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Calling time on ‘fine’ wine

In many ways, words are all we have in wine world. Unlike clothes there isn’t an option to try before you buy and even with the proliferation of reviewers and rating apps one man’s meat can be another man’s poison. It’s extremely important then that we speak to consumers with meaning, truth and integrity and not just rely on marketing bumpf.

Like many a wine professional, I have a tendency to turn time off into a busman’s holiday, managing to shoehorn in not one, but three, vineyard visits to a recent week’s holiday in Dorset.

There was a time not so long ago when English wine was seen a joke, but English fizz is now mentioned in the same breath as Champagne, with some houses setting up shop on our side of the Channel.

Observing how English wine has been elevated to respectability makes me question just how exactly a wine manages to gain a reputation for being ‘fine’?

The thing that struck me the most on these tours – seeing the fruit set and listening to how the growers tend to them, is that it’s often forgotten, (especially, I find, by those of a red trouser-wearing persuasion), that wine is a product of that most humble of trades – farming.

You’d almost be forgiven for not knowing that grapes are grown alongside the maize and turnips – after all they aren’t prized for their terroir, used as investment vehicles or discussed using the prefix ‘fine’.

While I agree that there should be distinctions made to allow consumers to understand the differences between how wines are made, and to celebrate the artistry of the winemakers, I’ve always found it difficult to understand the exclusionary, old-school attitude of the few. The old boys are so set in their ways that only wines from select regions are deemed good enough, and where a bottle’s status takes precedence over its content. Let’s face it: it’s the ‘gentleman’s’ equivalent of a pissing contest.

The concept of fine wine is outdated, literally. Take the Bordeaux Grand Cru classifications – barely changed since 1855. The term is also technically useless, having no legal definition. During my time working in retail, fine wine was categorised as anything over £20. But this arbitrary number can’t be all that defines it, otherwise the Bordeaux-and-Burgundy brigade wouldn’t hold such a tight grip on the phrase.

Rarity is another factor often cited, but if this was the case then why don’t we mention Usakhelauri, a Georgian semi-sweet wine with just 1000 bottles a vintage, in the same sentence as Burgundy? Evidently ‘fine wine’ has just become a synonym for Western European wine. And it’s a dogma that’s become an existential threat to the wine industry.

The history of the wine trade has obviously played a part in why we drink certain wines, but to the modern consumer, the dominance of a handful of regions can seem old-fashioned and intimidating.

During my tour of English Oak, I spotted a young couple. She wore Balenciaga trainers and he was dressed like a cast member of TOWIE. They did not look like the customers I used to serve, the students I used to teach, or my peers at WSET. Our prejudices might tell us they were not ‘fine wine’ drinkers, but one fact remains paramount: they were there. They had enough interest, not only book a tour, but buy a bottle. These are exactly the people that we should be welcoming into our arms.

Young drinkers aren’t afraid to spend money on quality products and brands that speak to them – just look at the rise of craft beer and artisanal spirits.

The spectrum of wines produced globally is far too great, and grape varieties far too varied, for us to be blinkered into just lauding the same few styles, over and over.

This isn’t about dumbing down, after all I spent far too much time studying to pretend that wine isn’t a difficult subject. It’s about making it more inclusive. Redefining what a fine wine can be, and where it comes from, will not only engage new consumers and make the wine world more inviting, but also increase sales across the board. Something that surely makes sense, no matter what colour trousers you wear.

Aleesha Hansel  – @_SpillingIt

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Supporting Black Wine Professionals

Image via SevenFifty Daily

In support of black wine professionals.

Black Lives Matter is having its #metoo moment: we think it’s about time that systemic racism became as unacceptable as everyday sexism. Black wine professionals are marginalised in our industry. We shared the following comments and resources for self-education about racism in the wine trade in our June newsletter on 12/6/20. The final two links are articles which have since been published which are also valuable reads.

The bald fact of it is that the wine trade, especially in the UK, is overwhelmingly white. We have thought long and hard about whether we, as a company run by white women, ought to comment on the global narrative and action which has arisen as a consequence of the murder of George Floyd. But in the words of Julia Coney, ‘it’s not that hard to stand up for what is right”.

Privately, we have committed to a revaluation of our business practices. We actively support other women in wine. We know we could and should be doing more to celebrate BAME people in the same fashion. We will be taking our time to evaluate how best to pursue this responsibility moving forward, in tandem with private self-education.

Publicly, we wanted to share these wine-trade-specific resources for self-education and support of black wine professionals. We have also shared a number of social media hashtags which we have also found useful.

First watch this IGTV from Julia Coney.

This post from her listing some notable black wine professionals (also see the comments) is a good place to start introducing diversity to your bottle-heavy Instagram feed. This is another post from Vinepair doing the same.

Dottie Gaiter’s 47 years as a journalist are worn so lightly. This piece, Being Black in the White World of Wine, was as moving as it was matter-of-fact. “One would think any industry that revolves around hospitality would want to be viewed as progressive, anti-racist, and inclusive [… But] inclusion simply is not on the minds of many in this industry.” Side note: we have also ordered a copy of Dottie and her husband John’s spine-tingly-feeling book: Love by the Glass: Tasting Notes from a Marriage.

Follow Julia’s new platform, Black Wine Professionals.

These hashtags have been a good resource for us too: #blackwineprofessionals #blackwomeninwine

With so many anti-racist texts currently sold out in the UK, we’ve also been exploring some great podcasts seated at the intersection of race and wine:

Hip Hop and Wine is awesome. The tagline describes it as a ‘blending the worlds of fine wine and popular culture’ and it does it so well. Episode 28 was particularly interesting because it brought together Amelia Singer (of The Wine Show fame) with rapper JR Boss. Host Jermaine Stone and JR Boss have a fascinating, if brief, discussion about the fact that wine is not brand-centric hampers it’s discovery by a host of new drinkers.

The Colour of Wine is another must-listen. We are slowly listening our way through the back catalogue, but particularly liked this episode featuring Brenae Royal of EJ Gallo. She touches on the value of her relationship with mentor Deborah Juergensen: “Deb started out as one of the first few women winemakers in a very male-dominated field. It’s been amazing to have her as a mentor both professionally and personally.”

Does The Wine Industry Have A Racism Problem? An article from Forbes featuring Brenae Royal, Wanda Mann and Regine Rousseau. Examples of systemic racism in the industry which keep recurring revolve around black people being questioned about their qualifications and right to be in a wine space; the suggestion that a black person is included in a wine space/ panel/ etc as a diversity token. A valuable read to check the way we approach black wine professionals.

What Being An Ally Really Means, by Shakera Jones aka @BlackGirlsDineToo. The article includes a call for influencers to use their platforms to drive social change, rather than shying away from race-related statements for fear of losing followers or potential work. A good example of concrete action she references is certain wine influencers requesting a statement on their response to #BlackLivesMatter and diversity policies from brands before they agree to work with them. A simple but powerful action.


Mindful drinking: how and why you should try it

Mindful drinking sounds like a fad. But we’ve found that it can really enhance your drinking experience. In our June newsletter we explored how and why you should try mindful drinking.

Have you ever tried to eat a Lindor bar mindfully? It’s a ruinous experience. Tune into the full experience of a single bite and you start to notice how the chocolate clags at the back of the throat; you notice the cloying sweetness – the saccharine lack of complexity in its flavour.

On day seventy billion of lockdown (or a post-Barnard Castle approximation of it), fatigue is palpable. As a society we seem to have cycled through phases of excess and abstinence in infinite repetitions. It’s unsurprising that the internet is awash with articles tackling the mental impact of alcohol, advising people to drink ‘mindfully’.

But what does that actually mean?

Being mindful, fully engaging with the sensory and mental experience of what you’re doing, is challenging. That’s why we began with chocolate. In spite of the dopamine hit you experience when you eat chocolate, it doesn’t affect your mental faculties as much as alcohol. Because drinking mindfully is hard. Really tasting every sip, appreciating the balance of flavours and the structure of the wine without making it a WSET exercise.

The concept of mindful drinking is also mentally entwined with the sober-curious movement. But we feel that drinking mindfully needn’t be associated with problematic drinking: in itself, it can be a joyful and empowering experience. To really focus in on what you enjoy about a sniff and sip of wine is a very powerful means of focusing your attention and creating a lasting memory not just of a drink, but of a moment.

So how do you drink ‘mindfully’?

A lot lies in the preparation. Bring the wine to the perfect temperature; choose your finest stemware. Settle yourself somewhere comfortable with no distractions – that means no music, no TV, no distractions. If you are happy to, it’s actually fun to drink alone in this way. Settle yourself with your glass and consider the aromas, the flavours as you take a sip. It doesn’t have to be great wine – though we’ll wager you’ll choose better wines going forward if you drink in this way. Consider every facet of the wine. What is the texture like? Waxy? Chalky? Oily? Does it make your mouth water? What do you taste? Take the time to tease out the flavours. How does it make you feel? (The idea is not to answer “a bit pissed, to be honest.”)

Join @GroupSwirl on Twitter, for an experiment in group mindful drinking, this Thursday 18th June at 7pm. We’ll be using the #mindfulglass hashtag to share what we’re sipping, and why it’s meaningful to us.

“I failed seven hundred times.” On the birth of Awasake.

In just four years, bottle-fermented sparkling sake (Awasake) has emerged as an exciting new category in Japanese sake. The Awasake producer association has a shared quality charter, technical patent, and promotional campaign. Awasake must be made to sparkle by a second fermentation, and not (as in the more mass-market style of sparkling sake) by carbonation. The development of the technique to make bottle-fermented sparkling sake was led by Mr. Noriyoshi Nagai, of Nagai Sake in Gunma. Mr. Nagai first started experimenting with bottle-fermented sparkling sake in 2003. “I failed 700 times”, he smiles, “before I succeeded in 2008.” He went on to share his method (bear in mind that a conventional ‘tirage’ is not permissable under Sake rules) with other sake producers, who went on to make their own increasingly impressive bottle fermented sparkling sake. In 2016, nine sake breweries came together to create the Awasake Association. Today there are fifteen members, from all over Japan.

The styles and quality of Awasake are (as you would expect in such a young category) highly diverse, from delicate Brut Nature with ethereal ginjo character, to full-bodied, rich demi-sec examples. Some are delicate and floral – and almost on the same planet as the experience of drinking a sparkling wine. Others are from a different universe: savoury, heavily golden, and almost hefty, with vigorous toasted cereal character.

This is a truly intriguing new category. More aromatic than their vinous equivalents, with lower acidity but higher umami and (in some cases) extract, Awasake offers a fascinating new option for fine bubbles. Noriyoshi was inspired by his love of Champagne to develop Awasake. Cultured, friendly, well-travelled and curious, he has both visited and hosted acclaimed European winemakers.

The presentation of Awasake, in classic sparkling wine bottles, recalls that of Champagne. But the labels, paper and graphic design are beautiful and distinctively Japanese. And the style and flavour profile is a different creature. While carbonated sparkling sake – typically with very low alcohol, high sugar and floral easiness – is readily found in Japanese restaurants in the UK, Awasake is a different proposition. These bottle fermented sake are still rare here, although their reputation in Japan (one of the world’s biggest consumers of Champagne) is high, and admired as a creative food-pairing option. Many of the rich, dark styles made me wish for a deeply creamy, deeply smelly cheese to accompany. Noriyoshi smiles, and tells me that this is one of their favourite pairings.

Japanese culture delights and entrances through this paradox: diligent dedication to both its own heritage, and creative interpretations of others.

Below are my tasting notes from a fascinating tasting of Awasake from across Japan. I really liked them, once I’d got my head around the very different structure and texture to any bottle-fermented sparkling wine in my frame of reference. And I was greatly impressed and moved by the incredible achievement of these producers who have come together to create this new, premium, technically demanding drink with great unity and focus. Noriyoshi-san’s “700 failures” were just 700 steps to a new creation.

1       Mutsu Hassen Dry Sparkling, Hachinohe Sake Brewery, Aomori, 12%
Pale greenish gold. Lightly perfumed, marine aromatics with fine, delicate mousse and a fresh, lightly savoury palate enlivened by a touch of pleasant bitterness.


2       Nambu-Bijin Awasake Sparkling, Nambu Bijin, Iwate, 14%
Very pale, with delicate aromas of lychee and pear. Soft mousse and a creamy, floral palate with delicate savoury umami and a refreshing style.


3       Dewatsuru Awa Sake for Tomorrow, Akita-Seishu Brewery, Akita, 13%
A more intense aromatic style, with notes of apricot. A more generous, bold style in both aromatics and texture.


4       Dewazakura Awa Sake, Dewazakura Sake Brewery, Yamagata, 13%
Very fruity, with aromas of fresh grape. Full, creamy mousse and palate with light autolytic character and broad finish


5       Ninki-Ichi Awa Sake Sparkling Junmai Dai-Ginjo Ninki Shuzo, Fukushima, 13%
Aromatic, with hints of white peach and lightly tropical fruit. Nice purity and elegant mousse. Rich and generous on the pure-tasting finish.


6       Toyokuni, Toyokuni Sake Brewery, Fukushima, 12%
The sake character is more pronounced here, with aromas of banana skin and ripe pear. Pleasing hint of bitterness on the pure palate. Well balanced and clean in style.


7       Kaika Awasake, Dai-Ichi Shuzo Sake Brewery, Tochigi, 13%
Broad and fruity, with notes of yellow peach and pineapple, in a round, accessible style


8       Mizubasho Pure, Nagai Sake, Gunma, 13%
Refined aromatics of lychee and apple. Gentle acidity, but lovely sense of fresh balance overall. Fine, soft, gentle mousse. Delicate savoury/umami character on mid palate and dry, elegant finish.


10     Mizubasho Yuki-Hotaka Awa Sake, Nagai Sake, Gunma, 13%
Refined aromatics of white blossom. An elegant, off-dry, but very balanced style. Very charming and easy to like.


11     Mizubasho Pure 2009, Nagai Sake, Gunma, 13%
Very pretty pale goldish-green. Complex aromas of red apple, blossom and delicate steamed rice. Excellent fine mousse, with delicate perfume on mid-palate and a long, refined finish where the umami notes really come through.


12     Kikuizumi Hito-Suji, Takizawa Shuzo, Saitama, 12%
Lots of Umami on the nose. This tastes more like “sake with bubbles” than some of the others. Bold, characterful and interesting.


13     Hitosuji Rosé, Takizawa Shuzo, Saitama, 11%
Very pretty pale salmon pink. The colour comes from the red yeast used during fermentation. Fruity and floral, with hints of cherry blossom. Quite sweet on the palate, but refreshed by fine mousse and nice bitterness


14     Shichiken Hoshi-no-Kagayaki, Yamanashi-Meijo, Yamanashi, 11%
Delicate banana skin on the nose. An elegant sparkling sake, with gentle creamy mousse.


15     Shichiken Sora-no-Irodori, Yamanashi-Meijo, Yamanashi, 12%
Very pale watery white. Pure and floral, with hint of steamed rice. Delicately foaming mousse.


16     Shichiken Mori-no-Kanade, Yamanashi-Meijo, Yamanashi, 12%
More evolved aromatics, and a much more savoury/umami style, with intense autolytic character and notes of toasted rice. A bolder, more intense sparkling sake overall.


17     Mashumi Sparkling, Miyasaka Jozo Sake Brewery, Nagano, 12%
Elegant aromatics of fresh white peach and pear. Fine mousse and fresh but smooth finish.


18     Awa Hakkaisan, Hakkai Jozo Sake Brewery  Niigata, 13%
Complex and intriguing aromas of hazelnut skin, japanese pickles and toasted rice. Pure and clean, with hints of yellow peach, on the palate. Soft mousse, but with a pleasing astringency that gives a refreshing style, as does the moderate alcohol


19     Awa Yuki-Shiro Hakkaisan, Hakkai Jozo Sake Brewery, Niigata, 12%
Extremely pale and delicate in colour. Elegant, airy, refined aromas of white pear and red apple. Nice palate, with delicate banana and citrus and a fine mousse with a finish that is balanced, with notes of fresh steamed rice.


20     Chiyomusubi Sorah, Chiyo-Musubi Shuzo, Tottori, 12%
Banana skin, more assertive aromatic style. Gently frothy, refreshing bitterness on finish.


21     Yatsushika awa sake Hakkou, Yatsushika Shuzo, Ohita, 12%
Open and fragrant with notes of yellow pear. Intriguing, with depth and layer of texture beneath the bubbles.


22     Tenzan Sparkling, Tenzan Shuzo, Saga, 13%
Smoky salty aromas with hints of lychee. Marine and vigorous. Full, bold finish.


23     Kitaya Sparkling Crystal, Kitaya Sake Brewery, Fukuoa, 12%
Very fruity and floral. Sweet, soft, frothy and charming with hint of musk melon.

Sarah Abbott MW.

I tasted Awasake in Gunma prefecture, on a visit courtesy of JFOODO, in March 2020.

For further information, see the Awasake Association website.


Tasting Awasake.