Sunday, January 23, 2011

The price we pay for pesticides

Just to draw your attention to a report in the Telegraph yesterday on the death of a 43 year old vigneron Yannick Chenet whose death from leukaemia has been linked to the pesticides he sprayed on his crops including vines.

The report claims that over a quarter of the pesticides that are used in Europe each year are used in France and that a fifth of that amount goes onto vineyards despite the fact that they only account for 5% of France's agricultural land.

I've read that elsewhere although the figures vary. In Jean-Charles Botte's Le Guide des Vins Vivants (2007) he quotes microbiologist Claude Bourguignon who used to work for the French National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA). Bourguignon claims that vines only represent 2% of farmed land in France but use 30% of the pesticides, resulting in a loss of biodiversity as well as a hazard to the health of those who handle them. You can find his website here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Paxton Shiraz Rosé

The trouble with writing a book is that you have to put the rest of your life on hold - family, friends and, these days, blogging. So I've actually been tasting some good wines and meeting some interesting organic and biodynamic winemakers without having a chance to write about them.

Anyway, a quick one about this Paxton Shiraz Rosé 2009 which is currently on offer at Oddbins* for £8.39 instead of £11.99 but probably won't be for much longer. It's made in McLaren Vale by the biodynamic producer Paxton Wines and is quite a curiosity - dark coloured with vivid cherry and raspberry flavours but surprisingly low in alcohol at 11.5%. What might throw you is that it has 12g of residual sugar but I reckon if you drank it with something hot, spicy and sweet (Sichuan Chinese, for example, or maybe a prawn curry) it would be perfect.

I got the chance to taste some of their other wines at the Australian Wine annual trade tasting on Wednesday and particularly liked the 2009 Quandong Shiraz which comes from the first vineyard they converted to biodynamic viticulture. It's made in open top fermenters and put mainly into old oak barrels - no fining or filtering - and it's lovely. Not jammy or over-extracted, just really well balanced. However it's the 2008, which I haven't tasted, that seems to be the current vintage in the UK. You can buy it from Wine Etcetera (£16.45), Barrels and Bottles £18.17 and Noel Young Wines (£18.49) among others.

Paxton is also a member of 1% For the Planet, a group of companies that donates one per cent of their profits to environmental organisations

* I've just learnt that Reserve Wines of West Didsbury near Manchester have it for £11.50. They also carry some of the other Paxton wines.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is there more funk in Felton Road?

One of the first Kiwi Pinots I fell in love with was Felton Road so it's interesting to see how the wine has evolved since the winery went biodynamic (it was Demeter certified in 2009)

They have 5 cuvées now all of which I tasted at the New Zealand tasting this week. The standout one for me was the Block 3 which had a simply glorious purity of fruit. It's also (unfortunately) the most expensive at up to £51.75 (The Sampler)

The Block 5 (£40.40 at Slurp) was very impressive too - intense, rich and textured though still quite closed and I also enjoyed the Cornish Point which had some lovely fruit and an attractive freshness though possibly a little light for a £33 wine. Hard to tell at this age.

It was the two other 'entry level' pinots (if £25-£35 can be called an entry level price point) that exhibited the funkiness: the 2009 Bannockburn Pinot Noir (dark, earthy, quite rustic) and the Calvert (big, ripe, slightly chewy tannins, 'animal' my tasting notes say). And you just wonder how they'll age which you're entitled to expect they should at that price.

I remember buying some Felton Road (the 2003 Block 5, I think) while it was still an affordable £17 or so and finding it acquired increasing funkiness over the following four to five years. You wouldn't want a whole lot more on either the Bannockburn or the Calvert.

It's also interesting to speculate, following our previous debate, the effect of the biodynamic calendar on the way the wines were tasting. It turned out to be a leaf day . . .

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Zealand winemakers aim to be 20% organic by 2020

Big news from the New Zealand wine tasting yesterday. The organisation that represents organic wine growers Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ) has announced that it has set a target that 20% of New Zealand wineries should be organic and biodynamic by 2020.

Currently only 1,500 hectares of vines are managed organically – 4.5% of New Zealand’s total. The goal is supported by the main industry association New Zealand Winegrowers which has already signed a joint memorandum with the OWNZ to promote organic production and has its own sustainability programme with which any producer who wants to get an export licence will have to comply by next year. (You can read more about it here and here.)

The development puts New Zealand back at the forefront of the debate about sustainable viticulture which it occupied back in the 90s although it was interesting that some of the principal protagonists such as Rippon, Millton and Seresin weren't present at yesterday's tasting. Nor was Mission Estate which according to this report on the New Zealand website Scoop is running an interesting trial that compares organic and conventionally treated vineyards side by side.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Spanish natural wine scene

So far French wines have dominated this blog simply because they are more readily available in the UK and I spend more time in France than anywhere else. I was also under the impression that there wasn't much interest in natural winemaking in Spain but I was obviously wrong.

According to Jancis Robinson’s exemplary website there are some exciting wines emerging including her wine of the week this week, Picarana from Bodega Marañones. She also highlights a number from Indigo Wine in a feature which is only available to subscribers so I’m not going to queer her pitch by referring to the wines or tasting notes. You’ll have to subscribe (which I strongly recommend) - or wait till I’ve had a chance to taste them - to get some feedback from me.

The only wine I’ve tasted recently - apart from the Rioja I tried with Kate Thal - which really falls under the scope of this blog is Los Pinos 0% (above) from Dominio Los Pinos in Valencia which has been organic for some 20 years. It’s a dark, slightly tarry blend of Garnacha (20%) Monastrell (40%) and Syrah (40%) with, as the name suggests, no added sulphur. It’s on the rustic side with smoky bonfire aromas and firm, slightly stalky tannins - a wine that really needs food (wild boar comes to mind) to kick it into touch. Well made - It certainly didn’t suffer from the lack of sulphur - but for me it lacked the edgy excitment of some of the natural wines I’ve tasted from France lately.

Another winemaker Fabio Bartolomei of Vinos Ambiz also spotted that there was no links section for natural Spanish wines so I’ve remedied that. Unfortunately the blogs and sites of the producers he mentions are all, barring his, in Spanish but if you speak the language check them out:

Laureano Serres  
Samuel Cano   
Alfredo Maestro   
Vinya Sanfeliù   

You can find more on the Vino Naturales site - again in Spanish - here 

He also drew my attention to this very interesting map which shows that there are more artisanal producers (not sure how that is defined) in the south west corner of France than in any region of Spain. But obviously that’s changing. If you know of any I should try please let me know.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Do fruit and root days really affect how a wine tastes?

It’s taken me a while to get round to posting again as I’ve been preoccupied with the issue of tasting days - more particularly the issue of whether a wine made in the southern hemisphere according to one biodynamic calendar would taste as well as one made to a northern hemisphere calendar tasted on the same day.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept Steiner divides the calendar into four types of days - flower, fruit, root and leaf of which flower and fruit are supposed to be best for tasting. Flower brings out the aromatics, fruit the, er, fruit.

Obviously the timings will differ slightly between northern and southern hemisphere. The bible for the former is When Wine Tastes Best by Maria and Matthias Thun which is available as a booklet (£3.99 Floris Books) and as an iPod and iPad download. (Brian Keats is the Antipodean guru according to Julian Castagna, below)

We tasted a couple of wines over the Christmas holiday and found our impression of them varied from day to day but not specially according to the calendar. One for example, the Insolite I wrote about the other day, had been open for 24 hours in a half empty bottle by the time we tasted it the second day, surely a far more important factor?

Many retailers now try to organise their tastings on fruit and root days but are they right to do so when the wines may have come from different time zones? I asked a number of winemakers, retailers and wine writer Beverley Blanning who has recently written an excellent introduction to biodynamic winemaking Biodynamics in Wine for their views.

The general consensus was that biodynamic calendars are an imprecise science but most agree that wines do indeed taste different on fruit days if for different reasons.

Julian Castagna of Castagna vineyards in Beechworth, Victoria bore out Blanning’s own view that it’s where you, the taster, are that counts not where the wine was made.

"The only thing I know for sure is that I seem less able to make value judgments on some days - it was a revelation when I worked out that these moments always occurred on root days. I suspect that this is probably more the effect of the moon on my body rather than on the wine [an opinion] but understanding that fact has removed much doubt [confusion] from my winemaking. So I guess my opinion is that it is the influence of the moon where you are that makes the difference not where the wine was made."

Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines in Australia's Margaret River actually suggested that it was the ‘live’ quality of biodynamic wines makes them respond better than other wines to changes in environment

“I don’t think it would make any difference where they are tasted as the wines are alive and respond to the energies around them In fact it would be a reason why wines made in this way could look better with travel around the globe.”

Doug Wregg of Caves de Pyrène which has many natural wines in its portfolio reckons on the other hand that the more ‘natural’ wines are the more they are likely to respond to the biodynamic calendar:

"We've been doing quality control assessments after major (and smaller) tastings for several years now and the wines appear to taste better on fruit and flower days. They can also, however, taste fine on other days. I suspect that the wines that will vary most will be the most natural wines as they are the most "living wines" with still-active yeasts. We find these wines blossom or close down dramatically according to the day.

However, there are a whole bunch of factors you have to throw in to the mix: 1. weather 2. the condition of the wines themselves and 3, the palate and mood of the taster. Wines definitely show better when there is high pressure and when the sun is shining. Secondly, bottle variation is a factor when it comes to assessing wines. Finally, our palate is never exactly the same on two days, nor are the conditions of tastings identical no matter how precisely they are copied."

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in California holds a similar view:

"I would pour (all things being equal) on a fruit day where the tasting is to take place. I have certainly noted some differences between the way a wine will show on a fruit vs. a leaf day (the two most striking comparisons), but honestly, I think that there are other phenomena that may well have a effect that are more dramatic - certainly rising barometric pressure seems to show most wines off to better advantage."
And echoes Wregg’s comments about mood:

"There are also some days when people just seem happier, more satisfied with themselves, the world - I'm not quite sure what this correlates to - and on those days, sure enough, the wine does seem to show better.  My own rather anecdotal, skewed experience is that on a given day, reds will show better than whites and then vice-versa."

Beverley Blanning agrees:

"In my own experience, I have found that the choice of wine will have considerable bearing on the impact of the calendar.  For example, leaf days seem to be less of a problem for whites than for reds.  The day of the launch of the BD monograph [her booklet] was a leaf day.  We had a tasting of four whites and four reds.  I asked the attendees (who didn't know it was a leaf day) what they thought of the wines.  Their views concurred with mine, namely that the whites were all good (especially the 'leafy' Sauvignon Blanc), but that the reds were variable.  

One person noted that the only red that really didn't taste good was the Pinot Noir and others agreed.  On the other hand, the Cabernet Sauvignon was fine. Burgundian biodynamic growers have told me that the worst possible day to taste Pinot is a leaf day - for obvious reasons. Leafiness is highly undesirable in Pinot, but far more acceptable (at least to many of us) in Cabernet Sauvignon and a good number - or even most - white wines."   

All fascinating stuff. I also wonder about the question of expectation. If you know it’s a leaf day do you steel yourself for disappointment - or expect the wines to be show well on a fruit day which could be a self-fulfilling prophecy? How significant is it if the wines have been decanted - rare in a retailer’s tasting? Or, failing that, how long the bottles have been open? And in a domestic situation where you’re drinking rather than tasting, the food you’re eating is obviously going to play a part.

Do tell me what you think.