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Allez La France

There are a number of things that turn the French on. Food, unquestionably in poll position; sex, they are French after all ; wine, and rugby. OK they like Hermes too but that’s for a very special niche market. Rugby is a religion in France. It is every boys dream to play for les bleus, and score the winning try in the dieing seconds of the World Cup, beating the British. Oh, the sweet taste of giving it to the Brits. It’s a national pastime.

So the only thing that could interrupt the work in the cellar during harvest was to play rugby. And that took care of most of Sunday. But what I didn’t realize was the unusual way that a French team prepares for a match, and during that process I also had the revelation that your average Frenchman doesn’t have a clue about wine. It is a myth that everyone in France is somehow related to Michel Rolland. No, whilst a nationality of great taste and sophistication in many ways, most people just knock back the red like its water, and make a few comments that you can’t go wrong with – ah, c’est bon ca. This was certainly the favorite expression of the players at the pre-game lunch.

Here’s the way it shakes down in small village French club rugby played by adult men between 20-55, all on the same team. You show up at
the clubhouse at 12 noon for the aperitif of pastis, then there’s a 4 course lunch with carafes of red everywhere, and then after a quick coffee it’s time to amble down to the pitch, get changed, and play a match with kick-off at 3.30 pm. So you tailgate for 3 ½ hours as a player.

If they had breathalyzed the entire team they would have impounded every car. And yet as the game unfolded I finally understood how the most dynamic and beautiful rugby team anywhere in the world gets its magic flair from, its ability to pull a rabbit out of hat, to bring a nation of supporters to its feet chanting allez la France. Well, there’s the individual nature of the people, a knack, a brilliance, but it’s also partly because of the wine pre-game. And if you follow rugby it will now make perfect sense why they are the most penalized team in the world.

Sadly, domestic consumption of wine is going down, dramatically. In fact over the last 30 years it has plummeted. Why? It’s not cool to drink what your parents used to slosh back, there are drinking and driving laws now, and there are strict government anti-alcohol stances especially with regards to advertising. And frankly the previous numbers of the 1970’s were spiked by clearly excessive consumption. Case in point. I would be the only person drinking coffee at 8 am in the local café. Everyone else, driving tractors and working in the fields, was drinking wine or beer. And some people would drink 2 liters of low alcohol red per day, every day. Wow.

It’s really been the perfect storm for many French producers. A local market that is trending down, export markets full of strange people from places like Chile and Australia with kangaroos on the label, that somehow sell like hotcakes. And generally they now have competitors outsmarting them in marketing and offering better value. It has either forced French producers to improve, or leave. This struggle in the French wine sector is a matter of national pride. Because whilst every Frenchman might not know about Brett and odd sounding tests like 4EG, they sure know that France produces the best wines in the world. And on that point, they are not wrong.

Le Bureau in Bordeaux, 1993

After two months in the cellars during harvest, doing all the heavy duty work, it was a relief when one day the owner, clad in his tailored suit and looking most aristocratic, instructed me to come to work at the office.

It’s hard work in the cellars. It’s certainly not a bunch of artsy winemakers wondering around gazing at ferments, except at some very small production wineries. No, your hands are totally messed up with deep cuts and scrapes and you are filthy and tired. Basically you are in survival mode. Up at 6.30 am to start at 7 and home around 9 pm, occasionally later.

So it was with great pleasure that I put on a suit and tie and went to the office, because everyone knows that office jobs are a doss by comparison. Send a fax, wow, peruse a competitor’s brochure and slam it, wonder around and seem intelligent, organize a “winemaker” dinner for yourself, a tough life.

I was fortunate to be the assistant to the owner, and basically did anything he needed. Pick up the kids, organize a tasting for a client, write faxes for him in English, and go to Singapore when he couldn’t be bothered.

The owner was the only person in the company who could speak English. So when it came to dealing with international clients it was either him, or nobody. And with a 350,000 case operation trading the classic Grands Crus Classes worldwide, producing wine at their own 6 chateaux, and churning out negociant wines under at least 150 different labels, well this was no small affair. So it was impossible for him to cover all the global markets and see all our clients on a twice yearly basis. So one day, at the last minute, I was dispatched to Singapore in his place. I had been working there 6 weeks and was 23. I did my last trip 11 years later.

It never ceases to amaze me how the sales and marketing operations of some European producers works in terms of human resources. In our case there were over 100 people that worked in production, and there were 2 in sales and marketing, which included the owner, so really there was only 1 guy who did sales… Alors!

In Bordeaux such salesman are viewed with tremendous suspicion by the production teams, as if they come from the dark side. Yet these 2 people are expected to cover France (one of them), and the rest of the world for the other – keep it simple. Of course this is not always the case at all companies, many of whom are well staffed. But it is in fact quite common.

These people spend 4-6 months of the year travelling to see clients, attend wine trade fairs, speak at conferences and events, and guzzle wine till the wee hours in the depths of Japan with their importer, with conversation through an interpreter. It can be a very long night. When theses salesmen get back home to the office, there are visitors to receive, labels to create, offers to make, samples to send, and trips to be planned. I’d much rather be a tour guide.

What always struck me as bizarre in France was that the commercial structure was so light compared to places like the USA or Chile where companies often have Directors of Marketing, PR, Hospitality, Clubs, and even in some cases a “Communications” guy, let’s make that Senior Vice President. Marketing in the New World is much more dynamic with people trained in this skill at top wine business schools and then running highly organized corporate sales machines. Of course the statistic is something like 90% of California wine is made by 10 companies and so you’d expect this at that size, but even a 350,000 case winery in the New World would have more than 2 people in sales and marketing…

But this lean commercial structure was my good fortune. It was decided that perhaps it would be useful to have another person in the company who could speak English. For the next 8 years I was lucky to be the Global Export Director for one of the best family owned producer/negociants on the Right Bank. The fun was about to begin.

Exporting Bordeaux wines to Asia – 1994

My training in export sales involved going to the owner’s chateau, having a 3 hour dinner with some staggering old crus classes, and not speaking a word about business. As I left his house he told me to be nice to our client and see if they wanted to order more wine. And that was it. It was not the Gallo school of sales training… it was much more aristocratic. So very Bordelais darling.

So off I went to Singapore, with a price list and a sack of samples. And as it turned out it was a bit like a holiday. The importer picks you up at say 11 am, like it, and swings by your swishy hotel, that suits your swishy wines’ brand image. Then a meeting ,which can take all of 25 minutes, and guess what, it’s lunch. Selling wine at export is a lot about relationships, which are best forged over meals with a healthy amount of wine, as you know.

Of course you talk about what wines they buy and how they are selling, you suffer through their tales of market difficulties and wretched F&B Directors (who are over-solicited so they are tough to crack), and all the while you sing the praises of your latest vintages. But you become friends, which is one of the beautiful things about exporting wines. It’s got to be the most hospitable business in the world.

I seemed to be well suited for this job. A few months later I was dispatched on our companies first ever export mission to Japan, a new market.

The way that we used to open a new market was to pay the French Chamber of Commerce a small fee and they would set-up about 5 days of non-stop meetings with potentially interested importers. You go to the Chamber’s office on day 1, get your itinerary and off you go. Except in Japan it’s like being in your own version of SURVIVOR.

Go into a metro and sometimes there are no English names for the stops. So you don’t know where you are, or where to get off. Approach someone on the platform to ask for help and the ranks clear. People are generally very shy, and very few speak English. Get in a taxi and you better have a map of the place in Japanese, which then tends to be studied at great length by a driver using a magnifying glass. Take your potential client for a nice dinner, including eating a live lobster that twitches in front of your chopsticks, and you’re in the hole for $750.

Don’t get me wrong. Japan has some very special people, places and culture, but it’s like no where else. I would end up spending 4 weeks a year in the country because it is was the major market in Asia for Bordeaux. And one of the keys to success at export was to try and learn the culture.

There was a serious amount of bowing. Like serious. You were still bowing as you back-peddled into the elevator of their office building, bid farewell by the 6 people who came to the meeting with you. Often only one of the people at the meeting is the designated speaker on their behalf. It’s not like Stateside, ya feel me…   Business cards are presented with great ceremony and offered using both hands, soft handshakes with ladies, don’t touch your nose, don’t say “no” (a tricky one I must admit…), and always show the greatest respect.

A huge mistake I made for the first few years was to not shut up. You say your spiel about your wines, taste them with the potential clients, and wrap up by asking if they are interested. Often your question is met with dead silence. So, perturbed, you say that you can throw in 3% in free samples on an order. Silence again. “What the hell guys, let’s make it 5%. How about that?” But all the while the Japanese culture thinks nothing of just digesting your comments for what seems like minutes before they have a conflab in Japanese, and someone replies, hopefully, “yes, we are interested to place order”. And then there are smiles. And with those few words you just locked into some major multinational chemical company that just happens to be one of the largest wine importers in Tokyo. They could be your client for the next 30+ years.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the language barrier. To get around this you hire an interpreter, through the Chamber of Commerce. Of course this makes life easier, and occasionally much more amusing. I would discourage anyone from offering the interpreter to join the tasting because spitting is rude, so you swallow. And sometimes people can be quite sensitive to alcohol and pass out at the meeting and require an evacuation back to the Chamber of Commerce. Day done. One of the greatest attributes of the best translators was when they totally changed what you were saying so you sounded better, and started negotiating on your behalf whilst you sipped yet more green tea.

In 1994 the Asian markets were starting to boom for French wine. Start in Japan, go over to Korea, across to Taiwan, down to Hong Kong, and a late night flight to Singapore. Five countries in 12 days was not unusual for the Bordeaux exporter. It’s enough to make you dream of never going anywhere again….

Le Japon

Japan is a massive market for wine. Red wine that is. It’s always been a nation of pretty serious drinkers. They love their Sake, and they make some pretty good beer too. And when it comes to imported wine its mainly French, then Italian, and a splash of others. You see France is a cultural icon in Japan, and all things French are coveted.

Sometimes I’d ask a potential distributor if they imported wine from New World countries like Australia. This would often turn into a huge joke, as they broke up laughing to be asked such a dumb question. It was 1994. “Australia has kangaroos but definitely not wine,” the client would say, motioning to hop. For most importers, which were often divisions of Japanese Trading Companies, the mantra was simple : “French wine number 1”.

The market itself has quite a few discount shops that sell wine very cheaply, and this appeals to the average young office worker on their way home. And then there are fine wine shops where old vintages of Petrus are showcased like the crown jewels. There’s supermarkets, and thousands of restaurants, both ultra fine dining and casual. There is also a very strong Sommelier Association in Japan, some major wine magazines, and some key personalities.

The actual consumer is often slightly younger than in some markets. They see wine as very hip. In a bar the cool cats sip red wine from Riedel glasses. Plus people think it is good for your health and this fuels sales. After all, the medical proof of the health benefits is overwhelming. You wake up in the morning raring to go, bounding out of bed fresh as a daisy… So in Asia Japan is one of the more mature and sophisticated markets with hundreds of importers doing a very professional job.

The main cities we targeted for exporting were Tokyo and Osaka. Tokyo has 13 million people. Many importers just focus on Tokyo. But after an exporter has found clients in certain geographical regions like Tokyo, and given exclusivity to those importers, then the salesman has to go further afield, in search of a new client to generate more fun coupons for his boss.

And so one day, at 5 am at the downtown Tokyo airport, I found myself sitting on a 747 bound for Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, about one hour north. This was getting off the beaten track. There was at least 400 Japanese onboard, plus myself. When the JAL flight attendant came round to offer tea or coffee you could see in her eyes that she felt pity, and was desperately wondering WTF are you doing on this aircraft sir.

Armed with an address and a map in Japanese you hail a taxi in the snow and start driving to an unknown location. As you watch the meter tick away furiously into the thousands of Yen you stop outside an alleyway. There is an unmarked door to what looks like a warehouse. You’re in the middle of nowhere. You bang on the door, and when miraculously it opens you find yourself standing in a warehouse surrounded by hundreds of palettes of fine wine. Stacks of Latour, 3 palettes high with Mouton, a swimming pool of Yquem, and so on. Gazillions of cases worth millions of dollars.

And within the warehouse there is a very large office, where the owner sits. He has a putting green set-up by his desk, and after a discussion about your company and your products he cracks open a bottle of Chateau Margaux, hands you a glass and a golf club and the putting game is on.

The way it usually goes is that you leave with some mutual interest in working together, and then once home you send love letters back and forth, and then you have to get your sorry ass back to the airport at 5 am and go all the way back to this Japanese island for a 2nd visit, at which time you may be close to making a deal, or maybe not. In Japan they value long term business partnerships, and they want to see if you’re a fly-by-night winery, or if, in fact, you’re a keeper.

The Winemaker Dinner

One of the traditional ways to market and sell your wine was, and always will be, to organize a Winemaker Dinner. Essentially you try to attract a number of key customers to come and break bread with you. They taste and enjoy your wines, and you strengthen your relationship because you just fed them delectable food and poured copious quantities of expensive wines. It often ends with everyone getting inebriated and, at the end of the night, expressing their love for one-another. My company employed this tactic ALOT.

But this term “Winemaker Dinner” can be a tad misleading. Because more often than not there is no winemaker within 8,000 miles of the fancy private room at the 5 star hotel. No, YOU are playing “Winemaker” for the evening, because the real one doesn’t speak English and frankly his personality might put buyers off.

In our case we would bring vintages of all our own chateaux dating back to 1952. There would be a 20 year vertical of most estates available for tasting pre-dinner, along with a handful of the 1st growths that we brought along for prestige, and to get the most stubborn buyers to come out. And then, at dinner, we would serve 2 wines with each course, and aim for 5 courses. The wines were spectacular. Yes, we did it up real grande baby. No expense spared. My boss knew how to do it right, and when he and his gorgeous wife came on a trip it was like royalty had arrived.

The results were staggering. We created a brand image that was second to none. Buyers were impressed. One morning back in the office in Bordeaux we woke up to an 18,000 case order from our main Japanese importer, for immediate collection. So the moral of the Winemaker Dinner story is that if you are going to do it then GO BIG and make a splash, otherwise it could even work against you if Buyers are not wowed.

But no two Winemaker Dinners are ever quite alike. In London they expect someone to speak with insight and intellect, humor and quick wit, and the guests are always politely silent during the speeches. In Detroit you better make it short and sweet before the crowd starts chattering, and you can blatantly request that people fill out the order form NOW. And in Tokyo, well, you get ready for the toasts. About every 15 minutes, and with increasing frequency, someone in Japan proposes a toast. Yes darling, sometimes it’s Bottoms Up. This requires a lightening fast evaluation of the terroir expression in your glass, filled to the brim for the toast.

To call this work for some people would seem like a joke. But in fact there is a skill in the organization of a Winemaker dinner. You need to ensure the food and wine are paired well by speaking to the chef in advance and ideally sampling him on the wines and making menu suggestions. Seating arrangements must be carefully done so the biggest Buyers are made to feel important and not seated with competitors. Speeches need to be mentally prepared so they look off-the-cuff, and should be tailored to the audience and their level of knowledge, as well as the occasion. Every guest should be welcomed personally and an effort made to talk to each of them, even if it is much more tempting to stay slumped in a chair guzzling Cheval Blanc with your chatty neighbor. And inevitably you meet a dozen people so you need to scribble down what you promised them on their business card otherwise in the morning the follow-up is a disaster. Ok it wasn’t quite as elaborate as Chanel launching their Spring Collection, but a lot of work went into a successful event.

Finally, after the dinner is officially over, you must invite the stragglers to the closest bar for more wine, and more toasts. But you yourself must never totally lose the plot because you might end up having to carry your Japanese importer home. And yes, it was him with the 18,000 case order.

Temperature Control – Chateau Recougne, Bordeaux Superieur, 1993 harvest

Once the cellar was safe to enter we went in and got ready for the day ahead. The first job was to take the temperature of each tank, which was a good way to start the day as it required zero intelligence or physical effort. In most cellars these days it would be as simple as looking at the gleaming computer panels that display the precise temperature of each tank, but no, in my cellar there were no computers. The vats were cooled by wrapping a hose around the neck of the tank, and then puncturing the hose so that cold water trickled out. Very sophisticated…

That said, temperature control during fermentation is still done in remarkable ways in some parts of the world. In the Alentejo in Portugal there are still producers that use huge clay pots which they burry underground to keep the wine cool. In Canada some producers put tanks or bins on forklifts and move them outside at night to cool ferments down. And I’ve seen producers add large blocks of ice into a tank too – no names mentioned.

Of course temperature control has become such a critical metric in managing fermentations.

You can use cooling to cold soak must on arrival at the winery. You can keep ferments moving at a nice pace by preventing them from taking off and spiking in reds over 35 C which would likely result in a stuck fermentation. Of course in white wines it is even more important, especially for aromatic whites like Sauvignon Blanc done unoaked in tank. Cold temperatures can help preserve the vibrant youthful aromatics.

RIESLING – the best white grape in the world?

Riesling produces some of the most spectacular white wines in the world. If you want to see a wine lover get really excited then open up an old vintage Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace or a fine Mosel from Germany. In my opinion, drinking a top quality Riesling is one of the greatest experiences in wine. It’s heavenly.

Outstanding quality Riesling is a model of purity. The taste reflects the nature of vineyard where the grapes were grown. The fact that they are not aged in new oak enables the character of the grapes to shine, and in a fine Mosel you can taste some of the minerally nuances that come from the blue slate soils.

Very few other grapes show the complexity that you can find in Riesling and the depth and layers can be astonishing as they unfold on the nose and in your mouth. I’ve constantly got my nose hovering over the glass because there are so many lovely nuances to enjoy with each sniff.

Riesling also produces wines with incredible longevity, more than almost every other grape. In some of the cellars in Germany you’ll find stocks of wines going back over 100 years.

It’s with age that the wines really start to shine because it takes time for the complex nuances to evolve. With a few decades of maturity you can find a combination of elegance and power, delicacy and intensity, and a vast spectrum of flavors and nuances. And to cap it all off, Riesling refreshes the parts that other wines don’t reach.

So, where are the classic regions and what should you buy? If you like dry white wines then Alsace is the classic area for outstanding Riesling. It’s situated in north eastern France, just across the Rhine River from Germany. I love it here because there are so many small family-owned wineries that have been making stunning wines for hundreds of years. In fact, it’s my favorite region in the world for white wines, which include the fabulous Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers.

The towns and villages can resemble something out of Hansel and Gretel. Think thatched roofs, cobblestone streets, small cozy restaurants, and everyone seems to know each other so there’s much kissing and a constant exchange of “bonjour” as the locals go about their business.

Alsace produces wines that are much fuller in body and higher in alcohol compared to the Mosel in Germany. This is largely thanks to the dry and sunny climate that is the result of the rain shadow effect of the Vosges Mountains, which are high enough to ski on. So most of the Rieslings are in the 12-14% alcohol range, are typically medium in body, dry, and have crisp acidity. The aromas and flavors can include a beautiful citrus and green apple note, with a hint of ripe peach, and a touch of the classic petrol aroma that develops with age. The top wines inevitably have a streak of minerality that’s to die for, and the length that can last for hours.

My favorite producers are Domaine Weinbach, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht and Ostertag. But there are so many other excellent producers like the reasonably priced wines from the co-op Pfaffenheim. One of the tricks to buying good Riesling is to buy Grand Cru, which can retail for around $30 per bottle all the way up to $100+. And if you’re keen on specific recommendations then you can’t do much better than the Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile, the Weinbach Grand Cru Schlossberg, and if you are looking for rich, fat and powerful wines then Olivier Humbrecht is your man.

Alsace also produces a late-harvest style of Riesling called Vendange Tardive and, in exceptional years, a sweet botrytis effected wine called SGN, standing for Selection de Grains Nobles. One of the greatest bottles I ever had was from Domaine Ostertag, whose sweet wine showed sublime flavors of honey, pineapple and apricot with just the perfect amount of acidity to counter-balance the sweetness. That’s the art of achieving balance in sweet wines.    

Another classic Riesling producer is, of course, Germany, albeit in a totally different style. Most of the wines are sweeter, to one degree or another, and have less body, lower alcohol and more delicacy. That said, there is a strong movement towards dry wines, called Trocken, and so the old adage that German wines are sweet is no longer true. Regardless, they can age for decades, and once upon a time they were the most expensive white wines in the world.

My favorite region is the Mosel where the wines can be as low as 7.5% in alcohol, which means you get to enjoy more of them whilst still remaining coherent. What never ceases to amaze me is the steepness of the slopes in the Mosel, which are not far off being precipitous cliffs. The angle and aspect of the slopes is all important because you are so far north that ripening grapes can be a challenge. Exposure to the sun is critical here.

Buying wine from Germany can be a challenge because the labels have so much complex terminology on them. The key words that I always look for relate to the level of sweetness you will likely find in the wine, and that is determined by the so called Pradikat level. You see, German wines are classified according to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest time.

If a producer picks some grapes earlier in the season, at lower sugar levels, the wine could be classed as a Kabinett, which is typically the driest of the Pradikat levels. If you leave the grapes on the vine for longer and pick later, when there is more sugar, the wine could be classified as a Spatlese which are usually a touch sweeter. Then comes Auslese which is generally a pretty sweet wine.

But there is a trend in Germany to produce drier wines and so you need to watch out for the word “trocken” on the label, which means dry. You see it is feasible to find some Auslese trocken wines, which means that the winemaker has picked the grapes at Auslese sweetness but then fermented it into a dry style. German wine labeling can be so complicated that you’ll need a glass or two just to recover from the brain strain.

And yes, there are other categories too, including an even sweeter Beerenauslese and then Trockenbeerenauslese, which are botrytis effected sweet wines. Icewine is also made in vintages when it gets colder than -8 degrees Celsius.

My favorite wineries are Dr. Loosen, Fritz Haag, JJ Prum, Dr Thanisch, Selbach Oster and Egon Muller. For a life altering experience try to get your hands on a Spatlese or Auslese with a few decades of age and feel the acidity dance across your tongue as the ripe stone fruit and honey flavors seduce you.

You can’t talk about Germany without mentioning the Rheingau, which is the other classic region for Riesling, and lies just outside Frankfurt. The Rheingau is home to some of the oldest and most famous wine growing estates in the world. Because it is a little warmer here the wines tend to have a touch more body and alcohol compared to the Mosel. One of my favorite places to visit is Schloss Johannisberg. They have a lovely restaurant where you can sit on the terrace and feast on asparagus, a specialty in Germany, and drink copious amounts of divine low alcohol Riesling.

Australia is another major player on the Riesling scene. The Clare and Eden valleys are the classic areas for high quality Rieslings. They are certainly in a very different style to the German wines in that they are very dry and often so sharply acidic that they can taste austere. But they can be excellent quality, with flavors of lime juice, a petrolly character, and a piercing acidity that certainly refreshes under the hot sun. Grosset, Yalumba, and Heggies all produce good wines.

Speaking of Canada, we do make some fantastic Riesling, especially in Ontario. Although it’s the preferred grape for icewine production, there are many versions in a dry to off dry style. I have always admired Cave Spring winery because they have this beautiful delicacy in their wines, and are often leaning closer to a Germanic style.  

Closer to home, I’m a huge fan of Tantalus winery out in the Okanagan. The vineyard is on the outskirts of Kelowna and was planted back in 1978. The only problem is that it seems to evaporate in the glass. I love the almost dry style, the racy acidity, and the combination of lime juice and stone fruit flavors. The label design is perfect for British Columbia, with depictions of the masks worn by the original native settlers.

So when it comes to Riesling I would buy the dry wines from Alsace and the sweeter wines from Germany. I would definitely try to find some older vintages and be on the look-out for Grand Cru designations on the labels. As an alternative, I might venture off to Australia or stay closer to home in Canada, just for a change of scene.

In terms of food and wine pairing the dry or off-dry wines can be delicious all by themselves, but usually pair well with seafood like scallops, prawns, crab cakes and white fish. When you find wines with a touch more sweetness then start thinking about spicy dishes such as many Asian foods, especially Thai dishes, because you need intensely flavored wines to stand up to the strong flavors of the food. All this is making me very hungry and thirsty.

To learn more about all the world’s wines, take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

SUGGESTED FOOD AND WINE PAIRING

Style — Winery — Pairing

Dry Riesling — Tantalus Old Vines, Okanagan — Prawns, scallops, goat’s cheese

Off-dry Riesling — Selbach Oster Kabinett — Sushi, German sausages

Medium sweet — Dr Loosen Spatlese — Spicy Thai chicken curry

Sweet — Fritz Haag Auslese — Fresh fruit plate

Dry Riesling — Domaine Weinbach, Alsace — Munster cheese

Wines of the Mediterranean

If I was a vine I would want to be planted along the Mediterranean coastline. My ideal vineyard would be perched on a hillside, where I could bask in the sunshine whilst looking out to sea.

After all, the Mediterranean is a more inviting climate compared to being planted in the frigid parts of northern Europe. In cold climates vines can struggle to ripen the grapes and sometimes people would criticize the wine for being acidic and astringent. And the blistering heat of fiercely hot climates isn’t that appealing either. The grapes might get over-ripe, resulting in raisin and cooked flavors. What’s worse, the French would call the wine confiture (jam).  

But in a pleasant Mediterranean climate, where the winters are mild and the summers are long, I would thrive. Plus I’d get to take 2 hour lunches and have a siesta in the afternoons.

And so it is. The wine regions that sit along the Mediterranean coastline are responsible for a huge percentage of the world’s wine production. In short, the climate is well suited to viticulture and can produce very good quality wines that are well balanced.

A huge reason for the way a wine tastes relates to the composition of the grape at harvest, namely, the balance between sugar and acidity. If the climate is too hot then wines can sometimes lack acidity and taste soupy. If the climate is too cold then the grapes can lack sugar and flavor, and taste thin and astringent. It’s rare that you see these excesses or deficiencies in wines from around the Mediterranean.  

What I like the most about wines from this area is that they are sometimes made from indigenous grape varieties. This means that they deliver flavors that differ from the usual repertoire of international grape varieties, such as Chardonnay and Shiraz. There is also an abundance of choice. The wine regions of the Mediterranean produce a prolific number of different wines.

Let’s start with sparkling wine. Spanish sparkling wines, known as Cava, mainly come from an area called Catalunya. Barcelona is the major city close by, and responsible for guzzling huge volumes of the local bubbly. The main grapes are indigenous Spanish varieties such as Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. Try letting those roll off the tongue at your next dinner party. Intriguingly, Spanish Cava is made in the same method as Champagne, with the second fermentation taking place in bottle. They are excellent value for money and the perfect way to kick off a party.

But Spain is not the only country producing sparkling wine. In north western Italy, within striking distance of the Mediterranean, is the small DOCG of Franciacorta. This region lays claim to making the finest dry sparkling wines in Italy. The varietal mix and the methods are closely modeled on Champagne, with excellent results.

In dry white wine, the Mediterranean also produces a plethora of choices. The most unique has got to be Retsina from Greece. This white wine is flavored with pine resin. Yes, that’s right, pine resin. The reasons for this date back centuries to a time when resin was used to help preserve wines. Over time people became accustomed to the taste of resinated wines and so it became its own style of wine. Retsina certainly has its followers. Be aware that the wines can actually smell of pinesol cleaner so shall we say “it’s an acquired taste”.

More my bag would be a Viognier from the south of France. This varietal has beautiful aromatics of honeysuckle, peaches and floral notes. If you like Gewürztraminer then Viognier might hit the mark. The wines are dry, usually with a touch of residual sugar, quite full in body, with a pleasant richness in the best ones. Try a Vin de Pays D’Oc Viognier with roast chicken or a white fish.

In Rose, the beautiful wines from Provence rank amongst the very best roses in the world. They typically show vibrant pink colors, aromas of spice mingled with fresh strawberries, dry and crisp, and bang-on in the rose stakes. These are perfect for sipping on the deck; they pair well with a fresh seafood salad, and are liquid romance whilst watching the sunset. Take me to Saint Tropez.

In red wines, there is such a huge choice that making a handful of recommendations is no easy task. If you are looking for a classic wine, something big and burly but with depth and concentration, then look no further than Priorat in Spain. Many of the very best are made from Garnacha and Carinena (Grenache and Carignan in France) and sometimes blended with a handful of international grapes. This is classic stuff, and can be expensive.

Then you have a huge number of high quality wines from appellations in southern France like Corbieres and Minervois. Here, you can expect Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre to feature in the lead roles. These are the best value red wines in France and would go well with a steak frites.    

It would be unfair not to make mention of the wines from Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Now we start getting into the really unusual grape varieties. How about a glass of red from the Nielluccio grape in Corsica? Grapes such as Nero D’Avola from Italy are gaining a following as some wine lovers tire of the world of Chardonnay and Shiraz. Most are such good value that it’s not a fatal experiment if you don’t like the flavors.    

Lastly, fortified wines are also alive and well in the Mediterranean wine regions. My favorite is Banyuls. This exceptional wine comes from the steep terraced vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where France meets Spain. Grenache is king in this fortified wine, known as a vins doux naturel. The winemakers suggest that these Port-like wines are paired with chocolate. A bottle of Banyuls, a chocolate mousse, and you’ll ascend into heaven.    

So the wine regions bordering the Mediterranean offer an abundance of unique and exciting wines. The indigenous grape varieties offer the wine lover new flavors to discover. So give them a try. Besides, as you sip your way through the bottle you can dream of those gorgeous vineyards perched on a hillside, overlooking the Med.

To learn more about the wines of the Med, and all the world’s wines, take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

The Making and Marketing of Champagne

I’m full of admiration for the way the Champenois have marketed their bubbles. Nobody else has done a better job. They’ve made it synonymous with luxury, romance, special occasions, and living the good life. Simply put, we’ve fallen in love with their fizz.

The history of Champagne is fascinating. There’s a dispute over who was the first to make it bubbly because originally it was a “still” wine. In the region, Dom Perignon lays claim to being the inventor, but the winemakers in Limoux, an obscure region in southern France, accuse him of riding down on his donkey and stealing their winemaking secret, and then galloping back to Champagne to begin creating the most famous luxury brand in the world.

But it seems certain that it was not the French who were the first to make sparkling wine in commercial volumes. Instead, it was the English who created the glass that was strong enough to withstand the massive amounts of pressure in the bottle. But whatever the case, we do know that the first Champagnes were incredibly sweet, even sweeter than the dessert wine from Sauternes in Bordeaux.

Once it was made, it had to be sold. And the proximity of the Champagne region to Paris was a definite advantage because not only was there a large urban population, but it was also the home of the aristocracy. The Champagne Houses plied the monarchy with free bubbly, and the elite became customers. Monkey see, monkey do. Jean-Rene Moet, of Moet et Chandon, even built Napoleon a mansion in Champagne, just in case he stopped by. So thoughtful.

But it wasn’t just the monarchy and aristocrats in France that sipped Champagne at lavish banquets. The Champenois also managed to convince the Tsars in Russia, and the Royal Family in England, that they too should become devotees. And so, for lack of a better word, the brand of Champagne was established as a luxury product, with prices to match.

But for a luxury brand to endure it has to be consistently high quality and meet customer’s expectations time after time. And on this critical point the Champenois have delivered, at least at the pinnacle of production. Houses like Krug, Roederer, Dom Perignon, Salon, Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon, Laurent Perrier, Lanson, Bollinger, Taittinger, and Veuve Clicquot continue to make a quality of wine that is, generally, unmatched by sparkling winemakers in other countries, and other regions in France.    

The major city is Reims and here you’ll find many of the major Houses, as well as the stunning cathedral. But in fact most of the vineyards are 30 minutes away surrounding the pretty town of Epernay. Driving over the hillside into Epernay is quite breathtaking. You can see vineyards sloping down towards the river Marne and right into the outskirts of the town itself.  

There are three key sub-regions in Champagne to be aware of. The first is the Montagne de Reims, which is a little misleading because it’s more of a large hill than a mountain. This is primarily planted to Pinot Noir, a grape that benefits from the southerly exposure that the hillside provides, in order to help ripen the Pinot grapes in this cool climate.

At the bottom of the hill, and following the river, is the Valle de la Marne, which is predominantly planted to Pinot Meunier, another black grape. The reason is that Pinot Meunier breaks its buds later in the Spring than the other varieties, and so it is less prone to the severe frosts that can result in crop loss. Keep in mind that a major reason for most Champagne being non-vintage (i.e. a blend of several different vintages) is because the Spring frosts can decimate a crop.

Finally, you have my favorite region, which is the Cotes des Blancs, home to some of the most refined wines based on the Chardonnay grape.

In terms of grape-growing, or viticulture, each village in the region has been graded on a quality scale. It ranges from 80% up to 100%, and the classification is based upon the quality potential of the vineyards in that little village. If you own vineyards in a Grand Cru village, rated 100%, then you’re laughing all the way to the bank because the Houses pay a premium for grapes from these terroirs. I love the names of some of the villages, and suggest you make a stop in Bouzy before heading to Dizy. Obviously, if you own vineyards in a village rated 80% then you’re not quite so sought-after.

One of the key aspects of the terroir is the chalky soils, and in many places it is pure chalk, good enough for a school mistress to use. In some places the chalk is so deep that it extends to a depth of 400 feet, although I can’t vouch for that personally. This chalky soil helps reflect light back onto the grapes to assist with ripening, provides excellent drainage in this wet region, provides enough moisture in the summer to keep the vine alive and the grapes maturing, and gives the wines a certain finesses, elegance, and class, that you rarely find outside of Champagne.

Once the grapes are picked in September, which is always done by hand, they are rushed to the press in order to minimize oxidation. There are strict laws regulating the amount of juice you can extract from a press load, because generally the harder you squeeze the grapes, the worse the quality becomes. Other sparkling wine producers in other countries have no such regulation, and should take note.

Once the juice is extracted it is then usually placed in stainless steel tanks, which have largely replaced the oak barrels that were commonplace until the 1970’s. The first fermentation proceeds, generally triggered by inoculation with commercial yeast, and the wine is fermented to dryness.

Now comes the true art of making great Champagne, which is the blending, or assemblage, as they call it. Each House will have a portfolio of wines, which may include a luxury cuvee, a vintage wine, the standard non-vintage, and maybe a Rose, amongst others.

The amazing part to me is that the winemaker, with the assistance of an experienced team, often has over 500 ‘lots’ to work with. A non-vintage will include wines held in reserve from previous vintages, sometimes up to 10 years ago. The potential permutations are endless. A little bit of Chardonnay from this village, a splash of Pinot Noir from another town, some reserve wine from 2, 4 or 7 years ago, 1% of this, 3% of that… and so on.  

What never ceases to amaze me is that the winemakers are able to foresee how these different lots will marry together, and what they will taste like when enjoyed years later. In some cases, the wines will not be released for 10 years. Making a pink Champagne that is destined for long ageing is the greatest challenge of all because it is so hard to get the color right, and hence the fact they are generally the most expensive wines in the luxury cuvee category.

Once the blend is made, the wine is bottled and then a small amount of yeast and sugar is added to trigger the second fermentation, which creates the carbon dioxide that dissolves in the wine. This is kept inside the bottle by sealing it with a crown cap.

And then it is taken down into the underground cellars, which are dug out of chalk, and one of the wonders of the wine world. Some of the largest Houses have several million bottles in stock, all slowly maturing, and the largest producer, Moet, has a staggering 96 million bottles ageing. That’s about $1 billion in inventory value.

After the yeast has eaten the sugar and created the bubbles, plus a tiny bit more alcohol, it starts to breakdown, or decompose. The long ageing time on the dead yeast cells, called the lees, contributes a bready, toasty, biscuit character to the wine which all contribute to the complexity and depth found on the nose and palate. No other sparkling wine region has minimum ageing times as long as the Champenois impose on themselves.

To ensure that what we actually drink doesn’t have any sediment, or dead yeast, floating around in it there is an elaborate process of gradually turning the bottles into a vertical position. This is called riddling, or remuage, and at some Houses it is still done by hand. A riddler can turn about 40,000 bottles in a day, with a precise motion that causes the sediment to gradually slip into the neck of the bottle. This is something to see, and I suggest you visit within the next 20 years because machines, called gyropalettes, are taking over from the human touch.

When the bottle is almost upside-down, and the sediment is in the neck, the bottle is dipped in a freezing brine solution and the sediment is frozen into an ice plug. The bottles are then stood upright, rattle along the bottling line, the crown cap is removed, the sediment shoots out from the massive pressure of the bubbles, and then the final sweetness of the wine is adjusted in a process called dosage. After that the bottle is labeled, the wire muzzle placed over the cork, and a long capsule, or skirt, placed over the neck. And voila, the wine is typically shipped shortly thereafter.

So, what should you buy? Here are some of my favorite brands, always reliable. To taste some of these and learn more about the wines of the world take a course at www.FineVintageLtd.com

Roederer — Cristal — Vintage
Lanson — Noble Cuvee — Vintage
Taittinger — Comtes de Champagne — Vintage
Krug — La Grande Cuvee — NV
Billecart Salmon — Rose — NV
Bollinger — R.D. — Old Vintage
Veuve Clicquot — Demi-sec — NV
Laurent Perrier — Ultra Brut — NV 

MERLOT & the love to hate

In the 90’s it was all the rage. From businessmen to 20-something socialites, everyone loved Merlot. Grape growers planted it like mad, and the market boomed. But then along came Sideways, a Hollywood movie that vilified Merlot, and suddenly the party was over. It wasn’t cool anymore. Just like Chardonnay, it was trendy to hate it. And now it seemed like there was a Pinot lover on every corner. I find all this so tiring.

But Merlot will always be one of the best grape varieties, and true wine lovers remain perplexed by the market’s fads. Its quality potential is up there with the best in the world, showcased by wines like Chateau Petrus. So whilst Pinot Noir is now the current popular choices, Merlot isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Grape growers love Merlot. Surprisingly, it is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, and you’ll find plenty of it in the south of France, northern and central Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and both North and South America. It’s even the most planted grape in Romania, and you’ll be able to quench your thirst with it at dozens of wineries in Bulgaria. Can’t wait.

Growers love Merlot because it ripens a week or two earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. In frost prone areas, or places that can get serious downpours in the Fall, that extra week or two can make the difference between a successful vintage and a wash-out. 1998 in Bordeaux is a good example of this. It’s was a spectacular vintage in St.Emilion and Pomerol, but the Cabernet-dominated vineyards of the Medoc were not so lucky. It started pouring with rain before the grapes were fully ripe.

Another reason for its popularity amongst grape growers is because it can yield a bumper crop. I know that wine is all about the romance to those who drink it, but when you’re trying to make money out of producing it then yield becomes one of the most critical factors. Some varieties, like Pinot Noir, tend to produce lackluster wines when cropped above 4 tons per acre, but not so with Merlot. And as a grower, I want to produce as many grapes as possible, at quality levels suited to my commercial goals.

Merlot is also tolerant of a variety of different soil types, and doesn’t mind being planted in heavy clays. This is the primary reason why it thrives on the so-called Right Bank of the Bordeaux region, which is dominated by clay and limestone. But you’ll also find it producing some superb wines in the silty loam soils of Washington State, and some Okanagan wineries even have it planted on pure sand. So when it comes to soil types Merlot seems to be less picky compared to various other varietals.

So if you’re contemplating planting a vineyard in a warm area then Merlot is often on the list of potential candidates. It’s popular, you can grow lots of it, it’s not so fussy about soil types, and it will even ripen early for you. Hey, it might even turn out to be great quality and sell for big bucks.

But grape growing issues aside, much of the final quality will depend on how it’s made in the winery. At the top estates in the world you’ll typically see it treated to a lengthy maceration of 2-4 weeks, with the goal of extracting plenty of flavor and tannic structure. It takes well to oak, particularly French, and can be matured for 2 years in barrel before bottling. Although it has a reputation for being soft and smooth, high quality Merlot can require at least 5 years in bottle before it comes around to showing its potential quality.

On the other hand, if you are making Merlot for the cheaper end of the market, then you’d typically go for a much shorter maceration, perhaps just one week or so, to limit the tannin extraction. And instead of those French oak barrels that can run you $1,200 a pop, many wineries opt for wood chips, which cost a fraction of the price but don’t give quite the same result. Obviously the marketing department is not inclined to tell you their wine is matured using their finest oak chips. Once it gets into bottle you can open these types of wine immediately, and they are usually more pleasant to drink than a Cabernet of the same age.

You’ll often find Merlot blended with other grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, but also potentially Malbec and Petit Verdot. This can be done for both premium and inexpensive wines, and is the way a winemaker can sculpt his product to the house style, layer in complexity, or adjust it to meet market demands.

So the quality of Merlot can be all over the map. You can buy a bottle at the gas station in the U.S. for peanuts, or you can go a little crazy and load up on a new vintage of Petrus at $3,000 a bottle. But the glut of uninspiring Merlot, along with the impact of Hollywood movies that have slandered the grape has caused its popularity to wane. Despite this current fashion for other varietals, when it comes to truly fine wine, there’s never been any question that Merlot is amongst the very best grapes.

After all, the finest wines can age for over 50 years. True, they don’t have quite the same longevity as Cabernet Sauvignon, but they certainly do have better ageing potential than Pinot Noir and most others. So when it comes to stocking the cellar for the long haul you’ll certainly want to consider the finer Merlots as an option.

So what should you buy? Well, the great wines of St.Emilion and Pomerol on Bordeaux’s Right Bank are still the benchmark. Pomerol is the classic appellation because the wines typically have a higher percentage of Merlot in them, usually around 80%, with just a splash of Cabernet Franc and maybe Sauvignon. These are usually tiny estates, producing a few thousand cases of wine, and hence the prices can be stratospheric. Enter stage left Petrus, Le Pin, Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante and a dozen others. One of my best ever bottles was a 25 year old Petrus. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. It left everyone almost speechless.

But the top wines of St.Emilion are spectacular too. Ausone, Angelus, Pavie, Le Dome, and so many others. These tend to be slightly less opulent than Pomerol, but are always dense and concentrated all the same. If you can wait for 10 years or so you’ll see the deep ruby color turn a shade of brick red, the nose open up to reveal a spectrum of complex nuances that can include fruitcake, licorice, black cherry, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, vanilla, mushroom and wet earth. They’re to die for.

If you are intent on drinking a French Merlot but only want to spend $20 then the south of France is your best option. Since the 1990’s there have been huge plantings of this grape in the so-called Pays D’Oc. But the wines, whilst deep and full bodied, tend to have much less complexity than in Bordeaux and are more suited to a casual BBQ.

In north eastern Italy there is a surprising amount of Merlot, but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to buy these. They tend to be light in every way – color, body and ripeness levels. Instead, buy the Super Tuscans that have a heap of Merlot in them. Masseto and Tua Rita are the benchmarks, 100% Merlot, but expensive. My personal favorite is Luce, which is a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese, and is a very fine wine for around $100.

If budget cuts have you searching for a deal on European Merlot then you probably can’t beat the prices of Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian wines. It’s surprising just how much is planted here, and the prices can be under $10 a bottle.

If I was looking for a high quality Merlot from the New World then I would be heading for the California and Washington sections of the store. Duckhorn in Napa made a mark with some gorgeously rich and plummy Merlots, and now the grape is widely planted in California. These wines tend to have less earthiness than their Bordeaux counterparts, and burst with ripe berry fruit and the warmth of higher alcohol.

In Washington State Merlot is the most widely planted grape, and it typically plays a role in many of the finest wines. These are under-rated by consumers, but not under-priced. The local demand in Seattle for the best wines results in prices being in the high $70’s+ in western Canada.

South America, especially Chile, can produce some exceptional Merlot, both in terms of value for money and absolute quality. Sena is a benchmark amongst the famous labels, but I’m also impressed with the likes of a basic Errazuriz Merlot for just $15.

New Zealand is a sleeper that has recently shown what it can do with Merlot. A few years ago the best wines from Hawke’s Bay on the north island were put up against the finest wines of Bordeaux, and guess what? The Kiwis stole the show. But I’m more inclined to drink Pinot Noir from New Zealand, just like you would be to drink Shiraz from Australia.

One of the nice things about Merlot is that some of them can be drunk without food. They don’t have the astringency of most Cabernet and so they can slip down without much “bite”. But really these go so much better with red meats, and so whether it’s a steak, roast beef, a leg of lamb or a burger you’ll enjoy them much more than flying solo.

WINE — FOOD PAIRING

Chateau Petrus , Pomerol — A nice inheritance

Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, Pomerol — Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Chateau Grand Mayne, St Emilion — Steak Frites

Tua Rita, IGT Toscana — Pasta in a tomato sauce

Duckhorn, Napa — Leg of lamb

Woodward Canyon, Washington State — Stew

Errazuriz, Sena, Chile — Bison