic wine savers.  A great investment so you can enjoy quality wine at its best.
  • Try the wines at different temperatures to see how this affects the flavours you get.
  • Try the wines in different glasses to see how each glass affects the flavours.
  • Try the wines with friends to see what flavours they get and how they describe them.  If you are stumped for decent descriptors, they might just nail it for you!
  • Do your tasting note, then leave the wine in the glass to open up, say for half an hour.  Then try it again – often you get more from the wine when you go back to it.
  • Get some cheeses in and do the wine and cheese sandwich.  Taste the wine, then the cheese, and then the wine again.  Often new flavours are created by tasting the wine with cheese, or the cheese helps magnify or intensify flavours so you can identify them more easily.  Goat’s cheese in particular can be very wine friendly.  Just the cheese if you please – no fancy biscuits with powerful flavours!
  • Finally – use your WSET SAT card.  It’s a bit of a killjoy at first but you will soon get the hang of it and it gives you ideas for flavours to record, as well as a consistent structure for your observations, which is essential when assessing quality.

I am confident that if you dissect these wines using my various hints you will soon be producing tasting notes like a WSET trained professional.

Don’t forget to send me tasting notes of your favourites!

Sparring with Finbarr – Goat – v – Buffalo

IMG_0094.jpg

https://i1.wp.com/www.somersetcheese.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/PendragonBuffaloCheese01-562x385.jpg      https://i2.wp.com/www.somersetcheese.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/PennardRidgeRedGoatsCheese01-562x385.jpg

Saving wages requires iron will, especially when wages are in the form of wine!

Admire, therefore, my self restraint.  I saved my second bottle of Aldwick Court Farm & Vineyard (“Aldwick”) harvest “wages” until I had visited Nailsea Farmers’ Market and acquired some Somerset Cheese Company produce to pair with it.

I have a particular penchant for Pennard Red, an earthy goats’ milk cheese which I like to daub with beetroot and horseradish chutney.  It looks pretty weird, but the earthiness in each is soooo tasty.

After the success of Aldwick’s Bacchus with Rachel goat’s cheese (for details please see previous blog), it seemed only right to see how my “go to” cheese faired, this time with Aldwick’s Finbarr 2015.  This is a blend of 55% Madeleine Angevine and 45% Seyval Blanc, which is relatively light in terms of alcohol by volume at 11.5%.  This wine won a well deserved Silver in the UK Vineyard Association “English & Welsh Wine of the Year” award in 2016.

Seyval Blanc is a productive early ripening French hybrid grape which was the most widely grown grape in England in the late 20th century because it is well suited to cooler climates.  However, it was subsequently overtaken by the champagne grape varieties due to the success of UK sparkling wines.  Although hybrid grape wines can taste unnervingly “foxy”, Seyval Blanc does not suffer from this fault.

Madeleine Angevine is an early ripening cross which is noted for light grapey wines, especially in the UK.  I know from harvesting it myself that it oozes sugar (the wasps were circling with intent!) and it is also used as a table grape.  If you have the good fortune to be getting married at Aldwick Court Farm (it has fabulous function rooms and a bar!), your panoramic vineyard views will include the Madeleine vines.

Fruity floral character was to be expected in this wine, but I recalled that the wine also had a tangy twang to it which might suit goat’s cheese.  However, I also sought out an alternative, just in case.  For no particular reason, my Plan B cheese was Pendragon Buffalo.

The Wine

Finbarr is right up my street; it is interesting wine with a soul.  Here is my tasting note:

“A wine of character; light aromas of grapefruit, peach juice, pear juice and jasmine with a grassy tang, and even a hint of nut.  Very refreshing acidity, and to some, the wine may seem quite sharp. However, the acidity is balanced by defined fruit and floral flavours. The finish is not long, but it is very pleasant.  Overall, a clean, refreshing wine with a distinctive flavour profile”.

Aldwick’s own tasting note reads:

“Very distinctive nose with delicate lemonade and sherbet notes. Good weight on the palate. A clean, fresh wine.”

The Pendragon

This white buffalo’s milk cheese is very tangy and sharp with high acidity.  The texture is light and creamy, with nut and mushroom flavours.  To me, the cheese has a slight sweetness (but Somerset Cheese Company, who know much better than me, say it has strong savoury flavours!!) .

The wine benefits the cheese in two ways.  Firstly, the acidity in the wine softens the acidity in the cheese, and also vice versa.  Secondly, the wine accentuates the pungency of the flavours in the cheese, making the cheese taste very pungent.  It is as if the buffalo flavour dial has been turned up to maximum volume.  Overall, a good match, if you like very pungent buffalo cheese – which I do.

The Pennard Red

This Red Leicester lookalike does not seem as acidic as the Pendragon.  It is very savoury, even earthy, and it has some salinity.  The texture is quite dense, and a little grainy.  There are nut and forest floor flavours in addition to those from the goat’s milk.

The wine rather ruined the cheese, which tasted rather soapy, as if lavender and rose petals had been added.

However, although the cheese tasted worse, the wine tasted better!  The saltiness in the cheese, as often happens, accentuated the sweeter fruit flavours in the wine, and also brought the floral jasmine notes to the fore.

So this pairing was partially successful, but as it made my “go to” cheese rather too reminiscent of a National Trust shop, I won’t revisit it.

Conclusion

The Plan B cheese wins.  I suspect this is because the buffalo’s milk cheese was acidic enough to bring out the fruitiness in the wine, and its relative sweetness was a better match with a fruity floral wine than the savoury down to earth character of the goat’s milk cheese.

Postscript

Since it was now necessary to seek out a match for Pennard Red, I felt obliged to explore what Mencia (one of my “go to” red wine grapes) from Bierzo in north west Spain did for both cheeses.  The wine has juicy fruit flavours of sour black cherry and summer fruit pudding, with plenty of structure and earthy, inky and spicy notes.  The Pendragon seemed to boost the earthiness and made the wine seem more tannic , i.e. more dry and harsh.  But the  Pennard Red smoothed out the tannins in the wine, and created new flavours akin to the fruitiness of a high quality dark chocolate – wedded bliss!

Finbarr 2015 is advertised on the Aldwick website for £10.95: http://www.aldwickcourtfarm.co.uk/product/finbarr-2015/

Merayo Mencia is available from The Wine Shop in Winscombe for £10.49: http://www.thewinetastingco.com/contact-us/

The Judgement of Winscombe: Aldwick Court Farm & Vineyard’s first still red Pinot Noir dissected

aldwick pinot 2016

On a damp November evening in 2017, I was privileged to take part in a blind tasting of six Pinot Noir still red wines from around the world, of similar price, from cool climate zones, amongst which were two from Aldwick Court Farm & Vineyard (for present purposes abbreviated to “Aldwick”), from Somerset, England.

The tasting was requested by Sandy Luck and Elizabeth Laver from Aldwick.  They sought an impartial objective assessment of their first ever still red wine release made from Pinot Noir grapes.  It was arranged by Kelli Coxhead and took place at her wine shop in Winscombe.

Those present included a Master of Wine, and a number of us who are Wine & Spirit Education Trust students at various stages (Levels 1 to 4), as well as regular Wine Shop clientele.

Our task was to assess all six wines blind, and state which were the best and/or our favourites.  Once tasted, our tasting notes were collated by Aldwick to maximise the quality of their wines.

I believe it is fair to say that a number of us were out of our comfort zones, being more at home with full bodied reds such as Malbec.  Pinot Noir is delicate and needs a great deal of concentration on the part of the taster to appreciate its finer qualities.

For what it is worth, I offer here a summary of my notes on the wines presented:

  1.  Legs on the glass.  Typical and inviting Pinot Noir nose of ripe strawberry and farmyard aromas.  The palate was of cooked strawberries, the wine lacked body and the finish was short.  Acceptable quality.
  2. No legs on the glass.  Light red fruit aromas, especially red cherry and redcurrant.  No development aromas, but there was a hint of wood ageing.  On the palate the wine was best summarised as summer fruit pudding in a glass.  It was very pleasant; although dry, it had a slight tinge of confectionery.  The wine had enough body to balance the flavour (unlike 1), and the finish was of medium length.  Good quality.
  3. Legs on the glass.  Light aromas of very ripe strawberries, cherry, and leather, the latter evidencing some development.  The palate reflected the nose in terms of flavours, and there was balance of body, acidity and tannins.  Good with food.  However the finish was short.  Good quality.
  4. No legs on the glass.  Delicate aromas of strawberry, plum and damson.  No development aromas but a hint of wood ageing evident.  The palate was fresh, fruity, with an appealing sour cherry edge.  This wine had tannic structure and defined flavours balanced by a juicy acidity.  The finish was long.  The only element lacking was complexity.  It found favour with many on my table.  Very good quality.
  5. Legs on the glass.  Pronounced strawberry and plum jam aromas, and a floral note, possibly violets.  Also a bit cheesy.  It reminded me of a Beaujolais in that there was a tinned strawberry profile.  The palate reflected the nose in terms of flavours, and there seemed to be high alcohol content and tannins so it was at least medium bodied.  The finish was long, but it was a very jammy wine which appealed to some, but which in my view was so jammy that it was a tad too much so not totally balanced.  This can be an issue for Pinot Noir grown in warm climates.  Good quality. 
  6. Garnet and very leggy on the glass.  A delicate developed nose of leather, straw and prune.  The palate gave tongue tingling alcohol, cooked strawberry, and and an array of Burgundian developed flavours including leather, farmyard, fig and prune.  It evolved and had a long finish.  It was a classy glass.  By this I mean that the balance of tannins, acidity, body and flavour were spot on, it had a wide flavour profile which was complex and a long evolving finish.  The flavours, though delicate, were defined and built up, especially on the second taste.  The only element lacking was fresh fruitiness, which meant this wine divided the room.  In my opinion, very good quality at the top end of that bracket.

So which were the Aldwicks?  I believed that 2 and 4 were English – due mainly to distinctly lower alcohol levels.  However, I wasn’t sure whether 4 might instead be from central Europe e.g. south Germany or Austria due to its sour cherry edge, which I always enjoy, and which makes Blaufrankisch wines so appealing to me.

Around the room, wines 4 and 6 were generally thought to be of the highest quality.  Wine 1 did not seem to have many  fans.  Some were very keen on wine 2, with its summer fruit pudding charm and light bodied style.  The upfront New World character of wine 5 suited some of us better, and others also enjoyed wine 3 which was a sound fruity and food friendly choice.

What was of note was the fact that only wine 1 seemed to be rather lacking.  The rest were generally well received.  On my table, no one was heard to pinpoint a wine as obviously English because it wasn’t as good as the others.  In short, there was a Pinot Noir for everyone.

So here is a list of where the wines were from (drumroll please….):

  1. German – 2014
  2. Aldwick – 2015 (filtered)
  3. New Zealand (Central Otago) – 2015
  4. Aldwick – 2015 (unfiltered)
  5. Chile, cool coastal zone – 2015
  6. South Africa (Elgin) – 2014

Elizabeth explained the technical details for the Aldwicks, and my blog would be a learned tome indeed were it to include everything she taught us.  What I noted in particular was that Elizabeth knew the wines would benefit from some oak ageing, but oak should be “barely there” (my words not hers) lest the fruit be dwarfed by the oak.

In order to find the right barrels for the maturation process, and after much research,  our intrepid vineyard heroines enlisted the assistance of Bob & Liz Reeves and set off for the Maconnais.  After what sounds like an exercise in diplomacy from which our Government’s Brexit negotiators might learn, one white wine barrel and one red wine barrel (both 228 litres, both 3 years old) made their way back to Somerset – yes, white wine – so the flavours from the barrel would be subtle and not overpower the fruit flavours.

An experiment then began.  Some wine was aged in stainless steel (disappointing apparently), some in the white wine barrel, and some in the red wine barrel.  Upon receiving additional expert input, the wine from the stainless steel was transferred into the white and red wine barrels and then blended, but this time, upon advice, it was not filtered.

Both the filtered and unfiltered wines were oak aged for 5 months only.  Both were blended from wine aged in both the white and red wine barrels.  The result – the unfiltered triumphed, a result reflected in our tasting.

When giving a benchmark opinion on the progress of English Pinot Noir recently for Decanter, Jane Anson MW recently opined that “For me they are somewhere closer to a good-quality AOC Bourgogne Rouge right now.”  This was not intended as a slight, but as a reference point against which the improvement in the quality of English red wine might be gauged (bear in mind that our reds have not as yet impressed on the world stage).
It should be stated that we, the wine lovers of Winscombe, do not pretend to be of the expertise and experience of Jane Anson.  However, I venture to suggest that this blind assessment demonstrated that in fact, Aldwick’s unfiltered Pinot Noir might have already set the bar higher than the wines Jane Anson tasted.  It held its head up high against competition from around the world of similar price point and climate (Pinot Noir from Burgundy was not tasted because the climate is warmer).
Making still red wine from English Pinot Noir grapes is a risky undertaking only possible in the best of years.  Bearing in mind how successful English sparkling wines using Pinot Noir grapes have become, surely only the brave and/or insane would hitherto have entertained the thought of diverting Pinot Noir grapes into such a venture – indeed, the Aldwick wines we tasted only came into being as a result of a fateful set of circumstances.  However, fortune favours the brave, and the quality achieved through passion, energy and painstaking research suggests that English still red Pinot Noir has great potential.  It is my opinion that this tasting established that Aldwick’s 2015 Pinot Noir, especially the unfiltered version, is objectively a very good wine.  It might not be one to age for too long (many Pinot Noirs are arguably better drunk fresh and fruity), but it is on a par with its price point and climatic peers.

Only time will tell whether 9 November 2017 and The Judgement of Winscombe will be viewed by wine historians as an English red wine watershed moment.  However, in my view, this tasting demonstrated that Somerset Pinot Noir still red wine production has come of age.  I feel a sense of smug satisfaction that we, the wine lovers of Winscombe, were there to bear witness.

Declaration of interest – I am a volunteer picker for Aldwick – but I did not pick these grapes – only the best pickers were allowed anywhere near them!

Post Script: A surprising number of my fellow tasters apparently detected “Christmas spices”, notably cinnamon and nutmeg in the Aldwicks.  Their 2017 red wine from Regent grapes apparently has very distinct Christmas spice aromas.  Maybe this is a unique reflection of Aldwick’s terroir!

There’s Something About Manzanilla

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I was recently asked what my ideal holiday would be (clearly I am not the only one eager to get past the C word and get on to holiday plans!).  The perfect combination would be horse racing for the husband, and manzanilla sherry (my favourite tipple) for me.

As luck would have it, we can apparently combine both on the beach at Sanlucar de Barrameda in Andalucia.  Every August, Spain’s most ancient horse races are held there, viewed by spectators with canas of manzanilla in hand.

My favourite manzanilla is manzanilla pasada.  However, I find it hard to explain its appeal, perhaps because its aroma profile is a relative rarity.

So I have decided to analyse my most recent purchase, Barbadillo’s Pastora, a Manzanilla Pasada En Rama, 2017, in order to understand why this wine tastes (and appeals to me) as it does.

The wine is a bright golden straw colour, with pronounced aromas of toasted almonds, straw, more than a hint of marmite (yeastiness), herbs, brine, and a fruit character which I cannot pinpoint – somewhere between baked lemon and sharp cooking apple.  It is dry, slightly bitter and very savoury, full bodied with 15% abv and a hint of tannic structure, but it is also very refreshing, so very well balanced.  It has a long tangy finish – it is quite a character!

Barbadillo tell us on the bottle that the wine has pungent yeast, nut and chamomile flavours.  The word “manzanilla” means chamomile in Spanish (amongst other things, including the lower part of a beard!), and chamomile is reputed to be an important USP for manzanilla wines.

It has also been stated that “manzanilla” means “small apples”.  Linguists will beg to differ, but my fruit dilemma in the tasting note above is significant because manzanilla is also said to have a “peculiar and attractive crab-apple flavour” (A Dictionary of Wine, Andre Simon 1935).  Is this therefore why I was somewhere between baked lemon and  Bramley in my fruit description?

The yeasty character comes from the fact that manzanilla is a type of fino sherry in which a layer of flor, or yeast, has been allowed to form on top of the wine.  This protects the wine from oxidative ageing, and allows toasty yeast aromas to develop.  Manzanilla has to be aged in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda in Andalucia which has a relatively mild climate. This means that unlike elsewhere, the flor remains intact all year round, and is relatively thick.  Manzanilla is therefore the lightest of all sherries, and ultra dry.

The “brine”, or salinity, comes from the coastal location of the warehouses where manzanillas are stored, again, a unique feature of this type of fino sherry.  A wine from the same palomino grapes aged inland will not have the same character.

The wine is also higher in acidity than other finos, and more refreshing, at least partly because the palomino grapes used are often picked when they are less ripe than for other finos.

As with all sherries, manzanillas are blended using the “solera” fractional blending system i.e. maturation in sherry “butts” or casks, such that some wine from each butt is removed at intervals, and replaced with younger wine from the previous “criadera”.  However, manzanillas pass through roughly double the usual number of criaderas before release.  This is said to increase exposure to oxygen each time which benefits the maturation of the wine – some say the more criaderas, the better.

Most manzanillas we encounter are very pale, young, fresh and light bodied.  I love these too.  However, my preferred pasada version has matured for longer such that the flor has died off.  This means the wine has a chance to age oxidatively as well, so that it becomes full bodied, straw coloured, and develops the nutty character I described. It is the manzanilla equivalent of a dry fino amontillado.

The wine I tasted is very tangy and structured, with pronounced aromas.  It is not subtle, but it is well balanced.  This is presumably because it is En Rama, i.e. not filtered or treated.  The benefit of this is that the full flavour profile has not been stripped out, as this wine demonstrates.  The supposed down side is that the wine is relatively unstable.  It will become less appealing if it sits on a wine shop shelf.  En Rama sherries must therefore be consumed within a few months of bottling.  Mine was bottled this year – and as we have only a few days of December left, I might as well get it drunk…..

So there you have it.  But how to enjoy it?  Barbadillo recommend drinking it with shellfish and “all things salty”.  My preference is to sip and savour each drop as an aperitif.

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As to glassware, my sherry lecturer Javier Hidalgo (his family’s famous manzanilla brand is La Gitana – he signed a copy of his book “Manzanilla” for me – see photo!) firmly told us to forget our tiny sherry glasses.  Manzanilla is a wine, and deserves to be appreciated in a white wine glass (see top photo)!  Serve lightly chilled so as not to mask the range of aromas.  It is available from The Wine Shop in Winscombe in a handy 37.5cl bottle, so there are no excuses for not polishing it off promptly before it loses its freshness.

Maybe I will get to try some straight from the cask on an Andalucian beach in August 2018.  In the meantime, time to get the nutcracker out so I can savour my manzanilla pasada with seasonal nuts.

Feliz Navidad!

 

 

It’s crackers – a Wine & Spirits Course in Dry January as a Christmas gift – or is it??

Why on earth would anyone want to study wine, let alone spirits, after the Festive Season – when some of us have had more than enough booze and crave respite in the form of Dry January.

This was my reaction when the idea of gift vouchers for WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) courses was mentioned to me.

However – on reflection, it makes perfect sense to give a wine lover a wine and spirits tasting experience.  They would learn about key wine grapes, regions and styles, and how to pair food with wine, as well as gaining a tantalising introduction to the diverse and exotic world of spirits.

On the 3 day WSET Level 2 course, for example, they would taste approximately 30 grape varieties, not to mention the spirits (which they are encouraged to spit, not swallow, so no breaching Dry January rules).  They would also get a glossy textbook and workbook, as well as a wine tasting card, all for future reference.  They would spend each day all cosy inside The Railway Inn, Sandford – whose lunch platters, included in the cost of the course, are very comforting on a nippy January Monday.  Or they can do the course later in the year, maybe spread over 9 evenings in May/June.

If they don’t have time to do a 3 day course, WSET Level 1 is a one day course, either on a Sunday, or mid week.

Dry January would then be much easier to endure, surely……

Although these courses are required of those forging careers in the wine, spirits and hospitality sectors, in practice, just as many interested consumer students sign up to WSET courses as do students from the trade.  So when Dry January ends, they will have plenty of ideas for new wines to try, and food to experiment with.

There is a tincy wincy bit of home study to do as well (but what else would they be doing when it is wet and cold outside?) and for both courses there is a multiple choice examination at the end – just to prove they were listening and that you got value for money……..but as exams go, they are no problem for a committed wine lover, and their tasting skills won’t be examined – the slightly scary stuff only starts at WSET Level 3.

Level 1 costs £150 and Level 2 costs £325.  If that stretches the budget a little too far, family and friends can club together to buy gift vouchers towards the cost of the course – which might go down rather better than yet more perfume they don’t like, contraptions they give away, or heaps of chocolates they can’t face eating.

So if this sounds like the perfect gift for someone you know – or more importantly for your good self, gift vouchers can be bought from The Wine Shop Winscombe either at the Somerset Wine Fair on 27 October 2017 (if you already have tickets – if not, boo hoo – it is sold out) or from their newly refurnished and gorgeous wine shop/gin palace on Woodborough Road, Winscombe.

Or just give them a bell on 01934 708312 Tuesdays – Saturdays inclusive, 9.30am – 6.30pm.

Or email them on info@thewinetastingco.com

The next WSET Level 1 course is on Sunday 28 January 2018.  Other dates are available later in the year.

The next WSET Level 2 course runs on three consecutive Mondays i.e. 8, 15 & 22 January 2018 – only a few spaces left so act fast for the cosy winter warmer option! Other dates are available later in the year including the  nine evenings course in May/June 2018.

For more information about each course have a look at The Wine Shop website:http://www.thewinetastingco.com/wine-spirit-education-courses/

For more information about what students get out of WSET courses have a read of our blog: https://winetimeevents.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/why-do-wine-exams-and-why-do-wset-level-2/