Distilling in a heatwave

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Photograph courtesy of Scratch Spirits

If the heatwave of the past few weeks has highlighted one thing, it’s that wine isn’t the only industry sector affected by rising temperatures. We asked four distillers, based across the country, to tell us how they’re fighting the heat – or, as it turns out for some, working with it. 

Scratch Spirits 

“The heat impacts every stage, in small but meaningful ways,” says Doug Miller, founder of Scratch Spirits. His rum distillery is based in Hertfordshire, which has seen some of the highest temperatures in the country. Doug remains unfazed – despite the heat meaning that the fermentation, usually controlled to the best of a distiller’s abilities, is rapidly sped up.  

“Fermentations are hotter in the early stages, as I don’t cool water,” he explains. “I don’t have the time or energy, and I do a blend which is hard to cool down. That’s OK. It means they happen faster and have more volatility and less control – which I like!” 

As it turns out, he has some experience working with higher temperatures – which goes some way towards explaining his glass-half-full attitude. “I usually run the ferments at the hotter range of yeast tolerance anyway,” he says. “In the long run, ferments are more stable and predictable, as there is less crashing of temperature between days and nights.”  

Greensand Ridge  

For others, though, faster fermentations are a huge concern. It’s not just alcohol that is produced at this stage in the process; it is also when parameters are set for a blend’s final aromatic and flavour profile. Slower, cooler fermentations mean more management can be exerted over these flavours, and heat is very much the enemy when it comes to producing a controlled, consistent and replicable blend. 

Will Edge, founder of Greensand Ridge, actively combats the effects of heat – where he can. His Tonbridge-based operation specialises in distilling spirits from ‘wonky’ fruit and uses wild yeasts that are particularly suited to slower fermentations. For some, he adds cooling agents; others, like his apricot and plum fermentations, require more attention. “The risk is that mould and bacteria begin to outcompete yeast in the heat,” he says. “This is where I’ll often use some sulphur dioxide and cultured yeasts, to get a cleaner fermentation.” 

Distillation is affected by heat too. “The stills generate reflux – which is the condensing of the spirit on the copper, and the resulting redistillation,” Will explains. This process is vital to purifying and concentrating spirits; a stable, significant level of reflux is required for success. “A hot stillhouse will generate less reflux than a cold one, so this needs to be factored in during distillation.”  

But Will does have an additional card up his sleeve to protect against the heat: the building in which spirits production takes place. “The impact of a heatwave is moderated somewhat here, because of the nature of the building,” he says. “It has no windows, and no floor insulations.”  

The Portsmouth Distillery 

Vince Noyce, Operations Director at The Portsmouth Distillery, also benefits from a fortunate building design, albeit a slightly more unique one. His artisan gin and rum distillery operates from an ancient Naval fortress, and casemates – old, armoured warship structures – have been his friend during the heatwave. “Because we store and work in these casemates, the ambient temperature doesn’t actually vary a huge amount,” he explains. “A raging heat doesn’t really affect what’s going on inside. So storage, ageing, et cetera – it’s all good.” 

Fermentation at Portsmouth doesn’t escape the heatwave’s effects entirely – but Vince remains optimistic. “The upside of heat is that the fermentation is more rigorous and, during the summer months, our sugar wine is a little stronger.” This doesn’t affect the flavour of his rum, but will increase yields significantly – always a positive for smaller distillers reliant on good production levels. In fact, the only negative Vince notes he’s had to suffer is that the heatwave has resulted in his drinking more cold beer. (A valiant sacrifice, we agree.)  

Nc’nean 

For those not lucky enough to operate inside warships, more drastic solutions are needed. Matt Hastings at the Nc’nean whisky distillery opts to move to a different product completely in warmer months: “We switch to producing our ‘old’ recipe – our single yeast strain – which can take a higher temperature in the spirit safe.” 

It’s not yet a necessity for his Scottish operation. Based on the West Coast of Scotland, Nc’nean hasn’t yet had to face the extremity of temperature that would take it outside its ideal operational window. But, as Matt continues, having an established plan of action in place is important. “It’s a smart approach considering the seasonal effects we have currently and will almost definitely be faced with in the future. Thanks, climate change.”

Discover our complete range of spirits from around the world.

Category: Spirits

On the pour: 2020 Côtes du Rhône

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A photo of a bottle of Côtes du Rhône red wine from Domaine Dieu-le-Fit, next to an empty wine glass and against our Enomatic machine in our London Shop.

Each month in our London Shop, we showcase a new line-up of wines to taste from our Enomatic machines. For August, Peter Windred from the shop has singled out this delicious Côtes du Rhône as one of his favourites. Here, he tells us the story behind the wine.

2020 Côtes du Rhône, Visan, Garrigues, Domaine Dieu-le-Fit, Pouizin

What is it? 

This month, we’re showcasing a fabulous Côtes du Rhône red wine from Domaine Dieu-le-Fit. The domaine was established by 5th generation vigneron Rémi Pouizin from a village called Visan, not far from Vinsobres (northeast of Orange) in the south of France.    

Sustainable quality 

Working organically is part of Rémi’s family philosophy; his grandparents started growing fruit and vegetables organically in the 1960s. Rémi, who makes our own-label Côtes du Rhône, established his winery in 2014. In 2016, the winery was certified biodynamic. Like our Côtes du Rhône, this is from the 2020 vintage. This cool vintage is exceptionally well suited to Rémi’s juicy, fresh and fruit-forward style. The wines from this year have a luminescent quality to the colour, given the lower juice-to-skin ratio of the restrained growing season. Both this wine and our own Côtes du Rhône are delicious. 

Straight from the Mediterranean 

This wine is labelled garrigues. Garrigue refers to low-growing vegetation and herbs that grow in many parts of the southern Mediterranean coast, including the plateau surrounding the area around Rémi’s vineyards. Garrigue may be juniper, thyme or lavender vegetation, which imparts a herbal character to the local wines. A whiff and a taste of this wine will reveal garrigue floral and lavender notes integrated with a core of red and black fruits.  

What should I drink it with? 

This wine is an essential partner at your next barbecue. It’s delicious to drink with all varieties of red meats, especially lamb.    

Visit our London Shop at 63 Pall Mall to sample this wine from our Enomatic machines 

Category: Miscellaneous

Graci: energy, emotion and Mount Etna

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Alberto Graci of Graci and Davy Żyw, our Italy Buyer, discuss the latest vintage, volcanic terroir and the mysteries of Etna. 

Where children born into winemaking families are concerned, there is always a question of destiny. Many leave the coop to pursue different lines of work – many return. One such person is Alberto Graci, who sat down with Davy Żyw during his whistle-stop visit to our historic home at St James’s. He tells us how he left his family home in Sicily to pursue an altogether different line of work – one involving considerably less manual labour. 

“I went to Rome to study economics, and then I went to Milan to work at an investment bank,” Alberto reveals. “But there was always a history of agriculture in my family.” His grandfather was the winemaker, but after his passing, Alberto returned to his roots. “In 2004, I decided to restart my life in a new place – a place with a great potential.” 

PLAYING WITH FIRE 

But why Etna? Making wine on an active volcano might deter a risk-averse vigneron, but not Alberto. To him, Etna is not only a place of familiarity, it’s also one of promise. “I felt inspired by the great classical wines. I just knew that Etna could join Barolo and Barbaresco as one of Italy’s finest.” 

He gestures to the table as if a full glass of his wine has been poured before him. “Everything you need is in there: complexity, vibrancy, pleasure, beauty. All this is influenced by the cultures and civilisations that have lived in Sicily over 2,000 years.”  

Good wine aside, it’s difficult to overlook the very real problems posed by a super-active volcano. When asked how Alberto manages this, he’s – perhaps unsurprisingly – pretty laid back about it. 

“We have 50 or 60 eruptions every year, but we live in a world of risks,” he swats away the question with his hand. “There are farmers all over the world. The challenge of Etna that I care about is the extreme climate. We’re on a mountain but we’re connected to the African climate – the storms, the heat. The question is, how do you manage that?” 

THE INSTINCT OF AN ARTIST 

His answer is simple: by involving himself in every part of the winemaking process. There is no room for error here. “I take care of every aspect of the work – I always believe an artisan should involve themselves in every aspect of the process. In this way, the product is good, but it is also the result of the ideas, sensibilities and instincts of the artist.” 

I ask whether those sensibilities include his decision to work with only indigenous varieties; his answer isn’t what I expect. “I don’t work with Nerello Mascalese and Carricante because they’re ‘indigenous’. I use them because they work so well with the terroir and because of their late maturation, they withstand the heat of the African sun. They’re able to express the purity of its Mediterranean beauty.” 

Expressing purity is a recurring theme throughout our conversation. Indeed, it’s what initially drew Davy to the wines of Graci. “It’s such a privilege to represent Alberto’s wines. The unique terroir of Etna has such emotion and energy from an extreme environment. It needs a very a careful hand to channel all of this into a single glass.”  

A PATCHWORK OF CONTRADE 

So what is so special about Graci’s terroir? Firstly, his “contrade” – a word used to denote Sicilian vineyards – includes several old vineyards that survived phylloxera due to their sandy soils. “Or, perhaps, the pest was scared of the volcano,” Alberto laughs. 

The geographical make-up of his contrade varies significantly. The volcano is the reason for this: ancient lava flow from different millennia has affected the soil composition greatly. As the vineyards climb the volcano, there is also extreme variation in altitude – from 500 to 1,000 metres above sea level. 

Alberto’s interest in exactly how these minutiae affect his wines verges on obsession. “This is what I love about wine, it’s a pleasure to discover the differences and the pure expressions of each plot,” Alberto notes. 

It’s apparent he gets a great deal of joy from understanding his contrade scientifically, but he also acknowledges that there are some things that microscopes and refractometers can’t explain. 

“How can I explain why my wines smell of blood oranges? Something magical happens in the vineyard and we will never know why. We can study for 1,000 years but there is also a mystery – I want to represent this without overthinking the technique.” 

SUSTAINABILITY: AS SOLID AS A ROCK 

One thing that Alberto does pay close attention to, however, is the biodiversity and sustainability of Graci. The estate is certified organic and is farmed in a way that honours Alberto’s quest for purity. 

“The choice to be sustainable should be as sure and solid as a rock,” Alberto insists. “It’s possible to be sustainable anywhere in the world. Lucky for us, Etna is a place of great natural potential. For example, we have a six-hectare vineyard called Barbabecchi, only two hectares of which is vines – the rest is woodland.” 

Alberto continues to emphasise the importance of biodiversity: birds that live in the woodlands eat parasites; he claims he will never chop down a tree. “It’s something that makes the landscape beautiful, but also makes beautiful wine.” 

Speaking of beautiful wine, Davy has just ordered some of Alberto’s latest releases. So what can we expect? Davy jumps at the chance to explain Graci’s upcoming cuvées

“To start, we have the Etna Rosso, Bianco and Rosato – these wines give you a real taste of that Graci purity we’ve been talking about. “We’re also lucky to be getting some of his single vineyards including Muganazzi, Arcurìa and Feudo di Mezzo, they are brooding and alive.”

“They encapsulate such a unique style that not many customers will be familiar with. These wines are some of the finest expressions in the world, let alone in Italy, Sicily, or Etna.” 

Browse our complete selection of Graci, plus the new vintages, here. 

Category: Italian Wine

Bordeaux: our team’s favourite châteaux

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An illustration of Ch. Haut-Brion, one of our colleagues' favourite Bordeaux châteaux.
Ch. Haut-Brion is one of our colleagues favourite Bordeaux châteaux. Illustration: Anje Jager

We work with Bordeaux’s greatest producers, from First Growths to stars on the rise. To choose a single favourite château is an almost impossible task. But that’s exactly what we’ve asked our team to do. Here, some of our Claret-loving colleagues tell us about their best-loved producers.

Château Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Léognan

“I’ve had some fantastic experiences in Bordeaux, but the one that always stands out is my visit to Château Haut-Bailly,” says Account Manager Henrietta Gullifer. Haut-Bailly is a much-loved Classified Growth in the Pessac-Léognan appellation. It has a rich and colourful history, well documented in Jane Anson’s Château Haut-Bailly: An Exceptional Terroir.

But for Henrietta, the modern era is fascinating enough. “Not only do they make some truly fantastic wines that have managed to improve in quality and stature every year, but they also have a woman at the helm – a rare occurrence in Bordeaux,” adds Henrietta. That woman is Véronique Sanders, who has been associated with Haut-Bailly for entire life: her family owned and ran the property from 1955 until they sold it to the American Robert “Bob” Wilmers; and she has led the estate as its President since 2000.

Meeting Véronique has stuck with Henrietta: “She is such a dynamic and friendly character,” says Henrietta. “She has such passion for the wines of Pessac that it’s hard not to get swept up in it. They have fantastic facilities, blending old traditions – like planting grape varieties side-by-side in the vineyard – with innovative winemaking, producing fantastic wines.”

Read our interview with Véronique Sanders.

Château La Gaffelière, St Emilion

Few estates anywhere in the world, let alone Bordeaux, have belonged to the same family for as long as Château La Gaffelière. The Malet-Roquefort family bought their St Emilion flagship back in 1705. That’s well over 100 years before the Bartons bought Langoa and Léoville. And winegrowing here predates the family by quite some time. “There have been vines here since Gallo-Roman times,” says our Bordeaux Buyer Max Lalondrelle.

Yet for an historic old property, it’s still attracting new followers. “I only discovered them last year, but what an eye-opener,” says Account Manager Alexandra Gray de Walden. “They seem to have found that perfect symbiosis of heritage and modern winemaking,” says Alexandra. “The estate’s grand vin is a real gem for any collector, and their second wine, Clos La Gaffelière, is ideal for early drinking: it’s a ‘serious’ wine but with a remarkably approachable exterior.”

The estate is among the best situated in St Emilion: there are vines on the appellation’s famed limestone plateau, its slopes and its foothills.

Browse our range of wines from Château La Gaffelière.

Château Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan

The singular Château Haut-Brion was ranked a First Growth in the historic 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines. Such was its reputation at the time that this was the only red-wine estate outside the Médoc to be featured; the châteaux of the Right Bank didn’t get a look-in. Located on the outskirts of Bordeaux, it has since 1935 been owned by the Dillon family, today led by Prince Robert of Luxembourg. In 1983, the same family bought neighbouring estate Château La Mission Haut-Brion. The family portfolio of estates, Domaines Clarence Dillon, is one of the most impressive in the world, now also including Château Quintus in St Emilion.

To taste Haut-Brion is always a memorable experience. To taste it on your first day at your first wine job would be downright unforgettable. But that’s precisely what happened to Rob Whitehead. “I remember drinking 1995 Haut-Brion on my very first day working at Berry Bros. & Rudd,” he says. (His immediate thoughts at the time? “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”)

While Rob has since become our esteemed Spirits Buyer, he hasn’t lost his admiration for Haut-Brion. “They are unstintingly excellent in both white and red wines,” he says. “Quiet, self-assured magnificence, year in and year out.”

Browse our range of wines from Château Haut-Brion.

Category: Bordeaux Wine