Tasting Events

A Fun Blind Tasting Event


When I was asked to put on a wine tasting event for a birthday party, I asked what format the host wanted and the average level of wine knowledge among the guests. He replied that he was open about the format but that the partygoers would have varying levels of interest and knowledge in wine (a couple of heathens not even liking wine!) Furthermore, there would be different groups within the guests, so an arrangement which got them to mix well would be preferable.

The format we agreed on was one that has worked well for me at many events in the past, and has been progressively honed over the years. I split the guests into two teams, led by the birthday boy and his wife respectively. Six wines were served blind: two sparkling, two white and two red. For each wine, the teams had to guess five aspects:

  1. Geographical Origin
  2. Grape(s)
  3. ABV %
  4. Vintage
  5. Price Band

Now, blind tasting is actually pretty difficult even for seasoned professionals, so to make things a bit more reasonable there were 5 answers to chose from for each question, for each wine.  The teams could then go for more points if they were pretty sure what the wine was (e.g. choosing “Italy – Veneto” for origin and “Glera” for grape(s) if they thought it was a Prosecco) or hedging their bets.

As for the wines selected?  The host is a fan of classic Bordeaux and Burgundy but wanted to try other styles, so he asked me to choose some personal favourites.  I sourced them from Tesco (supermarket) and Sweeney’s wine merchants, so that if attendees liked the wines they would have a reasonable chance of finding them later.

So without further ado, here are the wines and the options for each question:

Marqués de la Concordia Cava 2013 (11.5%, €17.99 at Sweeney’s)



Both teams guessed this was a Cava and had it in the right price band.  I’m not a fan of cheap Cava but this is actually a nice bottle at a pretty nice price.  I’d much prefer to drink this than most budget Proseccos!

Tesco Finest Vintage Grand Cru Champagne 2007 (12.5%, €35.00 at Tesco)



Perhaps the proliferation of cheaper Champagnes at Lidl and Aldi have changed people’s preconceptions of how much Champagne costs, as both teams selected €20 – €30.  The biggest Champagne brand in the world – Möet & Chandon – is usually listed at €50+…but I reckon this is far better, at a significantly lower price.

Prova Regia Arinto VR Lisboa 2014 (12.0%, €13.00 at Sweeney’s)



This is an old favourite of mine from the days of Sweeney’s regular tastings.  It now comes in two versions, the above pictured Vinho Regional and a slightly more upmarket DOC. Whispers of “It’s Riesling, look at the bottle” were heard, and I can see the logic (the bottles were wrapped in foil so the silhouette was visible).  Several tasters thought it didn’t taste of much at all, and I’d have to agree to a certain extent – it’s definitely worth trading up to the DOC for more flavour intensity.

McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Hunter Valley Semillon 2005 (12.0%, €19.99 at Tesco)



This was a really polarising wine, and one that totally misled tasters as to its age – most thought it a 2015 or 2014, when in fact it was from the 2005 vintage!  Hunter Valley Semillon is one of the true original styles to have come from Australia.  Unoaked, it is all fresh lemon in its youth, but with significant bottle age it gains toastiness and rich flavours.  This is a bottle you can buy now and hide in the bottom of a wardrobe for a decade!

Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir 2014 (13.5%, €26.00 at Sweeney’s)



Probably the best-received wine of the evening!  This is a lovely wine, and one that beats off most of the competition at anything close to the price.  Its richness and spiciness (for a Pinot Noir) did lead some to think it was a Shiraz – understandable.  This was the wine which people queued up to snap the label of so that they could seek it out!

Diemersfontein Pinotage 2014 (14.0%, €23.00 at Sweeney’s)



Another polarising wine, with several not sure if they liked it or not – and to be fair, it’s not for everyone.  This is the “Original Coffee and Chocolate Pinotage” and I happen to like it – don’t listen to the Mochas (sorry!) Of course the grape and origin weren’t explicitly listed so they were both “other” – a bit sneaky on my part?  Perhaps…

**If you are interested in having a wine tasting party or other event then please ask me for details**



Opinion, Single Bottle Review

Frankie’s Single Bottle Review #07 – Bethany G6 Barossa Semillon 2010

Bethany Vineyards (Credit: Bram Souffrau)

Hunter Valley Semillon is rightly regarded as an “Australian Original”, with magnificent examples coming from Tyrrell’s, McWilliam’s and the like. Picked early in the harvest season it is generally light and fairly modest in alcohol – and, it has to be said, somewhat simple in flavour when young.  However, over time it grows in complexity with layers of honey and toastiness added to the primary citrus. It often tastes oaked when it has been nowhere near an oak barrel.

Barossa Semillon, made around a thousand miles to the west, is a different beast entirely. The grapes are usually picked when fully ripe and maturation in oak barrels is common for Semillon, just as for Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay.

The Barossa Valley is based around the small towns of Tanunda, Nuriootpa and Angaston, north east of Adelaide in the state of South Australia. It’s a very picturesque area – well yes, most wine regions are – but in particular shows the rich Germanic heritage of the area. The small village of Bethany is the home of Bethany Wines.  It was the first part of the Barossa to be settled, with the Schrapel family planting their first vines in 1852.  The family firm is now run by brothers Geoff and Robert Schrapel from the 5th generation and some of their children now forming the 6th generation.

Bethany G6 Barossa Semillon 2010 (12.5%, €18.45, O’Briens)


Among the Bethany portfolio is this delicious Semillon.  The alcohol is not that high at 12.5% but is a few pips higher than a traditional Hunter Valley Sem.  During maturation it spent some time in French hogsheads which is definitely discernible, though not at all overdone.  In both aromas and flavours there’s a blend of fresh citrus and mellow honey – and it’s totally delicious!

It’s sort of like drinking a dry Sauternes – which might sound funny, but actually makes a bit of sense when you consider that Semillon is one of the main grapes in Sauternes and is often barrel aged.  And the G6 monicker?  That refers to the 6th generation of the Schrapel family of course!


Lower Alcohol Wines That Taste Good!

For those brave souls that clicked on this to read more, stick with me – this won’t be full or moralising on the evils of alcohol or telling you to drink less.  I’ll leave that to puritans and the government, respectively.  Neither will I be looking at Weightwatchers or Slimming World branded wines which reportedly taste of goat’s piss.  Having tasted neither the diet wines nor hircine urine this is hearsay, but I will leave that trial to others.

Instead I’d like to cover a few wines that I like which happen to be lower in alcohol than the 14%+ blockbusters which populate wine shelves nowadays.  If you fancy a couple of glasses on a school night that won’t leave you with a heavy head in the morning, this is the way to go.

As a general rule, these wines are grown in relatively cool climates.  The moderate sunshine means that grapes aren’t as high in sugar at harvest, but they should still have plenty of flavour.  Lower alcohol is a finished wine is the result of lower sugar at harvest and / or fermentation being stopped by the winemaker before all the sugar has turned to alcohol, which obviously leaves some residual sweetness.

There are lots of other viticultural and vinification techniques which can be used to moderate alcohol levels, including:

  • Picking early
  • Canopy management
  • Clonal selection
  • Yeast selection
  • Reverse osmosis
  • Spinning cone
  • Watering down (!)

So what should you try?

Mosel Riesling

Many consider the Model to be the spiritual home of the Riesling grape.  The cool climate imparts a fierce acidity to the wine, so fermentation is often stopped before all the sugar has turned to alcohol, leaving some to soften the affect of the acidity.  Alcohol levels of 8% are not uncommon here – that’s half the abv of some blockbusters from Australia and California!

German (and Austrian) wines have a fairly complex quality hierarchy based on the sugar at the time of harvest, though the RS in the finished wine is more of a stylistic choice.  If you see Trocken then the wine should taste pretty dry.

Hunter Valley Semillon

I have already established myself as a fan of this style, delicious as a fresh blast of lemon or as a mature, honey and toast loaded beauty.  Alcohol levels here are usually between 10.0% and 11.5% – but they don’t feel to be lacking it when you drink them, the sign of a good, balanced wine.

McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth is a good entry level, though of course Tyrrell’s Vat 1 is the famous star of the area.

Vinho Verde

North and East of the Port producing region Douro, Vinho Verde produces light white, rosé and red wines.  They exhibit fresh acidity and sometimes a light spritz and may not exceed 11.5% apart from one exception*.  Vinho Verde doesn’t have the best reputation, but this is undeserved – the wines won’t be the most complex but they can be delightful in summer.  Modern wine-making techniques have dramatically improved the average quality level.

*The exception is for Alvarinho (the same grape as Albariño just over the border into Galicia) from the areas around the town of Monção

Moscato d’Asti

Erm are we getting into Asti Spumante territory here?  Yes we are!  But don’t worry, like many bad memories of the ’70s, the modern truth is actually far more palatable than the shuddering recollections of the past.

This is a fizzy dessert wine made soley from the grapey grape, Moscato (often known as Muscat).  It often clocks in as low as 5% so it’s the same as many beers, but please use a wine glass, not a pint glass!

North East Italian Reds

The twins of Valpolicella and the even lighter Bardolino are made from Corvina (great), Rondinella and Molinara (neither that great) in the Veneto area between Venice and Lake Garda.  Nowadays the turbocharged Amarone della Valpolicella takes the column inches in wine reviews – and I happen to be a big fan – but at ~15% it doesn’t meet what we’re after here.  The regular table wines can be very pleasant drinking but weighing in at 11.5% or so.  There are unsubstantiated rumours that the beefier Valpolicella wines have been pumped up with stronger southern Italian reds, but surely the wine industry is free from adulteration nowadays??

Forrest Estate ‘The Doctors’

Forrest Estate in Marlborough was set up by the husband and wife team Dr John and Dr Brigid Forrest in 1988.  As well as the usual grapes Marlborough fare they make wine with a few more unusual grapes.  One of these is the Austrian black grape St Laurent which makes a light to medium bodied wine somewhere in between Pinot Noir and cool climate Syrah, though its parentage is still unproven. This comes under their sub brand The Doctors’ and has a lunchtime-friendly 11.0% on the label.

They also make a Riesling under this label which has a Mosel-like 8.5% – give it a try!

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My Favourite Wines of 2013 – The Whites

A long overdue follow up to my favourite reds of 2013.  See also my favourite fizz of 2013.

Zind-Humbrecht Alsace Pinot Gris “Heimbourg” 2002*

Zind-Humbrecht Heimbourg Pinot Gris 2000
Zind-Humbrecht Heimbourg Pinot Gris 2000

When you have your first taste of wine, and it’s good, you might nod appreciatively or even exclaim “mmm, that’s nice” (which my Mum says to everything from JP Chenet to Grange). But when we tasted this fine, fine example of Alsace Pinot Gris the reaction was an astonished “oh…” around the room as everyone stared at their glass and wondered how much depth of flavour could possibly come from a glass of wine.  It was almost like being told an age old secret about life, it was a moment I will never forget. Like many Alsace Pinot Gris this was off-dry, very rich and almost oily in viscosity.  It wasn’t a perfect match for the starter it was paired with, but that didn’t matter – it was happy by itself.  Zind-Humbrecht is one of the most quality-conscious houses in the region, run on biodynamic practices by the brilliant Olivier Humbrecht MW.  It has plots within several of the best Grand Cru vineyards, though this is a simple “lieu-dit”.

Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay Martinborough 2011

Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay Martinborough 2011
Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay Martinborough 2011

One of the top few Chardonnays from New Zealand and a personal favourite; I try to taste one bottle of every vintage, but sometimes I don’t succeed – it’s several!  This wine featured in my post on the New Zealand Trade Tasting – I make no apologies for repeating myself, it deserves the plaudits.  Open a bottle from the fridge and see how it evolves over the next hour or so, if you are able to resist drinking it quicker than that.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Valley Semillon 2000

Tyrrell's Vat 1 Hunter Semillon 2000
Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Semillon 2000

When Neil McGuigan, 2012 International Winemaker of the Year in the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC), gave a tutored tasting at the pop-up vineyard in Temple Bar, he stated that Hunter Semillon is one of the two wine styles original to Australia and not reproduced elsewhere in the world.  The other is the less well known liqueur Muscat from Rutherglen (perfect with Xmas pudding!)

I agree with him there, though he also provocatively called Sauvignon Blanc a “second rate grape” (I think there’s a lot of jealousy of Marlborough’s success with savvy).  The beauty of Hunter Semillon is that it can be drunk young as light, fresh and citrus, but it also ages and develops magnificently over time.  Often light in alcohol but not the worse for it, it develops toasty notes with time in bottle.  For me, it’s a waste to drink it young.

The originator of the style is Tyrrell’s, one of the big names of the Hunter.  Almost causing a family feud, the head winemaker of the time kept back a batch of the company’s best Semillon and released it at six years of age.  Thankfully (for us all) it was a success, and now Vat 1 has a claim to best varietal Semillon in the world.

I opened this bottle at the end of last year, so it was over thirteen years from harvest – and it still tasted young and fresh, though with plenty of toast and honey coming through on the nose and palate.  I think this would continue improving for another five to ten years.

Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay Adelaide Hills 2010

Despite all the ABC (“Anything But Chardonnay”) naysayers, Aussie Chardonnay goes from strength to strength.  It has moved with the times, so more (relatively!) cool regions are used, picking is earlier, malolactic fermentation can be partially blocked and the use of oak is more judicious.  Margaret River has the Leeuwin Estate Art Series and Cullen Kevin John superstars, Penfolds maintains a multi-regional blend for its “white Grange” Yattarna and Victoria’s Giaconda produces fabulous Chardonnay near Beechworth.  This is the star of the Adelaide Hills and comes from a family firm

Trimbach Cuvée Frédérique Emile Alsace Riesling 2004

Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling 2004
Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling 2004

Trimbach are one of the oldest houses in Alsace, and also one of the biggest.  Like many of the larger producers they offer different quality levels at different price points.  The undisputed heavyweight champion is Clos Ste Hune Riesling, from a single walled vineyard within the Rosacker Grand Cru, up on the hills overlooking Ribeauvillé (probably my favourite town in Alsace).  This is a contender for best dry Riesling in the world and is “indestructible” according to Finian Sweeney of Sweeney’s wine merchants in Dublin.  This is a wine for the long haul, and has a pretty eye-watering price compared to most Alsace Riesling, though looks somewhat reasonable next to any Grand Cru Burgundy. Much more accessible and better value is the Riesling from the next tier down, the gold labelled Reserve Personnelle range’s Cuvée Frédéric Emile.  This is made from ripe low-yielding 45+ year old vines in the Geisberg and Osterberg climats, fermented to full dryness.  It has a mineral edge and an acidic backbone, but much more body and citrus flavour than the standard yellow label range.  This 2004 example was bought with birthday wine vouchers (you see mes amis, I am not that difficult to buy for!) and was showing plenty of development – the colour had deepened, the nose had started showing diesel notes on top of the citrus, and the palate opened out.  Friends who tasted this with me called it “the best Riesling they had ever tasted” – and I’d have to agree (so far).  Great value for money!

Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Casablanca Valley Chardonnay 2011

This is an old-fashioned premium Chilean Chardonnay.  I’m a sucker for the style in general, as long as it’s well executed.  The 2011 is still very young, and it would benefit from a couple of years so the oak and fruit integrate more.  This is a polarising wine.

Interestingly on Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages it receives two very differing reviews:

  1. Oaked like its going out of fashion. Which it is. Old fashioned new world Chardonnay – all tropical fruit and sweaty oak.  (15/20) [Richard Hemming]
  2. Sweet and spicy. Quite substantial but very satisfying. Finishes slightly suddenly after a great start. (16.5/20) [Jancis Robinson]

So, like a lot of issues in wine, it comes down to taste (sorry!) and personal preference.