Go West 2015 – California makes good on all that potential

go west 2015

There was a time not so long ago where selling wine from the USA in the UK was a challenge. The country’s ranking near the top of the off-trade sales charts was flattered by big volume sales of branded white Zinfandels and other non-descript blends which scarcely represented the richness of this great winemaking country. Despite many excellent initiatives by the UK arm of the Wine Institute of California to promote premium wines, progress was slow and only a few famous top-end Golden State wines had regular distribution. You could readily find good Cabernets from the likes of Mondavi or Stags Leap, and premium Zins from Ravenswood or Ridge, but nothing comparable to the offer found domestically.

How times have changed. The Cabernet and Zinfandel offer has expanded and diversified and has been joined by an exciting range of Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, Grenaches and Rieslings. There is even distribution for such wildcards as Albariño, Pinot Blanc, Cinsault and Trousseau. The gaping hole between the sub-£6 bottle and the £50+ bottle has also closed with many good wines now available at all price points.

The stylistic offer has also broadened, with many wines made in the new “cool California” mode making waves in UK wine shops. These wines, which favour varietal tipicity, balance and freshness over extraction, power and heavy oaking, are creating something of a wine revolution Stateside. Happily for consumers who like the full style, you can still find those too, but its great to now use words like “subtlety” and “delicacy” in tasting notes to describe wines from the land of Super Size Me.

This boom in offer no doubt explains the enthusiastic turnout for yesterday’s Go West Tasting held in London. Showcasing a combined offer from California, Oregon and Washington State, the tasting had a buzz and excitement not often seen in UK trade tastings.

There was certainly not time to taste all I wanted. I didn’t visit established top producers such as Qupe, Peter Franus, Duckhorn, Joseph Phelps or Domaine Drouhin, having tasted their wines in the recent past. The selection below favours those that were new to me, plus a couple of old favourites thrown in for good measure.

Given their focus on bringing the “New California” to the UK, I spent a good hour tasting through the interesting range of wines imported by Roberson Wine. The main draw here was a vertical of Corison’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, poured by Cathy Corison herself. These are Cabernets known for their lightness of alcohol and delicacy of oak, though as the 2001 proved, this need not be at the expense of ageing potential. This wine remains remarkably fresh, with sweet ripe blackcurrant still dominating the nose and only a touch of cedar. The palate was medium bodied with smooth texture, fine chalky tannins and good biting acidity. A lovely wine with poise and balance, it still has a long life ahead. The 2005, one of Corison’s favourite vintages, had the same attractive fruit but with a little more grip and depth. A beautiful wine and my pick of the bunch. The 2010 was closed and tight and needs time to broaden out. The 2011, a product of a cold vintage and Cathy’s 25th anniversary wine, showed a few green capsicum notes on the nose but was remarkably fruity on the palate. This was the first time I’ve been able to taste several vintages of Cathy’s wines in one tasting. The quality and consistency of style through all four vintages was clear to see and certainly justifies Corison’s reputation as a leader for elegance in California Cabernet.

Also on the Roberson stand was a great range of wines from Russian River-based Copain Wines. Started in 1999 by Wells Guthrie, his time spent working with Michel Chapoutier in the Rhone clearly put him in good stead to produce some excellent Syrahs. Both the 2009 Halcon Syrah and the 2011 Les Voisins Syrah showed beautiful ripeness of fruit, but with no hint of over-ripeness of over-oaking. The Halcon was a mid-weight beauty with lovely texture and fine, dusty tannins, while the Les Voisins was smokier and slightly sweeter, but still with great balance. Guthrie proved he is not just limited to Syrah, showing one of the best Pinots I tried all day, the 2010 Kiser en Haut Pinot Noir. Both aromatic and delicate, it had lovely balance between ripeness and juicy acidity with good weight and depth. His 2012 Tous Ensemble Chardonnay was also very pleasant.

Another excellent range of Rhone wines was on offer via the Domaine Direct-imported Terre Rouge. Based in Amador County, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, Bill Easton makes a delicious Roussane (the 2009 on show had just the right amount of ripe apricot with no excess fat), the classy Les Côtes de l’Ouest Syrah (firm palate with deep, smoky, ripe black cherries), and some excellent blends (the attractive Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache assemblage of the 2010 Tête-à-Tête). All wines were very well made, with lovely balance and freshness.

Any discussion of Rhone wines in California would not be complete without a mention of Bonny Doon. Randall Grahm, who has been making wine using Rhone varietals since the mid-1980s, was on hand to show his wines in his famously eccentric manner. The 2009 Cigare Volante Rouge (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault in that order) showed he is still the leader of the pack. A wonderfully complex nose of black cherry, smoke, spice and pepper led to a juicy, poised, finely structured palate. Lovely stuff and already very drinkable. Ever the explorer, he was also showing a very creditable Albariño (the 2013 Kristy/Jespersen). Though lacking the freshness that comes from the cooler climate of Spain’s Rias Baixas, this Albariño had a wonderfully floral and citrus nose, backed by a creamy yet lively palate.

On the adjacent table, Alex Krause who also works for Bonny Doon in the US was showing the wines he makes under the Birichino label. Undoubtedly the most diverse range I tasted all day, the highlights included the 2012 Malvasia Bianca (a lovely nose of blossom and green apple with great freshness on the palate) and the 2012 Lilo Vineyard Pinot Noir (deep and inky with black cherries and a touch of stalkiness, its palate was fantastically lively and with fine chalky tannins). Krause also makes one of the finest examples of a single-varietal Cinsault I have ever tasted, the 2013 Bechthold Vineyard. Though you get some enjoyable Cinsaults in Chile and South Africa, they are normally light, simple and fruity, a little like a good Beaujolais. The Bechthold however comes from 120-year-old vines and has all the depth, smokiness and structure of a fine Pinot Noir. It is wonderful that wines from such unique vineyards are now available in the UK market.

Lastly but certainly not least, one can never pass up the chance to taste wines from the great Ridge Vineyards. Ridge, who have been making some of California’s greatest wines for more than half a century, had winemaker Eric Baugher on hand to show the latest vintages. The great Zinfandel-dominant wines of Lytton Springs and Geyserville were at very different stages in their evolution based on this tasting of the 2103 vintages. The Lytton Springs was only bottled last week and not surprisingly was still tight, but with lovely fruit and great depth. The Geyserville, perhaps aided by the 17% of Carignan in the blend, was already delicious, with ripe black cherry and a lively palate. The 2102 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was still very new, but is designed to be enjoyed young and was already showing beautiful texture and vibrancy of fruit. The 2014 vintage of Monte Bello, one of the world’s great Cabernet-led blends, was shown as a barrel sample. 2014 was the earliest harvest in the wine’s 55-year history and has a higher proportion of Merlot (22%). It remains firmly in the black fruit spectrum though, with no signs of over-ripeness despite the drought year. The treat of the day was surely the 2004 Monte Bello. This is heaven in a glass, with an incredibly attractive nose, inviting and intriguing and with great complexity. The palate still has some way to go to reach maturity though, remaining firm and grippy. Outstanding wine from a great producer.

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Stunningly beautiful tribute mix to Yusef Lateef compiled by jazz fountain of knowledge, Gilles Peterson

Quick post to highlight an exceptionally beautiful tribute mix from Gilles Peterson to the great jazz musician Yusef Lateef, who passed away in December 2013.

Gilles Peterson Yusef Lateef mix

Jazz is perhaps too narrow a term to sum up Lateef’s music. Though he was a fantastic player of the tenor sax, he was just as adept on flute, also played the oboe, bassoon and various other instruments and was a fine singer. He embraced Asian and African musical traditions throughout his career, most notably on the fantastic 1961 album Eastern Sounds.

yusef eastern sounds

Peterson’s mix shows that Lateef created moving, deep music for more than forty years. He released his first album as a lead artist in 1957 and was active up until just before his passing. The mix is a great intro to his body of work, as you might expect given Peterson’s depth of knowledge and heavy record collection. Check it!

Peter Jefferies – The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World. Lo-fi lyrical brilliance from Taranaki.

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Working on New Zealand college radio in my late teens, the low-fi brilliance of Flying Nun bands seeped into my consciousness, even if I didn’t appreciate at the time. I’ve since come to love the edgy, lyrical works of Chris Knox and The Tall Dwarfs, the beauty of Martin Phillips and The Chills, The Verlaines, Straightjacket Fits, The Bats, The Clean and the Kilgour brothers, and later on Garageland.

Peter Jefferies never made it onto my radar then and probably would never have were it not for last year’s reissue of his 1990 album “The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World” being voted the second best archive release of 2013 in Wire magazine. The album was originally released via Xpressway, the label run by Bruce Russell of Flying Nun noise merchants The Dead C. Thankfully, it has been plucked from obscurity by Minneapolis’ De Stijl Records.

The record is immediately jarring and lo-fi. Jefferies doesn’t so much sing as speak in a heavy NZ accent. But stick with it, as great beauty lies within. Like the works of Knox and The Tall Dwarfs, many tracks work on the manipulation of tape, ambient noise and minimal instrumentation. But Jefferies extracts great drama from his piano and distorted guitars, most notably on the title track, which starts off mellow and melancholic, building the tension through its three minutes.

But it’s lyrically that Jefferies excels. He is a great wordsmith, stretching sentences to near breaking point. Third track “An Unknown Beach” really does take me back to the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island where Jefferies lives and works:

I’m a pale intruder / On an unknown beach / My back to the water / My feet in the sand
Finding no recognition / As each sign of life / Invades the precision of this / Aging land

One of the album’s high points is “The Fate of the Human Carbine”, covered by Cat Power in 1996. The phrase “Tomorrow be sure to be a smart fellow / Keep the bastards guessing” is just so unmistakably Kiwi – though it was the Australian Democrat Party who once had the aim to “keep the bastards (the major parties) honest”.

If you like your music lo-fi, honest and poetic, then check out this fantastic re-issue. Jefferies now works as a music teacher in his home town of New Plymouth, so he could probably use the loyalties!

Red Claw Pinot Noir 2011 – congrats to M&S

Red Claw Pinot Noir

There was a time a few years back when I would have been as likely to buy wine from Marks and Spencer as I was to become an astronaut. They may have had a few decent wines lurking somewhere, but given they were all packaged in sometimes bland labels created solely for M&S, how do you know them from Adam?

How times have changed. M&S now stock a very interesting range of wines, including a Xinomavro from Greece and a qvevri (amphora) aged wine from Georgia. Not for nothing did they win Best UK Supermarket in the 2013 International Wine Challenge awards.

They also stock the entry level Red Claw range from Tom Carson of Australia’s Yabby Lake. Yabby Lake are based in the Mornington Peninsula region, close to Melbourne, one of the key areas driving Australia’s recent emergence as a producer of fine Pinot Noir. Yabby Lake’s single vineyard Pinot bottlings have been wowing the critics, most notably in October last year when their 2012 Block 1 Pinot Noir scooped the Jimmy Watson Trophy for best Australian red wine at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards – the first time in 52 years that the award did not go to a Shiraz or Cabernet based wine!

Though I have not yet had the pleasure of trying the estate’s top cuvées, the 2011 Red Claw Pinot Noir is a clear indicator of quality. It is made from all Yabby Lake fruit, hand harvested and fermented in open-top fermenters. It spends 9 months in French oak barrels, though this by no means overshadows the fruit.

The wine is medium ruby in colour, and has an elegant and somewhat subdued nose. Nothing shouty or obvious here. Unlike many producers’ second tier Pinots, this is a serious wine, with complexity and no single element dominating the nose. It has lovely aromas of sweet red cherries and spice, and at 3 years of age is developing some lovely meaty touches so typical of good Pinot. These flavours continue through to the palate, which is beautifully balanced, intense but without aggression, and a non-intrusive 13.5% alcohol. The wine has fresh acidity, fine soft tannins and medium length. It just lacks a bit of texture and depth, but is very respectable for a wine of its price point (£18.99).

This is a very well made wine, and suggests Carson’s other more structured wines must be very impressive indeed.

Shane Meadows’ “Made of Stone”


So as I lived in Brazil during the 2012-2013 reformation of the Stone Roses, there was no way I could see them live or see this remarkable documentary from Shane Meadows in the cinema. The idea of a film director getting to make a documentary about the reformation of his all-time favourite band after a near-20 year split could have turned into bloated exercise in fawning adoration. Not with Meadows. Having already demonstrated an acute empathy for the characters and personalities of Northern England, he brought all the energy and wit seen in his 2006 feature “This Is England” to the story of the Roses’ reformation.

Shot in beautiful colour and black and white HD, the film is wonderfully edited, skillfully inter-cutting archive footage of the Roses heyday and break-up with their re-union rehearsals. The heart of the film surrounds the astonishing surprise concert the Roses sprung on their fans on 23rd May 2012 when they played in the 1,100 person capacity Parr Hall in Warrington. Having announced the gig only on the day, the film shows the desperate chase for tickets among people who formed the original Roses fan-base 25 years earlier. One man tells his boss that his father has had a heart attack in order to rush out for a ticket! Others leave their babies with child minders longer than agreed. The Roses’ demand that fans present album covers or merchandise just intensifies the chase, ensuring random passers-by could not gate-crash the party. The concert itself was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime event. You can barely hear the Roses play as the crowd drown out the opening of I Want to be Adored.

Meadows shoots the concerts from every conceivable angle, capturing all members of the band, but spending just as much time focused on the audience. There is an incredible scene in the Heaton Park concert in Manchester where a group of fans seemingly force open one of the boundary gates and run towards the stage as if competing in Supermarket Sweep. Meanwhile, the band plays a fantastically extended version of Fool’s Gold.

As for the music, the band show that they still have the skills to captivate the fans. But something is missing (as is so often the case in these overdue reunions). John Quire looks permanently bored throughout, so I’m not holding my breath for new material (or at least new material worthy of their legacy). But who knows, My Bloody Valentine’s 2013 album MVB was much better than I expected.

Made of Stone is a wonderful tribute to the band, their fans, and the musical culture of Northern England. It is one of THE great music documentaries, and deserves to be seen by fans and neutrals alike.

New blog!! Music and Wine

Why music and wine? Though I’ve been earning a crust working with wine since 2006, music has been with me much, much longer. I have fond memories of religiously watching Ready to Roll, New Zealand’s version of Top of the Pops, when I was a seven year old. For some reason, I have a particularly strong recollection of a day sliding down the slopes of NZ’s Mt Ruapehu (it would be an exaggeration to call it skiing) to return home and see Def Leppard’s Animal video on the telly. Several years and a revolution in music taste later, I went on to host an electronic music show on college radio and DJ semi professionally.

While I was DJing in Auckland’s house and techno scene in the late 90s / early 2000s, the plague of “grown-up, deep house” swept through the city. Led by San Francisco’s Naked Music label, tracks such as Blue Six’s “Music and Wine” (1999) became city-wide anthems. And thanks to this piece of audio wallpaper, whenever I think of music and wine together in the titular sense, its this piece of Smooth FM style papp which springs to mind.

I promise you, this ain’t one of those types of blogs. I’ll write about my experiences tasting wines, highlighting those with personality and a sense of place. I may also write about music from across the spectrum, covering anything from post-punk, to reggae, free-jazz to hip-hop, soul to samba and schaffel. And like many of the best wines, not all the music I focus on will be new. I have no particular interest in following the slavish discovery of the latest thing which makes so much of today’s music disposable.

I welcome your thoughts, compliments and criticisms. Thanks for reading.