About Me

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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Monday, October 12, 2015

When you’re in the dark don’t strike a match

In which I explain my views on some trends and why they may not be important.
Along the way we were given a list of new trends, which was essentially a buzzword bingo lexicon. Cooler sites, early picking, natural acidity, good sulfites, reductive handling, struck match and so on – a range of phrases representing the current trends in relation to new wine styles in Australia.

Now, some of these are interesting – freshness, for example. A lot of wine makers are attempting to move away from the big, ripe, dense and often oaky styles we have seen in the past. Freshness is often achieved by picking early to get more natural acidity and less over-ripe flavours and this is generally a good thing. Indeed, Stephen Pannell was in the Wicklow Wine Company a few weeks ago and he does this, as well as using older oak and larger vessels to reduce the oaky flavours in his wines, which are superb by the way.
However, there can easily be a tendency to go too far and many MWs felt that, to use phrases I overheard on the trip, that some winemakers “had lost the plot” or “were living in a bubble”. The almost ever-present “struck match” was one of those concepts which was a good example of this. In trying to move away from highly oaked wines, with rich buttery flavours many winemakers have shifted to more reductive techniques. Which sounds complicated but is quite simple: oxygen contact is oxidative and not good, reductive involves minimising the possibility of this occurring. The easiest way to do this is to use a bit more sulfur and, by so doing, reducing or eliminating the malolactic fermentation. The net result is a wine with a higher natural acidity, giving freshness, but there is a move towards wines where the sulfur gives a flavour referred to as struck match.
Now, many years ago winemakers had a tendency to “add” volatile acidity (VA) to their wines as this was believed to add complexity. That trend has died out but the struck match trend seems to me to be the same idea with a different flavour. Winemakers frequently stated (not suggested, but stated as though absolutely true) that this flavour adds complexity and, when pressed, almost to a man they cited Coche-Dury in Burgundy. Indeed, the rhetorical question “We all like Coche-Dury, don’t we?” seems to imply that a) we all get to try these wines; b) that Coche-Dury deliberately “add” this flavour to their wines as opposed to this being a characteristic which simply comes about; and c) we all like this style! Now, I often get customers asking me for oaky chardonnay, as this is an increasingly difficult style to find, but no-one (and I mean NOT ONE PERSON) has ever asked me for a wine that tastes of struck match.
Let’s go a bit deeper on this. There is nothing wrong with freshness but when the winemaking results in a lean wine then maybe things have gone too far. Too many pinots and chardonnays were lean to the point of being unpleasant, yet we were pretty constantly lectured (and I use that word deliberately) that this was the way things should be. While Australian winemakers are known for their openness I have to say that discussion frequently seems to be a one-way street with them and this was highlighted on this trip.
Very few of the MWs on this trip (44 to 47 depending on the day, about 13% of IMW’s members covering a wide range of geographies) liked the ultra-intellectual wines offered in Yarra and, to a lesser extent, Mornington (chardonnays from Mornington were very positively received unlike the Yarra one while the pinots from Mornington were not) and although a recent article by Jancis Robinson MW was cited to support this trend a reading of that article actually backs up the general MW reaction on this trip.
Now, it is important to bear in mind that our collective opinions matter very little. Many of the wines we tasted are sold almost exclusively in Australia, either through the cellar door or direct to the new, young sommeliers who write the wine lists of the trendy restaurants for which Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent Adelaide, are renowned. If some 80% of your already small scale production is sold in this way then foreign MWs don’t matter. Fair enough and we should not, as a group or individually, allow our egos to demand that we be taken as the arbiters of wine style. But I have to say we tasted many wines on this trip which I would not recommend to my customers or friends, and that’s a shame. On my trips here in 2001 and 2009 I found so much that was superb that I have happily recommended Australian wines widely, a difficult task given the quite ridiculous snobbery that exists in Ireland in relation to high-quality wines from the so-called new world. To now have to rein in my enthusiasm is somewhat depressing especially when Stephen Henschke gave us a perfect chardonnay made in the early-picked, reductive style which had gorgeous fruit, no struck match and a perfect texture and balance. But then, he is a world class winemaker and I think a few of the young iconoclasts of the Australian wine industry would benefit from copying him and from getting out and listening to (not talking to but listening to) customers from around the world.
A bit of a rant but I was quite taken by how many MWs agreed that these wines were, in essence, charmless and such a convergence of opinion among that many MWs is a serious sign.

1 comment:

Wayne the Wino said...

Hi Dermott

Like yourself I have been in wine a fairly long time.

Really liked your blog on Yarra Valley Chardonnay as I have been proclaiming exactly the same over the last few years.

If you need a why - suggest maybe looking at how the Aussie show system works and in particular the Melbourne show.

And who decides what styles of chardonnays take out the gongs?

Mainly the very same judges that produce those lean mean green styles.

But hell what would I know.....


Wayne the Wino