Where’s the wine and sympathy?

As I sit here re-hydrating with a kale smoothie (to compensate for last night’s over-indulgence) I am reminded of the effect of what I choose to put into my body.

The closer we get to the holiday season, the more the temptation to abandon one’s usual limits on consumption seems to grow.

So how do we approach this naturally indulgent time of year without becoming either overly neurotic or completely out of control?

When it comes to wine, my answer is always quality not quantity.

I’ll cover quality in a more technical article early next year, but in the meantime, here are a few things to consider when reaching for that next glass.

Average quality, over-cropped fruit can never, ever be ‘made’ into great wine. Period. What can be done to make it into reasonable wine often involves a good deal of intervention from the winemaker, including additives to enhance or discourage certain characteristics.

While we can’t say definitively that certain additives give headaches or create dehydration (though we know alcohol does this for sure), both science and common sense suggest that the more processed and additive-laden the food and drink we put into our bodies is, the higher the chances of a negative effect.

Sulphur, for example, is a recognised allergen, which is why it is declared on wine bottles. But what don’t we know about the compounds that leech from new oak barrels? What about the copper that is used (albeit in small quantities) to ‘clean up’ wine and make it fruitier?

Does that mean opting for natural wine only? No, not necessarily. Natural wine can also be made from poor quality grapes. Moreover, too little intervention can also lead to problems of quality, such as too many sulphites created from spontaneous ferments.

For me, quality requires two ingredients: high quality grapes and sympathetic winemaking.  Where you have great raw product – fruit that is from lower yielding vines, left to ripen to optimum concentration and handpicked – there is less need to intervene, to put it through processes or add to it.  This doesn’t mean just leaving the grapes to it, rather it is about managed intervention to produce wines that are free from faults and respect site.  I call this sympathetic winemaking, as the overall philosophy is sympathetic to the site, the wine and – in turn – to the end consumer.  The result: wines with an abundance of character and site expression which are less likely to produce negative side effects for the drinker*.

So how does one go about locating these kinds of wines? It’s a bit of trial and error, but don’t be afraid to ask around, to be curious, to find out what your favourite winemaker drinks and why. Seek out small volume producers and limited runs. While price is a pretty blunt selection tool, generally if a wine is $40 NZD or above for a bottle, you should expect a good base level of quality as well as something pretty interesting.

If a wine isn’t known to me, I tend to err on the side of cautious consumption – in my world, a sympathetically made cup of tea is preferable to a stonking head ache.

Does rosé deserve a seat at the fine wine table?

In all but a handful of regions, rosé has traditionally been a winemaker’s afterthought. Red blended with surplus white, add plenty of sugar and there you have it. Sweet and pink. Served chilled on a hot day. Can’t go wrong.

In fact, Mateus – the Portuguese rosé brand that was huge in the 1960s and 70s – sold more than three million cases a year by appealing to the sweet tooth in all of us. Produced more like an RTD with a touch of effervescence, the residual sugar levels Rosé Glasseswere so high they would have The Diabetes Foundation hyperventilating today. Despite this almost cult-like success in the 70s, rosé as a category didn’t really kick off on the global market until the late 1990s when it enjoyed somewhat of a revival, led chiefly by the availability of sweet, lower quality rosés – in particular over-cropped white zinfandel from warm regions of California.

There was, however, one anomaly – the beacon of hope throughout the ages – Provence, France.   This region has a long tradition of rosé-making that is now inspiring the rest of the world to catch up. Altogether, Provence accounts for six percent of the planet’s total rosé wine production. And – thank the Lord – it is serious rosé. Continue reading…

The Diacetyl Debate

When I was a kid there was no such thing as the healthy heart tick – we grew up on dairy products. With potentially average ingredients or limited cooking expertise, a glug of cream or a chunk of butter was the saviour of a meal. But back then, even people with access to great produce and Cordon Bleu expertise bought into the dairy delirium.

Nowadays, while I still enjoy the odd artery-hardening mushroom sauce on my steak – more out of nostalgia than anything, I have far more appreciation of the full spectrum of fresh, natural ingredients. I consciously choose seasonal produce where possible and cook to elevate natural flavours and textures rather than mask them, now you can choose the finest ingredients for your food or go online to find the top 5 knives for you at all-knives.org, so you also have the best utensils to cook.

The same can be said for my taste in wine – chardonnay in particular. Back when I first started making wine, if a chardonnay didn’t ooze butterscotch, or wasn’t oaked to within an inch of its life it was considered a dud. Subtle, it was not.

While there is still very much a market for this style of chardonnay – indeed, what the consumer wants, the consumer gets – I think it’s interesting to understand what you are drinking and what its limits are.

Continue reading…

In pursuit of Winefulness

Picture the scene: On your way to a dinner party you stop to buy a bottle of wine. For some reason your usual confidence in a well-priced but relatively unknown wine is replaced by a gnawing feeling of doubt. Or maybe you’re on the clock with the babysitter and don’t have time to linger. Perhaps you just want to impress the hosts. Whatever the reason, you decide to splash out.

You arrive at the party and your special wine gets absorbed into the vortex of other bottles in a phenomenon not unlike the Bermuda Triangle – trying to retrieve it would not only be absurd, but also potentially dangerous. When, or perhaps if, your wine emerges it will be quaffed without any obvious reflection or consideration. Surely a wasted opportunity.

Continue reading…

The Placebo Effect

Not that long ago, a study by Stanford neuro-economist Baba Shiv proved that when people are told a product is expensive, they extract more pleasure from it.

This is not a hugely surprising revelation, particularly in relation to something as subjective as wine appreciation, but more interesting is the concept at work in his experiment – something called ‘The Placebo Effect.’

According to US marketing guru Seth Godin: “A placebo is a story we tell ourselves that changes the way our brain and body work. Any time a story or ritual changes the way we encounter something, we’ve experienced the placebo effect.”

My question: Is this a bad thing? If the label, the winemaking story or the sommelier’s spiel increases our appreciation of what’s in the bottle, surely this is to be applauded?

Continue reading…

Minerality – The Great Debate

“Wet stone. Matchstick. Vibrancy. Slate. Exclusively textural. Alcohol sensitive. Schist. Possibly the only true measure of greatness in wine.”

The popular definitions for the term ‘minerality’ are many and varied. It is a term that means different things to different people – winemakers and critics included. Inherently personal, inherently nebulous.

But where does the term ‘minerality’ come from?Wet stones

Most wine professionals old enough to remember and/or care, agree that the term ‘minerality’ didn’t exist as part of the wine tasting lexicon until the 1980s.

I believe it’s no coincidence that the birth of the term coincided with the rise of New World wine imports into the UK market. The highly aromatic, fruit-forward wines made by ‘technical’ New World producers were so different from the subdued, earthy Old World wine styles. The trade needed a catchall aromatic descriptor to differentiate between the two, and minerality stepped up to bat for the Old World. Continue reading…

Selling out… in a good way

It feels surreal to be writing this before I’ve even opened the doors of the tasting room: I have almost sold out of my first vintage – Cedalion 2013 Single Vineyard Chardonnay from Waiheke Island.

When I was in London in April, I was very fortunate to get an appointment to show the wine to Berry Brothers and Rudd… and they have chosen to list it.

BBR is the oldest wine merchant in England, established in the 17th century, and certainly the most respected – they have been supplying the Royal Family since the reign of King George III. Not a bad bunch to be involved with! Continue reading…

No to the status quo

After 20 years in the wine trade learning from the many eminent and distinguished experts who dominate the industry, I am about to release the first wine that I dare put my name on.

It comes from a tiny piece of dirt on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Like the island itself, it is salty, harmonious, complex and refreshing.

Before moving to London in 1997, I studied and worked in the New Zealand wine industry for three years. I love New Zealand wines. I love their intensity, their ripeness, their richness. These more-ish, pungent, primary qualities of many of New Zealand’s wines have been responsible for much of their success in the international market.

Preparing to launch the inaugural Sam Harrop wine.Most sensible people would assume that with this clear formula for success I would follow suit. But the memories of the myriad of European wines I had tasted and had a hand in making over the years, still lingered. I wanted to challenge expectations and see if I could take New Zealand-grown fruit somewhere it hadn’t been before.

Continue reading…