amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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A Tour Down Under, Otago

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On to New Zealand with an interesting flight into Queenstown, mountains either side of the plane as we came into land. Any qualms were soon allayed by the region we were in, Otago is simply one of the most beautiful regions I have ever visited. Lakes, mountains, unusual wildlife, small towns, little villages. Undoubtedly tourism keeps the economy buoyant, Queenstown itself is a busy town of 16,000 residents, which population doubles every night with visitors.

Otago is a relatively new vineyard region. There had been tentative plantings from the 19thC but when Northern Ireland born Alan Brady planted a first commercial vineyard in the Gibbston Valley in the early 1980s he was mocked for being a dreamer. Yet Brady had realised that at a latitude of 45˚C South the area was at a similar level to Burgundy at 45˚C North. Success followed as did other growers and Otago is now widely regarded in the wine world as one of the most promising, up and coming wine regions. Pinot Noir dominates (that Burgundy parallel) with 75% of planting, whites make up the rest with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (just 2%), Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer amongst the most common grapes.

                   Fighting two problems: small turbines to combat frost in the air                                      and netting to stop wax eyes from eating and damaging grapes

Within the region there are sub regions which do have different climates and geology. The Gibbston Valley, for example, is relatively cool and on schist whereas other major growing areas such as Bannockburn are warmer, more open and on sandy, silty soils. This has an effect on growing time, ripeness etc. We must also bear in mind that the wines being produced are from relatively young vines, most are around the 20 year old mark and will mature and produce more complex wines with age.

Not knowing the region at all I decided to take one of the wine tours available and travelled with Appellation Wine Tours, which proved to be a wise decision. We were taken to 4 wineries in different areas of the region and tasted over 20 wines, not to be recommended if driving. Our guide Gavin was very well informed, enthusiastic, patient and extremely helpful with a good sense of humour.  He certainly made it a very good day for everybody. Lunch was provided too, a very good platter (vegetarian in my case) with a glass of choice at Wooing Tree winery in Cromwell.

The main domaines we visited were Mt. Rosa, Domain Road and Kinross which is a type of co-operative where 5 different wineries sell their wines.

Mt. Rosa is in Gibbston Valley and we tasted a range of whites and Pinot Noirs. The Sauvignon Blanc was textural and not your typical Kiwi SB, nice. I was unconvinced by the Pinot Gris but liked the Pinot Blanc 2017 with its fruity, melon flavours. Trish MacKenzie kindly poured 3 vintages of the Pinot Noir, it was interesting to see vintage difference from this relatively cool area. The 2016 was juicy and fruity, the 14 starting to show forest floor, earthy flavours. The 15 was much more austere, apparently it snowed at the end of harvest time. The Pinot Noir Reserve 2016 was more intense with oak influence.

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Domain Road is in Bannockburn on a hillside with lovely views. The vines are covered in nets as most are in New Zealand because of the Wax Eye bird which eats grapes but also leaves some leaking juice so that rot can set in. They are a real nuisance. The Estate Pinot Noir 14 was plummy but already showing those earthy notes and the French oak was apparent. Single vineyard Defiance 2016 was more juicy and serious with the oak influence again. 2013 single vineyard Paradise Reserve was darker still. The best of the grapes are taken and given extra barrel ageing. However, the whites were much more to my taste to be honest. The Sauvignon Blanc 15 had typical NZ flavours but was subtle, concentrated and very clean, one of the best examples from NZ that I recall. Defiance Chardonnay 16 was barrel aged and though the wood gave crème brulée aromas the flavours were more subtle, stone fruits and spice. I liked it a lot. On to two Rieslings. Water Race 16 is very dry with only 9gms of residual sugar, not very aromatic but lime and citrus flavours more than compensated. Very refreshing. Duffer’s Creek 15 has 20gms of residual sugar and in an off dry style. Very appley on the nose with lime flavours again and a touch of sweetness. I very much liked this and bought some too!

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Finally, on to Kinross. Coal Pit wines have been running since 2006, we tasted their Sauvignon Blanc 2011. Interesting to taste an older SB and what an aroma, sweetcorn! Classic NZ Sauvignon Blanc flavours. Hawkshead Riesling 2015 was organic and has 11gms of residual sugar. Very kerosene on the nose but clean, citrussy flavours. Domain Thomson’s Surveyor Thomson Pinot Noir 13 is made on biodynamic principles. This 5 year old wine was very mushroomy and savoury. Fascinating to taste Valli Pinot Noir Gibbston Valley 2016 made by Grant Taylor, 4 time winner of Decanter’s Best Pinot Noir in the world award. The fruit was apparent but there were already savoury notes and quite apparent oak. Finally, and appropriately, The Wild Irishman Macushla Pinot Noir 15. This is made by Alan Brady and with minimal intervention, a slight use of SO2 on bottling but otherwise a classic natural wine. Interesting to see that this was the favourite wine of others in the group with its wilder, spicy freshness. The godfather of Central Otago still leading the way!

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I had the opportunity to taste other wines during my time in Queenstown. Carrick winery is organic and its Chardonnay 15 was one of the best examples of that grape that I have tasted in some time, delicious. Of other Pinots, I liked Prophet’s Rock 15 more than Two Paddocks 11. And that highlighted an issue for me. I found many of the Otago Pinots were showing very savoury flavours at a relatively early age. My personal taste is towards the fruitier Pinot and so, the younger bottles appealed more to me. There was also a lot of oak use, not all subtle either. So maybe it’s just me but I wasn’t completely convinced by Otago Pinots, much more so by the white wines. I go against expert opinion in saying this I have to say.

This really is the most stunning wine region and as vines mature and winegrowers learn more and more about their terroir and vines it will certainly produce increasingly good wines. I would be very, very happy to return and find out for myself one day.

 


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A Tour Down Under, Melbourne

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Melbourne from St. Kilda beachfront

From the Adelaide Hills we drove through the Grampian region and along the Great Ocean Road. The wildlife and the scenery were spectacular, from a mob of kangaroos coming into town in Halls Gap to the huge surf on the coast via the geological attractions of The Apostles and others. Little towns such as Anglesea and Lorne were attractive and afforded great food and drink, fresh, locally sourced, often organic and full of flavour. It was a few days of rich reward.

And then on to Melbourne. First experience was hairy returning the hire car with traffic problems, roadworks by the dozen and turning right by heading left I was ready for something to restore my soul. And it duly arrived. We went to The Lincoln pub first night as our friend Howard Stamp is chef there.

Howard is a long time pal of James Madden and came to Jeff’s for a couple of weeks in 2016. He fed us royally and we were delighted to meet up again for lunch with him at the excellent Tipo 00 Italian restaurant a few days later. Go to both if you’re in town. I’d recommend Rice, Paper Scissors if you want to sample Asian food, a fabulous experience.

Melbourne is distinctively mulitcultural and all the better for it. Asian, Aboriginal and European cultures sit side by side and, from this visitor’s viewpoint, they rubbed along very well indeed. There is so much to see and do, from the lovely sands of beach area St. Kilda to the museums, art deco shopping Lanes and cathedral.

I must mention the Melbourne Cricket Ground though, a must see for cricket fans like myself. The sports museum in the MCG was also excellent. We also took a tour to Phillips Island to watch the Little Penguins come to spend the night ashore, a memorable evening. I read whilst I was there that Melbourne has been described as the world’s best city for coffee drinkers and I would endorse that, I enjoyed some excellent cups.

Melbourne has a thriving wine scene too, wine bars abound, often serving food too. There is a real enthusiasm for natural wines and places such as Embla, Sun Moth, The French Saloon and Kirk’s Bar are just some that we experienced and enjoyed. The food looked good in all of these though we ate only in Sun Moth and enjoyed it too. There is a taste for European wines, Coutelou was available in Embla as well as The Lincoln, I saw Fanny Sabre’s Burgundy in Sun Moth and lots of familiar names from Italy, Austria and Spain. However, I was eager to try some Australian wines and especially from the local region. The Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula are close to Melbourne and, in hindsight, we should have spent a night in the Yarra before giving up the car.

Familiar natural producers in the region include Patrick Sullivan but there were many new names. Basket Range Wine is a traditional producer but sons Sholto and Louis Broderick are introducing natural methods to the range including the very good Backstroke, a juicy blend of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. I was lucky enough to meet Sholto in The Lincoln and look forward to following his career. Bobar was the other Yarra natural wine I tasted, again in The Lincoln. Their Gamma Ray was Gamay and Cabernet Franc and truly delicious, light but full flavoured, very easy to drink. I would definitely seek out their wines.

Other natural wines I drank:

  • from Tasmania came a light, fresh blend of 3 Pinots (Noir, Gris and Meunier) made by Brian winemakers, one of whom is a wine writer
  • from Margaret River, Western Australia, Sam Vinciullo‘s Red, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon
  • more examples from Gentle Folk and Jauma in the Adelaide Hills including a lovely Chenin Blanc from the latter.

Less natural to my taste but still enjoyable:

  • from Barossa, Les Fruits Occitan red, made up of Languedoc varieties
  • from the Yarra Valley Luke Lambert‘s beautiful, pure Chardonnay which was a true treat, one of the best examples of Chardonnay I have enjoyed in a long time
  • from the Yarra I also enjoyed Jamsheed‘s well made Wandin Sauvignon Blanc,
  • from Polish Hill in the Clare Valley an interesting, bright blend of Barbera and Nebbiolo from Unico Zelo called Truffle Hound

Melbourne is a thriving city, growing by up to 100,000 people a year apparently. Busy but relaxed, there was a lot more to discover in the suburbs such as north Fitzroy but time to move across the water to New Zealand. However, I will not forget Melbourne and its friendly welcome.

 


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A Tour Down Under, Little Things Mean A Lot

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During our holiday in the Adelaide Hills we stayed with James Madden, Sam Bateman and their beautiful year old daughter Flo together with James’ mother Pat. James and Sam travelled in France a couple of years ago and visited Jeff Coutelou which led to James returning to Puimisson a year later to play a  major role in the vendanges of 2016, which is how I got to know him. He became a valued friend in that time and when I told him that we were heading to Australia he invited us to stay with them.

A lot had happened in that 18 months, the birth of Flo, the loss of his father and the establishment of his own winery, Little Things. With all those emotional pulls it would have been easy for his first vintage to be a learning curve, instead James smashed it. The wines he produced from 2017 are extremely good by any standard, extraordinary for a first year. I would understand if you thought me biased, (I am of course), but honestly these are terrific wines.

James’ background is in catering, working in a number of restaurants in Australia, for example Movida in Melbourne. He became fascinated by wine and started to work harvests in 2011 in the Adelaide Hills often with James Erskine of Jauma wines as well as in the Mornington Peninsula and, as I said, with Jeff in the Langeudoc. That experience has instilled in him a desire to make wine with minimal intervention, he is one of the very few in Australia who resists the safety net of SO2. As we recalled over a glass, Jeff used to tell him to believe in his grapes and let them express themselves. When Sam encouraged James to give it a go on his own he took the plunge and from Little Things big things will surely follow.

James sources grapes from trusted organic growers over quite a large area. Vineyard management is done by the growers though in consultation with James and in 2018 he has taken over the running of a couple of vineyards. Ideally the couple want to buy somewhere with their own vines but in the interim, as is the norm here, James buys in the grapes, harvesting them himself.

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The Shed

When James poured me the wines from 2017 I expected to have to be polite and encouraging. Not that I underestimated him, just that it is hard to get things right first time around. There was no need for politeness. I was struck by the purity of the wines, the fruit is clear, pure and typical of the variety, it is not hard to identify Grenache, Shiraz or Chardonnay. Yet there is complexity, seriousness and everything you would want in your glass. As I said, he smashed it.

The wines are made in a shed he shares with Alex Schulkin (The Other Right). Pressing in small batches, maceration in small plastic containers and then the wine goes into old barrels. I recall that James was a master of cleanliness at Jeff’s and this is apparent in the way he works in his own winery. He has listened to advice, observed the right ways to work and made his own path with his own wines. He is still learning, playing around with fermentation techniques etc, and it will be fascinating to watch his, and the wines’, development. I only hope that we in Europe can get hold of some, importers take note.

The Sauvignon Blanc Pet Nat, Flo’s Fizz and the Chardonnay, Sweet Child Of Mine (there’s a theme here!) sold out quickly and it was not hard to understand why. The PetNat is just fresh fruit fun, goes down way too easily but at under 11% not too much danger. The Chardonnay is from 28 year old vines, whole bunch pressed, tank fermented and then aged in old barrels. It is a delight. There is a creamy note but a clean acidity runs through with lemon and spice notes. Seriously good wine.

Purple Patch Shiraz is dry grown Shiraz from Clarendon in the McLaren Vale, nice and light (just 11% abv) and very drinkable. I remember lots of good wines from this area when I first got into Australian reds and this would be a good example. More Shiraz, this time blended with Grenache (75/25%) in Sum Of Many, the fruity Shiraz being spiced up by the hit of Grenache. That Grenache was to cause a few problems for James as he discovered just before the 2018 harvest that there had been a spray on the vineyard and that it was, consequently, not organic. James decided to be open and honest about this and shared his disappointment with buyers. He decided the 2018 could not be used by him because of it not being organic, however he did find another winemaker who would welcome the grapes. In this way the grower, who had made an honest mistake, did not lose out and James will be able to use the vineyard’s grapes in future. I think that was an honest, commendable decision. The Grenache wine Comes A Time was inadvertently made from the vineyard in 2017, I found it a little more subdued than the others even before I found out about its history.

My favourite red though has to be Joy’s Wild Fruits Field Blend. The vineyard is next to the sea at Fleurieu Peninsula and most of the grapes are technically white, eg Pinot Gris, Savagnin, Chardonnay, but they are picked with the Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet from the same vineyard, pressed together and left on skins for more than a week. This is heady wine; bright, light and mighty good. Fresh and zesty from the whites, fruity and spicy from the reds. I love field blends and this just works.

I am really excited for James and Sam that their venture is taking off. The bottles are selling well. Whilst in Adelaide and Melbourne we were in bars and restaurants with Little Things on the list (alongside Mas Coutelou in some places!). James can hold his head high whilst he mixes with James Erskine, Tom Shobbrook and Gareth Belton, his wines stand comparison and promise great things for the future. Proud of you mate!

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A Tour Down Under, Adelaide wine

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Adelaide Hills vines

We were fortunate to be staying for a few days with James and Sam in the Adelaide Hills for a few days (5* on Trip Advisor definitely) and they ensured that we were able to travel around the wine areas and meet some of the new wave producers who are making this possibly the most interesting wine region in Australia. What follows is necessarily an impressionistic approach but I hope that my enthusiasm for the area will persuade many to try wines from South Australia and especially from the winemakers I mention.

Let me start with the Barossa Valley, the iconic region for Australian wine for those of my generation who were essentially brought up on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from producers such as Wyndhams, Seppelt, Wolf Blass and Penfolds. Some of those are based elsewhere but source grapes from the Barossa. It was interesting, therefore, to drive into the region and see it for myself. What a surprise in many ways. I expected it to be dry but with a large central area of vines as might be seen in the Rhone for example. Not at all. It was dry certainly, indeed arid in parts. The vineyards shone out like oases of greenery set amongst the brown, parched landscape. Irrigation is important, indeed vital, to these producers.

We visited Seppeltsfield, home to Seppelt of course. There was a tremendous cellar door experience with tasting rooms, restaurant and lots of craft shops. Visitors are made to feel very welcome, this is how wine tourism should be. The wines are not necessarily my thing but I have to admire the people who established wineries in such uncompromising conditions and went on to make such a success of it.

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The Seppelt restaurant

I was aware that there are producers such as Tom Shobbrook, based in Seppeltsfield, who farm biodynamically and embrace natural styles. I have met Tom before and was happy to do so again when we came across him at The Summertown Astrologist. This is a restaurant/wine bar run by some local natural producers in the Hills notably Anton von Klopper of Lucy Margaux wines. Tom’s wines are always interesting, often very good. Given the terroir, my admiration is increased enormously.

I knew there were a number of producers making natural style wines in the Adelaide Hills. We met Tim Webber, who makes Manon wines with partner Monique Milton. Over coffee he explained that they farm other crops, vegetables and animals as well as making wine. All on sound organic principles. Favourite wine of Manon that I tasted was the Pinot Noir Love Lies Bleeding 2017. Interesting to hear that as well as the usual Australian grapes there was Garganega and that Tim and Monique are interested in different varieties. He is unusual in having his own vines, many such as James, buy fruit from growers with input about how they want the vines looked after. It can be difficult to source quality grapes, especially organic. James has to travel up to an hour from his winery to get to some vines.

James Erskine with James and checking progress of some Grenache

James Erskine, of Jauma wines, is somewhat of a mentor to James and he was brilliant to visit. He is an enthusiast, embraces life and was keen to share wines from tank and bottle even in the midst of a harvest afternoon. I have been fortunate to taste Jauma wines before and thoroughly enjoyed the chance to taste in situ, they are very good indeed.

Gareth Belton and some of his barrels

Gareth Belton is the producer behind Gentle Folk wines. I was familiar with his wines before but they really stood out here. Again generous with his time mid harvest Gareth let us taste wines from barrel and bottle. There were many excellent wines, Pinot and Chardonnay stood out but I could list a dozen. The fruit stands out, it is clean, expressive and long lasting on the palate but there is good use of barrel, especially on the whites, adding lovely complexity. One wine I really loved was the Scary White. Named after the vineyard Scary Gulley rather than anything scary about the wine itself, it is a field blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and other white grapes. I do love field blend wines, they do offer a sense of place and this was one of my favourite wines of the trip so far. A gently spoken man, Gareth’s passion for his wines is evident and I heartily recommend them.

Alex Schulkin makes wines under the name The Other Right. I liked his Pet Nat rosé and his Chardonnay in particular, a very good Shiraz called Love Potion was also enjoyed. Alex has the shed where James now makes his wine, they help each other out a lot, indeed Alex’s father was picking for James on the day we left. Alex is also a scientist who works in wine research and I enjoyed chatting to him about closures, yeasts and other topics. I love the strap line for The Other Right, ‘Untamed Wines’.

Interestingly the Chardonnay which Alex, Gareth and James all make comes from the same vineyard and is made in pretty much the same method. Tasting the wines from all three did show a great similarity in profile, a true sense of terroir as well as common shared values in winemaking.

There is a real sense of community in the Hills between this group of winemakers, they help each other, advise each other and work for each other. When visiting Gareth’s lovely place in the beautiful hills three other winemakers arrived to chat, share stories and experiences. I found that truly inspirational, I was very much reminded of the groups of natural producers in the Languedoc.

Australian wines fell off my radar many years ago when the big, blockbuster style began to tire me out. French subtlety and elegance became my preference. It seems that many Australians share that view and some are now producing wines of the style which would please any Francophile whilst still retaining distinctive Australian character. This was a memorable time with some excellent wine producers. Adelaide Hills and the Barossa, I salute you.

 


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A Tour Down Under, Adelaide

Time to see the world from a different angle. Two months on a trip to Australia and New Zealand, a lifetime ambition becoming reality. A holiday but also the opportunity to survey the wine scene Down Under. As ever with such visits I am aware that I am scratching the surface, giving an impression rather than a fully informed picture. However, I hope to share my thoughts on what I find, taste and see and that they will offer some insight.

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First stop on the tour was Adelaide, South Australia. A city of 1.2 million people but with a compact centre and excellent free tram and bus service to help get around. Wine is important to the region, the Adelaide Hills and Barossa Valley are close. We were going to stay in the Hills with our friend James who worked harvest with Jeff Coutelou in 2016, his partner Sam and year old daughter Flo. First though was a few days in the city itself.

Things started a little disappointingly with the National Wine Centre. There were some interesting exhibits, one on grape varieties was extensive and another contained a 150 year old Shiraz vine which had been taken up, showing the extent of the root system  and wood above ground. Otherwise though, there was little about the story of Australian wine or examples of the wines. The tasting on offer was via enomatic machines which can work out expensive.

However, better was shortly to come. Having left behind 70cm of snow and freezing conditions in the UK the 35°C of Adelaide meant that a drink was soon needed. By chance, we were close to a bar I had seen on a list of recommended places, La Buvette. Only one table was left so we took our beer to sit down and I surveyed the line of wine bottles arranged on the shelf. What a coincidence to find one of Jeff’s Sauvé De La Citerne!

I went to talk to the barman and owner, Dominique Lentz, who turned out to be from Strasbourg and knows some of my favourite producers such as Patrick Meyer and Julien Albertus. When I asked about local wines he offered by the glass none other than Little Things Shiraz, made by… James! The wine world can be a small one. Good wines, beers and food were available and I would recommend a visit to La Buvette if you are in the city.

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James’ Little Things Syrah 2017

We also visited another wine bar, The Apothecary 1878. More traditional in its choice of wines with celebrated producers from France and Australia there were still one or two natural wines. It was very pleasant and worth a visit too. One final recommendation is Luigi’s Delicatessen where we ate excellent crab pasta and there was plenty of good food to take out or eat in.

I was very taken by the cosmopolitan nature of Adelaide, very much a multicultural city which seemed to be working well. The transport system allowed us to get around easily and see the Oval with its very good statue of Sir Don Bradman, the Cathedral, Botanic Gardens and many other attractions. I was taken by the mix of old and new, especially the intricate ironwork on the older houses. It was a great way to start the tour and I was looking forward to meeting up with James and getting out into the vineyard areas.


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Wine tasting, tell the story

Having written about my concerns with wine tasting notes, medals and competitions it is time to offer my more positive thoughts. Wine tasting is fun, the chance to try wines from known or new producers, to learn more about wine, to find the familiar and the unexpected. Professional tasters are doing things differently I accept but the fun element is sadly missing far too often. Most wine drinkers are not interested in technical details and in-depth descriptions, indeed they deter most people from thinking of wine as anything but elitist, poncey as we might say in Britain.

Jeff Coutelou always tells me that wine is for sharing (see above) and he is right as usual. Wine tasting is by nature a solitary exercise in that wine tastes differently to different people because of physiology, mood and preference. However, my favourite tastings have been where I can then share my thoughts with others to garner those different views. That fun element again, and I make no apology for referring to the f word again. If those of us fascinated by the subject really want to educate others to appreciate wine then my first lesson would be, let them speak. Encourage people to say what they think about the wine, not just in terms of fruit and flower comparisons but just whatever comes to mind. If they like it because it tastes good then that is an effective wine note to my mind. If they can explain further then all the better but let’s not get hung up on it all. I was interested in the comment on the previous post from my friend Graham Tigg that he runs a tasting class for elderly people and sees it as a social gathering rather than a teaching process. Is there a better reason to hold a wine tasting?

One of my favourite tastings, La Remise gives the chance to talk with producers

My favourite wines have often emerged from tastings. Almost every time they have been tastings with the producers themselves. Why? The story. What marks a wine as special to me is that I know something about it, its origin and the people behind it who have worked so hard to bring me that wine. Yes I can taste wines and appreciate them without knowing the story but the special ones are the wines which have an attachment. Years of travelling in France meant that when I went to Alsace I would visit Martin Schaetzel in Ammerschwihr because of a first visit there where he patiently shared the story of his wines. In Beaujolais we came to get to know and love Louis Champagnon, who was always so kind and generous with his time.

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With the wonderful Louis Champagnon

In the Languedoc I have been lucky to get to know so many wonderful people and therefore, their wines mean more to me. Most importantly, of course, was getting to know and become firm friends with Jeff whose wines would always be first choice for me.

Not every wine drinker wants to travel in France or other wine countries, many would be deterred from visiting producers because of language barriers. The task is to share the story, make the wine personal to the consumer. It will mean more. Achieving that is no easy matter, back labels are often a missed opportunity for example. Blogs, media columns, youtube videos all demand more interest, piquing that interest is the challenge. I am convinced that is the crucial point. Stories sell wine.