Saturday, 14 March 2015

Bonfires Green: Napa in Bloom


Driving around the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in this balmy March, I've been noticing the different stages of the vines as they slowly begin to enter the growing season. As we have barely had a winter - a day or two of rain here and there and the nights get chilly - some of the vines are still autumnal, unpruned, with flowers wildly growing among them. Others were pruned some time ago and already they are beginning to flower. It's fascinating seeing the differences at this time of the year, down to a winemaker's or grape-grower's choices, the fertility of the soil, exposure to the sun, age of the vines, and the trellising system.

This vineyard is right on the edge of the Napa city itself, where the vines are already beginning to blossom. Even though Napa is cooler than the rest of the valley, there's more direct exposure to the sun in these flat vineyards and the nights don't get as cold or foggy.
Slightly further up the Silverado Trail, Black Stallion's vines are well into the flowering process. These vines are probably Chardonnay, which is beginning to flower across Napa and Sonoma.
The next two vineyards are right next to each other on the Silverado Trail, yet in a completely different state. One is pruned and already beginning to show flowers, while the other is unpruned with wild cover crop, looking like it's in total disarray. Minimal pruning such as this originated in Australia, where it's widely practised. In warm climates, it increases yields without affecting quality. I don't know if this vineyard is deliberately following the Australian practice, or if it's simply because they've been waiting all winter for winter to actually happen. A month ago I visited Kelly Fleming Wines in Calistoga, where they hadn't pruned the vines yet. The reason was simple: they were waiting for it to rain before pruning, otherwise there was a chance any rain would spread fungal diseases in the vines. It still hasn't rained since.


At nearby Baldacci Family Vineyards in Stag's Leap, the vineyard workers were busy pruning the Cabernet Sauvignon vines, with still a bit of work to do. Here, the vines have been kept tidy with two canes left growing on the vine before being completely pruned this weekend. Winter pruning keeps the vine healthy, but also reduces vigour. Baldacci have likely been trying to keep a balance between healthy and vigorous vines over the dry, warm winter.







In Oakville, two of Napa's most prestigious and expensive wineries are taking similar but different approaches to tending their vines. Groth are letting the grass grow long between vines, which have been minimally pruned but then tidied by hand. Those at Plumpjack have the same trellis system and long grass between the rows, but the vines have been fully pruned.




At nearby Saddleback, the carefully pruned Pinot Blanc vines are just beginning to blossom.











Besides the thick older vines above, there are lots of plantings of young vines around Napa. They're stick thin, carefully trained and pruned to aid their development. Mustard flowers grow in between their vines, which has been a characteristic sight over the last two months.




Back towards Sonoma in the Carneros AVA, the Chardonnay vines are really beginning to bloom - what D. H. Lawrence called the "the bonfires green" of spring. Back in England, spring was one of my favourite seasons, when the bleakness of winter passes and the land livens up in colour. Here it's different, because the winter's as warm as an English summer, but seeing the vines come to life is still beautiful and invigorating, making me look forward to seeing the vines progress over the summer months.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Côte de Nuits

Following on from my tastings of Pinot Noir from around the world, I attended a session organised by Vins de Bourgogne to learn more about the famous appellations of the Côte de Nuits. Stretching from south of Dijon to the village of Nuits-St-George, the Côte de Nuits is a series of vineyards on east-facing slopes where some of the world's greatest Pinot Noir is grown. The session concentrated on the three villages of Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, and Chambolle-Musigny, which lie less than 10km apart yet have very different flavour profiles. Considering their proximity to one another, the differences between the wines from these villages was extraordinary.

the vintage

All the wines came from the 2011 vintage, whose wines were described as fresh, fruity, supple, and lighter than usual but well balanced. In true French style, the weather conditions for 2011 were related to us in some detail: the growing season started early in a dry, sunny spring; conditions changed "dramatically" in July, however, to a cool, wet summer; the end of August reverted to a sunny September with low rainfall. The lightness of the vintage means that the wines generally may not have the ageability of consistently warmer years such as 2012, but the wines we tasted were still young.

the villages

During the nineteenth century at the height of Burgundy's fame, many of the area's small villages took on the name of their most acclaimed vineyards: Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey Morey-St-Denis, and Chambolle Chambolle-Musigny. Generally, the best vineyards - Premier Cru and, for the very greatest, Grand Cru - are on slopes above the villages. These vineyards are called climats, individual sites which have their own particular style, character, and identity. Lower down the slopes are the village appellation wines, the more straightforward expressions of each area. Distinctive but less acclaimed vineyards that go towards village appellation wine also have their own name: lieux-dits.

Gevrey-Chambertin

There are 320ha of vineyards in the village AC, making it one of the largest for red wine in Burgundy. Beyond this broad area, there are some of the most renowned vineyards in the world: 26 Premier Cru (80ha) and 9 Grand Cru. The Premier Cru vineyards are, unusually, higher - at 380m altitude - than the Grand Cru, which are around 300m. The best wines from the village are full, structured, tannic, and long-lived.

Morey-St-Denis

Situated between Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny, the wines of Morey-St-Denis combine the best characteristics of the two: the powerful structure of the former and the aromatic elegance of the latter. Much smaller than Gevrey-Chambertin, there are just 87ha of Pinot Noir, 35ha of which is Premier Cru. Despite its size, there are still four Grand Cru vineyards, including Clos-St-Denis and its most renowned, Clos-du-Tart.

Chambolle-Musigny

Larger than Morey-St-Denis with 152ha (56 of them Premier Cru), there are two Grand Cru vineyards - Les Bonnes-Mares and Musigny. The former adjoins Morey-St-Denis's Clos-du-Tart and the wines have more structure, depth, and intensity. Musigny, one of Burgundy's greatest vineyards, is more aromatic, the character for which Chambolle-Musigny is known. There are also two Premier Cru vineyards which rank as some of the finest of Burgundy: Les Charmes and Les Amoureuses. Next to and very similar to Musigny, we heard Véronique Drouhin describe the latter's wines as like "wearing a cashmere sweater."

the wines

We tasted two wines from each village: a village appellation wine and a Premier Cru wine.

Jean-Claude Boisset Chambolle-Musigny Les Chardannes 2011

I found this wine somewhat bitter: the wine did not undergo any racking which may have contributed to a slightly reductive nose. Despite this, there's a nice floral character and the relatively high amount of new oak (45%) is well integrated. With soft tannins, this is a balanced, lightly fruity wine but lacking intensity of flavour. ✪✪✪✪

Domaine Frédéric Magnien Les Bourniques Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru 2011

A very perfumed nose, with wild strawberries and redcurrants, and a very subtly integrated amount of new oak (50%). On the gentle palate, the fruits are ripe but very subtle, with light tannins. Despite the wine's soft, fine texture, there is real depth held up by very good acidity. Best drunk 2020 onwards. ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine des Beaumont Morey-St-Denis 2011

Despite having the second least amount of new oak (30%) of any of the wines we tasted, it felt the most noticeable perhaps because the oak had a higher level of toast. The fruits are bigger, denser, riper, and darker than its Chambolle-Musigny equivalent. Likewise on the palate, the tannins are more noticeable, firmer and more gripping. This is a complex, involved, if slightly rustic wine. ✪✪✪✪✪

Joseph Drouhin Clos Sobré Morey-St-Denis Premier Cru 2011

The nose of this wine is immediate and beautiful, with ripe red fruits and blackcurrants, roses and thorns, and oak and vanilla. The Drouhin style is not too much extraction, and despite the ripeness of the fruits this wine is balanced and elegant. Lightly gripping tannins on the palate, with dried fruits - figs and prunes - as well as raspberries and blackcurrants. There's a discreet use of new oak (20%) with smoke and light pepper spices. The acidity, however, is a bit sharp at this stage. ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine Harmand-Geoffrey Vielles Vignes Gevrey-Chambertin 2011

An incredibly intense nose, with oak, smoke, earth, dirt, dried roses, blackberries and brambles, and raspberries - the fruits are hiding behind the oak (40% new). On the palate, the fruits are black and ripe, as are the tannins. A dense, interesting, though slightly heavy wine. ✪✪✪✪

Domaine Taupenot-Merme Bel Air Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru 2011

An odd nose that felt a bit grassy and cereal at first, giving way to baked fruits (plums) and oak. The tannins on the palate are gripping and dominant. A big, full mouthfeel that's hard to assess right now - the wine needs another ten years. ✪✪✪✪✪


conclusions

Reading or hearing about the differences between the three villages is one thing; tasting them another. The wines from Chambolle-Musigny were clearly more aromatic and delicate; those of Gevrey-Chambertin more powerful and forceful; the style of Morey-St-Denis lay in between. For that reason, Morey-St-Denis won the day for me - pleasingly elegant but with depth and structure.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Pinot Noir Around the World

For a grape that's notoriously difficult to grow, Pinot Noir is produced in most major wine-producing countries. Although it's at its best in cool or moderate regions, Pinot Noir can be found in Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and Australia, to name just a few warmer climates. The most famous classical regions for the grape are Burgundy and Champagne, but it's also found in other European cool areas such as Alsace, Germany, and even England. Elsewhere in the world, Oregon and Central Otago are the most strongly associated with Pinot Noir but other areas are producing exceptional Pinot Noir, such as Yarra Yarra and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, and Santa Barbara and Sonoma in California. Styles vary according to climate and winemaker's preferences, making Pinot Noir a harder grape to pin down than its reputation suggests.

I recently attended a tasting of Pinot Noir wines at Back Room Wines, which was followed by a blind tasting with my Diploma Study Group. Here are the areas I tasted wines from.

Burgundy, France


With its moderate climate, Burgundy is the northernmost limit for the production of quality red wine in Europe. (Pinot Noir is also important for the production of Champagne, which is further north but does not make red wine.) Some of the most famous and expensive red wines come from the Côte de Nuits, a series of villages including Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, and Vosne-Romanée. The wines are expensive because making red wine here is seriously difficult, because it's made in small quantities, and because there are people out there willing to spend too much money on wine.

Marsannay

Marsannay is the furthest north village in the Côte de Nuits, producing, uniquely for Burgundy, rosé from Pinot Noir. It also produces light, fruity, and attractive red wines, which can be extremely good value given the village's lack of fame.

Charles Audoin Les Longeroires 2011 ($38)

This wine didn't feel that light - there's a dark undertone to Burgundy's wines which can surprise. The wine had a nice, involved complexity, although it lacked subtlety: smoky raspberries, with black liquorice and a meaty, bacon nose, and a good, round mouthfeel. Substantial but slightly out of balance. ✪✪✪✪

Vosne-Romanée

Home to one of the most exclusive wineries in the world, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and six Grand Cru vineyards, wines from Vosne-Romanée are regarded as some of, if not, the finest Pinot Noir in the world.

Domaine Michel Gros Vosne-Romanée Clos de la Fontaine 1995

This was quite a treat, brought along to our blind tasting by a member of my Diploma Study Group. The garnet colour immediately gave its age away, followed by extremely mature aromas on the nose of game, mushrooms, leather, earth, and dirt, with dried strawberries and cherries. The acidity on the palate was remarkably fresh, with pepper and liquorice spices still tingly, even if the primary red fruit aromas had faded. An outstanding wine come to the end of its life - so a great time to be able to taste it. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy


The northernmost part of Italy is one of its most interesting. North of Lake Garda is Trentino-Alto Adige; the latter is mainly German-speaking, while Trentino is Italian. Many of the best wines come from high-altitude vineyards. Both Alto Adige and Trentino have a high proportion of DOC wines - 70% of Trentino's wines are labelled DOC.

Istituto Agrario di San Michele all'Adige Trentino Pinot Nero 2011 ($33)

This interesting, slightly unpredictable wine comes from an agricultural and vinicultural college. A nice smoky, fruity nose, with raspberries and red cherries. The tannins on the palate are quite firm, with a good, full, spicy mouthfeel. The wine is pleasingly rustic and just about in balance, with the fruits at the beginning and end of the mouthfeel and the acidity and tannins in the middle. ✪✪✪✪

Central Otago, New Zealand


The most southerly vineyards in the world are grown in New Zealand's only continental climate where daily and seasonal temperature variation add to the intensity of the wines. 75% of Central Otago's vines are Pinot Noir, which was only first planted in the 1980s. In such a short period, the area has gained quite a reputation for fruity, lush, deep-flavoured Pinot Noir.

Wild Earth Pinot Noir 2010 ($31)

A fruity, perfumed, upfront nose that's also gamey and meaty, even a bit stinky. On the palate, there is very good acidity, but the tannins dissipate too quickly. ✪✪✪

Casablanca, Chile


Chile's climate is generally warm, but at altitude and under the influence of the Humboldt Current from the Atlantic Ocean there is the potential for white grapes and cooler climate black grapes. Morning fog is a particularly cooling influence in the Casablanca Valley, the only area of Chile where more white grapes are planted than black.

Kingston Estate Alazan Pinot Noir 2011 ($33)

On ungrafted roots and granite hillside slopes, this was an interesting if rather big Pinot. The nose was fruity, meaty, and rather obvious, but the palate was more integrated and subtle, with pleasing acidity and gripping tannins. ✪✪✪

Oregon, USA


The history of winemaking in Oregon is recent. When David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards moved to Oregon in 1965 to pursue his dream of making Burgundy-style wines, he was told by his university professors at UC Davis that it was impossible to grow grapes there. Fifteen years later, it was his 1975 Pinot Noir that brought the world's attention to the state's wines. Now Pinot Noir dominates production to the extent that it accounts for over 60% of plantings, mostly in cool, damp Willamette Valley south of Portland.

J. Christopher Lumière Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir 2012 ($41)

The shallow, rocky, volcanic soils of the Eola-Amity Hills AVA in Willamette Valley result in small berries and concentrated wines. Cooling ocean breezes also prolong the growing season. From one of Oregon's leading producers, this wine has beautiful red fruits on the nose, with a subtle but enticing earthiness and smokiness. On the palate, the tannins are grainy and involved, with subtle spices and some meatiness. ✪✪✪✪✪

Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2012 ($32)

Adelsheim are one of my favourite Oregon producers, but I was a bit disappointed with this wine, finding it too upfront and warm. Ripe strawberries and raspberries dominate, with a creamy, chocolate element, given some depth with pepper and liquorice. Just too fruity, with the oak not sufficiently integrated. ✪✪✪

Santa Barbara, USA


A semi-tropical climate two hours north of Los Angeles may not seem the best place to make Pinot Noir, but that's what Santa Barbara and its surrounding AVAs have been doing since its emergence in the 1980s. The Pacific Ocean has a cooling influence, bringing fog into the hills. Santa Rita Hills is the coolest AVA in California; here, wind can be a problem and the best sites are those that are sheltered.

Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir 2013 ($22)

The entry-level Pinot from Santa Barbara's most famous winery, this is a good-value wine with a nice, if not particularly deep, character. A quite oaky nose at first, with smoke, toast, vanilla, and cloves, is given some grace with cherry blossoms and strawberry and raspberry aromas. Likewise on the palate, with extra flavours of cola, pepper, and liquorice. ✪✪✪✪

Fiddlehead Fiddlestix - 728 Santa Rita Hills 2010 ($38)

A very inviting wine, with ripe, round strawberries. Full-bodied for a Pinot Noir, its ripe red fruit flavours, oak, and tannins are nevertheless well-balanced and integrated. ✪✪✪✪

One thing in common all these Pinots had was price: it's very hard to get a quality Pinot Noir for less than $30. There are other shared characteristics, such as red fruits and a certain meatiness. However, there was a great variety of styles showing one of the reasons why Pinot Noir is so popular with producers - it reflects terroir, expressing the nature of the land, climate, and winemaker. From light and subtle to full and fruity, there are many faces to Pinot Noir.

This is my first blog to feature ratings using my new to ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪ system, explained here.



Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Natural Wine: 2 Winery Visits

My recent reading of Isabelle Legeron's book, Natural Wine, inspired me to visit a couple of the California producers she recommends. The term "natural wine" attracts a lot of controversy, but it is a nebulous one, meaning whatever its supporters or detractors wish. Therefore, I wasn't that surprised that my two visits did not help me form any conclusions on what natural wine is or is supposed to be - instead, it hardened my belief that natural wine is impossible to categorise. However, I was pleasantly surprised at just how good the wines of the two wineries were, especially as they were in areas of California that don't attract attention for quality wine. The other thing the two had in common was the beauty and isolation of their wineries.

a dog and ducks: what every winery needs


La Clarine

Located on the edge of the Eldorado National Forest (nearly a three-hour drive from Napa), the farm at La Clarine has about a hectare of vines planted, with the rest of the grapes bought in from neighbouring vineyards. It's run by Hank Beckmeyer, who worked in the music business with his French wife but got out before the industry could make him "into too big of an asshole." The two of them fell in love with wine on business trips to Provence, making their first wine in a flat in Hamburg. They bought this property in 2001, with the aim not of making wine but cheese. Although there are plenty of goats still grazing on the farm, they abandoned the cheesemaking project after three years because it was too hard and expensive to produce commercially.

Hank is reassuringly unphilosophical about his winemaking. I asked him what inspired him to make wine, and received a one-word answer: "drinking." He admits he learnt winemaking on the go, and his way of making wine was motivated by a desire "to do as little as possible - only what's necessary," as he gradually concluded that most winemakers indulge in too much intervention. For him, the aim seems to be not to make "natural wine," but to find the answer to the question: "how far back can you take" the winemaking process? Is it possible to fulfil the "goal" of doing "absolutely nothing"?

Despite that goal, there is a definite methodology to his practices. The black grapes are crushed by foot and fermented in the "ambient temperatures" outdoors, while the whites are fermented indoors where fermentation can take six months. Sulphur is not used except in bottling, "as you just don't know what will happen" when the bottle reaches the consumer. There's no filtering or fining.

La Clarine make 2,000 cases a year, distributed to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, as well as Chicago and Boston. They have also just started distributing to Australia. Hank's distribution policy is simple and one I would follow: sell the wine where he and his wife want to visit.

the wines

visiting in February, most of the wines I tasted were still in barrel

2014 Jamabalaia White

An anarchic blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Petit Manseng, Arneis, and Fiano, this is a wine that Hank has been playing around with over the years, experimenting with skin contact, different sites, and grape varieties as they become available. This is an appealing, edgy wine with lots of complexity. As good as it was, however, there was clearly a "natural" aspect to it: it was very nutty, with some oxidation, and a slight sherry nose. For me, that just added to the appeal, but for most drinkers that would be an issue. Hank's take was that most drinkers seeking out his wine expect some funkiness on the nose or a haziness in the glass, but anyone coming to the wine knowing nothing about it would likely to be troubled - something he seemed quite relaxed about.

2014 Counoise Rosé

Oak is too much of an intervention between grape and bottle, so almost none of La Clarine's wines are aged in oak, either new or old. However, the one wine that is aged in oak is the style that usually least sees oak: rosé. Both fermented and matured in old oak barrels, this rosé is a surprisingly pale golden colour, with a  yeasty nose, but with a balanced creamy texture: a very interesting wine that I'd like to taste once it was ready to be bottled.

2013 Syrah Sumu Kawr ($28)

The one wine I tasted from bottle, this is a superb raw expression of Syrah - a grape that the rest of California has trouble figuring out. The name of the wine means "place of the summer pines" - there's a pine tree in the middle of the vineyard. There's no new oak: the tannins come from whole cluster fermentation. Wild and bitter, the wine has intense black fruits, black pepper, and liquorice aromas, with a strange but enticing bark and quinine element. The wine is different, intense, but compelling, and one that will age well for many years.

Clos Saron

Nearly another three hours north of La Clarine lies Clos Saron, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The winemaker here is Gideon Beinstock, a French-Israeli who became captivated by wine when living in Paris in the late 1970s. Then an artist, he became friends with Steven Spurrier as well as taking the opportunity to visit some of the best wineries in France.

A softly-spoken, engaging character, Gideon is at pains to express his discomfort with the concept of natural wine, which he describes as controversial and ambiguous. Most interestingly, he criticises natural wine as being "low in terroir" as winemakers are too interested in the winemaking methodology rather than the soils, grapes, and climate that produce the taste of wine. He told me that the way he makes wine has nothing to do with philosophy, but about how the wine tastes. Like Hank at La Clarine, he believes in stripping the winemaking process as far back as possible so that the wine expresses the grapes and soil it came from. He does, however, spray some sulphur on the vines - "about a third of what is normal" - and the wines are aged in old oak barrels.

The plantings at Clos Saron are small, though undergoing expansion. The new, young vines take time to develop as they are ungrafted - therefore not receiving the high vigour of American rootstocks - and the phylloxera-free soil is difficult and infertile. Despite this and the ongoing drought, the young vines are watered just four times a year, while the older Pinot Noir vines from the 1970s haven't been watered in four years. With sheep grazing in the vineyards and ducks, geese, rabbits, and vegetables serving as food, Clos Saron is a largely self-sustaining farm - Gideon may be sceptical of the notion of the natural wine, but it's no surprise that supporters of the movement have tried to herald him as a leading light.

the wines

2014 Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah

young Viognier vines
From eleven-year-old vines planted on a steep, difficult, rocky southern-facing slope exposed to the sun, I feel this is one of those rare wines that will over time compare to the great wines of northern Rhône. Viognier vines have also been planted in the same vineyard, which will begin to be co-fermented with the Syrah. The vineyard is still a work in progress but the wine is one to watch out for: an intense perfume with great, dry, gripping tannins, and a winning combination of power and finesse.

2011 Old Block Pinot Noir ($75)

From ungrafted, phylloxera-free vines is Clos Saron's most intense, expressive, and developed wine. It's a young and intense, earthy wine, with wild strawberries on the nose. It has a beautiful mouthfeel, with elegant dry tannins and complex red berry fruits, flowers, pepper, and spices. A difficult wine that may take some years to express itself fully, but one whose intensity and closed structure mark it out from even many of the other best Californian Pinots.

the thick vines are older, from the 1970s; the thinner ones from the 1990s

As at any winery, tasting the wines from these two producers was a mixed bag (especially as so many of them were still in the barrel developing), but constant throughout was a willingness to experiment and a profound ambition to express the nature of the land. There was also a healthy scepticism towards the idea of natural as well as commercial wine: these were two winemakers doing their own thing rather than following any movement.

I think as the wines age, the differences between them and more standard wines will become less noticeable - instead the character of the wines, rather than the winemaking philosophy, will express itself further. However, the lack of sulphites and general intervention may cause difficulties: Gideon admitted that his wines had not shown well in France and the UK unless they had been given a month to settle. These are sometimes difficult and particular wines but ones that deserve respect - no less than any wine should. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Wine Writers Symposium

Last week I attended the Wine Writers Symposium, an annual event held in the luxurious settings of Meadowood hotel in Napa Valley. Featuring editors and established writers, including Jancis Robinson whom I was very excited to meet, the event aims to help writers improve their work and to open up avenues for publication. There was also plenty of great wine to taste, mostly from Napa. A hard life, I know, but I won't need to taste any Cabernet Sauvignon for a while. 

croquet lawn at Meadowood

The first day offered a series of seminars on how to better our writing, focusing particularly on finding a distinctive voice. The highlight of the day was the session featuring two of Napa's wine families. We saw Molly and daughter Carissa Chappellet interviewed by Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, between them providing a familiar insight into the workings of a winery and the development of Napa's wine culture - Molly Chappellet recalled that when she and her husband moved to the Valley from Los Angeles with five children in tow (and a sixth to come) there wasn't a restaurant in the area. We also saw Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post interview Nils Venge of Saddleback Cellars and his son Kirk of Venge Vineyards. As they spoke, we tasted Saddleback's recently released 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, a sophisticated, oaky wine, alongside another Cabernet from Venge Vineyards, much richer and more powerful if less subtle: very much a case of old and new Napa. 

just the three white wines...
 

From a wine tasting rather than writing perspective, the highlight of the week was a blind tasting of twelve Napa Cabernet Sauvignons with Jancis Robinson. Four wineries had donated three of their wines - one from the mid-1990s, a second from the mid-2000s, and a third from the unreleased 2013 vintage. The wines from the 90s were mostly holding up impressively well and maturing nicely; the 2000s were beginning to showcase their complexity and ageing potential; while the 2013s were just too young and tannic to assess properly. The next day I attended another tasting of nearly a hundred wines from 2003 to 2012. My conclusion is that, for understandable commercial imperatives, Napa Cabernets are released far too young: the 2012s have already been released, but it was only with the 2009s and older that the tannins, oak, and fruit of the wines were beginning to coalesce into a balanced, appealing structure. 

US Poet Laureate (2001-03) Billy Collins addressed the Symposium on the opening day, giving a witty speech about the nature of writing. He also set us a writing challenge - to write an over-the-top review of either a very bad or an exceptionally good wine. My naturally cynical nature found it easier to write the former; it didn't win the challenge but here is my review of Tesco's Valpolicella, which remains the worst wine I have ever tasted:

As the concept of hell becomes unfashionable even in the Catholic Church, it is reassuring to be occasionally reminded by major wine producers that hell does exist, and it's here with us in a wine bottle. Pouring a putrid purple, like the blood of a sorry anaemic, the wine sags sadly in the glass. I nervously sniff: and it smells like the winemaker has attempted to douse the flames of hell with sulphur. A reluctant slurp in the mouth - the tannins are the cold tickle of a dying man. The lethargic imitation of fruit persists, the rasping phlegm of someone condemned never to die. This is not wine, but Satan's bloody piss, available in a major supermarket near you.
The conclusion I drew from the Symposium: writing is hard but it can, and should, be fun.