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Masters of Wine-making

31 May 2014 by Jancis Robinson

This is a longer version of an article also published in the
Financial Times. See also MWs' collected works - the tasting notes.

People often ask me whether I would like to make wine. Being horribly impractical and a hopeless gardener, I have no desire whatsoever to become a vigneronne and have boundless admiration for anyone who manages, despite the increasing vicissitudes of Nature, to coax delicious liquid from the dry old sticks that - in winter at least - constitute a vineyard.

But an increasing proportion of my fellow Masters of Wine are obviously tempted to put into practice all their hard-won theory. The MW course is broad rather than deep. If you knew you specifically wanted to make wine, you would probably do a degree in oenology, the science of winemaking. To become a Master of Wine, as well as grasping the broad principles of, and latest developments in, oenology and viticulture (vine growing), you have to master the art and science of wine tasting (to the tune of three 'papers' in blind tasting), how wine is bought and sold, how it fits into a wide range of cultures, how it is packaged and a host of wine regulations. So it is remarkable that, at the recent eighth Masters of Wine symposium in Florence, a full 20 of them were able to show off wines they had made, the first-ever collected works of MWs, to the 450 delegates there.

None was disappointing, as one would hope, and a few constituted some of the most exciting discoveries I have come across in a long while. Each producer was allowed to show two wines. Some had only one; others sneaked an extra bottle or two on to their table. Perhaps the most thrilling set of wines was one I almost missed because there was such a crowd round Jürgen von der Mark MW initially. It would be easy to dismiss the labels of his Pinot Noirs from Baden in southern Germany as a bit tricksy. Each is called after a song he feels especially appropriate. His Hey Jude 2009, I was told sternly, was the Ella Fitzgerald version, not the Beatles'. Come on, I thought. But I loved the wine. It looked pale and funky, a bit like a Bass Phillip Pinot from the southern fringe of Australia. Then it was fine-boned, liquorice-scented, wonderfully fresh and really serious. It's not cheap at €28.50 from the cellar, but then nor is fine red burgundy. His Here I Go Again 2010 from younger, earlier-ripening vines was a little more evolved and slightly less complex but was also very good.

Pinot Noir is seen by wannabe winemakers as the holy grail and two more of my standout wines were Pinots, both Australian. (Australia fielded by far the biggest geographical group of MW winemakers: eight.) Wine consultant Nick Bulleid MW's Hatherleigh Pinot Noir is made in a region 100 km north of Canberra so high (910 m) and so unexplored that it doesn't have an official name. His funky, grainy, herbal 2009 has to be labelled vaguely as Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. He makes a grand total of 240 cases a year, if the frost doesn't shrivel the crop by three-quarters as it did this year.

Tolpuddle Pinot Noir, which would have been represented by Michael Hill Smith MW, who was unable to get to Florence in the end, is very different from these two. The 2012 is the stunning debut vintage now that Tasmania's famous Tolpuddle vineyard, which for long supplied fruit for the revered Eileen Hardy label, is owned by Shaw + Smith of Adelaide Hills. It plays a particularly straight bat. This is all about purity, delicacy and elegance. Someone managed to resist the temptation to fiddle with beautiful fruit - or a least managed to give the delicious impression that that's what happened. It is available in the UK, Australia and Hong Kong.

Some Australian classics were on show such as Brokenwood Hunter Valley Semillon and Drew Noon MW's hand-crafted combinations of high alcohol and transparency that have something of Clos des Papes about them. But I had never tasted Robin Tedder MW's Glenguin, Aristea 2007 (one of the oldest wines shown) made from 60-year-old unirrigated, ungrafted Hunter Valley Shiraz vines that are direct descendants of the Syrah cuttings imported into Australia by James Busby in the 1830s. With its grainy, almost sandy texture (plus a modest alcohol level of 13.2% and an unusually long four years' bottle age), there was no mistaking which venerable Australian wine region it came from. Unfortunately it seems to be available only in Australia.

Richard_J_KershawAnother discovery was the Syrah of relatively recent MW Richard Kershaw grown in Elgin, one of South Africa's coolest regions. I had already been impressed by Kershaw Chardonnay 2012, available from Naked Wines, which he sent me a few months ago, along with background details so thorough they would surely have made a fine MW dissertation. But his Syrah 2012 ('grown on Koffieklip, gravels and Bokkeveld shales; no crushing, no acid, enzyme, any product added; aged in 48% new oak, 17% second fill, 31% third fill, 4% unwooded for 15 months') tasted wonderfully artisanal, subtle and racy with vibrant cranberry fruit flavours and a real integrity to it somehow. This wine surely deserves a UK importer?

Closer to my home, I had already been thrilled by the quality of the top 2011 from Justin Howard-Sneyd MW's Domaine of the Bee in Roussillon (Justin is pictured top left), the bottling known coyly as Les Genoux (the knees). Based on 70% old Grenache and grown around Maury, it was still looking much finer in Florence (and more expensive) than most 15% table wines produced in this hot corner of France. The very first continental European MW, Olivier Humbrecht MW, showed his reliabilty as a producer of great Alsace whites for the second time in a week (as had been proved at a big Riesling tasting in London).

Villa Maria wines made by Alastair Maling MW are some of New Zealand's best known, so hardly a discovery, but I was particularly impressed by the Keltern Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 Hawke's Bay which seemed to have an impressively long life ahead of it, in a Chablis sort of way.

But the best value perhaps, as so often, came from Spain, in the form of the two wildly superior whites listed below, La Bascula by Ed Adams MW and El Escoscés Volante by Norrel Robertson MW, the Flying Scotsman himself.

SOME FAVOURITES

In approximately declining order of price, as calculated by wine-searcher.com, which can (usually) supply retail stockists.

Tolpuddle Pinot Noir 2012 Tasmania
£54.70 Hedonism Wines, London W1

Domaine of the Bee, Les Genoux 2011 Côtes Catalanes
£45 www.domaineofthebee.com

Jürgen von der Mark, Hey Jude Pinot Noir 2009 Baden
£32.99 The Winery, London W9

Glenguin, Aristea Shiraz 2007 Hunter Valley
From Aus$60

Kershaw Syrah 2012 Elgin
From 275 rand, or six bottles for 1,680 rand from www.richardkershawwines.co.za

Villa Maria, Keltern Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 Hawke's Bay
From NZ$30 and CA$39. It should arrive in the UK next month and sell for around £18

El Escocés Volante, The Cup and Rings Albariño Sobre Lias 2011 Rias Baixas
From €10.60 in Germany, £12.95 Cross Stobs of Glasgow, £13.90 DBM Wines of Bristol

La Bascula, Heights of the Charge Verdejo/Viura 2012 Rueda
£10.29 Noel Young of Trumpington

See full tasting notes on all 35 wines.

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