Portholes: Tawny and Colheita Ports back to 1937

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As the autumn sets in, I start to get a taste for Port. This article was first published by Fine Wine International and others in 2010.

At Vila Nova de Gaia, on the south side of the Douro at Porto, the river flows under the Ponte de Dom Luis towards the Atlantic, 550 miles from its source in northern Spain. Dazzling light and ferocious heat bounces off white stones. Other than access to the river (and the lower taxes that brought Port producers here in the first place) it seems an unlikely place to make and store wines.

IMG_0001Tasting rooms here usually have huge plate glass windows to allow visitors to enjoy the sights and sounds of the riverfront. Although there are always several rabelos (wooden boats) parked on the river outside the Port lodges, much of the romantic imagery associated with Port has gone. Nowadays wines are moved to Porto by truck rather than these rabelos; machines rather than feet crush grapes.

Because of the river, cellars are always above ground, typically with wooden ceilings and stone floors. In Calém’s cellar and museum there are marks to indicate where floods have reached. In 1909, for example, the Douro reached five metres above its usual level.


In July 2010 I visited Vila Nova de Gaia and tasted Tawny and Colheita wines from the Sogevinus group, owned by the Spanish financial company Caixanova, whose wine holdings comprise Barros, Burmester, Calém, Gilberts and Kopke.

Good quality grapes from A- or B-grade vineyards in the Cima Corgo or Douro Superior go into Tawny Ports. After the decision has been made to create a Vintage Port or Single Quinta wine, what is left can become a Tawny.

Tawny is usually aged in large barrels called pipes, historically between 580 and 630 litres (550 litres in the Douro) but in practice as much as 60,000 litres. Calém has some 100-year old barrels that are occasionally renovated with new wood but the original frames are always retained. These elderly containers are sealed with wax to prevent and cure leaks.

The age cited on the label of a Tawny Port is merely an approximation. These wines are complex blends of older wines and younger wines, like a family gathering. Blended non-vintage wines such as these, for which consistency of style and flavour is essential, depend on the winemaker’s skill and judgement. House styles can be detected: Calém is elegant; Barros and Kopke more structured; and the Burmester Colheitas retain a rustic edge that age cannot wither.

Careful stewardship is needed to ensure that a wine that spends 50 or more years in a cask is in good condition when it is bottled. Like a young child, a Tawny Port requires constant attention. They need to be racked at least once a year; more frequent racking means more oxidation. Firm acidity is needed to endure all that time in wood.

Father Time

A Colheita is a wine from a single year that has been aged in wood for at least seven years – essentially a vintage-dated Tawny. But most Colheitas are aged for much longer than this.

IMG_0008In his novel Todos os Nomes (All The Names), the Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago wrote, “even though the clock would like to convince us otherwise, time is not the same for everyone.” Whereas Tawnies are largely a matter of nurture, vintage-dated Ports such as Colheita depend largely on nature and the conditions of the year in which the grapes were harvested.

Like Tawnies, Colheitas do not evolve in the bottle. However, different years of bottling mean different wines. Kopke has Colheitas back to 1937 that are bottled to order (or for the visit of English wine writers). The wines that I tasted in July 2010 will taste differently if I am fortunate enough to revisit again in a few years’ time.

The economics of aged Ports are challenging. It means locked-up capital, loss of wine by evaporation and high insurance charges. A Port Shipper has to make wine that will not be bottled or sold for perhaps 50 years or more. A modern bank manager would be appalled by such a business plan.

The modern taste is for lighter, fresher wines and food. Considered passé by many drinkers, fortified wines are not drunk often these days. They need to be special. It is sad that such marvellous wines should have to justify themselves but the best Tawnies and Colheitas are very special indeed. They deserve to be preserved and enjoyed.


The following wines were tasted at Vila Nova de Gaia with Fernando Oliveira, Master Blender for Barros, and Cátia Moura, Communication Manager for Sogevinus.

IMG_0007Barros 10-year old White Port (cask sample)

Same winemaking as for the red wine. Colour as per a red tawny, suggesting profound oxidation. Dried fruits, a bit raisiny. Rich and warming. Hard to tell from a red 10-year old Tawny Port!

Kopke 20-year old White Port (cask sample)

Established in 1638, Kopke is the oldest Port brand. Its wines are sold in distinctive hand-stencilled bottles.

Kopke is pioneering 20-, 30- and 40-year old white Tawny Ports, though two or three other Port houses make 10-year old white.

Colour as before. Almond aromas and a softer finish than the 10-year old, with less fire on the finish.

Kopke 30-year old White Port (cask sample)

Colour as before but more wood is apparent on the finish. The acidity is much more perky than the 10- and 20-year olds.

Kopke 40-year old White Port (cask sample)

Another step-up in acidity: now it is as taut as a guitar string. Fernando Oliveira explained that oxidation caused water to be lost; consequently the acidity becomes more apparent. The finish is mellow, with waves of that exulcerating acidity balancing the 100 or so grams per litre of sugar.

Calém Colheita 1989 (cask sample)

Amber tawny, like the sunset over Porto. The nose is soft, evoking oranges and some spice. The acidity and 125 or so grams per litre of sugar are balanced with each other like Leonard Cohen’s bird on the wire. Delicious.

Burmester Colheita 1979 (cask sample)

Deeper colour than the 1989. A softer nose than the 1989 but the palate is rather woody, like that of the Kopke 30-year old. (This is 31 years old!). The texture is suave but the flavours are unappealing, dry, austere and hoarse.

Burmester Colheita 1963 (cask sample)

Back to the sunset colour of the 1989. Some wood flavours again but also honey. Beautifully textured, with cleaving acidity across the palate and on the finish. Sweeter than the others, perhaps. Marvellous length – like the Douro, it goes a long way. Of course 1963 was an outstanding Port vintage.

Burmester Colheita 1955 (cask sample)

Colour as before. Beautiful nose of spices – cinnamon, perhaps. Some wood influence on the palate again but this is not quite as fine as the 1963. Like an out of focus photograph, it remains blurred at the edges

Burmester Colheita 1937 (cask sample)

Pale brown, like the burnt cream of a pastel de nata. Deeper, darker nose, with some spices again. Some spirit on the nose, too. Soft, complex and balanced on the palate. Yum. Jane Fonda was also born in 1937 – I think that the Burmester has aged better.




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Auction Spectators: Asta del Barolo

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This account of a wet afternoon at the Asta del Barolo 2011 was first published by Langton’s. I doubt that things have changed much in the Langhe since this visit…

It rained heavily in Barolo on 13th March but over 200 guests braved the weather to attend the “XII Edizione” of the “Asta del Barolo” (“Barolo auction”), held in the WineMuseum Castello di Barolo and simulcast to H One Restaurant in Hong Kong and Ristorante Garibaldi in Singapore.

The chief auctioneer was Giancarlo Montaldo, the former President of the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco. He was accompanied by three “personalities” (as the Italian writer and blogger Franco Ziliani witheringly referred to them): Federico Quaranta, a food and wine broadcaster; Edoardo Raspelli, the best-known food critic in Italy; and the American wine critic James Suckling – always called “Giacomino” (“Jimmy”) by Ziliani – who has continued to live in Italy since his departure from Wine Spectator.

The Asta is run under the auspices of the “Accademia del Barolo”, an association founded in September 2010 by eleven Barolo producers who, says Ziliani, “have always been very well-treated, I would say with velvet gloves, by the still-influential magazine ­– though much less than in the past – Wine Spectator and its former editor and deux ex machina for Italy, James Suckling.”

The 36-lot auction took three and a half hours to complete. Of course, this being Italy meant that auction rules and conventions were soon abandoned. The PA system was raised to jackhammer volume to counter the chattering Italian voices and the bidding increments were largely ignored.

Lot 36 – “I 150 anni dell’Unità d’Italia”, a 12-bottle collection of Barolo from the 2006 vintage with each bottle signed by its producer to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy – was intended as the final “showpiece” lot of the auction but was actually sold between lots 21 and 22. Suckling took the gavel for this and, although the published estimate was €1,200, started the bidding at €2,000 and eventually sold it for €4,000. Its market value would be approximately €600.

The auction totalled €39,320 against an estimate (or “starting price”) of €15,580. The average lot price was €1,092.22 against an average estimate of €432.78. Room bidders in Barolo paid €16,510 for 15 lots. Hong Kong bought 11 lots for €11,560. Ten lots went to Singapore for a total of €11,250, giving it an average of €1,125 per lot, higher than either Barolo or Hong Kong.

Suckling bid successfully for two lots – lot 5, three magnums of Azelia San Rocco 2001, and lot 27, two bottles each of Paolo Scavino’s Cannubi, Bric del Fiasc and Rocche delle Annunziata of the 2000 vintage, which Suckling called (notoriously, in some people’s opinion), Barolo’s “greatest vintage ever… a year I rate a perfect 100 points”. Suckling generously (or, depending on your point of view, ostentatiously) took the bidding from €500 to €800 in one go when the bidding increment was €50. He paid €1,300 for this lot.

The proceeds of the auction were donated to the Don Bosco Hotel and School at Sihanouk Ville in Cambodia. Brother Roberto Panetto of the Catholic order of The Salesians of Don Bosco formed it in 2006 to help “Cambodia’s youth to find work with dignity in society, and thus to lift them out of poverty with its accompanying threats to a worthwhile and fulfilled existence.”

The auction’s fundraising is very worthy; its wines are good and the food excellent. But its politics are not to everybody’s taste. Ziliani wrote before the auction, “Given the certain entertainment assured by the Raspelli-Quaranta-Suckling trio, this ‘edition’ of the Asta del Barolo can be followed live on large screens positioned in Alba under the porticos of Piazza Savona, where we are certain that there will be the municipal police to contain the overflowing enthusiasm of the crowds that cannot be admitted to the Falletti Castle in Barolo…”

There were no large screens or police (or Ziliani, for that matter). The Asta del Barolo’s style might not please everybody but it supports a worthy cause and turns ostentatious self-indulgence into moral excellence. And who can argue with that?

“I Vini dell Accademia del Barolo” tasting notes

Eleven wines of the Accademia del Barolo formed lot 36, “I 150 anni dell’Unità d’Italia”. But the lot had 12 bottles: Pio Cesare contributed its “Classico” 2006 to the case but this was not available to taste because the producer is not a member of the Accademia del Barolo… Back to politics again.

The 2006 vintage in the Langhe became controversial when the distinguished winemaker Bruno Giacosa chose not to bottle any Barbaresco or Barolo. Other producers were more positive. On the whole, it is a tough, tannic and – dare one say it – old-fashioned Barolo vintage. The more elegant wines will probably mature into something very worthwhile, if not of the highest class. But those wines that have been smothered in so much new oak that the wine is suffocated by its tannins do not inspire as much confidence.

Azelia Barolo Margheria 2006

A good example of this powerful and tannic Barolo vintage. This has all the necessary components but falls short of greatness. The tannins remain obdurate.

Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio 2006

Darker aromas than the Azelia, with a greater balance between the acidity and tannins. The curtains have not yet opened.

Conterno Fantino Barolo Mosconi 2006

Oak tannins here are piled up like icing on a cake. Very burly and lacking the elegance of Chiarlo.

Damilano Barolo Cannubi 2006

The first wine of the day to show the unmistakeable orange tinge of Barolo. Elegant and taut, needing time to open up.

Poderi Einaudi Barolo nei Cannubi 2006

Not as impenetrable as the Conterno Fantino but this has tannins as dumb as stone.

Gianni Gagliardo Barolo Preve Riserva

Some sweetness on the finish. Pleasant and elegant Nebbiolo fruit.

Franco M. Martinetti Barolo Marasco 2006

Fleshy rather than extracted, with plenty of acidity to counter the imposing tannins. Not quite as elegant as Signor Martinetti, who is always immaculately dressed in a nice suit and brown brogues.

Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo Monfalletto 2006

Rigorously built palate, with the tannins and acidity nicely counterpoised. Some sweetness to the fruit, too.

Podere Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Vigna Cappella di Santo Stefano 2006

Back to the bumptious style, with the fruit carpet-bombed by oak. Impossibly tough and tannic, with no charm at all.

Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc 2006

Similarly textured to Martinetti – the wine, that is, not the suit – with flesh rather than bone and a bit of fruit sweetness.

Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2006

As dry as sandpaper on the finish but the wood-influenced tannins are relatively well contained.

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Madeira, m’dear? Old Madeiras 1966–1880

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Another reprint, this time an account of one of Patrick Grubb MW’s wonderful Madeira tastings, held in October 2011. Patrick is now retired and no longer holds these amazing events but the memories linger.

Every year Patrick used to hold a tasting of fine Madeiras at the Honourable Artillery Company’s Armoury House, overlooking the Artillery Ground just north of the City of London where cricket has been played since at least the 18th century.

So precious were these old bottles that Patrick’s tasting sheets politely requested, “please take small measures. There is only one bottle of each wine available.”

Wines were tasted dry to sweet, which usually means Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and then Malmsey – though age is also a factor. The bottles had been decanted over the previous three days.

The first and youngest of the 12 wines was Blandy’s Sercial 1966, bottled in 2004. This was a bracing way to start the morning. The beautifully mellow nose of dried fruits even had a squeeze of lemon to it. The nutty, dry palate finished clean, with acidity that snapped like a mousetrap.

The late Noël Cossart put aside a pipe (about 55-dozen bottles’ worth) of Bual CDGC 1941 to mark the birth of his son David. The grapes came from Fransisco Filhimino’s vineyard in the Campanario district. Instead of the usual sugar cane spirit it was fortified with grape brandy and then matured in an oak pipe previously used for the great 1862 Cossart Gordon Terrantez.

Patrick noted, “After annual loss due to evaporation in wood, the bottling out-turn would have been about 27 dozen bottles. Where are they all now?” At a Christie’s auction in May 1994 several bottles were sold. The catalogue noted, “The substantial quantity on offer represents the total quantity remaining.” There’s none left at the winery.

The apple-green rim matched the autumnal colours of the Artillery Ground outside. There were dried fruit smells again, perhaps with some tea leaves too. The perfect acidity cut like a butcher’s knife through the rich and intense flavours, with no sense of fortification.

Atypically the Cossart Bual 1958 was aged in American oak before being bottled in 2006. It wasn’t as fine as the 1941, with rougher edges and a warmer finish.

Leacock’s “SJ” 1934 was made with grapes from the São João vineyard in which the wonderfully named Thomas Slapp Leacock found a cure for Phylloxera in 1883 – a solution of resin and turpentine in hot water applied to the principal roots of the vine. This was the greenest looking wine yet. The dark chocolate flavours created a bitter texture, though it finished dry, warm and long.

There was a change of key for the exceptionally rare Cossart Malmsey 1916, which Noël Cossart referred to as “a drier style of Malmsey with a hint of cloves”. Much of this wine was destined for the Russian Imperial Court but, for obvious reasons, was diverted.

It was much higher-toned and more pungent than the previous wines. Indeed, it almost smelled like Marlborough Sauvignon (not something that Hugh Johnson would approve of). But it was mellow and had some sugary viscosity, finishing with a rush of baked fruits.

The FV Malvazia 1920 from Dr Favila Viera’s family-owned vineyards was similarly high-toned and “green”, though with a sweeter finish. Also from the fine 1920 vintage, Cossart Malmsey produced a superb Malvasia Candida from vines in the Faja dos Padres vineyard. This was much finer than the FV, as smooth as the steps leading into the Cathedral of Funchal. No high-tone or sugar here.

The mahogany-brown of Pereira d’Oliveira’s Verdelho Reserva 1905 was the deepest colour yet. It looked like old wood and smelled of it too – like an old country house – with a finish as long as a jeremiad. By contrast, the 1896 Leacock family “HFS” E showed no sense of age or decay. It was brilliantly fresh, with acidity like a light bulb. And it was delicious.

Bottled in 2011 from a demijohn first owned by the late Mário Barbeito de Vasconcelos, the Barbeito family Boal MBV 1802 was, like the 1896 Leacock, extraordinarily vivid and fresh. It was very warm and spirity but still a beautiful wine of relentless, glowing length.

From the great 1880 vintage, Ferraz “Madeira” Velhissimo Reserva had a deliciously juicy palate that was very moreish. Not something I expected to say about a wine that is 131 years old.

The Henriques & Henriques Miguel Jardim Boal Velho was of an unknown vintage but “from the first half of the nineteenth century”, according to Patrick. Henriques & Henriques bought the wine in 1906 and bottled it in 1927. It was recorked in 1955, 1969 and 1991. The profoundly oxidative nose was perhaps a consequence of the recorkings. It lacked the vivacity of the best wines here, though it had a lovely texture.

These superb old wines brought to mind the description in a 1768 Christie’s catalogue of “very fine old high-flavoured Madeiras”. More than 240 years on, the words still fit.

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The Last of Silesia: Barossa Settlers

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Another oldie but goodie – an article published by ACNE magazine to tie in with their work with Penfolds.

Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus… Lutherans believe that God made the world, and Barossans believe that Lutherans made them. The Lutheran churches in the Barossa’s towns and villages are conspicuous examples of the region’s Silesian heritage, with four Lutheran churches in Tanunda alone.

The eldest son of Friedrich Wilhelm II, and nephew of “Friedrich der Große”, who captured Silesia in 1740, Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770–1840) came to the Prussian throne in 1797. Wilhelm was a member of the Reformed (that is, Calvinist) church, a different but essentially no less rigid version of Lutheranism. A year after becoming King, Wilhelm issued a decree for a new, common liturgical Agende book to be published, for use in both the Lutheran and Reformed congregations. This was not an unusual practice, and had been done before: Elizabeth I had similarly provided equally for Catholic and Protestant with her 1559 Book of Common Prayer. On October 31, 1817, Friedrich Wilhelm decreed that the Lutheran and Reformed Churches were to unite under the one Church (the “Union”), to be administered as a department of the State. Pertinently, on the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession of 25 June 1530, Wilhelm introduced another new Agende that was made compulsory for all Protestant churches in Prussia.

August Ludwig Christian Kavel (1798–1860) was ordained as Pastor at the fourteenth century church of Klemzig in 1826. Klemzig was a small Silesian town in what is now the Lubuskie province of western Poland, closer to Berlin than to Warsaw. Today, Klępsk, as it now called, is a town of some 600 people, and the wooden Lutheran church that Kavel preached at is still standing. In the 1830s, Silesia was a mix of Lutherans and Calvinists, with Catholic Poland to the east. Kavel was not one of the religious hotheads of Barossa myth; indeed, he used (albeit reluctantly) the 1830 Agende when it was introduced. However, influenced by the writings of the dissenting (and hot-headed) Lutheran Johann Gottfried Schiebel, he became increasingly troubled by the seeming incompatibility of obedience to the King and obedience to his faith. Kavel wrote to the King in January 1835 informing him that he would no longer use the Agende and on Easter Monday, Kavel was removed from the ministry and prohibited from practicing as a pastor. His congregation was also prohibited from using the church premises, and participating in any worship services presided by suspended pastors. All of this planted in Kavel’s mind the seeds of a plan to migrate to a place where he and his flock could practice their faith unharassed.

During his visit to Hamburg, Kavel learned of opportunities to migrate to South Australia, which had been declared a colony by the British government in 1834. The city of Adelaide was named after the German Prinzessin Adelheid Amalie Luise Therese Carolin, wife of King William IV. Kavel travelled to London in 1836 to meet George Fife Angas (1789–1879), a strongly religious Scottish Congregationalist and sympathetic to the cause of the Lutheran dissenters. Angas himself migrated in 1851; Angaston was named after him. Unlike the eastern Australian convict colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, South Australia was a planned free settlement, founded in a spirit of idealism rather than as a sociological or political creation, and designed as an opportunity for honest, hardworking men and women to establish a new life. The philanthropic Angas was enthralled by this vision and formed the South Australia Company to purchase land from the South Australian Association.

It took two years for the Old Lutherans to gain permission to move to Australia. The Deutscher Bund government’s official stance was that it was fearful of Germans emigrating to a far away and unknown continent. The British Government also had strict conditions for immigrants from countries other than Britain, but Europeans with winemaking skills were allowed because there was at that time no wine industry to speak of in Britain. In the meantime, Kavel spent some time in London, working in the docks and improving his English. In 1837 the Barossa Ranges were discovered and named by South Australia’s first Surveyor-General Colonel William Light, who named the region after the site of an English victory over the French during the Spanish Peninsular War. Cartographers misspelled La Barrossa, which, according to Noris Iannou, means “hill of red soil/mud,” not the more romantic “hill of roses,” as is commonly believed.

Finally, in 1838, Angas chartered four ships on behalf of Kavel’s people, the three-masted, 350-ton barques Prince George, Bengalee, Zebra and Catharina. On 20 November 1838, the first wave of German settlers, including Pastor Kavel, arrived in South Australia on the Prince George. One month later a second group of Lutherans arrived on the Zebra, which was captained by Dirk Hahn, who gave his name to Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. Captain Hahn kept a notebook that gives a remarkable insight into the long voyages endured by emigrants – the Zebra departed Hamburg in August 1838 and arrived in Adelaide on 2 February 1839, a sea journey of six months. “They had to emigrate from Prussia because of their faith”, wrote Hahn, “but I could not sufficiently admire their steadfastness in remaining true to their faith after eight years of daily persecution, even when they couldn’t meet together as a congregation, after their preachers had been driven away from them.”

Failed harvests (especially the Great Irish Famine from 1845–1849), revolutions, riots… The 1840s were lean times throughout Europe and these events certainly led to more migration from Silesia and elsewhere, but not every arrival in South Australia from Germany was a persecuted saint. Most were probably men, women and children from humble backgrounds whose hungry hands – unlike those in the eastern colonies – had not been caught in the till. In 1840, the South Australia Company’s Mine and Quarry Agent Johann Menge told Angas, “I am satisfied that New Silesia will furnish the province with such a quantity of wine that we shall drink it as cheap as in Cape Town, and we shall see vineyards and orchards which are matchless in this colony.” Menge, a German geologist and linguist, had met Angas while he was teaching in England in the 1830s. Encouraged to emigrate south by Angas, he arrived in South Australia (with the colonists who established Adelaide) aboard the Coromandel in 1836, arriving in Adelaide on 17 January 1837, a full year before the arrival of Kavel’s flock. He initially named the Barossa region Neu Schlesien, or “New Silesia”, and was ascetic to the point of eccentricity, for a while living in a cave at Jacob’s Creek. Despite such behaviour, which led to his dismissal from the South Australia Company in 1838, Menge was the first person to recognize the potential of the Barossa for wine and assisted the resettlement of Lutherans from the Adelaide Hills to Neu Schlesien. His geological exploration of the Barossa anticipated Dr John Gladstone’s work in Margaret River by 130 years.

Farmers, tradesmen and miners were the largest groups to migrate, all of which led to the settlements becoming entirely self-sufficient communities. Viticulture was part of the mixed agricultural practice hufendorf, a traditional German type of mixed, self-sufficient farming in “strips.” These hufendorf settlements had cottages lining a main street, with a common pasture next to a creek. Each family had a strip of land that ended at the common pasture, permitting access to water and to the main road. The “strips” could be up to a kilometre long, ensuring that farmers had an equal share of fertile and less fertile land. Tenants gradually became landowners and, within a few years, many settlers had taken up British nationality, though naturalisation was a requirement for land ownership. The Real Property Act in 1858, initiated by Robert Torrens, legislated for the transfer of property when bought and sold and replaced the English Deeds system. “The Torrens System” used a central state register of land holdings, so that those included in the register had indefeasible title to their land. The system is still used today in Australia.

Grapes were initially grown for sustenance rather than profit, and wine was produced for both domestic and liturgical use. Viticulture was part of the Silesian economy and in South Australia this rural activity gradually became an industry. The Empire – or at least Britain – needed wine, and South Australia was able to provide it. The commercial wine industry developed from the 1850s onwards, with a ready market in England via the English settlers, who also needed a domestic supply of wine, though South Australia’s domestic market was much smaller, then as now, than the other colonies at Sydney or Melbourne. Château Tanunda, built 1888–1890 with a blend of English and German money, was the first large-scale winemaking concern in the region and established the tradition of wineries as an outlet for growers’ grapes: By the time of Tanunda’s construction, there were well over 500 growers in the Barossa. The Lutherans were mostly poor rural folk, but the British migrants were mainly middle-class and so had the means to establish and underpin the region’s wine industry, and in doing so brought together the German and the English communities

Early Barossa vignerons cultivated extensively but used relatively poor varietals such as Doradillo, Sweetwater and Mataro. (There are still some Mataro vines in Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard). In 1859 the Register reported a lecture by Frederik Wood, manager for local wine producer Henry Evans: “Pewsey Vale is noted for its superior Hock and Verdeilho (sic), Morphett Vale for Frontignac and Rousillon (sic); Gawler Park for Carbernet (sic), Constantia and Pineau (sic)… White Burgundy, Frontignac, Hock and finer Clarets are produced at Tanunda and neighbourhood.” Shiraz and Cabernet were not planted extensively until the 1890s, though their quality was recognized early: Joseph Gillard Jr of Penfolds advised in the Register of 16 July 1875, “Plant Shiraz and Carbernet (sic) for quality and Mataro for quantity, if you mean to grow for red winemaking”.

In 1892 prices for grapes ranged from £3 to £7 a tonne, with higher prices for better varieties like Cabernet and Shiraz. White grapes were generally lower in price. By the turn of the century Shiraz on the Valley floor’s fertile red loam soil could yield 7.5 tonnes to the acre, producing a return of £18 per acre, which was the best return for any variety. According to the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia’s 2006 Utilisation and Pricing Survey, the highest price paid during the 2006 vintage for Shiraz grown in the Barossa was $10,000 per tonne – it is rumoured that only Penfolds has the means to pay such prices and that these grapes would go into Grange. The Barossa’s store of old vineyards was irreparably damaged during the government sponsored Vine Pull Scheme of the 1980s. The Growers Liaison Officer declared in 1985, “Shiraz is the Sultana of the Barossa”, believing it was fit only for dried fruit and table grapes, though some producers used old vine Shiraz as a base for their sparkling wines. But far-sighted producers such as Peter Lehmann, Robert O’Callaghan and Charlie Melton reassessed the Barossa’s viticultural resources and inspired a new devotion to old vine Shiraz.

The English and German settlers became a literal embodiment of Anglo-Saxon culture, together establishing the foundations for much of modern Barossan winemaking: The destemming, cask fermentation, wild yeast fermentation and racking practices described above are all used by many small-scale Barossa winemakers today, as well as oak barrels, basket presses, open top fermentation and de facto organic viticulture, all of which are more or less in the image of nineteenth century Barossan wine production. The delimited Barossa GI established in December 1996 is very similar in its geographical boundaries to Angas’s original “Seven Surveys”, which covered the 28,000 acres that he had purchased for £1 an acre.

It was, of course, Martin Luther that declared, “Who loves not women, wine and song remains a fool his whole life long.” Perhaps the final irony is that Germany, as a nation, is younger than Australia – but a little bit of Silesia lives on forever in the Barossa Valley.


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Natural Selection

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Here’s an article first published by Appetite magazine in Singapore. The magazine was discontinued by its publishers in January 2014… A sign of the times.

Natural Selection

Like the English conductor and impresario Sir Thomas Beecham, I believe that you should try everything once except incest and folk dancing. Everything includes “natural wine”.

In February 2011, I spent a very enjoyable evening in New York with Alice Feiring, the so-called “high priestess” (though she prefers “Patti Smith”) of natural wine and author of (the sometimes excellent) The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization.

We tried several natural wines, which, with no official recognition, can be difficult to define. Essentially, as little as possible is added to the wine. Grapes are grown organically or biodynamically and only natural yeasts are used.

The use of sulphur with natural wines is contentious. In principle, a bare minimum is used but the bravest (some would say most foolish) winemakers don’t use any at all, which makes the wine highly prone to oxidation and microbial growth.

The wines we tasted in New York were, for the most part, oxidised. (Some deliberately so, apparently – but this may be tautological.) They had acidity like a cat’s claws. Natural as they were, I took no pleasure in drinking them. I like freshness and balance, not decay and a kick in the face.

Alice’s view of wine is, “I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue.” Alice and other proponents of natural wine believe emphatically that natural wine = good wine, or, more poetically, truth is beauty. But, on the basis of what we tasted together that night in NYC (and other wines that I have tasted subsequently), this is a fallacy. Just because a wine has used cultured yeasts or sulphur doesn’t mean that it’s bad or that it doesn’t speak the truth. Chemicals won’t make a wine better – but they do stabilise it. Is an oxidised wine more “truthful” than a wine freshened by sulphur? Which would have the most expressive fruit and best interpretation of its terroir?

During the Natural Wine Fair, held at Borough Market in London on 15-17 May 2011 (and at which Miss Feiring was a speaker), there was a panel discussion on “Selling Natural Wine in the On-Trade”. Chaired by Doug Wregg of the excellent importer (and natural / organic / biodynamic wine specialist) Les Caves de Pyrène, the panel comprised the current world champion sommelier Gérard Basset MS MW; Xavier Rousset MS of Texture and 28-50; and Romain Henry of Hibiscus, which has one of the most extensive restaurant lists of natural wines in the UK.

As Doug admitted, “The big problem is defining the term, ‘natural wine’. We deliberately don’t want too many precise rules. A lot of producers have opted out of systems like AOC or Vin de Table and don’t want to be evaluated by the wine press or other people. (But) we can respect them for being individuals.”

Xavier said, “I tasted a lot of very good wines today but I’m even more confused than I was before going in. I thought there was never any sulphur but some producers used sulphur… The biggest issue for me is people hiding behind ‘natural wine’ and bottling oxidized wine and thinking, ‘I can get away with that because I’m natural’… I find them interesting and I enjoy a glass – but never a bottle.” It’s difficult for consumers because, as Xavier pointed out, some natural wines are “crazy” and some are “very clean and fresh.”

The distinguished wine writer Margaret Rand was in the audience. She asked Gérard if he had any oxidised-style whites on his list: “No.” Margaret continued, “I’ve tasted some outstanding wines here but some wines that, frankly, were horrible because they were oxidised to hell. I thought, bring on the sulphur! I have nothing against natural wines in principal but surely they stand or fall on their quality?”

Xavier asked Romain what was “the best wine he had ever tasted, perhaps a Grand Cru Burgundy or 1961 Bordeaux, probably it was conventional.” Romain didn’t answer specifically but Feiring piped up that it was “probably naturally made”, though what defines “natural” remained elusive.

What was intended as a debate on how to sell these sometimes esoteric wines turned into a clash of cultures: natural = good vs. good = good. The natural wine “debate” has turned into an argument about moral judgements. Even the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who said, “Drunkenness is temporary suicide”, could not settle this one.



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My “A Perfect Ten?” article published by Fine Wine International

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It has been a topsy-turvy decade since Fine Wine International was established in 2004. A graph showing the annual turnover of wine auction houses over the last ten years would look like a map of the Himalayas, with dramatic peaks and vertiginous falls.

It seemed as though the good times would never end. But on 15th September 2008 the party ended. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the credit-crunch began.

The turn of the century boom could not last forever. Even on hot summer days, there might be a rain cloud that can burst at any moment. The global economy is still fragile. But the fine wine market remains staggeringly robust, with record prices frequently achieved.

The full article can be read here.


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The White Club: A sordid tale

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The White Club, a Swiss-based fine wine “club” with whom I had some dealings, has recently been exposed as a scam.

On Monday 12th May, Peter Hellman of the Wine Spectator contacted me to ask about The White Club event held at Texture restaurant in London in April 2013 and the Club’s practices. His article can be seen here.

I gave a full reply to Pete, which I reproduce here with yet more information that has come to light subsequently.

I first contacted Rene Dehn and Malene Meisner in July 2011 when I was consulting to a Swiss-based auction house. Pekka Nuikki of FINE magazines, who I knew well and had done many articles for, had forwarded me their details as potential consignors/buyers for the auction. Subsequently we arranged to meet in London in February 2012. We hit it off and I was invited to their Sauternes dinner held in Basel on 30th March 2012. Dehn and Meisner had a relatively small apartment and already had guests so I was farmed out to (very charming and hospitable) Danish friends up the road.

It was an epic dinner; the wines were spectacular. All the corks were on display to assert condition and provenance. Jürg Richter was there and he knows more about Sauternes than anybody. His presence gave the event enormous creditability. (“Star guests”, with well-deserved reputations for integrity, was a recurring theme with TWC: Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin, and Peter Sisseck, among other wine industry “stars”, attended TWC events.)

I continued to contribute texts to their website (on a goodwill rather than cash basis, usually with recycled articles). We maintained a cordial relationship and I visited them twice again (in August 2012 and in February 2013) to discuss how we could continue to work together on a more professional and formal basis. By February 2013, TWC had pulled off some spectacular events, including the Sauternes dinner, the DRC weekend and the Pomerol events with Neal Martin. I had confidence that we could have a good working relationship, combining their marketing and hosting skills with my administrative abilities.

However, as I got closer to TWC I could not see how it made any profit, even allowing for the high cost of membership and attending the events. With no obvious source of income what did Rene Dehn and Malene Meisner live on, or, for that matter, how could they pay me and other associates? Dehn dropped hints that he was wealthy and had a private income from, among other things, commission on fridges sold in India. As he told me, two TWC members had done a deal through him to sell fridges in India and Dehn had collected a small ongoing % commission on this. Just think of how many fridges are sold in India: even a tiny % would generate a lot of money. Significant money was also earned from sponsorship and partnership deals with various brands. Certainly Dehn and Meisner lived well. It was hard to query their financial viability.

At the February 2013 visit Dehn mentioned that some wines were left over from the December 2012 DRC event. It was decided to do an event in London with these bottles. I had been invited (by text from Dehn) to the December event at very short notice (text received at 4pm with an invitation to lunch in Burgundy the following day) but I was recovering from norovirus at the time and was too ill to travel. I later saw a few post-event write-ups but I was unaware of exactly what had been served. For the planned London dinner I had not seen the bottles prior to the event. I trusted Dehn to have done proper diligence. After all, the December event had included a visit to DRC and M de Villaine. Dehn asserted that “his” bottles had been seen and de facto authenticated by M de Villaine himself.

Tasters are entitled to query the veracity of an old and very expensive bottle. But several of the people at the London dinner booked another White Club event straightaway. The wines were, except for the 1958 and 1972 vintages, astonishingly good. I reported the provenance of the wines as described to me by Dehn.

The day after the event I went back to the restaurant to settle the bill (Dehn had vanished into the night with no attempt to pay any bills, much to my chagrin) and to collect any leftovers. I took all the empty bottles home with me and scooped up the corks and put them in a box. The bottles and corks were then put into a cupboard and I did not look at them again until January 2014.

Time went by, with an on-off correspondence between me and TWC. Dehn and Meisner would vanish for weeks at a time and then I would be deluged with requests for, say, copy for the website (which I largely refused). It took Dehn three months to contact me to settle the bills for the London event. It was a very unsatisfactory aftermath and I decided not to have any further dealings with him – too feckless and too unreliable. My last correspondence with Rene Dehn was an email from him on 26th September 2013. After that I made no further attempts to contact him.

“The ecstasy of sanctimony,” said Philip Roth, is “America’s oldest communal passion (and) historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure.” Accusations of me being the “fence” for TWC, or of trying to “wriggle off the hook”, are very wide of the mark. I don’t muck about when I’m owed money. And to suggest that I would be “innocent” if I had not been paid the money that I was owed is laughably obtuse and sanctimonious. Maybe you like to work for free. I don’t.

I bumped into Neal Martin at a Burgundy tasting in January 2014 and he asked if I’d had any contact with TWC recently. I said that I hadn’t and that, like him, I’d had trouble getting paid and wanted no more to do with them. (Neal and I had both attended a “private” TWC dinner at Dehn’s and Meisner’s Basel home in February 2013.)

Shortly afterwards I was emailed by a Swiss-based Burgundy “expert” who informed me that real doubts had surfaced about TWC’s activities. Between meeting Neal Martin and receiving this email a Danish journalist, who said that he had strong evidence to show that TWC had been serving fakes at its events, had also contacted me. I asked to see this evidence and the penny dropped. At least two of the bottles that were served in London had been previously used at the December 2012 DRC event.

I got the bottles out of storage and for the first time had a long, hard look at them. Discrepancies were immediately apparent. I’ve seen more old bottles than most people and, given time to do proper diligence (not possible in a restaurant), I can spot discrepancies that indicate a fraudulent bottle. I worked with the Danish journalist and Michael Egan, a specialist in detecting counterfeit wine, to examine the bottles and ascertain which were fakes (that is, refills) and which were forgeries (made from scratch).

I believe that six of the nine DRC wines opened in London were fakes and/or forgeries.

Images of the previously used 1937 Romanée-Conti and 1945 Richebourg can be seen here.

The images of the 1937 and 1945 against a black tablecloth were taken by me. To clarify, these two bottles were previously used at the December 2012 event held in Burgundy. I hadn’t seen them before the London event – and, to be even more transparent, I did not see them until I entered Texture restaurant with the other guests. I co-promoted and co-hosted the event. I had no part in sourcing the wines here or at any other TWC event.

I think back to the DRC event at Texture and I recall that the bottles were opened (by Dehn with the sommelier) at the last moment as guests were arriving. This was all part of Dehn’s act. I should point out that Texture and the sommelier for the evening are in no way implicated in Dehn’s fraud. Like me, they were there to do a job. They had no prior knowledge or sighting of the wines.

Professionalism meant that I trusted Dehn to do the right thing. You cannot have a working relationship with somebody if you doubt every word they say. But now I know that he was attempting to hang me (and others) out to dry, getting me to talk up the provenance of the wines and therefore associating my good name with them.

It is like the recent “discovery” of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria wreck. Having taken a few murky photos in deep water, US underwater investigator Barry Clifford has said, “All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’s famous flagship, the Santa Maria.” People want to believe that it’s Columbus’s ship. Time and diligence will tell.

Wines I had chez TWC were always first timers for me: I had no points of comparison. Dehn knew that I would have noted it if I had the same wine more than once with TWC and I would have compared notes and photographs, which would surely have exposed his scam. But to somebody arriving at a restaurant the bottles in London and at other events all looked the part. You can’t turn up to these things and start looking at bottle labels through a magnifying glass. Dehn was cunning in usually not allowing anybody to see things beforehand.

I was close to The White Club but so were, at various times, Jancis Robinson and Neal Martin and other intelligent and decent people. Unfortunately for him, Neal in particular was heavily exposed to TWC fakes. He was served the same bottle of Pétrus 1970 twice, for example. But, like many, he was seduced by Dehn’s charm and the opportunity to taste those wines. Jancis admitted in her recent article, “As someone who, along with le tout Bordeaux, was initially taken in by Hardy Rodenstock, I can easily see how someone establishes their credentials before gradually increasing the proportion of fake wines they serve.” It’s just the same for me and, like her and Neal, I got out of it well before the recent exposé.

François Audouze, “le pape des vins anciens” and a respected authority on old wines, was at the December 2012 event where a bottle of 1900 Margaux – now known to be fake – was poured. He later wrote, “Peter Sisseck tells me that this wine is so young that if it actually is not 1900 Château Margaux, an award should be given to the winemaker who has managed to create such a phenomenal young (sic) wine. And indeed this wine is absolutely out of this world. It is worth a hundred Parker points, that is obvious, but it is so much more than that. Balance, emotion, length, depth – it has everything. And I have indeed made a mistake about its age, but it is not the first time that sublime vintage wines fool everyone (my italics). The reason everyone thought of Pétrus was because of this truffle taste, of rare precision. It is a beautiful lesson, and a splendid wine. It has inimitable perfection and absolute elegance. It could very well be the winner at the end of the day.”

Dehn’s partner Malene Meisner had left him some time ago (she did not attend the London event, though she helped to market it). My understanding was that they continued to maintain a professional relationship, though, on the basis that everything I was ever told by Dehn was wholly untrue, I cannot verify this. Her attempts to distance herself from Dehn and TWC are contemptible. She must have known what was going on. For goodness’ sake, they lived together! When it was revealed that she did not study or pass the WSET Diploma as she claimed she had (her name is nowhere to be found on the WSET list of Diploma graduates – or is she there under a different name? For the record, I’m on page 80) the game was up: too many lies had been told for her to claim innocence.

Other people continue to support Dehn, despite plenty of evidence of his fraudulent activities. Shelley Webb, formerly TWC’s PR and now Dehn’s fiancée, is continuing to stand by her man as they work together under a new business called “Grand Cru Unique”. I was told that the Twitter stream for Grand Cru Unique has been deleted but the Facebook page with a list of events planned globally was still visible, including “bespoke venues” as listed below:

Cape Town Launch at MONDIALL Waterfront on Friday 20th June 2014

Andalusia – Picasso Museum in Malaga on Friday 19th September 2014

Johannesburg at Le Sel @ The Cradle of Mankind – with Coco Reinharz on Friday 31st October 2014

Switzerland at Razzia on Friday 21st November 2014

London on Friday 20th February 2015

Germany, Munich on Friday 20 March 2015

Austria on Friday 22nd May 2015

Belgium on Friday 19th June 2015

Amsterdam on Friday 26 June 2015

Grand Finale in New York on Friday 19 September 2015

If someone is lying, the blame falls on the liar. That’s not me. I have been willing to tell the truth at a time when there has been nothing in it for me except bullying from ill-informed trolls. The rant on Wine Berserkers by “Don Corleone” (not his real name, but it fits) is largely unrelated to actual facts and shows great promise as the basis of a comic novel. The never knowingly modest “Godfather” exhibits an almost enviable resistance to what constitutes “evidence” in the dull world of reality, which is a place far from his bunker in Los Angeles.

He remains entirely innocent of any close encounter with any of the wines that he has accused of being fakes or forgeries. I can (and do) look at pictures to make a quick assessment of wines. However, I am loath to base full assessments on photographs because a typical digital image and a typical computer screen are not adequate to be able to distinguish what paper or material is on the label, to detect different textures of ink, or to properly judge colours, which are rarely reproduced accurately. Unless I have actually seen something myself I do not like to cast judgement on it.

Aubert de Villaine himself supports this view. In an interview with Alder Yarrow he said, “One of the problems is the time after the war. The printing was not always the same. Sometimes there was the circumflex over La Tâche, sometimes there was not. (Don Corleone) was not in possession of all the details required to decide whether a bottle was definitely fake. Some of the things he identified were not definitive.” Despite the bluster, Don Corleone can and does get it wrong.

Like all bullies, the “Godfather” hunts in a pack and hides behind a wall – in this case, the First Amendment, which protects his right to say whatever he likes without fear of redress. He throws sucker punches at people who are easy targets for him. His manic,  extrajudicial obsession with punishing the crime rather than the criminal is totally unacceptable. He ought to be ashamed of himself. Those who blindly follow his edicts should know better, especially after M de Villaine has pointed out his failings. But I am content to leave him and his flock to whip themselves into an onanistic frenzy while they peruse auction catalogues in the hope of finding something “fake”.

I have better things to do. I would like nothing more than to see the egregious Dehn and Meisner brought to justice. I have already assisted various parties in recovering goods and monies owed from TWC. It ain’t easy. Dehn and Meisner’s business dealings and structures are labyrinthine and it is difficult to untangle them. But my discreet work is a lot more useful and dignified than screaming blue murder at photos of old bottles.

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My “Role Models: The Changing Profession” article published by Sommelier Journal

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Just look at what sommeliers are doing nowadays. Taking on a wide range of duties beyond the restaurant floor, many have become entrepreneurs. They can be found selling wine at retail, consulting on cellar acquisitions and management, writing and broad- casting, working as creative designers and brand strategists, hosting corporate hospitality events, and supporting public-relations campaigns for regional wine associations. Even some who remain within the traditional confines of the front of the house have taken on a new role: that of celebrity, stepping out of their chefs’ shadows to become culinary stars in their own right.

The full article can be accessed free of charge here.

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Peter Lehmann 1930-2013

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I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Peter Lehmann, the “Baron of the Barossa”.

He was as responsible as anybody for the current preeminence of the Barossa Valley and its wines, not just in the Australian industry but in the global industry.

SDG Peter LehmannI met Peter only once. During my Young Wine Writer trip to Australia in November 2004 I stayed with Stephanie Toole. Stephanie and I went for dinner at The Rising Sun in Auburn. A burly man walked in and Stephanie said, “That looks like Peter Lehmann”. It was and he and his family joined us. He was big and said “bloody” a lot.

I know from other people that he was generous with his time and his knowledge. It was hard not to be awed by somebody who had achieved so much and who had such unbreakable integrity. He was an outstanding man.

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My “Fine Wine Auctions: Hammering Out The Issues” article published by Drinks Business

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It was a funny old year. In 2012 a Korean pop singer became a global phenomenon. Venus came very close to Jupiter. And the world did not end on 21 December, as some had blamed the Mayans for predicting.

In the art auction world, 2012 was a banner year for trophy hunters, thanks to “The Scream”, Richter and Rothko. In November, auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s brought in $787.3 million (HK$6,105m). All this amid a financial crisis.

But the sometimes astonishing prices did little to ease growing concerns that a price bubble was swelling, that the market was becoming sickly, and that China’s once seemingly inexhaustible buying power was starting to turn lethargic. Sound familiar?

Click here to read the full article.

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