Buying En Primeur: Is It Worth It?

Enjoyment of fine wine necessitates deep pockets.  Most of us therefore know relatively little about it.  But does buying wine “en primeur” spare some of your outlay?

“En primeur” is a wine trade term for buying wine as futures before bottling.  Usually, a price is paid for the wine when the en primeur offer is made.  Within two years after that, you have to pay the duty owing and shipping costs.  You then either store the wine yourself until it is mature enough to drink, or pay storage charges for someone else with suitable facilities to do so.

The reasoning is that by buying early, less money is spent on the wine in the long run.  However, there are various downsides to this approach which include:

  • falling wine prices
  • reliance upon the opinion of the person who tasted the wine sample in cask
  • interruption in the supply chain for whatever reason
  • having the means to store wine safely and in optimal conditions until ready to drink – or sell.  Provenance is important for value retention and includes proof of where and how the wine has been stored.
  • Insurance is also needed in case of loss or damage e.g. theft, fire, flood etc. if wine is kept for some time.

The wine trade has bought en primeur for many years, but consumers also began to buy en primeur in the late 20th century as a result of rising demand and relative economic prosperity.  Bordeaux wines are particularly associated with this practice, but there are en primeur offers in other regions of France, and indeed, further afield.

The cost and risks involved would normally be enough to deter a risk averse lawyer like me.  But my status as a godmother led me to dip my toe into the en primeur market as a bit of fun.  I decided to buy my god daughter 6 bottles of something ageworthy and approachable in the hope that when she reached 18 she would enjoy it (and maybe share a bit with her godmother!?).  I sought to minimise risk by using The Wine Society to source and store my investment, but there are plenty of other reputable and knowledgeable wine merchants who sell wine to private consumers en primeur.

The choice of en primeur wines was bewildering but price, style and the drinking window helped narrow the options.  Claret didn’t seem right for an 18 year old girl, and the delicate nuances of Burgundian pinot noir are subtle and not to everyone’s taste.  Port was a possibility and its sweetness might appeal to her but I feared it might seem a bit old fashioned.  But Chateauneuf du Pape seemed ideal – a long drinking window, a fashionable full bodied spicy style, and relatively affordable.

img_1144So in 2007 I bought 6 bottles of Domaine Font-de-Michelle Cuvée Etienne Gonnet Chateauneuf du Pape AOC 2005.  I gave the details to my god daughter’s parents in case anything happened to me.  We then forgot about it while the Wine Society stored it.

I didn’t know much about it, to be honest.  I since see that Hugh Johnson names Font-de-Michelle as a top name, calling it stylish, and 2005 is still drinking well in general for Chateauneuf apparently.  The 2005 was described as a classic vintage for the cellar by The Wine Spectator when writing about it in 2007 (not that I read this at the time!)

Here is an extract about 2005 from The Wine Cellar Insider:
2005 – A beautiful growing season for the Rhone Valley and all of Europe. The vintage was shaped by warm, sunny dry days and cool to cold nights and a long growing season. This all helped to produce rich, ripe, concentrated, sweet, fresh berries. The wines combine great style, depth of flavor and the ability to age and evolve.

Jancis Robinson seemed happy with it when released, giving it 18 points.  But by 2014 she scored it 16.5 for enjoyment (“very ripe and vivacious”) but remarked that there was lots of very obvious alcohol in it – the Grenache was presumably very ripe as it has a heady 15% abv.  I won’t reproduce the notes in full as they come from Purple Pages, a subscription service.  But I hope they won’t mind if I tell you the blend is 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre.

We all taste differently, so I looked forward to tasting a stylish, spicy, full on wine with lots of development flavours.

img_0973Enough about the wine, let’s talk money!  I paid £125.00 for the wine.  When it arrived in the UK I paid £31.29 duty and VAT.  Storage charges per annum vary but based on last year’s charges The Wine Society estimate that I paid around about £43.20 in total i.e. £4.32 per annum.  My total spend therefore comes to approximately £199.49.  The 2005 is no longer available via The Wine Society and I don’t have access to LivEx to value the wine.  I could ask a merchant to value it but I’m not selling so that would be naughty.  The Wine Society was selling the 2009 for £39 a bottle, i.e. £234 for 6.  Assuming the 2005 is worth the same,  total “profit” is therefore £34.51 i.e. 17.3% over 12 years – I might have made more had I called it off sooner! I therefore (almost) bought 5 bottles and got one free.  It doesn’t sound much but if you buy in any scale it starts to seem shrewd.  Though to be honest, I’m not sure it competes with buying wine in France and bringing it over duty free – or just moving there!

img_1145My god daughter turned 18 this year, so what does she think of it I hear you ask?  Sadly, for reasons I won’t go into, her health is such that she can’t partake of much of it.  She has kept a bottle to share with her family, and I have bought the rest from her – like any 18 year old she is content with cash!

The husband and I had a certain birthday this year so we enjoyed a bottle to ease the transition into our next half century.  It was silky, still fruity, and ethereal, with all the leathery smoky spice you would want but in impeccable balance – I didn’t notice the alcohol particularly.  A wine of poise and distinction.  It could keep longer, but it’s drinking beautifully now.  So it won’t last long.

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 4 – Veraison

My latest visit to Luke’s vineyard was on 6th September 2019, on a showery and blustery afternoon with moisture enough to bring out a nervous frog who leapt haphazardly beneath the vines.

img_1485Véraison marks a new phase of promise at Sutton Ridge; the changing colour from green to black of Regent, then Pinot Noir, evidences ripening (from the photos you can see that aside from the colour, Regent has far looser bunches than tightly packed Pinot Noir).  Sugar levels are rising, acidity levels are falling.  The anxious wait until harvesting now begins.

img_1489So much can go wrong – damp conditions cause mildews which can set in during the window between the last spray and the harvest; pests want their share of the crop; poor weather can mean ripening is slow and might not happen at all, especially if véraison is delayed.  After a changeable summer, I wondered whether véraison would be later than usual but it is happening on schedule, Regent grapes already deep black while Pinot Noir is turning now, a couple of weeks later.

img_1486So how is Luke protecting his crop?  His bird scarer had been felled by strong winds (here he is resurrecting it), and already one vine beside a hedge appeared to have been raided, perhaps sparing its neighbours from a similar fate.  Badgers had already dug latrines into which they had deposited seed laden stools and bare stalks as evidence of their brazen theft.  An electric fence probably won’t deter them; Luke accepts some losses to the furry thieves.  Deer, too, expect their share.  Luke has deer fences, but no barrier is completely deer proof, it seems.

Luke offered me the chance to try a grape or two – sugars definitely on the up but still plenty of acidity too!

img_1492Fortunately, although 2019 is not as bountiful a year as as 2018, there seem to be plenty of grapes to go around.  Luke isn’t planning any green harvesting, sometimes carried out around now, to lower his yields this year (he green harvested his Seyval Blanc (see right photo) last year to aid ripening).  But he is de-leafing to maximise air circulation and sun exposure, which will also make the harvest easier.  He is also picking out any signs of disease from each bunch by hand.  So there is plenty to do!

img_1490Despite growing 5 different grape varieties, Luke expects to harvest for 2-3 weeks from mid October.  Luke plans to use all his Pinot Noir for sparkling rosé as he did last year.  His still rosé comes from Regent and Phoenix (see left photo), the proportions variable according to how much of each there is.  His 5 rows of Regent produce less than his 4 rows of Phoenix, so it ends up about 60/40 or just about even.  The grapes are co-fermented together rather than separately and then being blended, giving what Luke believes is a better integration of flavours.  Regent gives a dark colour so in 2017 Seyval Blanc was added to adjust the colour to a more Provence-style pale salmon.  img_1491Bacchus (see right photo) is used for still white wine.  Luke would like to make a still Pinot Noir red one day, but would need to plant more vines and acquire an oak barrel!  One day maybe…..

In the meantime, as promised, notes on Luke’s Rosés, tasted in July 2019:

2017: Pale salmon, apricot hue.  Pronounced nose of rich farmyard, redcurrant, warm fresh strawberries, red cherries and a dairy note. Medium bodied with strawberries and cream flavours, evolving into redcurrant and apricot.  Medium + acidity balanced with creaminess and rich fruit which prolongs the finish.  A very good wine. 

2018: Pale salmon with pink tinges.  Clean precise and intriguing nose which evolves in the glass from red berries and currants to cherries, with rose hip, peachiness and hints of oregano and farmyard adding complexity. This carries to the palate which has high acidity and a red gooseberry bite.  Light bodied,  the acidity is perfectly offset by plenty of red fruits and a creamy mouthfeel.  The finish seemed eternal!   An outstanding wine.  No surprise, therefore, that it won gold at Wine GB, as did its predecessor, the 2017.

You can taste it on Friday 27th September at The Wine Shop Winscombe where Luke will be launching his 2018 still wines.  Tickets £5  – to book, ring The Wine Shop on 01934 708312.



Grapey perfume or prunes and pastry – WSET Level 4 Diploma Spirits Award

The great thing about studying wines and spirits with WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) is that there are some cracking prizes to be won.

img_0945As is evident from my reflections on WSET Diploma graduation (see previous blog), I was never favourite to land a prize for the spirits exam – but somehow, I scored highly enough to receive the Worshipful Company of Distillers’ Scholarship which funds me to study a spirit producing region!

Out of a sea of diploma graduates from around the globe, many of them from WSET in London, there were only 4 from West of England Wine School.  I was proud to fly the Westcountry flag in the awards list, and it should be noted that in the preceding year, my fellow West of England Wine School graduate Sarah Mills won the Marks & Spencer prize for her high mark in the Unit 2 Viticulture and Vinification paper.

So how did this miracle come about?

Reason 1: Time

All my diploma exams were taken while working as a solicitor in Gloucester, except this one.  I therefore had much more time to study.  Many diploma students underestimate how much time they need to devote to it – my result in spirits shows what a difference it makes if you can make time for in depth study.

Reason 2: Fear of Failure

So convinced was I that I would struggle with spirits, I tasted until my taste buds were pickled.  I have tasting notes for 120 spirits!!

Despite lecture samples and raiding our drinks cabinet, it was never going to be affordable to buy all the tasting samples I needed, even in miniatures (I bought 5 of each of Scotch, Irish, Japanese and American – well worth doing).

Luckily for me, help was at hand.  The Wine Shop Winscombe run monthly legendary gin tastings, as well as tastings of other spirits such as rum and whisk(e)y.  Kelli Coxhead from The Wine Shop also let me to join in a tasting of a wide range of spirits hosted by Jack Rackham of Emporia.  He was hugely knowledgeable and added greatly to my knowledge of aged tequilas, amongst other things.  A huge thank you to Kelli and Jack.

I was also encouraged to visit a distillery; Cotswold Distillery hosts a friendly and informative tour.  They were distilling grappa when I dropped by, from pomace (spent grape skins) donated by a Gloucestershire vineyard, and I met their new still, called Dolly (she works 9 to 5….).  When I explained why I was there, they gave me a “doggie bag” of tasty tipples for me to dissect at home.  Their whisky was one of few spirits I tasted which I classed as outstanding.  I also admired their genever equivalent. I can’t recommend their tour highly enough, both to students and to consumers – and the whisky is available from The Wine Shop Winscombe.

Reason 3: The Lecturers

Bruce Perry from Marussia, an uncompromising perfectionist, put us through our tasting paces at an early stage on our diploma journey.  This didn’t go too well, if I’m honest, and I have come a long way since Spirits part 1!  Spirits part 2 was taught by Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers, who makes gins under contract for various brands.  Such is his renown that his involvement is openly acknowledged by the brands he works with, including Sabatini gin made from Tuscan herbal botanicals (available from The Wine Shop Winscombe).  Among the gin samples he brought along was Chilgrove, which he helped create.  It was the first English gin to use grape spirit, and the first gin I tasted in which I could readily discern the craftsmanship of its creator.

Reason 4: Lady Luck

Tim Johnson, our diploma co-ordinator, put together a mock tasting exam, which was uncannily similar to the exam itself!  Of course, this was in truth due to his considerable experience.

https://i.pinimg.com/236x/c8/76/48/c8764881c6df3ff7ae0cb1482e9fca22.jpgThe theory exam also involved luck.  As a lawyer, I had learnt the legal requirements for scotch whisky verbatim, and even looked up the regulations (sad….) – cue a “brain dump” which probably scored very highly when this question came up.  Less lucky was a mandatory question on Poire William.  Usually questions about more unusual spirits offer a couple of options – but not today!  All I knew was that it was made with Williams pears in France and that in at least some examples a whole pear is inside the bottle (the lovely lady at Divine Wines I met at a trade tasting said she had a bottle in her shop and it looked pretty on the shelf).  That was my first and only sentence for some time until the initial exam panic receded.  I then realised I had to choose which spirit production method to write about – maceration with pears, or making a pear cider and distilling it.  I went with the latter and forgot about it until the results came out.   (By the way,  the bottle is placed over the pear bud on the tree!  The pear grows inside.)

It is lucky also that I studied on the diploma course when I did.  Spirits is being removed from the course so I am one of the last to win this award.  Instead, separate spirits qualifications have been created.  This is for the best, but it means people like me who didn’t know much about spirits probably never will.

Reason 5: Following Sound Advice

My mentors Tim Johnson, and Kelli Coxhead from The Wine Shop Winscombe, advised me to let the wine (or spirit) tell its story, and have faith in what it tells you – while having the courage and strength of will to ignore any pre-judgements.  Otherwise you write a tasting note to fit what you think it is, rather than recording what you taste and using the evidence to inform your conclusions.  This all made sense to my logical lawyer’s brain – but applying this wisdom in an exam proved much more difficult.

In this exam, the earthy tequila and the ginger biscuit bourbon were fairly easy to identify.  I was about to pre-judge that the grape spirit was armagnac, but had the sense to read my note back and realised I was describing a cognac VSOP instead – which it proved to be.  In essence, it was much more grapey perfume than prunes and pastry.  With Kelli and Tim’s advice ringing in my ears, and the confidence I had gained, I kept my head and applied an evidence-led approach which paid off.img_1149-1

So many, many thanks to all who helped me.  Not only have I won a fabulous prize which takes me to visit Armagnac this November, but I have also developed a decent palate for spirits tasting which means I can now enjoy and appreciate distilled gems of all kinds – including my own Poire William, in its pear shaped bottle, bought by my lovely family for my 50th!  Which I can’t bring myself to open just yet – but when I do, I’ll let you know……

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 3 – Flowering

img_1080As promised, here is a belated update from Sutton Ridge – this time following a visit on an idyllic midsummer’s evening (3rd July 2019).  Luke was advising a family hoping to plant a vineyard in the Cheddar area, chilled rosé in hand, from a vantage point on a high grassy bank overlooking the vineyard, Blagdon Lake and the Mendips.

img_1078Merely 10 weeks ago in late April the vineyard was neat and tidy with its first leaves of the season showing.  Now look at it!  After a long dry spell, June brought abundant rain and the vines have responded by throwing out shoots left right and centre.  Here is Flo doing her bit to bring order to the chaos.

Flowering is usually expected in Wimbledon fortnight, and despite the chilly wind and rain, flowering was happening, right on cue.

There were no pretty flowers to see, though.  Vines img_1132self pollinate, so there are no attractive blooms to lure in pollinating insects (except the roses planted as early warning signs of disease).  Neither is there much scent to speak of, although vineyards tend to have a honey-citrus perfume around flowering time.

So where are the “flowers”?  “Flowers” are simply the seed bearing part of a plant.  Vines are hermaphrodite, and so are self contained; they have just what they need to reproduce, no more, no less.  So they have male parts (the stamens) which bear pollen (20,000 grains per flower!), which wait for the flower caps to pop off adjacent flower clusters containing the ovary, or female part.  If it is warm enough, the clusters open, enabling the pollen to transfer to the ovary and pollinate the vine.   The stamens and pollen are only a few millimeters away from the flower clusters, so a gentle breeze is all that is needed for the pollen to transfer to the ovary.  Pollination can happen even in still conditions, but ideally some wind is good to blow off the caps and rub the stamens and clusters together.  Damp weather at this time is unhelpful as the caps tend to stick and the growth of the pollen is slowed down.  If the caps stick they can become embedded in the bunches of berries, increasing the risk of bunch rot in varieties with tightly packed bunches.

Grape growers want to see an early, quick and even flowering so that the crop is full, the harvest date can be predicted, and ripening is even.  Late, slow and patchy flowering has the opposite effect.  20-25°C is ideal so lots of flower caps come off and clusters open quickly.

Although warm sunny weather at flowering is important, the quality of flowers is also crucial, and this is determined by growing conditions during May-July in the preceding year.

img_1126After flowering, Luke loses no time in spraying against disease, aided by his neighbours at Aldwick Estate who have a tractor with air conditioned cabin for this purpose.  But there is no chance of getting a tractor along the rows at the moment without damaging the vines.  So the race is on to tuck in the unruly waving arms (see top photo – right has been done, left still unkempt) and at the same time thin out shoots and canes so sunlight and air can penetrate the canopy.  Care has to be taken, however, because when leaves reach 50-80% of the maximum size they help the vine build up sugars needed for the next year, so pulling off too many at this stage could jeopardise the health of the vine for the following harvest.  So management of the leaf canopy continues throughout the growth cycle since leaves at maximum size start to contribute decreasing amounts of sugars and can be more safely removed.

img_1081Already the variation in how tightly packed the bunches will be is evident.  The black skinned variety Regent (see photo) has relatively open, spaced out flowers, so the resulting grape bunches should be at less risk of mildew.

So what else has been happening?  The 2018 vintage has been released, and I have been sampling it and comparing it to the 2017.  Here are some notes about Bacchus (for Rosé wait until véraison blog – or try it – it is fabulous!):

2017: Pale lemon green colour.  Very pronounced appealing nose of nectarine, apricot, freesia, freshly mown lawn and nettles. High acidity and tangy red gooseberry bite balanced by creamy weight and rounded mouthfeel.  I would have liked more length but this is a good, balanced and moreish wine.  I fancy cheese with this and suspect a tangy vintage cheddar would work well.

2018: Pale lemon green colour.  Pronounced, complex yet elegant nose of lemongrass, very ripe pear, red apples, pineapple, and strawberry with a steely note; an overlay of img_1049white flower perfume lifts the aroma profile.  Smells classy.  High acidity, very clean, pure and precise in the manner of a Riesling, with additional distinct white peach and nettle flavours, with a tangy bite balanced by a creamy weight on the palate.  Long if delicate finish.  A very good wine that really sings.

Notes made before results of Wine GB announced – Bacchus 2018 won Silver!

PS Decanter Sept 19 write up by Susie Barrie MW: 90 pts “Bright, fresh grassy style.  The palate is juicy and rounded but also zesty and tangy.  An attractive and easy-drinking style”.

PPS Launch of Sutton Ridge 2018 still wines and latest disgorgement of Dewdown, their sparkling wine at The Wine Shop Winscombe on Friday 27th September 2019 – 7-8pm, £5 ticket price.  To book please ring 01934 708312.  A chance to taste the wine and see if you agree with me, and/or Susie.  Let me know what you think!

Another Year at Aldwick Estate

img_1031It was my annual privilege recently to attend the Harvest Supper at Aldwick Estate in Somerset and to receive my hard earned wine “wages” for my toil in the vineyard last autumn – which followed a long hot summer, so great things are expected particularly from the red grapes, Regent and Pinot Noir.  These wines won’t be released yet but the whites and a rosé should be available very soon.

img_1032Sandy’s update on the past year was short and sweet, but suffice it to say that this ambitious estate goes from strength to strength.  A telling statistic is that production of grapes has risen from 8 tons in 2013 to a whopping 42 tons in 2018!  This was at least partly due to the exceptionally favourable 2018 vintage, which produced a bumper crop across our green and pleasant land.   It was so huge a crop that the winery didn’t have enough slots available to vinify it all.  Another reason is the increased number of pickers.  70 were involved in the 2018 vintage, and 60 were there for the supper.  Sandy’s sister Carol, a professional chef, is back from Spain and her tasty spreads are fast establishing a reputation for quality.

So here is this year’s line up:

Solaris 2018

A pale white wine made from 100% Solaris grapes.  A dry, tangy and  mouthwatering appetiser which comes into its own with food.  It has wet stone and mineral tones, and light citrus fruit flavours.  It reminded me of a quality Muscadet and would be a lovely match with shellfish, especially oysters.

Buteo 2018

A fresh fruity white wine made up of 1/3 Madeleine Angevine, 1/3 Bacchus and 1/3 Seyval Blanc grapes.  A perfect summer’s evening wine with aromas of cottage garden flowers, lemon, green apple, strawberry, gooseberry and grape with peachy notes added on the palate.  This is the quintessential “summer evening in an English country garden” wine.

Bacchus 2018

Aromatic white wine with intense floral and peachy aromas and a distinctive grapefruit twang.  To taste, it is dry, refreshing and yet creamy with notes of mandarin.  The finish is very long indeed!  Many of us were impressed.  Usually, Bacchus has more green fruit and vegetable flavours, so the stone fruit flavour profile suggested grapes somewhat riper than usual – no surprise given that 2018 was a very hot summer.    I think a salad with a fruity element would be a lovely match – Coronation chicken maybe?  With food or without, sip and savour to appreciate its quality finish.

Mary’s Rose 2018

img_1028After a chat with the delectable Mary herself, I tasted this year’s rosé.  Pale salmon in colour, this is delicate yet weighty and I thought there was a slight spritz.  There were restrained tangy redcurrant, loganberry and cranberry flavours on the nose, but this wine is all about the palate.  There was real depth of jammy strawberry flavour, with a creamy texture.  The finish was long, and evolved into notes of apricot.  It might not have oodles of complexity but the length, evolution and depth of flavour more than compensates.

Regent 2017

img_1030-1A pale ruby-red wine with a purple tinge.  An inviting intense nose of plum jam, tinned strawberries, cherries and spice with hints of rose hip and hedgerow fruit.  Velvet smooth on the palate with low tannins but enough alcohol to balance with the flavours. Although a light red, it is not thin and weedy like English reds tend to be.  It has enough depth and complexity to be satisfying, and a hint of Italian style sourness on the finish makes it an attractive food match – try lightly chilling it for optimal balance and crack open with charcuterie.  Be quick – I have just read that it got a Decanter World Wine Awards Bronze medal so it won’t be about for long!!!

A favourite?

Each wine has its own ideal situation so choosing is impossible – so I’ll go with the one I opened first when I got them home……and that was Mary’s Rose.

Somerset Wine Fair 7th June 2019 – Nyland Manor, Cheddar

Aldwick Estate (as well as Sutton Ridge and Oatley) are presenting their wines so if you want to taste them for yourselves why not come along.  Here is the link for more information:

“Summer” Somerset Wine Fair – Friday 7th June


World Wide Whisky

It was Whisky Night again at The Wine Shop in Winscombe last Friday, and after a couple of weeks’ duty as an exam invigilator I can tell you this tasting was just what I  needed to reinvigorate my senses.

Marlowe Harris, the whisky buyer for Amathus Drinks whisked us around the world to try twists on old favourites, ground breaking innovations and a couple of whisky based cocktails.

We kicked things off with Whiskey Thief, in which bourbon is reinvented using convection oven technology to bring out additional flavours from the oak barrels used for ageing, which are reflected in the whiskey – in this case mocha oak flavours.  Created by the owner of the Lexington bar in London, I felt it was lacking in balance on its own.  I enjoyed its notes of corn, caramel, prunes and nuts, but it was very hot, and had a bitter tinge.  However – it was a revelation in the Whiskey Ginger (i.e. with ginger ale and an orange slice).  There was a smouldering smokey embers finish which didn’t seem evident at all served neat.  Marlowe explained that very often the smokiness from the charring of the barrels, key to the bourbon style, comes to the fore in a cocktail.  Whiskey Thief is a sublime mixer and a snip at £25.99.

Next was Koval Organic Single Barrel Rye Whiskey from Chicago.  They set out to make a grain dominant whiskey, moving away from the oak dominant style of bourbon.  This was smooth, balanced and complex with a nose of straw, clove, cinnamon, rye, raisins, burnt orange and peanut brittle.  On the palate I also noted honeysuckle and coffee and a creamy mouthfeel.  Very good – £46.99 is a fair price for it.

img_1037Kings County Distillery’s Straight Bottled in Bond Bourbon (see photo) from New York City came about when a chap from a dry part of Kentucky began ageing his moonshine.  To be Bottled in Bond the whiskey has to be 50% abv, at least 4 years old and distilled in one season only, i.e. not blended.  It has gongs aplenty.  It is pale mahogany in colour and exudes powerful intense aromas of prunes, marzipan and brazil nuts with some floral hints.  Others would say cherries and chocolate.  I felt it needed a little water – but I added too much which rendered it soapy – oops!  It’s £33.99 for 200ml reflecting its individuality and intensity.

Spirit of Hven Hvenus Rye Whisky (see photo) is from a Swedish island where they grow the grain used for their whiskies.  It is the brainchild of a leading chemical analyst of spirits who set out to isolate why Swedish rye whiskies taste so distinctive.  This orange tinged tipple had a little sediment in it and was bracingly herbal in its flavour profile.  I smelt cherries, benedictine, menthol and mint – my nasal passages were well and truly decongested.  On tasting, it seemed like a dry Drambuie – in a good way.  Its 45.6% abv was balanced with its powerful flavours and silky texture, and with water it acquired chocolately creaminess.  A mouthful I could sink into – £48.99 for 500ml reflects its provenance and quality, and it comes in a funky conical shaped bottle.

The English Double Cask Bourbon & Oloroso is a limited batch release from the English Whisky Company in Norfolk.  2,943 bottles were made with a minimum age of 7 years.  The tiny output from this distillery can be put into context – Glenfiddich produces in 2 hours what they produce in one year!  They managed to procure input from Ian Henderson Master Distiller, formerly of Laphroaig and Ardbeg, when he retired.  Their aim is to make whisky according to Scotch rules, but in England.  The nose had what I would expect to find in Scotch – straw, burnt lemon, bread, and a wee hint of damp dog.  However, it’s the palate that really sets this dram apart.  There is a massive surge of flavour, and a long, evolving finish which includes such disparate flavours as strawberries, nuts, straw, smoke and herbs – but you could sip it over and again and find even more going on.  My classy glass of the night.  £52 for 700ml – not bad for a dram of this class.

We finished with a fancy Overaged Malt Whisky from Michel Couvreur of France, a wine trader making this unctuous extravagance using Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry barrels which still contained sherry.  Blended to achieve optimal balance, and gravity filtered to retain flavour, this was very promising on the nose with inviting toffee apple, tarte tatin, brazil nut and caramel aromas.  The rich and weighty palate had bite and smokey notes.  With water the sweeter tones of the nose were more prominent, so how much if any to add depends on how you prefer it.  This was a big hit with several of us, but they will need deep pockets since the price is as fancy as the dram at £81.99.

The martini glasses were out for a Manhattan to round off the night in style, made using Whiskey Thief, Berto Vermouth and Bitter Union Aromatic Bitters.

This tasting proved that these days, there is so much more to whisky than just Scotch.  Bold new flavours, textures and adjustments to balance are being created for every conceivable whisky savouring experience.  With the advent of new technologies, there is without doubt much more to come.

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 2 – Budburst

img_1005There is a quiver of excitement in vineyards the world over when the bare skeletons of pruned vines suddenly reawaken after their long winter rest.  Despite the many vineyard tasks and eternal vigilance which will now be needed to reap rewards at harvest, budburst (aka budbreak) represents the promise of the forthcoming vintage,  especially exciting this year in Somerset after the bumper quality crop in 2018.  Each bud contains everything the vine needs – new shoots, lush leaves, tendrils for clinging, and clusters which will bring forth flowers, and hopefully, lots of healthy grapes.

img_1014So you can imagine how it felt to gaze over the gate upon the Pinot Noir vines we pruned last month, now tied down and, quite literally, bursting into life.

Apart from a rogue bud here and there, budbreak didn’t get going properly until Easter Monday (21st April) or thereabouts.  It doesn’t all happen on one day of course, different varieties reacting to warming temperatures at different rates, but the “window” was around then, brought on by very warm weather over Easter preceded by a decidedly cool spell which had slowed things down. Luke thinks this is around about the usual time.  Compared to spring in our gardens which has been long established, vineyard spring seems surprisingly late.

img_1006The weather since my last visit had been largely dry until this week, so the canes were unusually brittle and some snapped off when tied down.  Other than than, as you can see, Luke seems pleased with progress so far.  He aims for buds about a fist length apart on the canes to give enough room for air to circulate in the canopy.  He also wants to see plenty of life from the “thumbs” we left for next year’s canes.

The most feared weather hazard from this point is frost.  Early budburst facilitates a long growing season allowing complex flavours to build up in the grapes, essential for quality wine.  However, it comes with greater frost risk.  In the UK, on balance, later budburst lessens the frost risk and we have such a long growing season that there is usually plenty of time for the grapes to develop.

Sutton Ridge’s position in the Yeo Valley, its south easterly aspect and its location in the relatively mild south west of England is such that the frost risk is less than many other UK sites.  Luke could lessen the risk further by taking anti-frost precautions if frost is forecast, but these are expensive so he takes his chances, aided by late pruning (see previous blog) which helps to push back budburst slightly later than elsewhere.

img_1001Other than site selection and late pruning, there isn’t much grape growers can do to control when budburst happens.  The process begins when the soil warms up to around 10°C which prompts the vine’s roots to send sap upwards through the trunk to the latent buds.  Pruning also prompts sap to rise, but only if the soil is warm enough.  Carbohydrate reserves (sugars and starch) stored in the roots, trunk and canes fuel the process.  Minute root hairs explore tiny fissures in the soil, extracting nutrients and moisture as they grow – some grow to become roots.  In colder wetter conditions these root hairs don’t develop so easily which delays budburst.  So even though we can’t see what happens beneath our feet, budburst is evidence that something must be going on!

Although climate change is having an impact on UK vineyards, as Stephen Skelton MW says in his “Viticulture” textbook, the main vineyard milestones of budburst, flowering, véraison and harvest are still occurring more or less at the same time each year.  There are annual variations of course, and Luke told me that last year flowering, expected in Wimbledon fortnight, happened ten days early.  Judging by this year’s weather to date, he does not expect early flowering this year.

Luke has already sprayed the vines against disease just before budburst, and he expects to spray the vines every fortnight or so from now on i.e. 8-10 times during the growing season because if mildew sets in it is hard to get rid of it.  The timing of the next spray depends on the weather – if it remains soggy as it is at present, spraying will happen sooner rather than later.

img_1010-1Other tasks include moving the wires downwards so they can be more easily adjusted around the vines as they grow, and rubbing off unwanted buds from the trunks so the vine’s efforts are directed towards the fruiting canes.

Luke also wants to remove secondary buds, again to concentrate the vine’s efforts into the best shoots.  But a secondary bud can be a useful Plan B if frost strikes, so Luke will wait until they are longer and the frost risk is much lower before he loses them.

img_1013With discernible pride, Luke pointed out a new vine created from a neighbouring cane to replace a vine he lost.  It had been bent across, trained downwards, allowed to take root and then been set free from its parent such that it was now growing up by itself.  A vine teenager, if you will.  It does not have roots resistant to the predations of the phylloxera louse, but it makes a useful stop gap and seems pretty perky so far.

As for what is new outside the vineyard, Luke was proud to announce that his Dewdown sparkling white wine was awarded silver in the IEWA (Independent English Wine Awards) competition, and he plans to enter his wines in Wine GB again this year – last year his 2017 Rosé won Gold – remarkable for what is a boutique vineyard without the resources of others with similar accolades.

The eagerly awaited 2018 Bacchus white wine and the rosé are now available and I can’t wait to taste them.  Watch this space for a comparison of the 2017s and 2018s, and also a comparison of my tasting notes of the 2017s this time last year with notes one year later to see how they have developed in bottle.

I will next be visiting Sutton Ridge in Wimbledon fortnight for flowering so here’s hoping jack frost has made his last appearance for some time.