Samos Muscat Wine Harvest report

Samos Muscat Wine Harvest report  

August 2019 (finally written up from notes March 2020) ahem.

Well, I arrived here on the Greek island Samos a couple of days ago, picked up my hire car from Dimitri’s ‘rent a wreck’ and then, straight to the vineyard harvesting hook in hand? Er no, ‘et in Arcadia ego’…….

Liastos wine tasting

Tasting the Liastos 2018 with Nico Vakakis

There is the small matter of last year’s harvest still being in barrel.

It’s at Vakakis Winery and it tastes great!

But…. when to bottle; (it’s too late to get it out of barrel in time for this year’s batch); how to get the label to Greece and approved in time, (all possible, just) and how to tie down transport to make sure it gets into the UK before Brexit day.

Then oh, great glorious bggeration, we need to make a few amends to the label. – The geeks who worked on my laptop a couple of years ago (helpfully and without being asked) upgraded the O.S., so Adobe CS Suite doesn’t work on it anymore. Worm brains! It’s only on my old 10 ton Mac in England. The amends are too much to explain to the printer back home, so I’ll have to do it all here…… somehow.

I ask Nico Vakakis the winemaker, who to use. (I don’t want to bother him cos its harvest and famously winemakers exist on about 2 hours sleep a night for the entire vintage). However, he gives me a lead, I ask them about it, they say email them, I email them from a cafe 100 yards from their office in Karlovasi, and there’s no response; maybe they’ve gone to Mykonos on holiday or more likely can’t be arsed to do any work….. yes, it is hot.

Speak to Lynette about this, who is in England. She has a great idea, why not see if the Adobe new version software, (nearly 500 quid a year) has a free trial or offer – YES IT DOES!!! Triumphantly, I head to a taverna for octopus and ouzo and broadband…. What could go wrong now?

The ‘Non Harvest Report’ starts…

The octopus didn’t turn up, I think they had to go and buy a frozen one from the supermarket and defrost it…

Sitting outside the Taverna, oh bliss, I try to deal with Adobe on line…… going round and round in circles but then I find a number and ring it and wait and wait….. “Oh Adobe, wonderful company, how is will this subscription service bloatware be better than the neat In Design DTP that people used actually to own?”


Moi: “Robot. Let me to speak a human!”
3 ‘specialists’ later, I am becoming ragged and the broadband bandwidth in the taverna is very narrow.
Moi: “I’ve already paid and gone through that hoop, twice…… (I hiss). I’m just trying to confirm my account…… my guess is that the system has recognised that the credit card is UK based and I am in Greece and therefore it thinks I am a terrorist money launderer.”
Specialist: “The Adobe Acrobat you ordered is now live for you to use”
Me: “Well if I have that’s news to me…. I’m ordering In Design. I never asked for Acrobat. I asked for In Design”. (AAAARRRRRG!) “I’m trying to try out this new version when I’m on holiday (sic) on a very small project. So far, I am seriously not impressed and have wasted most of an afternoon on something that should have taken a few minutes”.
Specialist: “Let me transfer you to a specialist”… zzzzzzzzzzz – line goes dead.
me: Aaaarrrrrg. Yes, very, very quietly this time, for I am truly losing the will to live.

Yes indeed, this IS a harvest report!

I try again, this time I get through to a useful young lady in India…. She can ring me back in 2 hours.

I believe her. Yes because I want to get in the sea. The sea! The sea! To Thalassa! To Thalassa! I’ve been in Samos for a day and a half and haven’t been in the sea yet!

So, drive like a maniac to the other side of the island. (You must understand that Samos is a Mountain Island with roads resembling Swiss passes before they had motorways). So up, then down the other side of the pass, ring the Co-op to order a new oak barrel, dive in the sea, quick swim and retire to MIKE’S PIZZA CAVE, who have the best internet in the fishing village of Ormos.

YES BINGO! – Someone has done something and In Design downloads…

So now only to redesign the label, get it approved and printed, bla, bla, bla, swim, eat, ouzo, CUT SOME GRAPES!

Sunset on Samos

Beautiful Sunset – the island was on fire!

Samos non-harvest report (Part 2)

26 August 2019

It’s been HOT; HOT even for a Greek August. There’s been a hot wind too, which is unusual. Last night there was a fabulous sunset and I thought, is that smoke? No-one said anything about it.

But yes, there were serious forest fires here in Samos, you might have seen them on BBC News. Hundreds of acres of forest went up in flames and the wall of fire threatened the main tourist resort, Pythagorion.

However, that’s the other end of the island and here it seemed that no-one knew or particularly cared….  I drove the length of the island on the north coast (hunting for a barrel!!) and saw no sign of any dislocation. I only discovered because Manoli, who I’m harvesting with, supposedly tomorrow, has disappeared. He’s involved in the Island Administration and has, I learn, been up all night coordinating the evacuation.

EOSS Samos

One way of drying the grapes! (for EOSS Nectar)

After that, gosh, well back to wine matters: on the island most of the harvest is in, just some of the highest vineyards, a little bit of red and the last of the Liastos (Passito sweet) is still to be done. (EOSS was drying grapes in the winery car park). Reports about quality vary, there’s been a fair bit of mildew, but our vineyard looks good. With very careful selection, we can have fabulous quality.

Missing barrel sorted in the end. Label done. Truck gearbox repaired ….. We’re up very early tomorrow morning to cut grapes and will have them out drying in the sun by lunchtime.

Samos non-harvest report (part 3)

27 August 2019

Laying out the nets for the grapes

Delayed again…..

The grapes which looked lovely are now looking dangerously over-ripe for making a good Passito / Liastos and I can’t pick for another 2 days. To make a great Liastos, you need to harvest at optimal ripeness when the full aromatics have developed but before the acidity falls away.

You can make a wine with the same sweetness by doing a shorter period of sun drying with the over-ripe grapes, HOWEVER you won’t have the freshness and brightness, nor will the short sun-drying develop the flavour in the same way, and, the all-important antioxidants probably won’t develop sufficiently to protect the wine and allow it to be made without sulphur.

Sod it.

My back-up plan was to make a ‘Vin Doux Naturelle’ using some organic, high-grown fruit. It’s made in roughly the same way as a Port, hitting unfermented must with some strong alcohol to prevent fermentation. This wine would be a lot cheaper and would have ‘SAMOS’ appellation too, whereas my Liastos ends up as ‘Wine of Greece’. I was going to make some of this anyway, now I’ll probably make more. Not wildly happy, but things will be OK.

Late Afternoon. I’ve had a discussion with the Oenologist at Vakakis Wines. As I thought, if we add in some very high grown fruit harvested at 12.5% EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE! – They will bring acidity and freshness and lower the alcohol a bit. And what’s more I can have the amount they reckon is right on Thursday, conveniently, just after we finish picking the old vines. – Well, rooty doot toot! Back in business!!!

29 August 2019 

Finally we pick.

Manoli looking a bit pissed off about the mildew

Manoli and I start early, soon after sun up while it’s still cool.

We go first to the lowest ‘old vine’ terrace which has given us fabulous quality before. But something has gone wrong in the last few days. Where we expect to see bright golden grapes, everything has a dull look. Mildew has struck!

These gapes just aren’t up to it for Liastos. We need gloriously ripe, perfectly clean grapes. We pick our way through the vineyard, finding a bunch here and there.

Heartbreaking. Manoli isn’t happy. He says “These grapes aren’t good enough for you Tim”. I say “Maybe they’ll be better higher up”.

They are, a bit, and we manage to pick a few boxes that look pretty good. So we go to the highest spot up near the press house. The hot weather has brought these on, and they’re golden and good. We pick a few boxes too many expecting that when we come to sort them a lot will be chucked.

Then straight away, and it’s really important that there is no delay, we take the boxes to a terrace with no vines and here we empty the boxes onto the plastic nets lying on the ground.

Muscat Grapes drying in the Sun

Selecting only the best grapes

I do a quick sort through, throwing anything that looks obviously bad – but there wasn’t much to discard. I think we were so aware of the problem that we’d picked well. I smoothed the bunches out so they were only one deep, not all mounded up and we left them to roast in the midday sun.

And boy was it hot by now!


3 September 2019

Sun-drying the Muscat is progressing nicely…. All MOG (Material Other than Grapes) removed!  I moved some grapes that were raisined and ready into the shade, some onto upside down ventilated boxes so they get air while being sunned and some that needed to go further were left just lying on nets on the ground in the full Greek sun!

Checking the taste of the Liastos Muscat

The 2 batches, one from old terraces up around Platanos and the organic batch from over 1800m on Mount Ambelos are amazingly different in flavour. The Platanos grapes have a lovely rich character which intensifies as they dry.

(This year though they were a bit over ripe at harvest and acids are probably a bit on the low side).

The Mount Ambelos grapes (lower down) have a fresher, more lively character. A few bunches were too green and weren’t ripe enough and the flavour didn’t improve as they lay in the sun – these have been ditched.

We press tomorrow.

4 September
And so we did…. First we took a reading and the potential alcohol looked a little low though at about 20%, and some of those high grown green grapes looked a bit under ripe and unraisined, probably not even 15%. We pressed a little juice and the taste was really good. The green grapes did bring a vein of freshness, but not a character you want too much of. So I swapped some of these grapes with Manoli for some more seriously ripe ones. Fair exchange – he gets a bit more freshness and I get sugar!

Then the hard work started…

We rolled up the mats and forked the raisins back into the boxes. Carried the boxes to the press area (well Manoli did, I just stacked them). Then forked them into the newish electric crusher-destemmer, about twice, depending on how dried they were, (well Manoli did, I found useful things to do moving empty boxes and around and getting rid of the stems).

Working a basket press is a 2 man operation: one pours in the grapes, the other makes sure they go in the press, smooths them down etc. Then, when the press is full, half-moons on the top, a couple of wooden blocks in place. Then crank away. Well Manoli does, I hold the press, which is the easy job, at least to start with.

When it’s pressed down some way, spin the bar back up, blocks and half-moons off, in with another couple of boxes. Crank down, spin the lever back up, half-moons off – not easy now. Bolts off the side of the press, yank off the two sides of the ‘basket’ and we have a pillar of crushed grapes, looking just like a fluted pillar from a Greek Temple, except it’s green! – It’s my job to pull it apart.

Then, we reassemble the press, putting the basket back on the base, slide in the bolts to hold it together and fork back in the pressed grapes, push them down more grapes on top, then put on the half-moons again. Then the really hard work begins… to wind the press down now. Each twist, then finally each click, takes serious application of muscle and weight.

And we repeat this again and again.

And this is when the really sweet juice comes out. Most of the time in winemaking, it’s the first pressing that’s the best; with Liastos / Passito, it’s the very last.

The juice, well it seeps out of the side of the press, through the wooden slats, then trickles onto the tiled floor. It then runs across the floor and down a plug hole then out through a pipe onto a crude filter made of muslin (actually it’s one of those Greek lace curtains). This catches any pips, skins and bits of pulp; the juice drops down into a concrete hopper.

And that’s it!

No enzymes, no acid, no centrifuges, no filtration and no deboubage (settling). It will go straight to barrel and no yeast will be pitched either.

Except, this year being this year, (of course) nothing was simple. The juice had to be moved immediately to Vakakis winery before fermentation started and got into barrel there. BUT there was too much juice, I would need another small barrel and everywhere was about to close for the weekend. Fortunately, I remember I’d seen one in the Co-op store in Karlovasi, so down to Karlovasi I bomb in my much abused hire car with 2 large full must containers on the back seat. Grab the barrel and zoom back up the hill to the winery to get the must into barrel.

Except, there’s no-one there……. and I need to get the must containers back to Manoli urgently as he needs them. And I can’t find anyone. Eventually, the caretaker comes and shuts the place up for the night.

5 September 2019
Next morning, I’m at the winery as early as possible and we fill the barrels. In the past we’ve used gravity, but this time we have a nice new low suction-pressure must pump. Then, jet out the wretched must containers, say my goodbyes, bomb back to the vineyard on minor tracks through the forest, dump aforementioned wretched must containers at the vineyard, then another Swiss mountain pass down to the sea.

I then have that “juice is in barrel, last minute extra barrel is in the winery, must containers are washed and back at the vineyard, flight is in 2 hours-time at the other end of the island” moment, floating in the Aegean…..


In which we explore Craft Beers in San Diego

San Diego, capital of the West Coast Craft Brewery movement.

February 2020

We’ve been on the USS Midway, the WW2 Aircraft Carrier Museum and are now trying to get to 30th St, North Park, which is perhaps the centre of Craft Brewing in the city, thus perhaps the centre of Craft Brewing on the West Coast, thus in the USA etc etc…. Problem is, no taxis and we don’t do Uber, (part of our luddite boycott of big-tec, Amazon & co).

It’s after midday, we’re on holiday AND we walk past a bar. Lynette points this fact out and that it’s illegal under our holiday rules. Actually, I point out, it’s not a bar, but a brewery….

It’s the Bolt Brewery, which is on our list, so in we go.

Very friendly, very helpful – golly my first San Diego brewery.

I choose ‘Party On’ IPA. It’s mid-weight, light amber, very seriously hoppy and slightly orangey. Very drinkable, yes I’d have another please….. The hoppiness was, as I said serious, (almost OTT). Our food turns up. San Diego grub takes its cue from South of the Border and we have decent Shrimp Tacos and Cilantro Shrimps.

I try a sample of Bolt’s Anniversary Ale, which is thicker textured, higher ABV and bigger and less subtle than the ‘Party On’ IPA.  Ultimately, I find it less satisfactory; it’s a bit gloopy. Lynette tries the Pilsner, which is OK and kind of ordinary larger-like, rather than being definitively Pilsner-ey, which to my mind would be very dry and very fresh.

Interesting that the IPA is lower alcohol than other ales on the list, I would expect India Pale Ale to be a higher alcohol beer….. All of the beers are good though, these gripes are just definition issues. And the barman was super helpful about other good places to go and called a taxi to take us to 30th St, Northpark.

There are 150 odd breweries in town, so I suppose we might be back in a year or so’s time if we lived here…..

A Diversion

We’d already had a couple of craft beers from larger scale outfits on the commercial edge of ‘craft’. Pizza Port ‘Chronic Amber Ale’ and Ballast Point IPA.

Pizza Port Chronic Amber is a mid-weight amber, it’s supposed to be a bit ‘English’ but also some hemp seeds that well known ingredient in English Real Ale are added to the brew. Well, you wouldn’t know it was supposed to be ‘English’, nor would you know it was laced with dope….. It just wasn’t that special, and really was only one up from mass produced American beer. No, I’d rather have had an Anchor Steam or even a Coors, but not a ‘Coors lite’ or anything with ‘lite’ in its name.

The Ballast Point was heavily hopped and just didn’t have a fresh or pleasant aroma. Ballast Point is the granddaddy of San Diego Craft Breweries, so we may have been unlucky, then again, hard-core craft drinkers view them as a sell-out. Whatever, on another visit to San Diego I’d like to go their Home Brew Mart, which was seminal in the rise of Craft Brewing here.

It’s over 30 years since I took that much notice of the West Coast Craft Brewery scene, or Micro-Brewery scene as it was called then. That was 1989, and we weren’t really exploring beer, it was just collateral damage when we were setting up our first California Wine Tour.

At the time, Arblaster & Clarke had been running the Campaign for Real Ale Travel Club. We ran beer tours to Belgium, Düsseldorf, East Germany, Poland, various parts of the UK. So, I started planning a West Coast Micro-brewery tour. The CAMRA beer tours fizzled out, which I regretted somewhat and the West Coast Micro-brewery tour never happened, though I got to visit a few micro-breweries and even spent an evening in the San Francisco Anchor Steam Brewery.

1989 CAMRA Tour at Poperings.                                 (Us looking young at the top)

However, Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours kept on the ground-breaking Belgian Beer tour, which I seem to remember was called “Trappists and Tripels”. There was something just so EXCITING about these weird brews, which including spontaneous fermentation beers, beers made with added cherries and spices and yes, sour beers.

Of course, since then, we’ve seen those spontaneous fermentation Lambic beers debased and flavoured with syrups. We’ve had alcopops and now cider has come to mean a hideous sweet fruit drink…… so I find it almost difficult to recapture that innocent excitement of the first time one tasted a Kriek Lambic.

Tim with a flight of famous Belgians!

News of what the Belgians were doing arrived here on the West Coast, where anything is possible. There are now many hundreds or possibly thousands of small breweries in the USA and innovation and experimentation is the name of the game. Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law that allows only water, barley, hops and yeast as beer ingredients, (yeast was late addition), came to be viewed as a 400 year aberration.  

Hops, Cherries, Limes, Honey, Raspberry, Strawberry, Hibiscus, Coriander, Apples, Blackcurrant, Blueberry, Apricot, Peach, Pineapple, Oranges (of various types), Orange rind, Guava, Coconut, Watermelon, Agave, Grapes (of various varieties), Coffee, Peanut Butter…… In fact, just about anything that might conceivably be fermentable (or indeed not) could go in the brew kettle.

The fruit beers that fire people up here aren’t ‘girly’ sweet fruit infusions, they are ‘sours’. They are made with lactic ferments, perhaps using cultures taken from the sediments of Belgian Lambic bottles, and perhaps infected by Brettanomyces yeasts too. The hazy or unfiltered beers that 25 years ago were viewed as extreme are now considered tame or worse mainstream and commercial.  (Our natural winemakers have nothing on these extremist craft brewers).

Diversion even further….

There is something in this ‘ferment anything’ trend, really there is. In his “Ancient Wine” Patrick McGovern postulated that early wine was often not made just from grapes, a drink he describes as “Grog”, seems according to the evidence, to have been concocted from a mix of fermentables including grapes, malt and honey.

Ancient Brews by Patrick McGovern

Ancient Brews by P McGovern

Since then, he has developed the thesis that this ‘Grog’ wasn’t an accidental or improvised beverage, but a drink made to recipes with the mix of fermentable ingredients, herbs and spices, maximising the inebriating effect and having particular flavours. In his more recent “Ancient Brews. Ancient Brews rediscovered and re-created” he explored these brews from the dawn of history to come up with viable drinks. And yes indeed, McGovern worked on these with Dogfish Head Brewery, one of the leading US Craft Breweries, albeit not a San Diego one.

Reaching back into the past is one way to search for the truly profound.  Yes, I confess, I too am a natural ancient-booze maker, but I stopped short of going back to the neolithic and stuck with the Romans (or maybe the era of the Archaic Greek poet Hesiod). I also stuck with grapes and clean flavours. But why not reach back further or go closer to the edge? When you’ve been faced with a diet of Miller lite and Bud, who can blame people for wanting something extreme?

Our taxi to 30th St turns up; the brewery corridor, the epi-centre.

First to Belching Beaver

The Belching Beaver

‘Dam good times’ they promise and have another very helpful barman. Peanut Butter Milk Stout is the iconic beer here.

However, I feel I should try a yardstick beer first. A bit like when I’m weighing up Sicilian Gelaterias I go for the lemon water ice, here in San Diego I opt to try the IPA, specifically the ‘Mosaic Double IPA’. Lynette goes for ‘Here comes Mango’…. I was very happy with the IPA, a bit extreme perhaps, but good. Lynette was OK with the ‘Here comes Mango’; but compared to the best Belgian fruit beers, it was just OK. However it didn’t have the intensity and she didn’t think mango and beer were a match made in heaven.

‘Peanut Butter Milk Stout’ – delicious. Rich, slightly sweet and delicious. Apparently, this is based on the English Milk Stout style. I can’t remember if peanut butter in an ingredient in Milk Stout, but it’s been a while since I had one, maybe 30 years.

30th St San Diego, Fall Brewing

Still we had to move on, aiming vaguely for Fall Brewing.

I’d tangled with Fall Brewing’s Crystal Mess IPA the night before. It’s a first rate West Coast IPA with a massive bitter dry hit of Crystal hops and a name that’s just maybe a pun on ‘Crystal Meth’, another dangerous and potentially addictive substance. Fall Brewing, which looks more like a showroom, warehouse or garage than a bar is about 15 to 20 minutes up the road from the burping Beaver and it brews on site.. 

At the Bar, Fall Brewing

We lined up a ‘flight’ as follows:

Industrial Accident, (great name!),

Your Pretty,

Magic and Delicious,

Watermelon Sour,

Googoo Muck IPA.

‘Industrial Accident’ – Very hazy, complex nose with obvious hoppiness and scent of apricots. Fairly bitter-hoppy on palate with a nice sour tang bringing freshness and interest. Loved the name! Yes I would reorder it too.

‘Your Pretty’ – Fresh, pretty, lively hoppiness. On second look not that clean and a bit lacking excitement. OK though.

‘Magic and Delicious  Pale Ale’ – Seriously hoppy nose. Mid-weight and a bit exotic but with its feet on the ground. Long citrussy finish. The more we tasted it, the more we liked it.

‘Watermelon Sour’. – This beer stank. The predominant aroma was old socks, hmmm and a bit of vomit. Surprisingly then, we tasted it and the palate was refreshing with a sweet / tart balance – but then I caught a whiff of god knows what again. I’ve never come across a beer that has a whiff of buteric acid while still in the glass…. I’ve looked up this beer and it gets really good reviews. For me though, it is comes from where ‘natural’ and ‘faulty’ collide. My notes add “clothes peg job”.  Lynette hated it from the start. I gave it a fairly low mark then downgraded it…

‘Googoo Muck Unfiltered IPA’. – Hazy, very hazy golden liquid. Fruity, complex hoppy nose – dried fruit, pine, hay. Fresh palate – Fall Brewing seems good at “fresh”. Not excessively bitter for the hoppiness (so maybe dry hopped?). Fruity tart-apple finish. Really, a wonderful summer drink, this beer got our highest scores of the day.

This small brewery seemed to sum it all up, some stunning beers and a couple that for us were misfires. Is this experimentation? If so, then great (!) all oddities forgiven OR, alarming prospect, were some of the weirder flavours just what the local craft beer drinker is looking for? I have a feeling that it’s both.

Fall Brewery: “This is not my beautiful Wife Pale Ale”

And here’s the thing, if you don’t just bin Reinheitsgebot, but declare it to be heresy, what are we to make of beers that have aromas of pine and citrus? Do we think that these characters come from sophisticated use of hops or from armfuls of pine-needles, lemon zest or, god forbid, aroma concentrates?  As long as the Craft Breweries are run by fanatics and craftsmen this may not matter, but once Private Equity or the Big Brewers get involved, you know what will happen.

Hmmm. So that was that, just a walk back to our hotel. Yes indeed, San Diego is a city you can walk in!  Then, oh dear, another brewery, so we blunder in…

This was Poor House
Poor House Brewing

Poor House Brewing

A brewery, not just a tasting room it is, complete with fermentation tanks on the edge of the drinking area.  There are a couple of pool tables (but no one is playing) and several large screen TVs showing basketball, which no-one is watching.

I’m trying to decipher my notes, which are written on a beer mat. Darned thing has a lot of print on the front and is near black on the back. Don’t they know that beermats are for writing things on, like to do lists, poems, business plans, beer notes.….  My scrawl goes round and round the beermat in circles, which is nothing to do with this being the 4th brewery of course. A couple of weeks later, it could be enigma code.

It’s difficult to get attention, the barmaid is chatting to friends or bikers or regulars, but eventually we’re served (in an off-hand kind of way). This is certainly unlike any of the other breweries. Everywhere else the staff couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful, telling us lots of stuff about the beers with great enthusiasm, soliciting our opinions and freely giving advice. Maybe we’re too old or something for the crowd here.

We decided to go Belgian and order ‘Dying Midwestern’, which advertised itself as a “Belgian-style Blond Ale” and ‘Dead Man’s Dubbel’. The Dying Midwestern was OK, but a ‘Duvel’ or a ‘Hapkin’ or an ‘Arabier’, it was not.

By the bar, Poor House on 30th

More problematic was ‘Dead Man’s Dubbel’ which was wildly over-hopped; in Belgium surely only the ‘Poperings Hommelbier’, an exhibition beer that was designed to show off Belgian hops, has anything like this level of hopping. Certainly, no Dubbel is like this. However, if you forget it’s supposed to be a “Dubbel style”, it’s enjoyable enough. There’s some Belgian-ness to it in its aroma and weight and there was a good after-taste.

After this I have an ‘OG’, which is billed as a “Belgian Strong Golden Ale”, (not “Belgian-style” note). Yes, it is kind of Belgian-style and reasonably decent too and the hoppiness is under control and again the aftertaste was good.  Of course, it was too cold.

Dubbel, Saison, Amber, Death, Belgian. Words thrown around as though they are no more than a collection of letters.

And then it struck me, and then we realised the problem, (and it wasn’t just about the Poor House beers), ALL of them were served too COLD. Reinheitsgebot might have been binned as a concept but the American First Amendment of Beer, that it should be COLD, remains inviolate.

And perhaps, because the beers are going to be served so cold, they have to be exaggerated in order to taste of much. But maybe in the end this was our problem, not the beers’ problem. After all, I don’t whinge that German beer is too cold and I’m happy to accept even Retsina for what it is. So maybe there’s something in us and we just can’t take the New World for itself. I have the same issue with the likes of Screaming Eagle and other Californian wines.

After this little flash of self-knowledge, there seemed little point in asking anything about the beers or the outfit, so we slip out without paying the service charge and go off into the night in search of something to eat. “Middle-aged Brit skinflints” the bar-girl might have thought.

Champagnes tasted on the Kirker Champagne Tour

Now this was a pretty spectacular line up of Champagnes by any stretch of the imagination.

First evening tasting:

Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve

G. H. Mumm “Mumm de Cramant”

Brut Alain Mercier “Cuvée Emile” Blanc de Noirs Brut

Jacquesson “Cuvée 742” Extra Brut

Gosset Grand Millésime 2006 Brut

Louis Roederer Rosé 2012 Brut

We started by comparing a couple of the most respectable NVs on the market and it was very surprising that the Charles Heidsieck seemed so much the better than the Billecart; but then it has a huge proportion reserve wines in the blend. Very classy.

I then threw in a special NV, different price point, a single Grand Cru village and pure Chardonnay – Mumm’s Cramant. Now, I’ll be frank, in the past I’ve loathed this wine, but it seemed pretty good and a well done rendition of the village which has a kind of paradoxical character; being being both ripe and ‘nervy’. Humph. Either it’s improved or I’ve mellowed. 

The Alain Mercier “Cuvée Emile” was pure Meunier and …… sorry no.

Jacquesson’s 742 – superb. Jacquesson don’t do NV, each year they recreate the house Champagne, making the best Cuvée they can. You never quite know what you are going to get, the blend varies quite a lot but there IS a style that springs from factors such as where the grapes are sourced, the use of foudres, lack of manipulation etc. Pretty uncompromising but great for aficionados.

However the star of the evening was Gosset’s Grand Millésime 2006. A soft rich flavour kind of honey on brioche and with tingling acidity going onto the finish. Few Champagnes could have followed this and Roederer Rosé 2012 tried. A bigger flavoured rosé, such as one from a grower in Bouzy or Aÿ might have got away with it. That’s not to say the Roederer Rosé 2012 was anything other than very good though.

At Pol Roger

Pol Roger Brut (Magnum)

Pol Roger Blanc de blancs Vintage 2012

Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2008

This was the first visit and it’s always a privilege to visit Pol. We had already tasted the Brut NV the previous evening at our restaurant, so interesting to try the magnum, which was more profound with both more maturity and greater freshness that the bottle. Sir Winston was absolutely magnificent of course. This wine is always more elegant that I expect it to be. Preconceptions, preconceptions….

At Bollinger

Bollinger Grande Année Rosé 2007

Bollinger Grande Année 2008

Bollinger RD 2004

Bollinger Special Cuvée

A superb lunch at Bollinger with equally superb Champagnes. When tasted side by side, I often prefer the Grande Année to the RD. It’s a personal taste thing, the Grande Année is more taut, with more tension and potential…. Anyway, that wasn’t the case here; the RD was from the awesome 2004 vintage and was possibly the wine of the tour; certainly people went out to look for it in Reims. Telling that Bollinger are confident enough in the Special Cuvée to put it immediately after such a great wine.

Second evening tasting

Marguet Shaman 15

Georges Laval Brut Nature 15

Tarlant “Zéro” Brut Nature

De Sousa Reserve Grand Cru Extra Brut

Moutard “6 Cépages” 2008 Extra Brut

Marguet “Trepail 1er Cru” Blanc de Blancs 14

Henri Giraud “Dame Jane” Rosé Brut

So, here we have a collection of Champagnes by the Young Turks of the organic / bio-dynamic / natural / rare grape varieties / unusual methods persuasions.

Benoit Marguet I’ve known for many years – he has an outrageous sense of humour and I’m sure he’s got an unusual attitude to responsibility. About the things that really matter, such as honesty in wine and attitude to the environment he’s super-responsible. But yeah, he forgot my last appointment…. The wines were divisive, some loved them but for others they were just too edgy.

Georges Laval is a legend, founder of bio-dynamie in Champagne and his Cumières rouge, (tasted some years ago on one of the more bizarre wine nights of my life at an organic producers’ evening – yup astral plane discussions etc); sorry, I’ve digressed, anyway the Cumières rouge Coteaux Champenoise was far and away the best red I’ve ever had from Champagne. New generation; the Champagne an absolute stonker! Stole the show. Except that Talant’s Zero, following it, had a crystalline purity that was really lovely. The De Souza good too.

Then we had the Moutard; except we didn’t! Some plonker gave us Moutardier thinking that was close enough. What’s an “ier” between friends? So we had another a non-so good Meunier vintage, not MoutardIERS’s fascinating blend including the rare Arbanne and Petit Meslier grape varieties….

Henri Giraud “Dame Jane” Rosé – A Champagne from base wines fermented in amphora, or rather pithos. Yes, very good. A nice Rose from Aÿ, and what I like, bit of strawberry. No you couldn’t taste the amphora and to my mind that’s right.

It’s worth mentioning that the 14 and 15 are not misprints nor vintage dates. They are Cuvée dates, so non-vintages produced on those dates.

At Philipponnat

Philipponnat Royal Reserve Philipponnat

Philipponnat Royal Reserve Rosé

Philipponnat Blanc de Noirs Vintage 2008

I’m a big fan of Philipponnat, but I don’t think many in our group had heard of them and so there were a few converts! The Blanc de Noirs Vintage needs some explanation: It’s very much a wine of the Grand Vallée de la Marne wine, (where the house is based) and it showcases the lovely Pinot Noir of this area. As such it’s important wine in the portfolio delivering something very special from the house at a highish but not extremely expensive price point. Redfruits, cream, brioche intense, lively and scored at 90 to 92 points for those that like that kind of thing.

At Taittinger & La Marqueterie

Taittinger Brut Réserve

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2007

Taittinger Prelude Grand Cru

Taittinger Millesimé 2013

Taittinger Folies de la Marqueterie

Taittinger Préstige Rosé Brut NV

Comtes is one of the greatest of all blanc de blancs Champagnes and it’s more versatile and ‘user friendly’ that the other greats, such as say, Salon. I find that the Prelude has greater clarity, purity and depth than the Brut Réserve but the Millesimé is somehow more dynamic. The single vineyard Folies de la Marqueterie is great fun and a good meal wine. Really worth trying. The Rosé is much improved lately too. The NV, which has been on offer in the UK recently is pretty good, but it gains a lot from being well chilled and decanted… yes, decanted!

At Vilmart

Vilmart Cuvée Grande Réserve

Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier

Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier d’Or 2010

Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier d’Or Coeur de Cuvée Vintage (2008?)

The Vilmart Champagnes just keep getting better and better. Wonderful to taste the Coeur de Cuvée, shame I didn’t notice the vintage! Too busy thinking “this is fabulous!”. Vilmart Champagnes are really age-worthy. I’m still sitting on quite a few bottles from the 1990’s and a bootle of their special cuvee for the Millenium. It could be just about ready by now…..

At André Jacquart

André Jacquart Vertus Experience Blanc de Blanc 1er Cru

André Jacquart Mesnil Experience Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru

André Jacquart Rosé Expérience Rosé de Saignée Premier Cru

The Mesnil was very good. Shame they were out of stock of the Mesnil Vintage which, now that Salon is strictly for Billionaires, is one of your best chances to experience something extraordinary from the village. (Blimey, to think I used to pick up Salon Magnums in Reims for about the price of a big house Non-Vintage). I’ve followed André Jacquart since about 1991 when they were just another unknown Grower-Producer, albeit in the well known village of Le Mesnil sur Oger. (They are of course nothing to do with the Jacquart co-operative).

Round and about!

Sanchez-Le Guédard Cumières 1er Cru Clos Saint Hélène Special Club 2012

Sanchez-Le Guédard Cumières 1er Cru Cuvée Nature

Sanchez-Le Guédard Cumières 1er Cru Rosé de Saignée

Sanchez-Le Guédard Cumières 1er Cru Grand Réserve

Sanchez-Le Guédard are a new discovery for me and newish entrants into the Special Club. Cumières is an interesting village with a great south facing slope with fairly deep soils. The style is powerful, almost brutal. Sanchez-Le Guédard are organic and work fairly naturally. Impressive, especially the Club and Rosé .

Pol Roger Brut (Bottle)

Lanson Vintage 2008
Lanson Green Label Bio

Over the past 30 or so years, Lanson have been consistently one of my least favourite houses, so I leapt at tasting these two. No really, I did. You see last summer at Wimbledon, there had been a monumental screw-up to do with the catering at the opening party of the new roof at Court no 1. Following a complaint, we were offered a bottle of Champagne. GREAT.  (Turned out to be Lanson, shit…) We duly collected aforementioned bottle and were offered this Green Labelled jobby. Hmm, why not? …. and it was lovely, fresh and profound. It’s also a Cumières, from the former Le Clerc-Briant bio-dynamic vineyards.

So, not a bad haul, 44 Champagne in 4 days and it was a great tour!

6 Wines from Waitrose

Welcome to the Wine Blog

This will be regular, there’ll be some recurring themes like “6 wines from….”, reports from areas I visit, discussion of ideas such as Organic & Natural wines, history of wine and whatever seems interesting at the time. Every blog must start somewhere so here’s no 1….

Six Wines from….. Waitrose

Reyneke Organic 19 Chenin Blanc.  Western Cape – South Africa. £9.00

I’m a big fan of Reyneke, South Africa’s oldest biodynamic wine estate. It’s perched on a hill above the great Jordan estate and founded and run by surfing fanatic, Johann Reyneke.  We’ve have been really pleased that a couple of their wines have appeared on the Waitrose shelves as part a general perking-up of the White Range here, for Reyneke is a place with a lot of soul that makes profound and harmonious wines.

So to this wine:  On opening we were immediately struck by a note of what we call “bubble gum” on the nose. Unwelcome, and often a sign of selected aromatic yeast – highly unlikely at Reyneke, so maybe it’s a maybe cold and reductive fermentation aroma that might lift off. As the wine was a bit warm, we stuck it back in the fridge, cork out, to chill and get a bit more oxygen to it. 

Half an hour later – bubble gum gone, nose nice citrus and honied, with a bit of apricot. Now that’s more like it Johann…..   It took on more weight over the couple of hours too. It is fairly near the bottom of Reyneke’s range, so whilst it isn’t as wonderfully harmonious as his top wines, it’s an attractive wine that delivers a lot for the price. I will buy it again.

Served with:  Guinea Fowl in Avgolemono sauce.  The wine married with this dish. It had enough weight to take it and the citrus note echoed the egg and lemon sauce. Also it suddenly seemed nuttier and much more complex with the food.  Actually, really good food and wine marriage.

Other Gumpf: Integrity & Sustainability Certified. Organic certified by Ceres. (This is not an Estate Wine or from their Biodynamic range).  Closure: Agglomerate cork. 


Waitrose Fairtrade Chenin Blanc.  South Africa.                              £3.95

This wine is made by an outfit called A921 who I’ve never heard of. It was reduced from £5.49 to £3.95 plus 5% case discount so £3.75! Now I can’t remember the last time I bought a wine at this price in the UK, so grabbed a bottle with no great expectation – and thought “maybe we’ll cook with it”.…

Mild pleasant lemon nose, reasonable balance, mid weight and reasonable persistence. Nice zingyness on the palate, but a slight lactic note. Far from unpleasant and a lot better than it could have been.

It didn’t improve in the glass under critical inspection. The lemoniness subsided, replaced by a basic mineral ‘stringy’ Chenin nose and a bit of gronky-dirtiness on the palate. Maybe it really was only a cooking wine…. But we’re being really picky! It tasted fine when first opened and heck, it cost under 4 quid!

Served with:  Guinea Fowl in Avgolimeno sauce too!  By this time the wine had been open for an hour or so and the lemon character had subsided. It didn’t have enough weight for the dish. The fact that bit had been used in the sauce didn’t help it. It didn’t work very well, but the sauce was GREAT!

Other: Gumpf – Integrity & Sustainability Certified. Closure: Screwcap.


Tsantali Organic Cabernet.     Greece                                          £9.49

There’s no doubt about it, Waitrose’s Greek range is a miserable offering. There’s only ONE Greek red and it’s not even made of a Greek grape variety, and Greece has loads of wonderful wines and almost as many grape varieties. 

Tsantali are a fairly big outfit.  I’ve never visited the winery, which is south east of Thessaloniki. However, I have seen it when visiting their near neighbour, the wonderful Gerovalisiou, and it’s kind of a factory….  Now Tsantali do do some good stuff.  Their ‘Rapsani’ red is well distributed in Greece and is one of our standard ‘go to’ wines when nothing else looks exciting. It’s good, reliable and authentic. The ‘Metoxi Chromitsa’ from the Monastic vineyards of Mount Athos is just wonderful. The Tsantali website by the way is excellent. Anyway that’s enough creeping to large wineries for one day, what about this wine?

Tsantali Organic Cabernet

Opened and poured directly into the glass (as most people would drink it), it gave little away on the nose and was dense and hard on the palate – any fruit was deeply buried. Immediate conclusion – a not particularly subtle version of a hot climate Cab.. A couple of hours later, still no openee….. It was re-corked and left lying around for a couple of days, then opened again and for a brief moment there was a window through to some blackcurrant fruit, but the finish had taken on a sour character, perhaps if it was aged properly it might all come together OK. Now are Waitrose really selling this wine in the expectation that people will age it for several years?  

A bit of a disappointment then, but I’ve tasted this wine before and been more impressed. It’s now available on offer at £7.12. Would I buy it again at that price? Maybe, but not in a great hurry when there are so many other wines to try.

These days people are much more interested in wines form the huge number of Greek autochthonous grape varieties. The region though has some pedigree for Cabernet and 30 years ago a Greek Cab from here was considered utterly ground breaking….. and Greek Cabs can be super! If you do want one, I would point you in the direction of Attica for Kokotos or to the Peloponnese where there are several really good ones: Any’s Animus from the Southwest coast, Domaine Gioulis from the mountains near Corinth and Tselepos ‘Avlotopi’ from the high Arcadian plain. Also there are good ‘Super-Greeks’ (ie Cab and local variety blends) from Thrace and Macedonia. The thing is though, you won’t find them in Waitrose…. 

Other: Gumpf – Certified Organic. Closure: Screwcap. 


Brokenwood Thompson Road Semillon 2015  Hunter Valley             £9.49

With our stock of 1er Cru Chablis running low, and it being so being darned expensive to replace, we’ve been trying quite a few wines as stand-ins as day to day wines to go with fish. It has to be said that we’ve had a good number of wines from Macon, the Rhone and Southern Italy that were pretty average and should have been better.  So how fab to see one of Australia’s classic white wines (and from an excellent producer too) here on the shelves at Waitrose at a must buy price. – In the past the Aussies used to sell such wines as “Chablis”!

Brokenwood are based in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney. I’ve quite visited them a few times over the years, the first time must have been back in the early 1990s. It’s often hot and sticky-humid around harvest, which was when we tended to be there. I never got to love Hunter reds and the guys at Brokenwood found the region unreliable for reds too and so started sourcing grapes from South Australia. However the whites are another thing, showing as lightweight and elegant with high, even austere acidity when young, but ageing well to show great almost unexpected complexity after a few years.

Brokenwood Thompson Road Semillon

So with a certain amount of excitement we opened it for lunch! – It did exactly what was expected: a lot of citrus on the nose and intense lemon / austere grapefruit on the palate with racy acidity and good length. It’s not rich, full, heavyweight or exactly complex, it’s more straightforward and snappy and it packs intensity.

Having tasted many Hunter Semillons, both young and with a few years under the belt, I feel very confident that this wine, (that’s drinking very well now), will age superbly. It’s well worth squirrelling a few bottles away to get that toasty-complexity of a great aged Hunter Semillon.

Will I buy it again? Yes for sure and I’m also going to bury a few bottles in the cellar but for that I’ll probably wait until Waitrose have one of their 25% off deals; it then comes down to £7.49, which is an absolute steal!

Served with: Baked Cod, Oven Baked Chips & Ultimate Mushy peas. Just the job – no need to squeeze lemon over the fish!.

Other: Gumpf – Closure: Screwcap. 


Waitrose Australian Shiraz (St Hallet’s)               £9.49

I’m a bit of a sucker for the Barossa.  Other areas in Australia might have cooler climates and a wider range of fashionable grape varieties, or have more gourmet restaurants or fancy designer wineries, but they haven’t got what the Barossa has; it’s the beating heart of the Australian wine industry. For me the focal point of it is a cross roads just out of town, where on one side you have Rockford and Charlie Melton (and you could continue to Grant Burge and on round to Bethany); straight on you come to a ditch called Jacob’s Creek and on the other side, St Hallets.

Whilst looking for my 6 wines, I spotted a Barossa Shiraz from St Hallets and reduced from 11.99 to £9.49. That was one for the trolley then.

The wine had a berry and spice nose, was mid-weight and was not gloopy (ie correct – this is Barossa). To sum up: satisfactory, but not that exciting.

On a ‘St Hallet’s roll’, I noticed that Majestic had the ‘Faith’ Shiraz, knocked down from about 17 quid to £13.99. Now this was an entirely different cuttlefish…. A much stronger nose loaded with toasty oak, berry fruit and spice. On the palate, again mid-weight, but lively, fresh and elegant. (I remember a few years ago, the winemaker Stuart Blackwell making a lot about the importance of this elegance, which for him was a signature of the Barossa that he wanted to express faith in). And on to the finish, racy with little notes of chocolate.  WOW.

Now I know this isn’t comparing like with like, but the cost isn’t that different. Would I buy the Waitrose Barossa again? Maybe. Would I buy Faith again? Try and stop me. 

Other: Gumpf – Closure: Screwcap. 


Hill Smith Estate Eden Valley Chardonnay                          £11.99  

The Hill Smith family own Yalumba, one of Australia’s most important wine companies. Unlike so many other longstanding firms in the industry, Yalumba have avoided going down the corporate route, loosing their identity and having their good name used to push out oceans of plonk. Despite all this, I’m afraid to say I’ve only been there once, quite a long time ago, and was completely zonked at the time by jet-lag.  So without any real excuse, I haven’t followed their wines particularly and wasn’t in a hurry to go back there simply because the visit hadn’t been exiting. Likewise Australian Chardonnay, although above the basic price point it’s always very decent and nothing like the false archetype, I rarely think “gosh, must have an Australian Chardonnay”.

As I said, we’ve done a fair bit of wine-hunting this year looking for a good stand-in for a 1er Cru Chablis what with the pound being a bit crunched and everything. So this bottle, coming with key words “Hill Smith” “Estate” “Chardonnay” and “Eden Valley” (ie the cooler part of the Barossa), plus classy looking labelling, said “hit me”!  It had a nose of fine French oak with an elegant, yeastiness that was sort of reminiscent of blanc de blanc Champagne. (Surprising, for Eden Valley isn’t THAT cool!) Nice creaminess on the palate, and a restrained steeliness on the long finish. 

Well, conclusion: Quite a lot of wine for £11.99!  I think it would age nicely if kept for a few years too.

Other: Gumpf – Closure: Screwcap.