The end of the Zoom wine tasting

Wine tastings at home may be coming to an end, but there are lots of highlights to pick out from the cardboard jungle, says Christine Austin

The Yarra Valley produces excellent Chardonnays.

There have been times during this pandemic when I have not been able to navigate my way through my hallway. Boxes have been piled high, from around the wine world, all sent by producers who hoped that I would love their wines, write about them and boost sales through this difficult period. But things are changing. I have a diary full of upcoming autumn tastings, which I will choose to go to depending on how well they are organised and how easily I can get there without too much crowding on trains and buses.

The advantage of big tastings is that I can get through over a hundred wines in a short time, make notes and go home. Tasting at home is fun at first but by the time I have opened several boxes, disposed of the cardboard, sticky tape and endless rolls of bubble wrap, I have devastated my kitchen and filled up my recycling bin. And while it is lovely to have a dozen or more wines open for tasting, I really can’t drink them all. So, the word goes out that there will be bottles on my drive at 5pm, and it is surprising just how competitive neighbours can be when they are racing down the road.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Now the era of deliveries seems to be ending, here are some of the highlights I have tasted from all those boxes.

Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard, planted with ancient vines.

Australia

Wine Australia has been diligent in sending out little bottles of wines, usually organised around grape or regional themes. Tastings were often combined with a Zoom call to various winemakers, so I have had the chance to keep up with what has been happening Down Under.

The range of tastes from Yarra Valley was amazing. This region of cool climate and ancient soils has made Chardonnay one of its key grape varieties and I really liked the wines from Giant Steps, Yering Station and Yarra Yering. Head to Waitrose for crisp, bright, peach and nectarine fruit in Yering Station The Elms Chardonnay 2018 (£10.49) or step up to the sheer elegance of Giant Steps Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2020 and enjoy its gentle stone fruit and oyster shell crunch at Harrogate Fine Wines (£24.99).

New Zealand

The 2021 harvest in New Zealand is down by around 20 per cent but the quality is exceptional. This means that it will be difficult for retailers to maintain their low price points, but there will be some gems as you climb the quality ladder.

Master of Wine Steve Smith, a New Zealand winemaker who built up the reputation of Craggy Range, has moved on and joined forces with a Texan investor, Brian Sheth, to buy a biodynamic vineyard in the Waikari Valley on South Island. Pyramid Valley has always made exceptional wines, but now it has the financial backing to expand. “This is a genuinely cool site, almost as warm as Burgundy and not quite as cool as Champagne,” said Steve on a Zoom call. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the real stars of this site, and we are fortunate that Penistone Wine Cellars (pcwine.co.uk) has some of these exceptional wines in stock. I loved the Pyramid Valley Chardonnay 2018 (£26.98) for its white peach and pear notes, backed by citrus with a savoury, nutty background and an almost salty note on the finish.

Smith and Sheth have also bought the Manata vineyards in Lowburn central in Central Otago and are making some excellent Pinot Noirs. Bon Coeur (www.bcfw.co.uk) has the Pyramid Valley Pinot 2018 (£28), a deep coloured wine with blackberry and raspberry notes, hints of black pepper and a long, silky finish.

Supermarkets

Some chains managed to arrange safe and organised tastings, but Morrisons and Asda relied on sending boxes which were very welcome especially since they came with one-to-one Zoom chats with the buyers.

Asda has appointed former Morrisons wine buyer Clive Donaldson to head up wine sourcing for its stores and while I talked about the Asda range last week, I really think it is worth saying again that the quality for money in this range is exceptional. Try Extra Special Argentinian Malbec 2020 (£7) made from old vines, for dark mulberry fruit, with enough grip to handle a steak. Among the whites, Extra Special Rueda at just £5.50 gives delicious bright, lively citrus and herb flavours.

Morrisons continues to provide a lively dynamic range of wines, also hitting some great value price points without compromising on quality. Swartland Granite Earth Red 2020, made from a blend of Syrah, Grenache and other Rhône-style grapes, packs glorious rich, spicy flavours that are good now alongside a plate of sausages but will also go well with autumn casseroles. Normally priced at £8.50, it is worth snapping this up at £7 until September 21.

I am not generally a fan of Pinot Grigio but the one that Morrisons has sourced from the cool mountain air of Italy’s Alto Adige has crunchy apple and ripe pear notes and is the kind of wine that will accompany the last of the summer salads and the start of autumn baked fish dishes. It is down from £10 to £8 until September 21.

Not all my chats with winemakers have involved bottles and tasting. I have talked about climate change with Miguel Torres in Spain who is seeking out cooler places to plant vines whilst also dramatically cutting CO2 emissions from his wineries and helping to reforest areas of South America.

Prue Henschke in Australia talked about old vines and the way they manage to survive increasing climatic challenges, producing small amounts of concentrated grapes. There are plans for certification of old vines so that buyers know “old vine wine” is genuine. Henschke owns the Hill of Grace vineyard, planted in 1860 which is still producing wonderful grapes.

There was a microbiology seminar so I could understand the whole “wild fermentation” process where different yeasts compete to turn sugar into alcohol and make delicious flavours. There have also been wines from New York State, South Africa, Spain and Italy, and several talks were interrupted by wi-fi failures.

All this has been great fun, but I am looking forward to getting out to this new season of tastings, and lots of new flavours.