Greybeard’s Corner – August 2011

Summer’s end has come and as the northern year slips towards shorter days and colder nights it’s time for my monthly roundup of the greater wine world and my miniscule corner of it.

Wine News: South Africa hit the headlines for the wrong reasons with the release of  a report from Human Rights Watch, an international non-government organisation. The detailed report, entitled “Ripe with Abuse” is based on research conducted between September 2010 and May 2011 in the Western Cape, where most of South Africa’s wine industry is based. The reading is grim, with claims of appalling living conditions for farm workers, unsafe practices at work, including pesticide exposure, and institutionalised discrimination of farm workers. It ends with a comprehensive list of recommendations to the SA Government Departments and Industry organisations, but also for international retailers and consumers to (amongst other things);
•   “put pressure on suppliers to improve … conditions”
•   “Inquire into the conditions on farms that grow the products they purchase”
•   “Push retailers to only purchase from farms with (ethical) working conditions”
The take home message for consumers is pragmatic, “The answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers”.
News of the report and its obviously negative description of sectors of the South African wine industry quickly spread through the International media and was picked up by bloggers and social networks. In counterpoint Wines of South Africa (WOSA) questioned bias in the report and defended the effectiveness of Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) and other organisations in actually improving conditions across the country’s Wine Industry.

Interestingly, within a week of the news, I saw two unrelated and markedly more positive pieces on South African winemaking; first in the Guardian with its piece A fairer Cape – the rise of South Africa’s black winemakers, which references the HRW report but states “there is a wind of change blowing through the staunchly Afrikaaner wine business.”; then on Palate Press with How the Swartland Crew is Bringing Up South African Wine. Both paint a more upbeat view of South Africa – different sides of the coin.

Mosel Hail

The end of the month also saw terrible weather in Northern Europe, with massive hailstorms in the Middle Mosel which hit on Friday 26th. “Golf ball” sized lumps of ice damaged houses and cars in areas around Wehlen, Filzen, Lieser, Kinheim, Maring-Noviand,  Brauneberg, Wintrich, Mülheim, Veldenz, Bernkastel-Keus, Graach, Neiderberg, Zeltingen  and Kröv.  Apparently there was also hail damage farther afield in Rheinhessen and Baden, although other Mosel areas such as Ürzig and Erden were spared, as were the Saar and Ruwer. Video of the ferocity of the storms can be seen on a host of YouTube uploads (search for Mosel + Hagel).

With traditional media slow to pick up on the weekend story twitter proved its worth with updates from those near to the affected areas. This allowed Reign of Terroir’s own twitter feed (@ReignofTerroir) to put out regular updates, including news that; Christian Klein in Kröv feared the loss of half his harvest; Johannes Selbach in Zeltingen was expecting 40% crop loss; Willi Schaefer in Gaach feared the loss of 50% of his fruit and his new warehouse. Whilst actual vine damage was shocking the risk of rot is now a bigger concern as the 2011 harvest starts in earnest.
The mainstream media finally caught up on the 31st with Adam Lechmere’s Decanter piece Hailstorms decimate Mosel, although few others seem to rate the damage to some of the world’s greatest white wine vineyards as worthy of a report.
Many thanks to  @DREI_Riesling@moselriesling@larscarlberg@Eurocentric@RieslingandI and @RieslingAC for those first reports, and to Gismondi on Wine for the first written piece.

Thankfully it seems that Hurricane Irene was more gentle on East Coast vineyards with the exception of a small amount of tornado damaged at Paumanok Vineyards,  as reported by Lenn Thompson on the New York Cork Report.

Elsewhere the European Harvest may be underway (although a cool July meant not as early as previously anticipated) but for California, and Napa especially, it was still a waiting game for the grapes to ripen, as reported in the Napa Valley register.
The recurring “100pts system, right or wrong” debate reared its head again, with Steve Heimoff and Jon Bonné adding lengthy pieces to the portfolio. I preferred Jancis Robinson’s two word response (no, not those two words!) in the all-too-brief Tom Wark interview on Fermentation.
Also raising controversy (mainly on the various Wine Bulletin Boards in the UK and US) was news of a $15,000 lecture fee for Jay Miller’s recent tour of Navarra, Spain, first blogged by Jim Budd and then Chris Kissack. A UK wine forum debated a $15K payout raising doubts of independence and objectivity, while one US forum briefly debated the information and seemed to be more forgiving. eRobertParker’s own boards suffered again from the heavy handedness of its administrator with an allegedly vocal discussion being locked before it got too outspoken, even though its behind a subscription pay wall where you’d think the participants would be allowed some freedom of speech.
(Edit: This saga eventually became known as Campogate and led to Pancho Camp MW resigning from the IMW, Jay MIller also leaving the WA).

And finally for the news we turn to internet wine maestro Gary Vaynerchuk, who announced his retirement from regular video wine blogging on the last DailyGrape piece, less than 6 months after Wine Library TV’s 1000 show. It didn’t come as a surprise as most people are amazed he lasted so long in the first place, with the overwhelming feedback positive and congratulatory for the impact Vaynerchuk has made over the last 5+ years. Although I’ve been only an infrequent watcher for the last couple of years I saw a part of my own wine life disappear in that final episode, as it was “The Vaynermeister” who led me to the WLTV forums in 2007 where I started my rough-and-ready education to internet wine writing. No doubt Gary will reappear in the future, but I found it quite emotional when he finished with a variation on his trademark sign-off “You, with such a smaller part of me than you realise, we have changed the wine world”. <Sniffy-sniff>

North East wine: “Enough about the rest of the world” I hear you yell, “What about North East England?” Hush, hush I say, here come the tales of my small corner of Wineland!

August was relatively eventful, starting with the news that we will be having a regional Wine Festival, just not the one we were expecting!

Northumbria_fest

After the success of the 2010 North East Wine Festival in Corbridge over a sunny June weekend I know there was a strong intention from the organisers to carry the momentum through to 2011 with the same event planned for June. Sadly that never materialised with, as far as I can tell, a combination of factors (including illness) meaning it was first postponed and then cancelled completely. Luckily for wine lovers in the region whatever was going on in the background seems to have resulted in a completely new event rising from the ashes, with the 2011 Northumbria Food and Wine Festival announced over the weekend of 7th, 8th and 9th October. The format looks to be the same, with local retailers, pop up restaurants, music and a smattering of educational talks over the 2 and a half days. All that we need now is an Indian Summer to appear, as October is traditionally one of the wettest months in our famously wet country!

August NEWTS was a delightful evening wandering amongst some of the weird and wonderful grape varieties available in the UK. Fellow member Elaine presented a range of 9 wines, mostly from The Wine Society and Waitrose, made with Malagousia, Pecorino, Godello, Rotgiplfer, St. Laurent, Susumaniello, Xinomavro, Saperavi and Negroamaro. All were enjoyable, but it was Heinrich Hartl’s complex 2008 Rotgiplfer, Racemi’s value for money Susumaniello (the Torre Guaceto Sum 2007) and Orovela’s restrained 2004 Saperavi which grabbed my attention. Additional details can be found on this blog’s previous entries, A most Unusual Tasting Part I and Part II.

Richard Granger Fine Wines also had an August tasting, this time of Aromatic Whites with a starting glass of Sauvignon Blanc to bedin the taste-buds, 3 Riesling, 2 each of Pinot Gris and Viognier, and a rich Gewürztraminer to close the event. Domaines Schlumberger in Alsace was the Old World standard bearer with a Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer from their classic Les Princes Abbés range, each showing typical varietal characteristics and all very drinkable. There was also a traditional, off-dry Bernkasteler Badstube 2007 Riesling by Mosel producer Dr H. Thanisch and the superb (if expensive, at £34.20) Domaine Louis Chèze 2008 Pagus Luminus Condrieu with fresh complexity and a pleasant salty aspect. In comparison the New World match-ups were less memorable, although the Crawford River 2005 Riesling from Victoria, Australia, stood out with its sharp acidity, elegant strength and smooth finish.
It’s rare to attend an exclusively white wine tasting but I’d love to see more such themed events as none in the room showed any signs of red withdrawal symptoms!

Of course a visit to Richard Granger wouldn’t be the same without adding to my collection and I left with the Schlumberger 2007 Gewürztraminer plus an unusual Loire Cabernet Franc that I spied on the shelves, the Couly-Dutheil Blanc de Franc. This is a “white” Cabernet Franc made without skin contact but also against the Chinon Appellation rules, meaning it can’t even display the vintage on the label, but it’s exactly this sort of wine that intrigues me and guaranteed that I’d be taking a bottle home.
These two bottles added to the meagre purchases for the rest of the month, including what should be my last (of three) Château Musar 2003 (time to plan for the 2004 now) and an older Marlborough Pinot Noir from Wither Hills, their 2005 Wairau Valley which was a bin-end at a local supermarket.

Home drinking was less exciting with a batch of inoffensive but equally unmemorable quaffers. A pair of Rioja wines by Izadi had some character; the 2008 white a barrel fermented blend of 80% Vuira and 20% Malvasia; the 2006 red a fruity Crianza , 100% Tempranillo with a classic flavour profile, but it was an Australian Riesling that gave most drinking pleasure, the Tim Adams 2006 Clare Valley Riesling. This complex wine had razor sharp acidity, fresh citrus flavours and a dash of petrochemical which I love on a Riesling with a little bottle age.

Cellar Trivia: Tim Adams wines are only available in the UK from corporate behemoth Tesco, which got me looking at how much of my current stash came from that area of the wine trade regarded by many segments of the wine cognoscenti as the evil empire of retailing – Supermarkets. I am a firm believer that it is still possible to get hold of a decent bottle of wine whilst doing the weekly grocery shop, with one in three of my bottles rescued from a supermarket shelf. What surprised me a little was the average price working out at £10.83 – although if you drop M&S and Waitrose from the calculations that does fall to £9.54  – proof that it’s not all cut-throat price promotions and bulk brands. However, what surprised me even more was looking at the other two thirds, sourced mainly from independent retailers, and seeing the average price jump to £16.11 – far removed from what the majority of UK supermarket consumers would consider paying except on the most special of occasions.

Looking Forward: So to September, the start of a new season and that crazy month for grape growers and winemakers alike. It is also California Wine Month as proclaimed by Governor Jerry Brown, the seventh year a month has been dedicated to the California Wine Industry – a list of coinciding events is available from the website.

  • September 10th & 11th is Portland’s Pinot in the City with over 100 Willamette Valley wineries and local restaurants hosting food and wine experiences on one city block (NW 9th and Marshall).
  • September 23rd – 25th sees the (Trade Only) 10th Miami International Wine Fair with wine producers from over 20 countries showcasing their wines to retailers, distributors and restaurants, including the 7th annual Florida International Wine Challenge.
  • 23rd September sees another “Grape Day”, hot on the heels of Tempranillo and Cabernet we now have Grenache Day. Unlike 2010, when The Grenache Symposium managed the event, it’s been difficult to see the guiding hand behind this year’s date. I know many in the industry dislike such contrived days as a marketing ploy, but I don’t mind having an excuse to open a decent bottle of wine, especially for such a soft, fruity, easy to drink grape!

Slainte!

Greybeard

Also published on September 4th on Reign of Terroir

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