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Thoughts on wine and other topics from the Roberson team

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Paul Williamson

Bordeaux 2015 - Vintage Overview

For many in the UK wine trade the first week of April marks the time of year for the annual pilgrimage to Bordeaux. This is the period where the Bordeaux châteaux traditionally offer samples of their wines from the previous vintage before releasing the prices for pre-sale, or En Primeur. This was my first ever En Primeur trip after five years in the trade. The reason for our trip now was that supposedly there hasn’t been a vintage like 2015 since the ‘classic’ 2010. Would it live up to the hype? To find out for ourselves, myself and my colleague Oliver joined the rest of the UK trade, akin to a band of tweed-clad investigators, sent to inspect what the Bordelaise have been hiding from us in their barrel rooms since last September. Margaux and Saint-Julien Day one started off fairly small-scale, with a 9am appointment at Château Margaux. The spring sunshine and wispy mists rising off the broad vineyard landscape made the place seem even more fantastical than in the commercial photos you see regularly. After trying Pavillon Blanc and Pavillon Rouge, followed by the Grand Vin itself, the first impressions were that indeed, yes, this could be a wonderful vintage. The wines showed great freshness and finesse straight away. Caution was advised by our seasoned guide, however, who pointed out that it is easy to be seduced by the first tasting in such magnificent surroundings. This was Château Margaux of course, and there were hundreds of wines still to taste. The rest of the first day was spent exploring Margaux and Saint-Julien. One of the highlights was Château Rauzan-Segla, where we had the privilege to taste the wine from barrel. In fact, we were invited to choose which barrels to taste from. There was a marked difference between a sample from a new barrel and a one year old barrel, yet in both there was the same underlying fruit of the utmost beauty. The wines of Margaux were certainly showing very well, with Château Palmer also one of the wines of the vintage. There was a real purity and finesse to the wines with silky tannins and perfumed fruit. Lunch was taken at Château Beychevelle - very grand surroundings indeed, the ‘Versailles of Bordeaux’. Afterwards the winemaker, our old pal Phillippe Blanc, showed us the progress made on building his brand new winery. There certainly is no expense spared amongst the top châteaux in improving facilities, for winemaking purposes or otherwise. The Saint-Julien wines were very classic of the region and the vintage - fresh, juicy and very appealing. Pessac-Léognan and Saint-Emilion Pessac-Léognan and Saint-Emilion were the focus of Day two. The first stop was an appellation-wide tasting of Pessac wines. There is nothing quite like tasting 30 wines in 30 minutes first thing in the morning with the deadline of an appointment at Château La Mission Haut-Brion looming. Unfortunately our hastiness, coupled with my rookie mistake of wearing white, resulted in the ignominy of sporting a purple polka-dotted shirt for the rest of the day. Impressions of Pessac were generally good. The whites tasted fresh and lively on the whole and should provide very enjoyable drinking in the short and medium term, and they should be good value. The reds showed nice purity of fruit, with Château La Mission Haut-Brion my wine of the region. Before departing for Bordeaux we had heard that 2015 could be a right bank vintage. When we arrived we also heard many say that it was a perfect vintage for Merlot. So with that in mind we headed to Saint-Emilion with great expectations. The big open tasting of 30 or so châteaux left much food for thought. After some food for the stomach at Château La Couspade (some of the best marquee food I think I’ve had) we were back on the road visiting some of Saint-Emilion’s most illustrious names. There were certainly highlights, with Cheval Blanc being probably our wine of the vintage. It has the most beautiful perfume and a balance, finesse and elegance not matched anywhere else. Above is their new winery – yes, wine is actually made in that room. However, the overall impression of Saint-Emilion is mixed. There were certainly no terrible wines, but some châteaux seem to have overworked the fruit, leaving the finished products too jammy and over-oaked. The châteaux who have been careful and have allowed the fruit to speak have made pure, bright and delicious wines. Unfortunately, Château Pétrus wouldn’t let us in so I can’t tell you what that tastes like. Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe Our final day involved a trip back to the left bank where we ticked off three of the ‘first growths’ in one morning. Not an easy task but someone had to do it. Perhaps the tasting of the vintage was at Château Latour. Not being involved in the En Primeur system gave them the opportunity to show some back vintages, with 2000 a real showstopper, and what a relief these were for the palate. The talk of the town was that the northern part of the Médoc bore the brunt of some serious rainfall during September. If this showed in any way in the wines it was perhaps with the Saint-Estèphes, which for me were the weakest of the left banks but still in no way bad wines. Pauillac seemed very Pauillac, with tonnes of dark fruit and graphite. Château Pichon-Baron have made a seriously good wine and Château Lynch-Bages as always was very strong. Overall impressions Tasting young Bordeaux is tough work. No, seriously, it requires discipline to give every wine due attention, especially when your palate is saying ‘no more please’. Even the most seasoned tasters will tell you that judging the merits of Bordeaux at this stage is a tricky task. However, what is achievable is to get an overall feel of the vintage, and those vibes are certainly strong. There is a real juiciness and purity to the fruit. There is also lots of freshness and elegance in the wines. There is always a tendency to make comparisons with other vintages and if pushed to do so I would compare the structure and fruit to 2005, rather than the plushness of 2009 and 2010. However, 2015 should be considered on its own merits. In my opinion it is a very good vintage where the careful winemakers have allowed the terroir to be expressed and the best wines will age very well.



Anna Von Bertele

London Cru in Saturday's Telegraph

“The bacchus 2014 might just be the best I’ve tasted…” That was the opinion of Victoria Moore in this Saturday’s edition of The Daily Telegraph, after she visited the tasting bench at London Cru, our sister company, last week. Of the LDN Cru Bacchus 2014 she observes:“the wine is absolutely bone dry. It’s lovely, broad, yet also fine, redolent of elderflowers and fat blades of grass.” We are delighted she also enjoyed the tasting of Red Wine SW3 Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2013 crush: “the wine that elbowed this simple catch-up visit out of my notebook and into the space on this page was a bottle of cabernet sauvignon we tasted from the original 2013 crush… Would I like to try it again? You bet. Reader it is a superb bottle of wine for £15… It would be great with Easter lamb…” The full article can be read on The Telegraph website and all of the wines can be ordered online.



Megan O'Rahilly

International Women's Day

Although it has long been known that we women are good at drinking wine, it sadly isn’t that often that we hear about women making or working with wine. The wine industry has been traditionally dominated by men, from the vineyard right up to trade level, but it does look as though times are changing. We’re seeing more and more innovative women bringing new ideas and approaches to their winemaking, which is not only helping to bridge the gender gap, but also improving the incredible range of quality wine out there. For this International Women’s day, I thought it would be great to write about some amazing women in wine who work with Roberson. Marion Ebner from Ebner-Ebenaur Marion Ebner is a woman whose hard work and determination to succeed in the winemaking world has paid off. At the age of 16, Marion already knew she wanted to be a winemaker, and grafted hard to get to where she wanted to be. Having spent time working for Fritz Weininger on the outskirts of Vienna, she made her debut wine at the age of just 21. Marion now works alongside her husband Manfred under the name Ebner-Ebenaur, and since their inaugural vintage in 2007, the pair have gone from strength to strength, making exceptional Grüner Veltliners with little intervention. Sophie Holzberg from Château Franc Cardinal Sophie Holzberg is fully deserving of recognition for her strength of character and dedication to her wine in the face of adversity. Along with her winemaker husband Philip, Sophie purchased Château Franc Cardinal in 2001 and the pair dedicated themselves to making superb wines that reflect the unique terroir of this Bordeaux satellite appellation. Tragically in 2010, Philip passed away, but this has not stopped Sophie from proving to be a true visionary. She runs her estate with great passion and, with the help of her team, is determined to carry on Philip’s work of creating elegant and fresh wines following organic principles. Cathy Corison from Corison We couldn’t write about women in wine without including Cathy Corison. Studying oenology at UC Davis in the 1970s, Cathy was told that she would struggle to get a job as a winemaker because she was a woman. With a point to prove, Cathy went on to become one of the most influential female winemakers in the California. After having worked at various other institutes, Cathy set up her own label in 1987. For the next couple of decades, when everyone else was making blockbusters to please Parker’s palate, Cathy stuck to her guns making an elegant, fresh style of Cabernet Sauvignon with lower alcohol. Her hands-off approach has paid off in the end- her beautifully restrained style is highly revered, and it’s hard to find another winemaker in Napa who is held in such high esteem, male or female.



Mark Andrew

When the New California came to London

The Californian wine movement In Pursuit of Balance arrives in London next week. Our former buyer, Mark Andrew, of Noble Rot, recalls his first taste of the New California wines that changed the US and UK wine scenes. It’s amazing how certain moments can change everything. With the benefit of hindsight, you can look back and point to a specific time and place, when one thing ends and another begins. For the team at Roberson Wine, tastings of new prospects for the portfolio are a weekly, often daily, feature of professional life – but on one morning in late 2012 we opened the range of Chardonnays from a Santa Barbara winery called Sandhi and our minds and palates were blown. The New California had arrived in London, and those in the room that day were the first to taste it. With a collective term like ‘The New California’, you’d be entitled to presume that there was an issue with ‘The Old California’, whatever that might be. In fact, it wasn’t the Old California that the New was railing against – it was the period in between. The mid 90s – mid 00s was an age when Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator dominated the wine world, creating overnight legends or damning years of work with one score out of 100 points. The fact that they had the rapt attention of the wine buying (and selling) community, particularly in the USA, took their influence to levels unheard of in almost any other field of criticism. Their opinions made the market and, as a result, winemakers adjusted their wines in order to ingratiate themselves with such powerful palates. A big score meant big success and big profits – a big incentive, particularly in America, the land of big business. And big really was the operative word. Previous generations of Californian winemakers, including those that triumphed in The Judgement of Paris (a blind tasting held in 1976 which confirmed the Californians could rival the best wines in the world), had followed the European model of making ‘terroir driven’ wines that reflected the characteristics of the place the grapes were grown. This began to change in the ‘90s, as riper, more concentrated wines found favour with the critics. Alcohol levels crept up and lavish amounts of new oak became de rigeur – before long there was an arms race taking place and the winners were the wineries that had their wine cranked up to maximum volume. The 1997 vintage represented the culmination of this move towards what Jon Bonné called ‘Big Flavour’ in his excellent book The New California Wine. It was a warm vintage that offered winemakers the opportunity to underline this new sense of Californian typicity, as long as they stuck to the recipe that the critics were advocating. The ones that didn’t were hammered in the press, accused of rejecting the blessings that Mother Nature was providing to The Golden State. The halcyon days for big flavour were throughout the following decade, and a number of ‘cult’ wines established themselves among the most expensive, critically acclaimed and sought-after in the world. But for many of us on this side of the pond, California had become a caricature and its wines were difficult to like. At a tasting of the extortionately priced Sine Qua Non, held at Roberson in 2009, there was hardly a drinkable wine in the lineup (not great when the tickets cost £250 each). Each wine was more bloated and grotesquely proportioned than the last, despite the fact that 100 point scores had been doled out to many of them. Some members of the audience loved the style, but most of us were utterly appalled at what we were tasting. Unknown to us at the time, changes were afoot. Some key figures on the New York and San Francisco wine scenes were growing tired of the uniformity that had taken hold. Jon Bonné (of the San Francisco Chronicle) and Eric Asimov (of the New York Times) championed the subtlety and elegance of their favourite European wines, without hiding their displeasure at what California had become. Added to the backlash from certain quarters of the press, there was a growing shift in the sommelier community, with numerous restaurants eliminating Californian wines from their lists and others imposing a 14% ABV limit for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Before long, this loose-knit community of writers, wine professionals and winemakers decided to nail their colours to the mast. Jasmine Hirsch, heiress to one of the best Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma, and Rajat Parr, one of the country’s most respected sommeliers, decided it was time to gather their favourite wineries for an event that would celebrate the more restrained side of Californian Pinot and Chardonnay. They called it ‘In Pursuit of Balance’ (IPOB) and their group included old-school producers that had ignored the excesses of Big Flavour (such as Mount Eden, Au Bon Climat and Calera), alongside a burgeoning group of young winemakers who were rejecting the status quo. Some of them, like Pax Mahle of Wind Gap, Wells Guthrie of Copain and Jamie Kutch of Kutch Wines had started out making the souped-up wines that they now rejected, but had since sacrificed the high scores and resulting commercial success. Others, like Rajat Parr himself (who, along with his friend Sashi Moorman, was now making the aforementioned Sandhi wines in Santa Barbara) had set up projects with the express aim of demonstrating that there was another side to Californian wine. To say that the first IPOB event, held in San Francisco, caused a stir, would be an understatement. Seemingly out of nowhere, an alternative to the establishment sprang up and captured the attention and imagination of a generation of wine drinkers that shared the group’s preference for natural acidity, lower alcohol and a sense of place. A flag had been raised that gave these people a point to rally round, but this also meant that battle lines had been drawn. The organisation’s very name implied that the rest of California wasn’t making balanced wines – seen as a valid criticism by many of us, but a red rag to the proverbial bull for others. Robert Parker was the biggest bull of all, and he wasted no time in lambasting the wines and ideas of IPOB, labelling them the “anti-pleasure police” and, somewhat bizarrely, “jihadists”. Regardless of whether the American wine establishment liked what was happening, the fact is that suddenly there was a real, credible alternative to the excesses of the Parker/Spectator era. Social media had eroded some of the power of the traditional press, and a younger generation was engaging with wine through the commentary of writers, winemakers and sommeliers that were singing the praises of The New California. So there we were, stood around the tasting table, waiting to be poured the first sample of Sandhi Chardonnay. The wines had reached us thanks to Jamie Kutch, a Pinot Noir obsessed New Yorker making wine in Sonoma while dealing in fine and rare wines on the side. We had been buying cases of Bordeaux and Burgundy from him for some time when he sent us a few bottles of his delicious Californian reds – we began shipping them to London soon thereafter, and he had encouraged his friend Rajat Parr to send some Sandhi to us to see if we would take some of that too. Burdened with prejudices borne from years of tasting buttery, overripe and overoaked Cali Chardonnay, the level of expectation was not particularly high, but the first scent of these delicate, precise, mineral-infused wines caught the group’s attention. By the time we reached the 2011 Sanford & Benedict bottling – a masterclass in laser-like intensity – the excitement in the room was palpable. There are times in this job when, collectively, you know you have come across something seriously exciting. This was one of those times. After digging around the internet, reading as many relevant blogs as possible and identifying the important figures on social media, it was clear that we had been introduced to the early stages of a genuine movement. It wasn’t just Kutch and Sandhi that were doing interesting things in California, but a growing list of passionate and talented winemakers – most of whom were relatively unknown in their home state, let alone on this side of the pond. There was a genuine opportunity to introduce to the British wine trade and wine buying public to something new and exciting, a rare occurrence in today’s saturated and hyper-connected market. The buying trip that followed our enlightenment was the most exciting 10 days of my life. Matteo (our Sales Director) and I covered thousands of miles, from Santa Barbara up the Central Coast to Santa Cruz, through the AVAs of Sonoma and down the Napa Valley. At every stop we met amazing people, visited stunning vineyards and wineries while tasting a steady stream of world class wines. We were in a constant state of disbelief that wineries like Mount Eden, Wind Gap, Arnot-Roberts, Corison and Hirsch Vineyards were hitherto unrepresented in the UK, and we managed to build an initial portfolio that we knew would be game-changing once we could pour the wines to the people back home. We did that at a big launch event in April 2014, and a new chapter in Roberson Wine’s story began. Looking back at everything that happened before, during and since that life-changing trip, I believe wholeheartedly that our initial excitement was fully justified. The reaction to the wines was every bit as enthusiastic as we hoped and the future remains incredibly bright for Californian wine in the UK. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that things are only just getting started. It is often the case that new food and drink trends enter the UK through London before catching on elsewhere, and it is the responsibility of merchants like Roberson to spread this fascinating story far and wide (the evidence so far is that people in all corners of the country are dying to hear and taste more). There are still so many angles to be explored and exciting wines to be discovered – in classic American fashion, there is a constant state of innovation and change in the West Coast wine scene, making it a difficult task keeping up with all the latest developments. Sparkling wine is one such area that is finally starting to get interesting after years of domination by the big brands – many of which originate in Champagne and have enjoyed the lack of competition from small growers (something they are suffering with at home). The recent emergence of some high quality, small production sparkling wines is a sign of delicious things to come and cooler climate regions should become hotbeds for this style of wine. An area to keep a close eye on is the Santa Cruz Mountains, which has long had an excellent reputation for quality thanks to producers like Mount Eden and Ridge, but is difficult to farm due to an abundance of small, often isolated parcels of vines that are perched on craggy mountainsides. The larger players stayed away and therefore there has been little noise about the region for a generation, but young guns like Jamie Kutch and Nathan and Duncan at Arnot-Roberts are proving that Santa Cruz is capable of producing truly stunning wines. More quality-focused wineries are sure to follow. The move towards cooler climate sites, earlier picking and more sensitive farming and winemaking means that there is also genuinely discernable vintage character and thus reason to come back and taste the wines year after year. Watching them develop and improve with age is an incredibly exciting prospect. To that end, I’ve kept back a bottle of the 2011 Sandhi ‘Sanford & Benedict’ Chardonnay that made such an impression on us back in 2012. On the basis of everything that has happened since, I’m confident that it will prove to be one of the most important bottles I ever taste.



Megan O'Rahilly

Sauternes - Not just for Christmas

I narrow-mindedly think of sweet wines as a treat for the winter holiday season - something to drink with a nice slab of cheese or a rich dessert after a heavy meal. Undeniably, Sauternes is brilliant as a Christmas tipple, but should we be bucking the trend and drinking them all year round with a wider range of food? Bérénice Lurton of Château Climens came to visit Roberson this week, and argued convincingly that we should. One of ten children from the famous Lurton family in Bordeaux, Bérénice took over First Growth Château Climens in 1992. Unusually for Sauternes, Château Climens wines are made from 100% Semillion, yet the unique Barsac soils and climate enable Bérénice to maintain amazing freshness and acidity. Tasting the 2011 vintage of Château Climens was an eye-opener. Still pretty young, this wine has all kinds of aromas jumping out of the glass: candied ginger, orange marmalade and tangy citrus. Of course it’s sweet, but the fresh kick of acidity keeps it in check and balanced, making this a Barsac chef d’oeuvre. If something is this tasty, isn't it a shame to drink it only at Christmas? Our very own Sauternes girl Marion thought so, and she claims to have been baptised in Sauternes by her grandfather, so she should know. Bérénice came up with some inspiring pairing suggestions which we captured on video. I can certainly see how Sauternes could pair beautifully with curry. Think of that acidity cutting through the creamy richness, and the sweetness chiming with the bold flavours of exotic spices. But it was the mention of Thai food that had everybody's ears pricking up. A Roberson Friday lunch ritual is ordering Pad Thai from an amazing street food vendor in Fulham. If we can resist drinking the remaining Climens until Friday, we will definitely be trying out that combo.



Anna Von Bertele

Falling in love this Valentine's Day

I am planning to fall in love this Valentine’s Day. I have the perfect partner in mind. We have met before. At first I thought he was a bit young, a bit of a closed book, but you can't always go on first impressions so I decided to give him a chance. As the evening developed, he really opened up. I discovered he was actually more mysterious and complex than I thought. That sexy American twang and New World spark; we were definitely not running out of things to talk about! One smooth character, good sharp sense of humour and hidden depths; we were compatible and I was smitten. I can't wait to introduce him to my friends and family, and I'm sure you'll love him too… I don't even mind if you share him, as there really is no better choice for Valentine's Day... Broc Cellars Love Red A blend of Carignan, Valdiguié and Petite Sirah, this is an unusual and extremely interesting blend from California. It can be served with meat or even slightly chilled with lighter dishes; it really is the perfect match for Valentine’s Day. If you like Broc Cellars Love Red, you might want to try his new addition to our range, Love White – a fresh, elegant and very delicious Californian white.


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