Top Five from my Cellar: Stuart Skea

Welcome to the second in our new series of articles where we invite our members to pick five of their favourite wines from their cellar and tell us why they love ’em – for whatever reason.

This week, Stuart Skea trawls through his bottles at Fhior in Edinburgh.

Le Soula Rouge 2008, Cotes Catalanes, Roussillon

£25.95 ex VAT Raeburn Fine Wines, Berry Bros & Rudd  (current vintage 2009)

1An ever present on the Fhior list since opening – both BTG and Bottle, this is a great seller that delivers serious complexity and maturity at an accessible price. Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Fenouillèdes, on decomposed schists and granite between 440-600m above sea level this is wonderfully earthy and savoury with dense black fruit but a remarkable freshness and minerality.

Mountain wine. Proper wine…

Rafael Palacios, Louro do Bolo, Valdeorras 2017

£13.88 ex VAT, WoodWinters

2A wine that really overdelivers, with weight, texture, richness and complexity yet with an unmistakeable Galician signature. Rafael Palacios farms a variety of small plots -“sortes” in the Bibei valley in Valdeorras, Galicia. Working with native grapes, chiefly Godello, these are high altitude, terraced vineyards on decomposed granite.

This is a wine that is remarkably versatile and food friendly and satisfies those looking for a glass of white Burgundy or something a little different equally well.

JP Brun Domaine des Terres Dorées Le Ronsay, Beaujolais, France 2018

£6.79 ex VAT, Justerini & Brooks

3Vinified like Pinot Noir rather than using the sadly ubiquitous carbonic maceration, this is outrageous value, delivering a lot of wine for the money. It is all you want from Beaujolais, and more – juicy and quaffable with lovely raspberry fruit.

It’s a perfect lunchtime quaffer but also seriously complex and elegant. It’s properly farmed and made.

The Eyrie Vineyards, Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, Oregon, USA 2015

£18 ex VAT, Justerini & Brooks

4Softly-spoken and gentle, this graceful, ethereal Pinot harkens back to a lost world of Burgundy rather than brash new world fruit. David Lett pioneered vineyard plantings in the Willamette valley in the 1960’s with marijuana barons as his neighbours for many years before today’s explosion of vineyards. Son Jason continues the exemplary,  sensitive approach in the winery and vineyards.

I have to admit that we don’t sell a huge amount of this haunting wine, but goddamn it, I love it – and those guests that try it enjoy a transcendental, spiritual experience. Sublime…

Bodegas Fulcro, Finca a Pedreira, Rias Baixas, Spain 2019 

£15.75 ex VAT, Element Wines

5A hot seller for us BTG and bottle this is an exemplary Albarino. From a 1ha plot of old vines in the Salnes valley on poor granite soils this is direct and pithy with a lovely saline character and beautiful texture on the palate from just a touch of barrel-fermented fruit and extended lees ageing.

I will retire before I sell Kiwi SB and this is a more than satisfying alternative. Tension, tension, tension…

Discovery Tasting: Bouchard

29 March, 2021 @ 4:00 pm 5:00 pm BST

Founded in 1731 in Beaune by Michel Bouchard, Bouchard Père & Fils is one of the oldest wine estates in Burgundy, perpetuating tradition for nearly three centuries and nine generations.

Bouchard Père et Fils is one of Burgundy’s best known producers and major landowners on the Côte d’Or. Join winemaker Fédéric Weber and export director Europe Cyrille Harmel on a journey through the historic vineyards of one of the world’s most prestigious winegrowing regions.

From Beaune to Volnay, Le Corton to Chavalier Montrachet you will have the chance to taste wines dating back to 2014 from the best crus and monopoles from these famous slopes

This tasting will offer members an insight into Bouchard’s unique Burgundy heritage, tasting some of the domain’s most emblematic wines, including the famous Beaune Grèves Vignes de l’Enfant Jésus, Volnay “Les Caillerets” and Corton-Charlemagne; names which resonate with history. The tasting will also allow an opportunity to taste the Meursault Genevrières, offering a glimpse into Bouchard’s vineyard holdings where they are the largest owners of vineyards in Meursault and will culminate with the exceptional Chevalier-Montrachet 2015, of which Bouchard owns 31% of the appellation.

Discovery Tasting: A Journey Through Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils

Wines to be tasted:

  1. Beaune Clos de la Mousse Premier Cru Monopole 2015
  2. Beaune-Grèves Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus Premier Cru Domaine 2014
  3. Volnay Les Caillerets “Ancienne Cuvée Carnot” Premier Cru Domaine 2015
  4. Le Corton Grand Cru Domaine 2016
  5. Beaune du Château Blanc Premier Cru Domaine 2017
  6. Meursault Genevrières Premier Cru Domaine 2016
  7. Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru Domaine 2016
  8. Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru Domaine 2015

Hosted by

  • Frédéric Weber – Winemaker at Bouchard Père & Fils
  • Cyrille Harmel – Export Director Europe at Maisons & Domaines Henriot
  • Chris Losh – Co-founder of The Sommelier Collective

RSVP Discovery Tasting: Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils

Delivery details for tasting samples

SORRY, ALL TASTING KITS HAVE NOW SOLD OUT

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How I made wine in the driest place on earth

The size of Chile often takes visitors by surprise. True, east/west it’s tiny (no wider than Wales). But north to south it is enormous. If it were in the northern hemisphere it would stretch more or less from Sweden to the Sudan.

And as winemakers start to push into cooler, remoter areas sometimes, it seems, even they sometimes get caught out by its sheer scale.

The first time Alejandro Galaz, winemaker at Vina Ventisquero, went to visit the site of their new northerly vineyard, it was much, much further than he or anyone in his team had anticipated.

Alejandro Galaz takes a look at the unique soils of Longomilla – which he now knows is a long drive from Santiago

‘We didn’t know that there were flights we could take, so we went by truck,’ he says sheepishly. ‘It took ten hours, and we had to stop after seven hours to have a sleep.’

Instead of arriving in time for an evening meal and a good night’s sleep, the team just about made it for a mid-morning coffee the following day.

Meet the Camanchaca

The vineyard in question – Longomilla – is on the edges of the Atacama Desert, which trivia fans might know is the driest place in the world. This isn’t a problem for the vines, since they can be irrigated by meltwater from the Andes, running down the Huasco river.

Given the desert location, Galaz and his team were expecting to plant it with varieties that work in a warm area. Cabernet, Carmenere, Petit Verdot, and Mediterranean grapes like Carignan and Grenache were the top of their list.

But although Longomilla is 20km from the Pacific there is (unlike most of Chile’s vineyards) no range of mountains between the land and the sea. While there is a lot of sun, it’s cool and breezy.

And then there’s the Camanchacaca – the thick fog that comes in twice a day, from 10-11am and 5-6pm, heading inland, where it evaporates.

Camanchaca fog, rolling in from the Pacific to the Andes. Photo by Dick Culbert, Wikimedia Commons

This might be useful for vineyards, since it provides a bit of humidity for the vines, but it’s not so good for winemakers who have packed for desert conditions.

‘We were in the middle of the Camanchaca and it was freezing!’ says Galaz. ‘We thought ‘what is this? We’re in the driest place on earth – a place where Nasa put the Pathfinder robot to do the trials for Mars. Why are we so cold?’’

Just like Burgundy… ish

With the fog and the wine, daytime temperatures never top 25 degrees Celsius and can drop to 5 degrees Celsius at night. Galaz and his team realised quickly that their initial ideas for ‘warm climate’ planting were wrong, and instead put in Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot and some Syrah.

Pits were dug – revealing lots of (alluvial) round stones covered in white powder.

‘We understood that we were in the presence of limestone soil. And you know that all places that have that give pretty good quality wines.’

Alejandro Galaz, Vina Ventisquero

Unfortunately, things turned out to be a little more complicated. Because some of that whiteness in the soil was not limestone powder, but salt. And salt, as we all know, is really not good for grape vines.

Yep. That white stuff is actual salt. And no, nobody knows how the vines can survive here

Ventisquero had two vineyards in the area. The one closest to the sea (16km) had literally never been planted to anything before. It’s salinity levels were extraordinary – eight, even ten times what science said a vine should be able to tolerate.

‘Why the vines are living still, we don’t know,’ says Galaz. ‘Maybe they want to be there! Nature always finds a way.’

Ultimate terroir

Apart from growing very slowly and giving very low yields, this exceptionally tough terrain has a very definite impact on the wines.

‘When you taste the wines, I tell you, they are salty. And when you taste the berries, particularly in the white wines, you also find a little bit of that saltiness in the skins,’ says Galaz, who has been careful not to mask any of this character with heavy-handed winemaking. 

While a Casablanca Chardonnay might see 12 months of French oak, the Tara wines got only very old barrels – and eventually the team switched to ageing in stainless steel ‘barrels’ and small foudres (1500-2000 litres).

While a fan of the Pinot Noir, for Galaz, the Chardonnay is ‘the queen’…

‘The character of this place was so strong, to have another layer of complexity coming from the oak didn’t make any sense,’ says Galaz. ‘We need purity in terms of the terroir expression, because it’s already complex. We don’t need to increase it with another layer.’

Living la viña loca

At just ten hectares of vineyard and suicidally low yields (4hl/ha) this is very much a labour of love for Ventisquero. Alejandro happily admits that most other winemakers ‘think we are crazy’ and the accountants probably hate it too.

Yet this is an extraordinary project, and proof that Chile can create unique terroir wines.

‘(Chilean Sommelier) Hector Riquelme told us, “I can find minerality in a wine and some wines with a lot of salt. But to have both in the same wine is very unique,’’ says Galaz.

‘In a blind tasting, on the nose I don’t know if I’d even recognise it as a Chardonnay, and it’s 100% French clone!’

Alejandro Galaz, Vina Ventisquero

The winemaker has a feeling that Grenache and Cabernet Franc could be really exciting in this spot. But while he’s a fan of the Pinot, his star wine (and this journalist’s too) was the Chardonnay.

‘The Chardonnay is the queen,’ he says.

What’s in the glass, he says, is entirely the character of the place.

Interestingly, we discuss the wine for five minutes, and flavour never comes up. We are talking much more about texture.

Tara red #1 – the Pinot

For Galaz, the limestone ‘gives a kind of narrow feeling in the palate, but then the texture comes in.’

To me, it felt like an ibex climbing up a rock face: clattering chalk, glinting, sure-footed and muscular yet gentle.

It’s an extraordinary wine – a fascinating example of what happens when Chile’s wineries push the boundaries. And it’s not over yet.

‘There are a couple of really good high-quality Cabernets at 500-700m in the mountains, but other than that, there’s no expression of volcanic soils in the Andes,’ muses Galaz. ‘That’s a place that we have to discover in the future.’

Tara Chardonnay – ‘the queen’

Frankly, if they can make great wine in a salty wind-blown desert they can make it anywhere. And Alejandro Galaz, I’m sure, will be at the forefront of it.

The Tara wines are imported by Wine Treasury. Ventisquero’s Kalfu wine is imported by Seckford Wine Agencies. The rest of the Ventisquero range is brought in by North South Wines.

Understanding clones part I: Burgundy versus Germany

This is the first of a series of articles in which I will be looking into the advantages of using different clones of one grape variety to produce complex and diverse wines. I’m going to start with Pinot Noir, which I’m sure you know has a reputation for being one of the hardest to grow.

When I started visiting German vineyards and tasting Spätburgunder (as Pinot is called in Germany) from different regions 15 years ago, I detected noticeable differences in style and taste.

The wines were delicious, but I found myself wondering whether the wines were all from the same grape. Of course, they had to be because the label said so. But why were they all so different?

The answer started to become clear to me years later when I visited Champagne with a group of sommeliers. There we were confronted with numbers like 777, 113 & 115: different clones of Pinot Noir.

So what lies behind those numbers?  How do you decide what to plant? What are the benefits? And what are the differences?

A Wild Selection

A key term you will come across when visiting areas famous for Pinot Noir is Massal Selection. This is the process where growers use different cuttings from several vines in an existing vineyard and plant them into a new vineyard.

The new vineyard will now contain different clones, with different specifications and different needs. For a grower, this is a way of guaranteeing complexity and diversity.

But Massal selection doesn’t just give you a diverse blend flavour-wise, with more than just one characteristic, the clonal mix gives vineyards added flexibility to react to environmental challenges.

Burgundy versus Germany

This form of vineyard management has been performed in Burgundy for many decades, but in Germany this has only been the case over the last 20 years.

With climate change bringing warmer and shorter vintages, and less rain and humidity, German winemakers saw the opportunity to use French clones alongside their more resistant, higher yielding and more vigorous clones of Spätburgunder: Freiburg, Mariafeld and Geisenheim.

Joachim Heger, of Weingut Dr. Heger, a pioneer in the Kaiserstuhl Region in Baden, was fortunate to inherit a vineyard planted by his father with cuttings from the Clos Vougeot vineyard. This particular parcel was planted in 1956, as part of the larger Winklerberg vineyard, as a Massal Selection and is called “Häusleboden”  

This vineyard is in a warmer site in the Kaiserstuhl and produces intense, perfumed wines with hints of earth and spice. Yet even in his cooler sites – more north or north-west facing – Heger still prefers French clones to maintain freshness and protect the thin skins from bursting.

French Clones

French clones are thin skinned, have small berries and low yield but are high in concentration. They bunches are tight and do not allow an efficient air circulation and. As a result the bunches are every prone for fungal diseases.

Clones such as 667, 777, 113, 115, 823 and 864 are the most commonly used.

While 113 and 115 clones are very perfumed and light in colour, 667 and 777 are more intense with a darker berry aroma and darker colour. When blended they do enhance each other and make beautiful wines. The Pommard, (also known as Clone 5) is a clone designed to produce a wine on its own due to its natural concentration and texture and meaty and gamey character.

The German Option

Because Germany has a history of cooperatives there has been an emphasis on making grape growing profitable. Since high yields and large grapes were necessary German clones tend to be thick skinned with large berries.

In the past harvest would be done way into October with higher humidity. The very loose clusters allow a good air circulation during the later months of the year in order to prevent grey rot.

Resistant grapes with high sugars and lots of liquid are indeed profitable. Clones like Freiburg 52-86, Freiburg 52-84, Geisenheim and Mariafeld are very common and widely used for this purpose.

Today, those who have chosen to work with German clones to produce quality wines are in the fortunate position of having older vines that are smaller in size and naturally have more concentration and flavour. The clones are still resistant to damp and rot, and the vigour is reduced to control the sugar production and to keep the acidity.

To round up…

Cllimate change has meant that it is vital for growers to be flexible and to be able to react to different challenges throughout the year. So there is a definite advantage in being able to make use of different clones. While some Winemakers in Germany prefer to work with German clones, we do see a change in the vineyards towards the French clones.

It will, of course, be very difficult to convince the French to use German clones – or, indeed, any other clones which are not French.  But other areas around the world are experimenting with a selection to establish a pool of clones to determine those which work best for their environment.

Thanks to climate change, German winemakers are increasingly experimenting with whole bunch or whole cluster fermentation on both groups of clones; a technique which they see as vital to maintain freshness when there are higher ripeness levels.

When visiting winemakers and when trying to understand the wines, you will need to understand the grape material the winemaker uses for their wines. In my experience, asking them about which clones they are using and why is one of the most fascinating conversations you can with a viticulturist or winemaker.

Clones are a fascinating area, and there are two more grape varieties which are particularly worth writing about: Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. I will cover them again in follow-up pieces for the Sommelier Collective. So stay tuned!

Santa Rita, Sideways and Sea Breezes

The Santa Rita Hills is one of the best cool-climate areas in the world. Located in the southern part of California, 148 miles north of Los Angeles it stretches for about 10 miles inland between the towns of Lompoc to the west and Buellton to the east.

What make this region so unique for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially are the transverse hills. Most of the hills in California run north/south parallel to the Pacific. But here they run east to west. So instead of acting as a barrier to the cool sea air, they channel it inland. As a result the vineyards have a great oceanic influence.

There are two east-west valleys between Lompoc and Buellton. The most northerly one runs along Highway 246 between Purisima Hills to the North and the Sta. Rita Hills. It has a loamy, shale-rich soil (part of the Monterey Formation) and generally makes more generous wines.

The other valley runs along Santa Rosa Road, between the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south. Its terroir is mainly made of clay, shale, alluvial soil (by the riverbed) and diatomaceous earth. The latter is an agglomeration of fossilised algae that resembles limestone and is where the Sandford & Benedict vineyard was first planted. (You’ve all seen Sideways, right?)

Map courtesy of Santa Rita Hills AVA/Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance

Diatomaceous earth is composed of diatomite – sedimentary formation of fossilised diatoms (algae) – silica and clay and can be compared to limestone as it forms soft white rocks.

Limestone soils are famous worldwide for producing great wines for a number of reasons. Diatomaceous earth (such as limestone) has an alkaline pH due to their high calcium content; this helps the vines to absorb nutrients as well as promoting water retention.

It is particularly important in clay soils as it offers better soil structure and, in periods of dry weather, makes it easier for the roots to go deeper in search of the water and nutrients needed. Soils rich in calcium also lead to higher grape acidity late in the growing season (which is particularly crucial in the Santa Rita Hills as the latter is very long in the region) and lower wine pH.

Modern history

The region’s modern history started in 1970 when Richard Sandford searched the region to find somewhere to farm. He analysed weather records from the area and found that the further inland you go, the hotter it gets, with one mile roughly equal to one degree more of temperature.

With this information, he located a two to four miles wide micro-climate on which to establish his vineyard and in 1971 he planted the Sandford & Benedict vineyard, eight miles east of Lompoc, with his business partner Michael Benedict. It was a watershed moment for the history of winemaking in the Santa Rita Hills.

The 1980’s saw a growing interest in this vineyard with vintners such as Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) buying grapes from there as well as the Santa Maria Valley.

However, the rise of the region took time and, by the 1990’s, the northern part of Santa Barbara County had become Chardonnay territory. The warmer Santa Ynez Valley had also become known for growing Rhône varietals.

It was only in 2001 that the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley became the Santa Rita Hills AVA.

The climate in the Santa Rita Hills is relatively warm and consistent all year long but rarely exceeds 27 degrees Celsius as it is cooled down during the growing season by the strong oceanic wind and fog from off the Pacific. The wind blows during the early afternoon sending the vine into a sort of “ripening dormancy” and allowing them to slowly mature and achieve the best phenolic ripeness without sugar spiking. Alcohol levels are, therefore, lower.

It never gets very cold. Even in January the average temperature in Lompoc is 19 degrees Celsius.

The climatic conditions (warm, not hot, cooling breezes and fogs) and soils make the region particularly suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But though they do, indeed, thrive here other varietals are also grown, such as Syrah and Grenache.  

Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non planted his Eleven Confessions Vineyard just a few miles east of the Pinot Noir holy grail of the Sandford & Benedict Vineyard, for instance. The vineyard is planted to Syrah and Grenache primarily with the addition of Roussanne, Viognier and Petite Syrah as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Muscat. The cool climate allows for harvest around the end of October and sometimes even in November. It is densely planted and produces on average less than 600 grams of fruit per vine.

During the early 2000’s, the trend was towards bigger and plusher expressions of Pinot Noir. This was partly due to the long growing season that the region enjoys allowing a longer hang time on the vines and pushing the maturity of the grapes.

But since the mid-2000s, the region has seen a resurgence in term of style that seem to go back to its 1970’s roots as regards ripeness levels. Lots of wines nowadays have a true sense of place and terroirs with bright minerality, tension and lean fruit with this hint of ripeness as a backbone.

6 Names to look out for

1. Sandhi

(Roberson Wine)

2. Domaine de la Côte

(Roberson Wine)

3. Melville Winery

(The Vineyard Cellars)

4. Ojai Vineyard

(Tiger Vines)

5. Sine Qua Non

(Berry Bros & Rudd)

6. Au Bon Climat

(Fields, Morris & Verdin)

You can read and learn more about California in the LEARN section.