Wind Gap meets London Cru
Forget the bore of allocating designated drivers and the nightmare of getting lost in miles of countryside. Wineries are increasingly setting up shop in surprisingly urban settings, allowing them to select grapes from the best of the surrounding vineyards. Roberson Wine’s sister company London Cru is the only such enterprise in the UK, however making wine in an urban setting is more common for those across the pond in the US. California in particular is a hotbed of urban wineries - Golden State winemakers are ripping up the rulebook and opening boutique, quality-focused wineries and tasting rooms in the heart of inner-city neighbourhoods across the state. Wind Gap Wines are one such producer, based out of downtown Sebastopol in Sonoma County. Roberson Wine has been importing Wind Gap since its inception, and last week chief winemaker Pax Mahle visited Roberson and London Cru last week to swap notes and talk all things wine. Wind Gap Wines is Pax’s own label and all of the winemaking takes place at his city-centre base. He has a spot in The Barlow, a trendy industrial complex for artisans, with all of the vineyards he uses within a two-hour radius. It is easy to point out the similarities between the set up of London Cru and Wind Gap. However, more interesting is the similarities between winemaking ethos of the two city-based wineries. London Cru’s winemaker Gavin Monery is an ardent proponent of letting the grapes do the talking in his wines, selecting the best grapes from specific vineyard sites and allowing the fruit to sing. Likewise, Pax focuses on making honest, authentic and compelling wines that are true expressions of fruit. Both look for special vineyard sites to help them do this. For Pax this means seeking out vineyards that are planted along, or directly influenced by, a ‘wind gap’. That is, a geological break in the coastal hills that funnels wind inland that helps to keep the vineyards cool. This coolness, coupled with picking at lower sugar levels, gives the final wines an alluring freshness – a clear eschewal of the big, ripe styles traditionally typical of California. While Sebastopol is within spitting distance of a multitude of exciting Californian vineyards, Gavin must travel a little further afield to find exciting cooler-climate vineyards for London Cru. However, found them he has with grapes from (among others) a planting of Syrah 1,000m above sea level in rural Calatayud and an ocean-lashed, verdant Albariño site in Rías Baixas. Both Gavin and Pax focus on making wine with as little intervention as possible. They have a love for the craft, and for the grapes themselves; you won’t find these winemakers adding sugar, or needlessly stripping the wine of complexity through filtration. We tasted Pax’s wines while he was visiting, and we weren’t disappointed. Of particular note was the Chenoweth Pinot Noir 2013. With grapes from a site further north than Wind Gap’s other sites, this wine is full bodied and decadent but still has the wonderful tell-tale elegance of Wind Gap’s other wines. Alternatively, the wine to watch from London Cru’s latest release is Charlotte St 2015 - refined and elegant with hints of citrus, tropical melon and quince.
A Guilt Free March
I’m dying for a biscuit. Something crumbly, sweet and smothered in chocolate. Apparently this is “illegal” for the next 40 days as the office has gone healthy for Lent. No sugar, no snacks, no wine. What no wine? According to iquitsugar.com you can cut out sugar and still drink wine because it contains minimal amounts of fructose. “If the wine has been fermented to ‘dry’ (white or red) it contains very low levels of residual sugar – less than 1g/litre – and in most cases not at a level that can be practically tested.” Thank God for that! So here’s a guilt free look at what’s going on this month. The Raw Wine Fair is open to the public on Sunday 12th March. It will feature over 150 growers, including our own Mathieu Deiss, and is a brilliant opportunity to find out about and taste a terrific range of natural, organic and biodynamic wines. The Washington and Oregon Trade tasting is also in town. Unfortunately, this isn’t open to the public but we know how much you love Bergström, particularly Old Stones Chardonnay, so we are holding an informal drop in tasting at The Atlas with producers Josh and Caroline. This is really exciting because they don’t come to England that often, and you will have a chance to preview some of their latest vintages, including those not yet landed in the UK. We are also really chuffed to be working with Selfridges on their pop up roof top restaurant WastED. We are all big believers in the project and it’s been a great way for us to shine a light on the green value of wine on tap. It’s one of the most talked about dining experiences of the month: it’s fully booked for dinner, but if you’re lucky you could get a table for lunch or afternoon tea. Mmmm afternoon tea. What no biscuits? Better pour myself a glass of wine then.>
An Extraordinary Vintage from a Winemaking Pioneer
We’re delighted to introduce a great new producer to the Roberson Wine family - just in time for some truly superb 2015 Rieslings. Rudolf and Rita Trossen’s winery is located in Kinheim among the slate slopes close to the banks of the Middle Mosel. The extraordinary microclimate in the Mosel valley and the soil, easily warmed by the sun and extremely 'breathable' through its slate soils, produce very elegant, mineral-driven, fine Rieslings with a unique balance between acidity and fruit. With such exceptional terroir, it’s up to the winemaker to let it 'sound' through the wine. In 1978, after thoroughly studying Rudolf Steiner’s original lectures on the subject, Trossen switched to biodynamic farming methods for the family vineyards, one of the first winemakers to do so anywhere in the world. The aim was to 'revitalise' the soils and in turn increase the vitality of the vines. As a result, Trossen's vineyards are easily spotted. They have a distinctive green colour from the other ground crops growing between the vines. In Rudolf’s own words, 'We believe that the less the winemaker interferes in the entire process of the winemaking (from the vineyard to the cellar), the better the true character of the vineyard is able to fully develop.' The effect of using biodynamic farming methods was to balance and refine, and Rudolf firmly believes it has led to more delicate and concise characters in his wines. Ever the pioneer, in 2010 he took his principles a step further by creating his 'Purus' (latin for 'the pure') range. The wines are biodynamic of course, but also use a natural wine approach of zero intervention. They are unfined, unfiltered and have no added sulphur. Unlike typical Mosel Rieslings, his Purus Pyramide has the characteristic Riesling acidity, but with an oily texture and richness of flavour not found elsewhere. The 2015 vintage in Germany has been much lauded, with many winemakers expecting it to be one of their finest all of all time. A hot, dry summer was promising, although it meant that some much needed rain showers arrived in early September at just the right time to prevent drought. Under close to perfect conditions, producers were able to harvest their grapes at a relaxed pace, with the only downside being lower yields than usual. Trossen's wines are amazing every year, but in 2015 they are particularly special. There could be no better moment for them to join the Roberson Wine range.
IPOB A Year On
A year ago today, In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) held their first and, as it turned out, only tasting in London. Mission accomplished, IPOB wrapped up its operations at the end of last year. With co-founder Rajat Parr from Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Côte visiting us this week, we thought now would be a good time to take a look at IPOB and its legacy. What was the message of IPOB? Founded in 2011 by Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards and Rajat Parr of Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Côte, the aim of IPOB was to challenge stereotypes of California wines, especially Pinot Noir. Every wine lover has experienced it at some point: an overly ripe, sweet, heavy fruit-bomb with alcohol levels beyond 14%. These wines, if they make it across the pond to the UK, often come with big scores from the American critics, and a hefty price tag. Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr, like so many others, never really found joy in drinking, let alone making this style of wine. They favour wines that show restraint, elegance and freshness and which possess less alcohol. In their opinion these wines are better balanced, go better with food and are true expressions of their terroir. Several discussions on the state of Californian winemaking later, Jasmine and Raj organised a tasting in San Francisco with their favourite producers. All shared their vision for raising awareness of their style of winemaking in the USA and around the world. Why did IPOB shut down and what was its influence? Both Raj and Jasmine emphasised that the series of tastings, debates and public talks that were held around the world were to facilitate the dialogue between the producers and consumers on their style of winemaking and Pinot Noir. As a result, the IPOB managed to break with the stereotypes that put people off Californian wines. The tastings showed consumers that there is a strong alternative movement in Californian winemaking, led by people who care about balanced, lower alcohol and elegant wines. By no means was this style of winemaking, nor the people who made these wines, a new phenomenon in California – but rather an overlooked category that had been there all along. After five years if IPOB, the discussion on the different styles of wines coming out of California is stronger than ever before. Wine critics, journalists, wine-lovers, wine ‘newbies’, sommeliers, buyers and retailers are now much more aware of both the wines and the debates around elegant US Pinot Noir and unoaked Chardonnay. With the IPOB now history, the discussions, tastings and write-ups are being done by people who over the years have attended these tastings in cities like London and San Francisco, facilitated by the wine importers that have picked up and partnered with these producers on the way (Roberson Wine among them!). In London you can now find the wines of Hirsch, Sandhi, Matthiasson or Wind Gap at your local wine store, at wine bars such as 10 Cases and Noble Rot, as well as in some of the most exclusive restaurants of the city like Fera, Coya, Zuma and Ducasse at the Dorchester. Wines that had largely been overlooked by most critics and journalists are now featured regularly. Praise such as ‘sensational’, ‘exciting’ and ‘impressive’ by wine writer heavyweights Jancis Robinson and Jamie Goode are now a regular occurrence, and Decanter even included an IPOB wine in their Top 50 Wines of 2016. Although the IPOB tastings are no more, the discussion around the style of wines coming out of California (in particular Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), and the dialogue between the producers and consumers around the world, is still very much alive and flourishing – challenging stereotypes in the US and Europe alike.
Pioneering Spirit - Hirsch Vineyards
Last week we hosted a fantastic tasting with the truly inspiring Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, downstairs in the London Cru winery. Our guests were treated not only to eight glorious wines from the 2013 and 2014 vintages but to the incredible story of Hirsch Vineyards, a story which filled me with the positive feeling that the great American pioneering spirit is still alive and well, at least in the far flung reaches of the Extreme Sonoma Coast. There have been times in the last two decades when Californian wine producers seem to have lost their way, when the region has forgotten its sense of innovation and adventure. Too many wines have become stuck in a stereotypical style of too much ripeness, too much extraction and too much oak. Even before this period the region struggled to deal with the tension, as Jon Bonne describes it, between winemaking as a cultural expression and winemaking as a commercial endeavour. With pioneering scientific research in the post-war period, UC Davis inadvertently influenced the industry into making ferment-by-number wines which lacked imagination. It’s hard to overemphasise just how devastating Prohibition was for the Californian wine industry. Before Prohibition there were more than 700 commercial wineries in the region. Despite repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933 it wasn’t until 1986 that the number of wineries reached that level again. But the real damage was not economic but the loss of culture, tradition and knowledge. A push toward technocratic wines filled this void as California struggled to regain an identity. Interestingly though, if it wasn’t for Prohibition, Italian grape varieties might still dominate rather than the French varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which were introduced in the 1960s. Jasmine’s father David moved from New York to Sonoma in 1978 and at first had no intention of planting vines on the remote 400ha former sheep ranch he purchased. At that stage, nobody dreamed of growing grapes that far out in Sonoma. Aside from the remoteness, the preconception was of an area with too much erosion, too wet and too cold to ripen grapes. But when a vintner friend of his suggested it could work David’s adventurous spirit won through. In 1980 he decided to give it a go and the first vines went down. It wasn’t until 2002 that Hirsch built a winery on the site. Until then he had remained in the clothing business and sold the grapes as a cash crop to famous names such as Kistler, Littorai and Williams-Selyem, who started to put the Hirsch Vineyard name on the map. But David is now fully committed to farming the land and releasing Hirsch estate-made wines. To emphasise the remoteness of the new winery, Jasmine Hirsch recalled having no running water up there and only 12 Volt electricity – not enough even to run a hairdryer. Even now the Hirsch vineyards are very isolated. Recent heavy storms have meant that they couldn’t get any wine out of there for their clients for weeks. They even have their own bottling line, something of an expensive luxury for a small production winery, simply because getting a bottling truck up the dirt tracks would be almost impossible. There is a lot to be said for making wine in such remote and extreme areas. It pushes the boundaries of conventional wisdom about where and how grapes can be grown, leading to new and exciting flavours and qualities. It pushes the growers and winemakers to try to understand the uniqueness of a place and to innovate to produce true representations of the land. Hirsch Vineyard’s soils are extremely varied. The collision of the tectonic plates at the San Andreas Fault pushed the old seabed up to the surface, exposing millennia of geological complexities, and David is obsessed with decoding their intricacies. So what of the wines themselves? In my opinion, they just keep getting better, year on year. The tiny production Chardonnay from two small plots is mineral, yet rich, with smoky lemon flavours and a finesse to be savoured. There is no vanilla ice-cream characteristic found in so many Cali Chardonnay, but neither is it taught and zingy, which some Burgundy and Californian producers are going for. It is truly unique and delicious. The Pinots balance unmistakable Californian juicy fruit with a sappy, savoury undertone. They are balanced, elegant and very fine. There is a beguiling characteristic in the reds which makes them unique. It is hard to pinpoint, but Jon Bonne describes it best – as ‘Hirschness’. Jasmine was a founding member of the now retired In Pursuit of Balance organisation, set up to promote the growing band of winemakers in California questioning the old norms, making wines of purity and balance and pushing frontiers. It did its job and now people have taken notice of the ‘New California’. While David and Jasmine might humbly decline to be labelled ‘pioneers of Sonoma Pinot Noir’, there is no doubt that their spirit has propelled the reputation of the area to new heights. They continue to push the boundaries with wines of complexity, elegance and quality never before seen in California.
Reasons to Love February
I love February. Not in itself, but for its promises: lighter mornings, the earliest primrose, the arrival of new vintages from the USA. This month three of our top Californian wine producers are in town. Jasmine Hirsch, Raj Parr and Pax Mahle will be showcasing their finest. Highlights include: the 2014 Hirsch Vineyards Chardonnay which Jasmine will be pouring in a private tasting at our very own London Cru; and a Raj Parr masterclass at 67 Pall Mall, with verticals from Domaine de la Côte ‘La Côte’ Pinot Noir and Sandhi ‘Bentrock’ Chardonnay. We know you can’t all be there, but we don’t need much excuse to share the love. Watch out in mid-February when we will have a selection of their wines on offer for just a couple of days to celebrate their trip. If drinking great wine and dreaming of Cali sun is still not reason enough to love the last month of winter, how about drinking that wine in one of England’s most beautiful locations? Our partners Beachspoke have an amazing portfolio of holiday properties decorated with natural rock, scaffold planks, boat chains and driftwood. At the end of the month there’ll be a letting discount, exclusively for Roberson Wine customers. I can’t guarantee sunshine, but I can promise great wine in a really wow property. What’s not to love?
We sell wine that offers quality and value at every level, from the everyday to the extraordinary. Read more about us.