Armenian wines are a recent addition to our portfolio, discovered by head of buying, Steve Daniel. Founded by Armen Aslanyan, ArmAsis revitalising Armenia’s historic winemaking legacy. Situated on the 45th parallel, the 180 hectare estate is surrounded by a 17 kilometre brick wall – the Great Wall of Armas – set against the backdrop of Mount Ararat. The Voskehat grape literally translates to “Golden Seed” in the old Armenian language and our April wine of the Month, ArmAs, Aragatsotn, Voskehat 2018, is certainly a golden wine, long and elegant, with a streak of minerality.
In a nutshell
Intense and floral aromas of fennel, green apple, fresh rosemary and lime are complemented by subtle spice and mineral undertones, fresh and tingly on the finish.
Armenia is considered to be the birthplace of wine, with biblical references to the region being planted with vines. Armenia also hosts the site of the oldest known winemaking ruins, which date back 6100 years. Founded by Armen Aslanyan, ArmAs is revitalising Armenia’s historic winemaking legacy. Situated on the 45th parallel, the estate covers 180 hectares of stunning vineyard and orchards, on an undulating terrain of complex soils set against the backdrop of Mount Ararat. Winemaker Emilio del Medico pays homage to this heritage by creating elegant and distinct wines from estate grown native varieties.
The grapes were carefully selected to maintain the highest quality. Fermentation took place at 16 to 17°C with selected yeasts in stainless steel to retain the purity of fruit. Maturation of eight months on the lees with weekly bâtonnage, imparted texture and complexity to the resulting wine.
There seems to be little knowledge about Lebanese wines within the UK even though the Bekaa Valley has been producing wines for over 6,000 years, making Lebanon one of the oldest wine producing countries! However, Lebanon Law under the Caliphate meant that wine production had to stop other than amongst Christians for religious reasons. This meant that modern day winemaking didn’t take place until 1847. So what is there to know about Lebanon wine production and Lebanese Wine?
1 – The Temple of Bacchus
Bekaa Valley, Lebanon is home to The Temple of Bacchus, the god of wine, winemaking and grape harvest – surely this means that Lebanon is also the home of wine and wine production.
2 – Lebanese wine is exported to over 30 countries
Lebanon produce around 8 million bottles a year (less than 1% of French wine!), however the wines are still exported to over 30 countries! Of these, the UK is the top country for exporting, yet the UK wine consumers are still often unaware of Lebanon as a wine producing country.
3 – The Only Assyrtiko in Lebanon
The Greek grape variety Assyrtiko pairs perfectly with Eastern Mediterranean foods including Greek, Turkish and you guessed it, Lebanese. Chateau Oumsiyat was the first producer to vinify the crisp and citrusy grape variety in Lebanon, ‘Cuvee Membliarus’. The wine is best paired with Lebanese small plates and Mezze.
4 – The Lebanese Bordeaux Blend
Lebanon produces many wines of similar style and grape varieties to Bordeaux and the South of France. Lebanon was occupied by the French until 1943, could the French occupation be the reasoning for the plantings of French grape varieties resulting in French blends? Chateau Oumsiyat Jaspe (the French word for variegation) and Grande Reserve are two examples of Lebanese wines using French varietals and produced in a ‘French’ style. As well as producing Bordeaux red styles, Chateau Oumsiyat (and other Lebanese producers) also cultivate and produce white Southern French styles, such as the mouth watering Chateau Oumsiyat Blanc de Blanc.
5 – Two Indigenous Grape Varieties
Within the 2,000 hectares of Lebanon under vine, there are over 25 different international and local varieties grown. The two most widely planted indigenous varietals are Obeidy and Merwah, both white grape varieties. Obeidy is an aromatic variety which has characteristics of exotic and tropical fruits, Chateau Oumisyat ‘Obeidy’ has exotic flavours with hints of peach and a touch of minerality which travels through to a clean salty finish.
Aromas of fresh red fruits are complemented by earthy and savoury notes with a light and balanced palate.
Herdade do Rocim is an estate located between Vidigueira and Cuba, in the Lower Alentejo. It comprises 120 hectares, 70 of which are made up of vineyards and 10 hectares of olive trees. Since its inception in 2000, Herdade do Rocim has invested heavily in the vineyards, replanting vines and introducing new varieties. They are pioneers in ‘amphora wines’, following the ancient traditions of vinification in pots known as ‘Tahla’. The vineyard is cultivated manually and minimal intervention is used in the cellar, to produce fresh, elegant and mineral wines. In 2018, Herdade do Rocim was awarded Best Wine Producer by Revista de Vinhos.
Naturally vinified without any additions or must corrections. The fruit was carefully selected in order to vinify only the highest quality berries. Fermentation took place with indigenous yeasts in traditional clay amphora pots known as ‘Tahla’. The process took place without any intervention, including temperature control. The wine was aged for three months with skin contact which imparted complex aromas and flavours, resulting in this distinctive wine. This wine may create a natural deposit.
As part of Hallgarten’s Head Start Apprenticeship scheme, inaugural recruit, Amica Zago, spent her first three months at Hallgarten learning the ropes in the Customer Services Team. Reflecting on her time in the team, Amica sees the three months as the ideal start in the business. The Head Start scheme is an 18 month long programme to develop the future talent of the wine industry, providing a 360-degree perspective of the wine sector from vineyard to table.
After graduating from Plumpton College (University of Brighton) with a 2:1 in Wine Business, I was very fortunate to find the job of my dreams within the industry. Even better, it’s an 18-month Graduate Apprenticeship Programme lled “Head Start”, allowing me to work and learn from each department across all of the business.
After the first 10 months I will have gained experience within Customer Service, Marketing, Finance, Logistics and National Accounts teams. I will then be spending a month abroad with one of our major suppliers working through the harvest season, returning to Luton and joining the Sales team for the last six months of the apprenticeship.
Andrew Bewes: “Nurturing the future talent of the wine industry is essential to the development of the sector we work in and it is our responsibility to help guide these individuals to the next level. We devised the Head Start programme to give apprentices the tools to be able to embrace any aspect of the sector we work in and provide added value to customers.”
After completing an internship with the company in the summer of 2018, in September 2019 I was excited to be back and was warmly welcomed back into the company and introduced to my new supervisor. Within the first few hours I had settled in, now knowing there was nothing to fear, I was definitely starting to enjoy this new opportunity. Now three months into the role, I’ve just finished working within the Customer Service Team (CST) and have to say what a lovely team to be in: fun and so knowledgeable!
Having now completed my secondment within CST, I realise how starting out as a Customer Service Advisor gives you great insight into the company, learning the diverse and exciting wine list and being able to understand how the Customer Service and Delivery Teams aid the sales organisation, ensuring that customers are able to receive their orders within their requested time window – I never thought customers would have such precise delivery slots!
The main role of a Customer Service Advisor is to input all the orders, these are received via email and phone, and come from both the Sales Representatives and customers directly. This does mean that you’re constantly multitasking between the PC and phone calls… at times I was liaising with other teams within the business one minute, perhaps talking to the delivery team, and then on the phone to a customer – you need to keep a cool and level head at all times. The role has definitely improved the way I interact, both spoken and written and raised my confidence levels immensely.
I have known for a while that my dream job within the wine industry is to become a Sales Representative, working in Customer Service has taught me a lot about how important it will be to have a really good working rapport with the back office. Now I know what information I need to provide to ensure CST have everything they need, I’m sure that my orders always go through smoothly! Without them and their great work, my future customers will be on the phone to me complaining – and that’s not what anyone wants!
And now, on to marketing… I’ll be back with another blog soon…
Lovely expression of fresh melon and apple fruit with hints of fennel and wet stone through to a bone dry, salty and mouthwatering finish.
Grace Wine was established in 1923, in the Katsunuma province, the birthplace of the Japanese wine industry. Committed to the belief that great wine is made in the vineyard, they were the first to research and introduce European training and pruning methods introducing such as using long cordon training and Vertical Shoot Positioning in 1990. The wines are made in a modern way to retain the delicate characteristics of this individual and exciting grape variety.
The grapes were gently pressed in a pneumatic press before being fermented at controlled temperatures in stainless steel to preserve the naturally occurring acidity and pure fruit flavours of the Koshu variety. The wine was matured in stainless steel tanks, where it spent three months on its fine lees adding richness and complexity.
The wine women of Weegmüller are part of over 300 years of remarkable winemaking history.
Weingut Weegmülleris considered the oldest winery in Pfalz. This is quite a feat in an area with so much history but their reputation for great winemaking has long and solid foundations dating back centuries. The winery was started in 1685 and has been in the family for an impressive 12 generations. The family’s origins can be found in Zurich, Switzerland but they can date their time in Haardt back to 1657. Despite all this history they still have a consistently forward looking focus, always striving to maintain and improve the quality of their wines.
Today, the winery remains based in the same baroque buildings that have been on the site since the 1730s. Weegmülleris set apart by being one of very few German wineries run exclusively by women. Today, sisters Gabriele and Stefanie Weegmüller work together to drive the business forward and ensure the continuing production of high quality wines. Their focus on quality and terroir means they carefully consider which grape varieties and wine styles will best show the region as its finest. With Gabriele managing the commercial side, Stefanie is able to focus fully on creating the best possible wines which rightly earn their reputation for excellence.
Stefanie has been Cellar Master for more than 30 years and was notably one of the first female winemakers in Germany at a time when the industry was especially male dominated. Her career began in 1984 when she took over winemaking responsibility from her father and a reputation for technical prowess and a clear passion for precise winemaking was quickly evident. As a result, Stefanie has spent over 25 years making some of the highest quality wines in Pfalz. She demonstrates a thorough understanding of the complex winemaking process but also imbues a lot of heart and soul in to Weegmüller’s wines. This enables the production of classic wines which are delicate and pure, perfectly expressing the terroir and showing generous fruit and length.
Notes of lemon, grapefruit, toast and classic honeysuckle weave through the rich and textured palate culminating in a zesty, citrussy finish.
Established in 1860, Tahbilk is an historic family-owned winery, renowned for their rare aged Marsanne. Tahbilk is known as ‘tabilk tabilk’ in the language of the Daungwurrung clans, which translates as the ‘place of many waterholes’. It perfectly describes this premium viticultural landscape, which is located in the Nagambie Lakes region of Central Victoria. The estate comprises 1,214 hectares, including a seven mile frontage to the Goulburn River. Environmental sustainability is paramount at Tahbilk and in 2013 they became carbon neutral. In 2016, Tahbilk was awarded ‘Winery of the Year’ by James Halliday.
The hand-picked grapes were handled semi-oxidatively; controlled amounts of oxygen were allowed which helped impart secondary flavours and texture to the wine. Fermentation took place with selected neutral and aromatic yeasts at cool temperatures and lasted for 20 days in stainless steel fermenters to enhance the purity of fruit. Made with naturally high acidity to support serious long-term ageing, it was matured in bottle for seven years.
I first used the expression salt-and-caramel in a tasting note about four years ago. My memory is a little hazy, but I think I scribbled it during a sampling of Juan Pablo Michelini’s Zorzal wines at Prowein. I was searching for words to describe the amazing tang which cut right through the sweet fruit in the red wines; a kind of refreshing acidity at odds with the opulence around it. I thought the phrase a little childish but that it would mean easy recall when I referred to my notes later.
And then, of course, I found myself writing that phrase again and again. Salt-and-caramel. Slightly irritating habit, this, like wiggling your leg in the waiting room. What was happening? Were my taste buds changing? After thirty years in the trade? Odd.
I recalled that Prowein moment a few weeks ago while reading a Wine Folly blog, I Tasted 3 Rocks, So that you don’t have to! In this light-hearted piece, posted in May 2019, Madeline Puckette described licking pieces of chalk, river stone, and slate. She found the connection between slate and Riesling to be apposite; that “chalk feels like licking a hard sponge that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth,” the flavour reminding her of a Brut Zero Champagne; and that while “river stone is supposed to remind people of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir,” its flavour is pretty gross.
Puckette was seeking to explain minerality, but concluded: “Minerality is neither a single compound nor the vines” ability to “suck the minerals out of the soil,” but is a combination of many different aspects including esters, trace minerals, acidity level and a wines’ alcohol level. So, when wine writers write “minerality” they are trying to put a name on a multi-faceted characteristic that science doesn’t have a definition for.”
It’s a bit old hat, this minerality thing. Been done to death. A bit late to the party. And as Alice Feiring said: “Minerality has become a dirty word par excellence.”
Walking between the raindrops, then.
I know, but it doesn’t go away.
Minerality famously did not appear in Ann Noble’s 1984 Wine Aroma Wheel, nor in the first four editions of The Oxford Companion to Wine (“imprecise tasting term and elusive wine characteristic that, along with the descriptor mineral, became common currency in the early years of this century.”) But here are two definitions relayed by Jamie Goode in his Wine Science:
Stephen Spurrier: “I suppose it is easier to define what it is not – that is, it is not fruit, nor acidity, nor tannins, nor oak, nor richness, nor fleshiness. It is not really a texture, either, for texture is in the middle of the palate and minerality is at the end. I think it is just there, a sort of lifted and lively stoniness that brings a sense of grip and a sense of depth, but it is neither grippy (which is tannin) nor deep (which is fruity.)”
Michael Bettane: “Minerality is a fashionable word never employed in the 1970s and 1980s. The only no-nonsense use is to describe a wine marked by salty and mineral undertones balancing the fruit, more often a white wine rich in calcium and magnesium as many mineral waters are. For a red wine I have no idea.”
Now Goode himself: “I know what I mean when I encounter some characteristic in a wine that makes me think “mineral”, but I can’t be sure that when other people use it they are referring to the same thing. I suspect that it’s sometimes used as a way of praising a deliciously complex wine, in the same way that “long” is often thrown into a tasting note when people really like the wine but have run out of more concrete descriptors.”
Similar sentiments from Sam Harrop: “Minerality is a term I have used for many years with a clear and personal understanding that not all wine professionals might share.”
But what is it that provokes these “allusions to minerality,” to use Doctor Peter Dry’s words? A prickling on the tongue, or a savoury aroma on the nose? And – from a commercial point of view – does describing a wine as mineral confer a kind of supremacy? A more romantic artisanal image?
Steve Daniel, Beverly Tabbron MW and I had a chat about this in Hallgarten’s tasting room. Steve, fresh from describing one wine as “saltier than a bag of KP nuts,” said: “There is definitely minerality in wine. It has to be there. It’s not acidity, it’s not body. It’s a skeleton which will change but which will let you know where the wine is going.” Steve strongly believes that there is a relationship between minerality and volcanic soils, such as those on his beloved Santorini.
For Bev, minerality is shorthand for a “form of freshness, a salinity. Sometimes I wonder if it is a mild spice.” Then she paused. “But are we just being lazy?”
It seems an elusive concept. Are we searching for a connection between this taste and – inevitably – the impression of rock from which the vine draws its nutrients?
Two well-recounted experiments:
At the end of the 20th century, a German scientist, Andreas Peuke, planted Riesling in three different pots with different soils (Loess, Muschelkalk and Keuper). After some time he collected the resin from the plants, analysed them and compared them. To his surprise, there was a huge deviation in the nutrient levels in the three plants. A definite connection?
Randall Grahm soaked rocks into tanks filled with wine; he too, concluded that the rocks altered the wine to a great extent, detecting changes in the aromas and mouthfeel, and he felt that the wines had gained a higher degree of complexity and density.
But as we know, the correlation between minerality in rocks and minerality in wine has been largely debunked over the last decade by some really clever people, most famously by Alex Maltman, professor of earth sciences at Aberystwyth University, who opined that the geological minerals in rocks (made from chemical elements) are different from the fourteen nutrient mineral elements required by vines. The rock’s chemical elements do not degrade easily and only slowly release their nutrients for vegetation. Then, some of these nutrients are then removed each year in crops, and the soil is further enriched by compost and fertiliser. The result is that almost all of the nutrients in wine come from this humus of decayed plant and animal matter, rather than the geology.
“There would seem to be no basis for the common assertion that a particular kind of bedrock produces certain wine flavours. The term minerality is a contemporary invention.”
Viticultural guru Dr Richard Smart told the Institute of Masters of Wine that viticulture “is not an issue” in wine minerality: of those fourteen nutrient mineral elements, “three of the most important (N, P, S) are not derived from minerals; they are absorbed directly from soil organic matter (humus). Even those which are commonly found in minerals (K, Ca, Mg, and Na) are not directly extracted, they are firstly cycled through organic matter.” He cited minerality as an “invented term as a wine descriptor.”
And in any case, rocks have no flavour at all. Apparently, the “flavour” of stones is caused by an invisible substance called petrichor, which, according to Wikipedia, is “constructed from Greek petra (πέτρα), meaning “stone”, and īchōr (ἰχώρ), the fluid that flows in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology.”
Derived from organic matter like oils from plants, petrichor floats through the air and comes to rest as a thin film over everything on the ground, including rocks. This coating then releases its flavours (vapours) only when a rain hits the ground; hence the smell of rain.
So, sadly, it looks as though the romantic in me is going to have to take a back seat; it seems I am not sucking from the rock’s core when I savour my Zorzal Malbec.
But if the perception of minerality doesn’t come from rocks, where does it come from?
Fermentation, probably. To rehash well documented findings, it may come from sulphides produced by yeasts as they work their magic in converting sugar into alcohol. If the yeasts are having a hard time finding enough nitrogen in the must, they may produce volatile sulphur compounds such as hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans (thiols), often called reduction and which can usually be the cause of rotten egg smell. But sometimes these compounds, such as ethyl mercaptans, can also give off flinty or struck-match aromas that can be quite mineral in character and seem to add complexity to a wine. It’s a thin line. Modern reductive winemaking techniques, like the use of closed top stainless steel fermentation tanks which limit the wine’s exposure to oxygen, can also encourage the release of these subtle sulphur compounds.
And then, of course, there is the other common form of sulphur: sulphur dioxide can affect taste perceptions of minerality. Their presence may ‘tweak’ the flavour profiles of wine in a more salty or bitter direction, creating a mineral effect.
Sam Harrop: “Complexed sulphides are one of the main aromatic indicators of minerality. Reductive handling at wine phase is vital to protecting mineral perception – both aromatically and texturally. Wines with mineral perception have a low pH, complex acid profile, complex sulphide aromas and necessary aromatic and textural balance to provide the x factor”
I suppose that one crumb of comfort for those looking to equate minerality with terroir may lie in the fact that if one of the reasons for the dodgy performance of the yeasts is because some vineyard sites are deficient in nutrients – so causing the yeasts to stress and produce these volatile sulphur compounds – at least it is the effect of the vineyard.
Explanation over, then.
Whatever the reasons, it still seems odd to me that the use of minerality is so ubiquitous when it apparently didn’t even exist before about 1984.
Each week in our tasting room in beautiful downtown Luton, Bev, Steve and I attempt to delineate every new wine into just three words. We stock about 950 wines, and when we trawled through our database we found that we had used the word minerality in 49 of them – around 5%. These include seven red wines, one rose and 41 whites, all of which had been tasted in the last six months. Intrigued, we looked at this list, but couldn’t find a common theme. The surprise was the absence of Greek wines, which, given our focus on Greece and the character of its wines, gave us pause for thought – and gave Steve the hump. “I can’t believe we didn’t describe Gaia’s Thalassitis Assyrtiko as mineral.”
So earlier this week we gave ourselves a couple of hours and went through a selection of a randomly chosen dozen of these wines. The results were surprising.
A touch faecal when first opening, but within minutes this disappears.
Steve: “This is definitely a ‘natural’ wine. Alive and kicking!”
Jim: “This is my salt and caramel wine.”
Result: mineral, no question.
There were four others where we were unsure. So, of the twelve wines to which we originally assigned the descriptor mineral, only four would now definitely qualify for it. And four would not even come close. A conundrum: while accepting that wine – of course – changes character as it lies in bottle, here we have three so-called experts, with 60 years of experience between them, conceding to fundamental variances in their use of minerality over a relatively (six months) short period of time. Are we just not good at writing tasting notes? Are we incompetent? After all, WSET students are discouraged from using the word mineral. Blimey!
With most (though not all) of the wines, we found that the fruit elements were now much more advanced than in our original tasting; revelatory so in some instances. Are we writing our tasting notes without giving the wine a chance to recover in the warehouse after reaching us? Or are we – as Bev has suggested elsewhere – just lazy? Using the word minerality as shorthand for something else? And even as I write this, landing on my desk is a note from a producer: “After a long and passionate work in our cellar, we are proud to introduce our new-born: a rich white wine, with notes of tropical fruit and a full body which is supported by great acidity and minerality.”
Well, what do our winemakers make of this?
Juampi Michelini (whose wines kindled this essay!) says: “Of course it is necessary to have mineral soils, especially if they are loaded with chalk. But it also has to do with earlier harvest times, something that has been done more and more throughout the world in the last seven years, as well as more reductive fermentations.
“I describe almost all of my Zorzalwines as being mineral wines – but I always say that minerality is more a sensation of textures than of aromas.”
In the appropriate setting of La Cambuse du Saunier, a bucolic oyster shack which borders a sea salt farm near his Narbonne winery, Gérard Bertrand paused. “Ah, minerality! So controversial. I make a link between minerality and salinity, and the salinity comes from limestone, and if you suck a limestone rock – that is minerality.” He put his index finger into his mouth. “You can feel the minerality in the middle of your tongue.
“You cannot make this during the vinification process. This comes from the rock. We do an experiment. We put Château la Sauvageonne in front of a piece of schist rock; we put Château l’Hospitalet in front of limestone, and we put Château de Villemajouin front of silex, and we ask people to taste the stones and then the wine. They all get the link.
“People need to suck stones.”
At the recent South African tasting held at Phonica Records in Soho’s Poland Street, I asked our award-winning winemaker, Samantha O’Keefe, who said: “It’s a sensation of cold in your mouth.” “Cold?” “Yes.” She laughed. “But I work in feelings and colours and so my tasting notes are often odd. But certainly my wines on stony vineyards give me more minerality than those from red shale soils, which are fuller and richer. I definitely do not think it is a flavour. It’s more just a feeling in your mouth. I think it might just be a way of differentiating from those sweeter, fuller types of New World wines which you often get. But I don’t know!”
She paused again. “Minerality is a texture. It’s a stony quality: wet pebbles. I use minerality a lot. But maybe I am being lazy.”
Lazy. There’s that word again.
It does seem as though some winemakers are anxious to maintain the link between minerality and their wines (as you’d expect!) But are we talking about terroir as opposed to minerality? Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order?
Some key words: refreshing, zingy, acidity, a certain sourness, licked stones. A kind of austere or nerviness or tension; or simply the opposite to ripeness. Whenever I come across what I think is minerality, I pause: “Hello darkness, my old friend…”
But I’m still nowhere near working out what it actually is. Mind you, far better minds than mine have tried and failed; the Oxford Companion to Wine again: “it is not possible to determine whether minerality is a terroir or winemaking effect.”
And why does this bother me so? Why this sophistry in trying to describe something which isn’t there? A flavour – an essence – which may not exist? Am I bending my language to fit a need? What is the need? What is it about minerality? At what point does minerality trans into Fashion? “Sparkling or mineral sir?” Well mineral, obviously, because mineral is Brioni, sharp suited and therefore Continental. But sparkling is, well, gas, isn’t it, and a bit Wyoming. Minerality is cool, it is quartz and diamonds and vaguely Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “Good evening, Commander Mineral, we’ve been expecting you,” white gloves ‘n all. Mineral is nuance. It is class, it is style, and hardly Biffo the Bear. “Indeed.” “Yes, indeed.” “Minerality, yes.” “Yes, indeed.” Opulence, move over, Vanilla step aside and all you other flavours tripping the not-so-light fantastic to the strains of the Fat Belly Boogie. Sodium and calcium and manganese are important and not flippant at all and their nexus endows us as professors in white lab coats, like those Cambridge chaps who discovered DNA in the pub. So when I say: “minerality!” am I a luvvy satisfying my inner core, my night primaeval, by licking from the core of the earth and sharing in a pagan rave with matter which is six hundred and fifty million years old? Is it my soul I search for? Aristotle’s tabula rasa? Core is a great word, it is a key word and if you prefix it with hard you get an awkward word, a dangerous word, a bit nihilistic, but who other than the hardcore would go the Paul Grieco’s Terroir tasting to drink wines from heavy-metal soils matched with heavy metal music? Do metal and core satisfy some kind of prehistoric desire to engage with the elements, to go deep, really deep, in to the earth because deep is good, deep is important and it is the opposite of shallow and who wants to be shallow? No, we’ll keep digging in a maelstrom of kinetic exuberance, knocking at the gates of perception, nosing the brimstone, surrendering to something so great no-one understands it (though it may be “the only true measure of greatness in wine”¹), digging like Heaney’s Old Man, right down into the “roiling, boiling, sulphurous, belching belly”² of the earth, seeking approbation and Dante’s felicity and Milton’s liberty to know, desiring good or desiring God, ingesting Plastic Soup, and not flopping into the chair to watch Corrie but rather romanticizing we are the Underworld Gods, Hecate and Hades, with petrichor running through our veins.
Minerality: is this the taste of what is not there?
¹ Sam Harrop. Winemaking Intervention in Minerality Perception
² Alice Feiring. The Dirty Guide to Wine
Madeline Puckette, Wine Folly
Jamie Goode. Wine Science
Alex Maltman. Minerality in wine: a geological perspective
Dr Peter Dry. Terroir – It’s the Rocks That Matter
Oxford Companion to Wine
Wendy Parr, Alex Maltman, Sally Easton, Jordi Ballester. Minerality in Wine: Towards the Reality behind the Myths
Oh dear! The airwaves have recently been alive with invective concerning Natural Wines. Some columnists apparently don’t know what they’re talking about… Eek! In publishing this blog, I am there to be shot at! So on with the tin hat and here goes…
The most arresting paragraph I have read when looking at natural wine comes from Isabelle Legeron MW: “We live in a society where it is fashionable to wear farmer’s boots, and chit-chat at the local butcher’s resolves around how long your meat has been hung. Micro-breweries and espresso bars populate our urban landscapes, and yet, even against this new agro-chic backdrop, we still wash down our outdoor-reared sausages with the vinous equivalent of a battery chicken.”¹
Legeron goes on to say: “Most of the industry has become so mechanized and detached from its roots in the pursuit of intensification or textbook farming that most wine today has never seen a human hand.”²
I first became aware of natural wines in the early nineties through Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route – the most enjoyable wine book I’ve ever read. I had only just entered the trade then, and Lynch’s recollections of meeting Jules Chauvet didn’t really resonate. It has taken me until now… Fast learner, you might say, but actually I’m ahead of the curve if you agree with Alice Feiring’s observation on natural wine: “An overnight sensation that took about 40 years.”³
I recently read (or re-read) these fine books when looking to provide a bit of background information for some of our newer members of staff. In the end I came up with this six-point primer:
What are we talking about?
Natural wines are made from grapes that are farmed organically or biodynamically but differ from thereon, in that the grape juice is then transformed into wine without adding or removing anything during the process.
Great – so where can I find the rulebook?
There isn’t one. That’s the problem. Unlike Organic winemaking, which has strict certifications in every country of origin, no-one has codified the rules of natural winemaking.
But it does sound similar to organic winemaking, doesn’t it?
Sort of, it’s just that natural winemakers go further than organic winemakers. After all, even organic winemaking allows for up to 50 additive and processing aids (though this is still much lower than in conventional winemaking). But probably the biggest thing which underpins natural winemakers is their opposition to sulphur dioxide (SO2). Sulphur is the kiss of death for them.
So natural wine does not contain any sulphur?
Er, not quite. This is where it gets tricky. Sulphites are a natural side-effect of fermentation and are present in almost every wine. Legally, the message “contains sulphites” must appear on the label if the wine has more than 10mg/l of sulphites. So even natural wines may contain sulphites – but 10mg/l is a tiny amount.
What’s the issue with sulphur, then?
The problem isn’t with that sulphite; the problem is with the other type: sulphur dioxide (SO2). In conventional winemaking this is often added by the winemaker as an anti-oxidant or preservative, either when the grapes have just been picked, or just before bottling, and the EU rules allow for 160mg/l for red, 210 mg/l for white. Natural winemakers will tell you that the SO2 changes the character of the wine, lobotomizes it, and masks inferior quality grapes. And may also give you a headache. But just to illustrate how tricky this debate is, Isabelle Legeron allows 70mg/l for wines included in her RAW tastings (so allowing for small additions.)
Got it! So the key for natural wines is No Added Sulphur or extremely Low Sulphur?
Those are definitely the buzz phrases. But also remember that natural winemakers also love the slogan nothing added, nothing taken away. Key themes are:
Use only natural yeast, and not purchased (or inoculated) yeast. Nursery-purchased yeast (which has only been available during the last 60 years) can affect the wine by speeding up fermentation and homogenising the wine. One of the most famous is Yeast 71B, which used to be widely used in Beaujolais and produced the famous banana flavour. Using natural yeast – which is naturally present in the grape must and has come from the vineyard and the winery environment – allows the use of the phrase “wild ferment”.
No fining – by any of the methods, such as using isinglass, bentonite etc. But you run the risk of leaving impurities in the wine; some winemakers get round this by extra racking – and some equally argue that to use a traditional method like organic egg whites does not make their wines any less natural.
No filtration – as this “strips” the wine of character – but it may leave the wine cloudy.
Many naturalistas will only ferment and age in neutral containers i.e. no new oak, as that imparts its own flavour upon the wine.
Remember, this is for relative newbies to the trade.
A little history. Although some say that natural wines have been made for centuries in qvevri vessels in Georgia, the movement really began in the mid-1980s in France, partly in opposition to technology. Pesticides became widespread after World War II; commercial yeasts entered the market in the sixties. As Stephen Buranyi points out: “The modern winemaker has access to a vast armamentarium of interventions, from supercharged lab-grown yeast, to antimicrobials, antioxidants, acidity regulators and filtering gelatins, all the way up to industrial machines. Wine is regularly passed through electrical fields to prevent calcium and potassium crystals from forming, injected with various gases to aerate or protect it, or split into its constituent liquids by reverse osmosis and reconstituted with a more pleasing alcohol to juice ratio.”⁴
But while a kind of antediluvian meme promulgated the movement, it was also inspired to combat what some saw as an insidious wine fashion. Robert Parker’s 100-point wine rating of initially largely French wines affected wine sales, and, some say, incited winemakers across the world to manipulate their product to fit his full-flavoured taste. Had wine lost its way?
The Godfather of this ‘80s natural winemaking movement (although he would never have described himself as such) was Jules Chauvet, a Beaujolais producer (see Kermit Lynch above), who joined forces with another legendary figure, Marcel Lapierre, to make wines sans soufre. They were thought to be a bit bonkers; making wine without adding sulphur, the wine world’s equivalent of penicillin?
But during the 1990s, as word of their research spread, a number of wine bars sprung up in Paris specialising in these natural wines. They gained wider fame due to the writings of Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron, whose first RAW tasting took place in 2012. “What had once been the passion of a hard core group of eccentric winemakers in eastern France had, somehow, become cool.” (Stephen Buranyi)
And where was I? When modal challenged trad? When modernists dissed the enlightenment? Where was I during wine’s version of Derrida’s deconstruction? Well, I was working for a wine retailer, getting married, working for a wine importer, washing the dishes, moving house, becoming a wine buyer, going to the dentist, going to this funeral and that christening, selling wine to the supermarkets, moving house again, watching England get knocked out on penalties, selling wine to the sommeliers, reading about Basra and Helmand, Turkey Twizzlers and E numbers, cheering same sex marriage, talking about margins and marginal gains, taking two weeks in the Med, discussing screwcap against cork, heavy glass/light glass, watching us score nul points in Eurovision (why can’t we leave that instead?), marketing wine and drooling over data, always, always, always vaguely aware of this natural wine thingummy behaving like an irritating cousin, and yet avoiding it (or doing the responsible thing, depending on your point of view), until one morning I drew back the curtains expecting to see J.M.W. Turner and instead saw Banksy and thought: Oh.
Where was I? Not paying enough attention, perhaps? Guilty, M’Lud. Bang to rights.
This counterculture crusade, the equivalent of Rough Trade taking on EMI, accelerated in tandem with the likes of Slow Food, the Greens, Think Globally – Act Locally, Carbon Zero, Fridays for Future, Craft Beer, Artisanal Gin and the Occupy movement, along with an indie penchant for dissident or whacky labels. We might be getting ahead of ourselves here, but Legeron is keen to promote the principles of the movement. “There is so much more collaboration and communication amongst natural winemakers both in the same country and around the world, as it is still at such an early stage and everyone can learn from each other.” She reports a large and growing consumer base, with 80% of the audience at her Raw Wine fairs around the world being aged between 25 and 44. “We’re gaining critical mass, it’s not a fashion anymore. There’s a huge opportunity. Also by championing natural wine, we can have an impact on the environment.”⁵
But in the marketplace, the lack of definition is worrying. Time and again our sales teams tell me that the lack of “rules” is a real issue for them. And I know what they are taking about. Recently I visited some acheingly trendy London wine bars, all of them shouting their natural wine credentials, all of them reactionary by nature (excuse the pun). When questioned, each one of them had a different definition of natural, ranging from the fanatical “I won’t drink anything with more than 20g/l of sulphur” to the casual: “Oh I know the winemaker and he’s really careful so I call his wines natural.”
But Eric Asimov of The New York Times once countered: “This lack of definition, repeated in many other ways, seems to profoundly disturb the critics, yet perhaps it is one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans. In the same way that the Occupy Wall Street insurgency resists enumerating goals or anointing official representatives, natural-wine partisans refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument. That frustrates those who fear they will become targets if they do not subscribe to what they see as natural-wine dogma; hence the shrillness of their criticism.”⁶
Such as from Robert Parker: “We all know the type – saving the world from drinking good wine in the name of “vinofreakism.”⁷
Does he have a point? Well, there are some who will simply never get it (“Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all, the long and the short and the tall…”) In our tasting room we taste countless natural wines. First up, some of them are simply horrid. Acidic, foul-smelling, fizzy, the split second that you hold them in your mouth is a split second too long. Sometimes the nose is so awful that we simply throw them down the sink – and then apologise to the sink. Sorry, sink. One particular sample was so bad that the collective groans of the three of us brought people running to the room to see if we were okay. It is difficult to know what to make of these. Most are from potential new producers, and you have to wonder whether these are simply poor winemakers who are jumping on the bandwagon and using natural as their angle. We are also always mindful that some of these are tank samples (not that that should make as big a difference in a natural wine) and they may have been stored for a couple of weeks. And of course there are many conventional wines that make us equally wince, too. But still!
(And yet I still wonder whether an evangelist would say: “Ah, but this is terroir! This is exactly how it should be!”)
Others are simply a bit weird. Some seem to lack acidity, some a bit of depth (that may be the absence of oak) and some seem a bit one-dimensional. All of them without exception smell differently to their conventional equivalents. But hold on: what is an equivalent? And are they really weird? Or is it us? Or are we subconsciously thinking of the price point – which is usually higher than for conventional wines? Perhaps worried about storage? And what is conventional?
Then there are wines from our current producers which may or may not be natural. I always prefer to call them minimal intervention wines so as not to offend anyone. The likes of Larry Cherubino, Ocean Eight (Australia); Riccitelli, Zorzal (Argentina); Antoine Olivier, Naigeon, Gouffier (France); Ancilla Lugana, Roccolo Grassi (Italy); Lismore Estate (South Africa); Bodegas Viñátigo, Xosé Lois Sebio (Spain). We have many more. All of them share a philosophy based around allowing the vines to do their natural thing. But it may be that one of their vineyards is not biodynamic, that although they practice organic growing they are not yet certified, and that they may add in a touch of sulphur if they are shipping to the other side of the world. Or it may be that they simply do not want us to label their wines as natural (or organic) for fear of ending up in the Weird section. As Antoine Olivier said to us on our last visit to his cave in Santenay: “My father is a Christian, my mother is Jewish, so I cannot stand dogma. I adhere to organic rules but I don’t want to be certified. If I have mildew I want the ability to protect my vines.”
A bit of a plea for less extremism, perhaps? After all, not all conventional wines are bad, and, as Tim Atkin said (some time ago): “Blossom Hill and Château Lafite are both conventionally produced wines, but they don’t have a lot in common.”⁸
To the right of me I have a bottle of 2018 Château de Grand Pré Morgon, made by a true natural zealot, Romain Zordan. We sampled the new vintage in our tasting room in beautiful downtown Luton three days ago. I brought the half-full bottle home and have had a glass with dinner over the last three nights. It tastes as good now as it did when first opened (not uncommon in natural wines.) I taste it again. It has a fresh nose of damson and raspberries. Young fruit, ripped straight off the bush. It has a kind of purity and vivacity; how can this be after three days? There is no trace of the banana yeast. In the mouth it has a simply amazing palate of crushed fruit, but running through it is a kind of steeliness that refreshes. Again and again.
This may be the freshest and most fruit-driven where did that comefrom? wine I have tasted in the last six months.
It is cloudy.
And that is what will put some people off. Oh, it’s a natural wine.
But I am steadfast.
You see, to the left of me I have an award-winning Australian Shiraz. Conventionally made. Traditionally made. Call it what you like. Great producer. Full and rich in the mouth. Voluptuous and velvety. A touch of delicious sweetness on the finish. God this is good! When I first came into the trade, oak was everything. I judged a wine by that surge of sweetness, by that coating of toast, by that sweeping, Turandot-like roundness. Great with cheese ‘n onion crisps. A bottle for the first half and one for the second, with maybe another for extra time.
But that was then and this is now. And you know what, this Shiraz, while being gobsmackingly good, is not the one I want to drink. It seems to lack nerve, it seems to lack verve, it seems to lack steel. It satisfies but does not intrigue. It doesn’t haunt me. It doesn’t stop me in my tracks. When Brian Jones first took Keith Richards to his crash pad and put on some music, Richards said: “Crikey, who’s that?” “Robert Johnson,” said Jones. “Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?” A stupefied Richards took some convincing that Johnson was doing it all by himself. Is this my Robert Johnson/Keith Richards What the… moment?
But here’s the thing. I now sometimes tire of Robert Johnson. He was my God not long ago. But I find myself agreeing with Roger Daltrey, who said in his recent biography (I’m paraphrasing here) that while the blues are great, after a while they can be a bit samey.⁹ Will I find these natural wines a bit samey? Will I tire of this steeliness, the haunting melody? Will I crave a sweetness fix as I kick off the top bend into the finishing straight? Or will my taste buds accept natural as being…natural. Will my tastes integrate or mature? (Though how mature do you want?)
Where do we go from here? In common with a lot of environmentally-inspired movements, the natural wine movement will continue to grow and may, I suppose, at some point be codified. Would that presage its decline? Would it no longer be seen as cutting edge, but mainstream? Johnny Rotten turning into Perry Como? Is it at a crossroads now, with the fashionistas in danger of over-running the evangelists? Actually, it’s almost certainly gone beyond that now, thank goodness. And in any case, the big gain for me is that natural winemakers appear to be influencing conventional winemakers, who may not be able to abandon all their methods, but who are slowly moving the needle along in that direction.
Lined up like village colleens, all waiting for the dance
A nervous last audition, their ballroom of romance
All dressed in scarlet dresses, wearing their Sunday best
Their generation’s finest, the blender’s final test
Grenache, Merlot and Syrah, Cabernets one to four
Waiting on the tasting bench, resplendent in Self-Pour
The winemaker is ready, the arbiter supreme
Nervous giggles, chatter, perhaps perchance to dream
He swirls, he spits, he noses, the PH not quite there
Acidity is lacking, but the perfume fills the air
Lavender, thyme and pepper, the Languedoc garrigue
Bound for the assemblage, will they sadden or intrigue?
Some samples he pulls forward, some he treats with disdain
Some will make the final marriage, others will remain
The wine-stained tasting notebook, the splashes on the tiles
The debris of the tasting room; chin up, maintain your smiles
The Cabernet’s cool and distant, Mourvedre’s in a bit of a mood
The Merlot will pull, it’s certain, the Cinsault will sing and be rude
I lack their front, their bravura, mine’s a subtle sense of style
I need a change of fashion, quiet drinking for a while
Drought and stress I overcame, frost and hail and rain
Treat my soul with gentleness, rejection feeds the pain
Eager, smile and puppy eyes, a dance? why, yes, of course
But after one turn round the floor, a thank-you, no remorse
If the vintage will allow me, I will return once more
An ordinary heartbreak, walk back across the floor
Pick up my coat from the kitchen, stoic, show no pain
Make my way to the chip shop, and a long walk home in the rain
Hallgarten & Novum Wines Events Manager, Chris Porter, has been working with the company for almost 20 years and is the brains behind the logistical operation that is the Annual Tasting – our yearly showcase of the best parts of the portfolio. With preparations for the 2020 tasting well underway, Chris has taken a step back to consider the top 10 things to consider when running an event.
First off, define your primary objective and convey this to your customers. It is essential to be as targeted as possible to attract the right audience. What is our purpose? What do we want to achieve? Who do we want attending? Where is our focus? These are just some of the questions you will need to explore.
Whether it’s a large scale event showcasing hundreds of wines, or a smaller affair with a handful of producers, the overriding objective remains the same – to impress and generate business.
Ultimately, an objective combined with a theme brings focus, and will help to qualify the success of your event, with any achievements translating into sales and favourable write-ups.
Timing is everything
Month – Timing is key and this next step should align with your main objectives. For example to gain traction on any newly launched wines, you must consider when the trade reviews their wine lists, as they will be more inclined edit their portfolio around then. Seasonality is also crucial, as certain themes work better at different times of the year.
Day – Most events work well mid-week. If yours is aimed at consumers, try to think when they would most likely have free time such as Thursday, which is late enough in the week but not a prime weekend day.
Time – In most cases it’s important to not start too early. Beginning at 11am works well in the wine industry for trade tastings, as this allows time for travel, but still provides an opportunity to taste before lunchtime. Also bear in mind the finish time and consider the audience. For us, if we’re inviting sommeliers or restaurateurs, they are often limited by service times, so finishing too early may not provide them with the opportunity to attend. For a wine merchant holding a tasting in the evening the hours between 6pm and 9pm are prime time.
Choose the right venue
Venue choice is paramount to success, and as such it is crucial to choose somewhere that can accommodate the right location, capacity and ambiance to enhance your event. Alignment to your theme should also be considered. If you’re not holding the event at your own site, a spacious, well-decorated venues close to amenities such as transport links, hotels, restaurants etc. are a good option, and can be easily transformed to meet your needs. Consequently, opting for a premium venue is usually a good investment.
Identifying your target audience is vital in order to tailor your event accordingly. On top of this, it’s important that any invite you design is clear and concise, with minimal content at the early stage. The essentials, if relayed effectively, should be enough to peak their interest; further information can be relayed at a later date.
Transmission of your invites to your selected audience is quite key, digitally inviting guests is time-efficient and simple, whereas a hand delivered invite is a personal touch that is always appreciated.
Timing is important here, if sent out too early, the event may be forgotten, but too late and run the chance of people already having plans. Two months in advance of the event usually works well and provides a suitable amount of notice for your customers.
Social media – Promote, inspire and share
An extremely useful tool in promoting anything these days is social media. It is a great way to connect with the targeted audience for your event, and in the right hands can be incredibly effective.
The beauty of social media is that it is so accessible, you can easily create a buzz and spread the word across a number of different platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.
To promote events effectively, creating a social media calendar to plan and regulate activity can help to build anticipation through a steady release of content.
Promotion of your event doesn’t stop on the day. In fact, it’s the perfect time to generate some noise about it! Getting staff and guests to use a previously specified hashtag when posting on social media can help endorse your event through various online channels via the sharing of photos and videos from the day. Keep an eye on who has used the hashtag and track the engagement after the event – these could be future customers!
Reception – The gatekeepers
At any event it is essential to have a pair of sociable and welcoming people looking after reception. This is the first point of contact for all guests, and it is important to create a good first impression. Streamlining this process to minimise time spent at this area will ensure customers remain satisfied, and are not put off by long queues before even entering your event.
The main jobs here are to register arrivals, meet and greet your guests, and be a point of reference through your customers throughout the day. Keeping track of attendance is imperative to understanding the success of the event.
It is important to remember that although sustenance should always be considered, it is not the primary focus of the day. If you opt to provide food, try to keep thing simple. Small plates and finger foods will encourage guests to socialise and also try different flavours with your selected wines. This is key, and where possible should be encouraged as it’s fascinating to discover how different wines pair with different foods.
Alternatively, should you be hosting a winemaker’s dinner or something similar, providing foods that generate a wow factor when paired with your chosen wines, can really help to enhance your offerings. Be mindful nonetheless to select foods that do not detract from the wines themselves, irrespective of the circumstances.
Food for thought…
Provide the right tools
In order for a wine tasting to be effective a few elements are key;
Tasting booklets – A source of information as well as a place to make notes.
Glasses – Too much is never enough! Try to allow for roughly 2 glasses per guest, however be mindful that some people may take more, and of course there are always breakages!
Ice buckets/Ice – This will keep you from running to the fridge but don’t over chill your wines.
Spittoons – An essential in any wine tasting. Make sure you provide enough, as they fill up quickly!
Miscellaneous – Don’t forget the little things! Pens, corkscrews, slow pours and jugs of water are all crucial.
At the end of the day, you need to breakdown your event and tie up any outstanding tasks. It’s important that this is done efficiently and within the timings agreed with the venue. To ease the pressure I normally start a soft breakdown half hour before finish, just to make the task easier when the time comes.
At the close of the day, encourage guests politely to conclude their day. Then it’s all about working as quickly as possible.
Work with your staff/team to clean up and dismantle any physical equipment, banners, signage and surplus stock etc. You should be leaving your venue in the same condition as when you first arrived.
Once complete, thank staff for a job well done; a small victory drink normally goes down well!
Review & follow-up
Evaluation of your event is a must. Gathering feedback can be done in a number of ways such as via an online survey, paper handouts or simply through conversations. The main thing here is timing – don’t wait too long after the event as people’s memories will fade.
Did things go well? How many potential new customers turned up? Any good write-ups? What didn’t work? What could we do better? The good stuff is great to hear but sometimes it’s better to focus on the negatives. Why? Well these are the things that need fixing, especially if you wish to repeat things in future.
Follow up with attendees & absentees. Thank them for coming and continue discussions if needed. For those who couldn’t attend, recap what they missed and let them know how to remain in contact. Regardless of whether they attended or not, a consistent follow up is key.
Our December Wine of the Month, Champagne Collet Brut 1er Cru, Art Déco NV, is an award-winning Champagne from the region’s first co-operative, established in Art Deco France in 1921. A blend of seven Grands Crus and 13 Premiers Crus, this Champagne is not just suited to celebrations throughout the festive period, but also as a gastronomic partner to a number of cuisines and dishes.
In a nutshell
A broad style of Champagne with developed biscuity notes from extended ageing on the lees and a lovely long and salty finish.
Champagne Collet with its elegant Art Deco packaging is evocative of the Belle Epoque era from when it was established. It is the oldest cooperative in Champagne, dating back to 1921. Since its inception, Collet has been creating Champagnes of character with authenticity, elegance and great finesse. Located in Aÿ, in the heart of the Champagne region, Collet represents some of the finest growers and mainly sources from vineyards which are based on Premier and Grand Cru sites. Each cuvée reflects the diversity of the region’s terroirs and has been masterfully blended to suit gastronomic cuisine
The Chardonnay, predominantly from the commune of Vertus, contributes freshness and citrus notes. The Premier Cru of Villers-Marmery contributes the mineral dimension of the limestone terroir along with smoky touches. The Pinot Noir imparts a richness and power thanks to historic Crus such as Ay, Hautvillers and Avenay Val d’Or blended with Crus from Rilly la Montagne. The Pinot Meunier from Villedommange completes the blend imparting a roundness and suppleness.
This cuvée was bottle aged for a minimum of four years in the historic limestone cellars which are centuries old.
Best served with
Young pigeon, veal carpaccio or red mullet.
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