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Chateau Recougne, AC Bordeaux Superieur 1993 PUMP OVERS

The main activity of the day was always the morning and afternoon pump-overs, or remontage as they say. This, one of the key arts of red winemaking, was done by draining fermenting juice out of a vat, running it through a pump, and spraying it back over the cap.

This method of maceration extracted all kinds of goodies – color of course, tannin from the skins, flavor from the berries, and a host of little-understood complex elements that make up wine. We would do this for about 45 minutes per tank, twice a day, which most people these days would say is ridiculously long.

But although just Bordeaux Superieur, this property made wines that could age well for 30-50 years. We had regular samplings of the 1952 with clients to prove it. This is one of the amazing things about Bordeaux, where some unclassified estates, known as petits chateaux, can make very long-lived wines, and wines that are quite stunning at 20+ years old.

There are lots of different methods of macerating red grapes. My favorite is the foot stomp, known as pigeage. I had the pleasure of spending a week in McLaren Vale in Australia doing just this to Eileen Hardy, their top wine, and winner of Best Red wine in Australia that vintage.

All you need is a pair of swimming trunks and a ladder to place across an open top concrete fermenter. You simply stand on the cap, slowly sink down, pushing the skins into the juice, and then just before you drown you use the ladder to drag yourself up and shuffle to a new spot.

At the top estates making Port many winemakers still like the fast maceration they can get by packing a shallow concrete tank full of Portguese workers and getting them to perform a military style march to the beat of a drum.

The workers march back and forth, knee deep in must. It’s a somber mood. But then they have the libertad, the so-called freedom, it’s party time in the tank. The music turns upbeat, people dance together, they pass around wine and drink from the bottle.

Another method is punch-downs, often used on Pinot Noir because it is considered a more gentle technique of extracting delicate flavors and tannins from that delicate grape, Pinot.

When you really want to aerate the must, which may help stimulate yeast activity, you can use a more aggressive technique known as delestage. Here, you drain the entire vat into another container, and then spray it all back over the grape skins. It is a very vigorous maceration and extraction method. As with all techniques, they have to be selected and modified to the needs of the fruit, and only a skilled winemaker can adapt their techniques to the qualities of the berries each year.

There are many key stages in red winemaking, but I’d put the maceration among the most important. Macerate too little and you miss the potential goodness in the berries. But if you over-do it you’ll end up with a deep dark inky wine that has massive tannins, is generally unbalanced, and potentially has a hard bitterness that may never go away no matter how long you age it. So selecting the best method and the rigor and regularity of its use is an important art of the winemaker.

But keep in mind that these decisions can often be made very fast because a typical winemaker is often busy with many tanks, staff, administration issues, and trying to make it to watch their kid play sports later that afternoon. It can be frantic at some wineries. This is the beauty of small production. At a small place with low volumes you often have the luxury of more care and attention because you have more time.

One of the things I love about pump overs is just the sheer beauty of watching red wine gush out of a tank’s valve, or being sprayed over the cap. It smells so good, so heady and sweet, and you can imagine that one day, in many months, or maybe many many years, the juice will turn into something so incredible, so delicious, that it will bring immense pleasure to the people lucky enough to drink it. 1947 Cheval Blanc was just fermenting grape juice at one stage.

Le Sucre – harvest at Chateau Recougne, AC Bordeaux Superieur 1993

1993 – Well I couldn’t have picked a worse vintage to start my life in wine. It rained almost every day for what seemed like 6 weeks. Torrential. One day in the office I saw the owner looking out of his office window at the rain, all glum and depressed. He murmured that the only happy man in Bordeaux was the guy who sold the sugar. In poor vintages back in the 90’s the Bordelais sure loved to pour sugar in the vats, called chaptalization. Of course now with climate change things are much better.

So there we were, most days, heaving these huge heavy brown sacks of sugar around the winery and dumping them into bins where they would be mixed with wine during a remontage, or pumping over. The sugar would give the yeast more food, and increase the alcohol degree.

There are strict laws in France on this topic. You have to apply for permission with the local authorities to chaptalize, you have to specify the tank, the volume, the current alcohol potential, and there are limits to which you can bump it up. Then, when the sugar man shows up with his lorry you have a certain amount of time to actually do it, like 24 hours.

Ideally you chaptalize fairly early in the ferment, but there are different logics. It usually increases the alcohol by about 1% in Bordeaux, and there is a maximum you cannot go beyond. The extra alcohol can bring more richness, weight and power to the wine and it can make an average wine taste good. It can also help very fine wines, although ideally the lower yields in fine wine should have helped obtain good grape maturity. Chaptalization is not flavouring per se, although alcohol has a taste. You are making up for a deficit in ripeness in a poor year usually. The bottom line is that all winemakers would rather not use it, partly because it is an expense too.

And in a winery during the fermentation it is very important to keep records. Because you definitely wouldn’t want to make the mistake of chaptalizing the same tank twice by accident…

Cellar hygiene Bordeaux 1993

In the early 90’s cellar hygiene was not what it is today. These days you have all these young winemakers graduating from schools, especially in Australia, coming out with a mantra to KEEP IT CLEAN. So clean, it’s almost sterile. Gleaming tanks, spotless floors, hoses all immaculately stored, and a very high tech lab.

Well sure, better to be clean than dirty, I suppose. But could there be a cost to this? Are so many wines tasting the same partly because of this quest for sterility? Me thinks maybe yes.

I don’t think that attempting to have a sterile cellar is a pre-requisite for making great wine. If you go to some of the very top wineries in the world it’s not always immaculate. Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle in the Rhone is a case in point. I swear the floors were made of hard mud, the concrete tanks looked like they were 100 years old with paint peeling off them, barrels were stored in a jumble-like series of stacks, and the air in the cellar seemed very damp and very heavy. Surely this was a heaven for bacteria.

Lopez de Heredia in Spain is an icon, and yet it doesn’t look all spotless to me. The wooden fermenters are 100 years old and there are gigantic cobwebs everywhere. It’s opposite of some of these hospital-like new world wineries.

But the La Chappelle wine is better than almost any other Syrah in the world. It was so good that the Bordeaux 1st growths used to buy it for a little injection of supercharged turbo power. And the Lopez de Heredia wines are so good you can’t talk for a moment after you have a sip of the 1945 Gran Reserva. That was made before all these lab technicians came on the scene…

Tasting the Ferments, Bordeaux 1993

I’ve had the good fortune of learning a little about tasting ferments from some of the very top winemakers in Bordeaux, Napa, Australia, and a few other places I suppose.

Back in Bordeaux in the Middle Ages, after our cellar was safe(ish) to enter, and we had taken the temperatures of each tank, the next major job was to draw samples of every single lot. We’d then take them to the main office for analysis by the Oenologist.

Wines constantly need to be checked throughout the fermentation for their progress in terms of alcohol conversion, and all the other standard tests, including the taste test. Tasting the ferments, and managing them as a result of that tasting, is a big part of the art of winemaking.

But drawing the samples often turned into a debacle. The issue was that many of the tanks in the cellar were made from concrete and they did not have a sample valve on them, which you would normally find on stainless steel tanks. So to get a sample out you had to actually crack one of the big lower valves just enough for a trickle of wine to drip out.
But this wasn’t easy. The tiniest hand movements were required to ever so slightly ease the valve open. Crack it too fast and too far open, and a monster jet of red wine would spray your chest and ricochet back onto your face as you grappled to shut the valve. This was a cruel trick to play if you were a team of two people drawing a sample. But sometimes Xavier deserved it.

Anyway, it would then be tasting time with the Oenologist. We would pour a sample, look at the color and he would comment on the extraction level for its stage of fermentation. The smell can be beautiful with sweet fresh fruit aromas and that particular fermentation note. But the key thing was really the palate, looking at the tannin, acidity, weight, flavours and balance.

Decisions would be made based on the tasting. Increase or decrease the maceration regime, add tannin using a packet of powered tannin or grape stems, aerate the tank with a delestage, chaptalize or not, heat the tank, chill it to slow the ferment down, add yeast to a tank that was not fermenting well, drain that other one because it was done and needs to come off the skins, and on and on.

In Beaujolais they call the semi-fermented juice the paradis, as in paradise. Sweetish, slightly bubbly, often tangy. Just beautiful. It’s always best to taste in the morning when your senses are fresh and everything is heightened. Tasting 40 samples before 10 am every day for weeks is fun but it is a serious job. Just make sure you spit, because you always walk out very slightly buzzed from the absorption anyway.

CO2 – The deadly gas: Run Jean-Marie, Run

The 1993 vintage was in full swing. It was week 6 and we
were all looking worse for wear, with red wine stains caked all over our
clothes. Exhaustion was setting in. We’d been working 16 hour days at our
30,000 case Bordeaux Superieur chateau, a stunning property in the hillsides of
the Right Bank, close to St.Emilion. Tired, but sense of humor still intact.

It was a motely cru standing outside the chateau doors at 7
am. Stephen represented Scotland, but had forgotten how to speak English he’d
been in France so long. Xavier, the Spaniard, a fellow 23 year old apprentice
and trouble at the best of times, and then there was some other guy whose name
I can’t remember. He drank a lot of Cognac at night.

In the French corner was Didier, the cellar master who had
lost a finger and damaged an eye over the last 15 vintages – pretty standard in
France. And then there was the big Papa, Jean-Marie, the central figure. He was
huge. His gut was barely held in by his farmer t-shirt, and you could cut your
hand on his thick 3 day stubble-trouble.

We had all gathered at 7 am on the dot to start the day’s
work in the cellar, which could often last until midnight. We were all
shattered after doing this for several weeks with barely a day off. There were
tons of ferments racing along inside the cellar doors, and carbon dioxide oozed
from every tank impregnating the air with a deadly poisonous gas.

Our ritual was to draw straws to see who might die that
morning by CO2 poisoning. The gauntlet was running through the whole cellar whilst holding your breath and opening windows and doors. It was a long cellar and you had to fling open at least 3 sets of windows and 2 huge castle-like sets of doors to aerate the cellar so that the rest of the crew could safely enter 15 minutes later. It wasn’t easy
to hit all these windows and doors, and behind our laughter was always a little
anxiety when we drew the straws.

Losing your life is a risk during the fermentation, albeit
unlikely. It is particularly dangerous when you go inside a tank to shovel out
the grape skins, where it can be hot and steamy and still with a good amount of
CO2 . Bend down to load your shovel and boom…it’s a stary stary
night. You blackout, fall into the grapes and you’re dead. Even just running
through the cellar could possibly be toxic enough.

These days, in most cellars, there are sophisticated alarms that go off
when the gas levels hit certain amounts, and in many countries you have to be
tied to the person in the tank so you can haul them out if they run into
trouble. It’s called confined space certification. But alas, at my chateau in
France in the early 1990’s, such sophistication did not exist. We relied on our
own je ne sais quoi and preferred to make important decisions after a magnum
of red during the mandatory 2 hour lunch.

We stood there, and one by one we drew the straws. And then
Jean-Marie lost it, swearing like a sailor. As his anger peeked he pulled out a packet of Gauloise and stuck a filterless smoke in his mouth and lit up, surprisingly not using his
stubble to strike the match. Nobody held their laughter back whenever it was
Jean-Marie’s dash. He was badly teased, with affection, from a distance, out of
his strike-range.

After a final drag on his cigarette, that smelt like a
diesel factory, he sucked in a few deep breaths, face turning redder by the
second, and then flung the doors open and starting actually sprinting through
the cellar as fast as he could. The cheers went up. Then we all raced around
the corner to get a view of the door where he would exit, and sure enough
this gigantic sweaty Frenchman comes flying out gasping, and the swearing
continued. We were all in hysterics.

Cellars during fermentation can be dangerous, but all year
round there are products that are used that can potentially be harmful. If you
suffer from asthma then watch out for the sulphur in liquid form, or even a hit
of the gas from a sulphur disk that is burned inside a barrel to sterilize it.
And the tanks can be cleaned with a nasty agent to get the tartrates off, that
resulted in Didier’s partial blindness. There’s a ton of other hazards.

As for Jean-Marie, every day you could count on him to be very focused on lunch, always 4 courses at the chateau from 12-2pm, and always with a frightening amount of wine offered to the workers before we went back to shovel out tanks, unsupervised.

One Faith Vineyards, Grand Vin, Okanagan Valley, 2013

95 points

This is the most spectacular Bordeaux style red wine I’ve tasted from the Okanagan in memory. You have to try this outstanding wine!

The nose has layers of complexity and beautiful intensity. Notes of espresso, mocha, salted caramel, plum, raisin and black cherry enchant the senses. The palate is beautifully rich and perfectly dry, full, concentrated, powerful, with notes of clove and licorice, vanilla and toast, and abundant ripe fruit. 

This wine is a testimony to the incredible quality potential of the Okanagan Valley reds. Approaching 6 years old it is now in its prime. Yes, it is expensive, but it’s worth every penny. It’s basically a cult wine made in tiny volumes. http://www.onefaithvineyards.com

Merlot 77%, Cabernet Sauvignon 14%, Syrah 4%, Cabernet Franc 3%, Petit Verdot 1% Malbec 1% 

What’s the story on wine education? What path should I follow?

If you want to take a course that will result in professional certification with international recognition then, in my opinion, there is only one choice: Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This is the world’s leading independent wine education institute, operating in over 75 countries and 20 languages. It’s the gold standard, simple as that.

There is an introductory WSET course called the Level 1, which is perfect for beginners. You can progress up to the Level 4 Diploma, which is a challenging 2-year course. After that, the next step is to apply for acceptance into the Master of Wine program. So the WSET offers a clear and structured path.

You can pursue other paths. There is the SWE and ISG, but those organizations have comparatively limited recognition and are more orientated towards the hospitality industry. There are also non-certificate courses by the boatload run by community colleges, private individuals and so on. Some can be good, but all too often the “curriculum” has been made up without the same professionalism you’ll find at serious institutes dedicated to wine education. So buyer beware…

For myself, I took the WSET courses for a reason and then decided to teach them precisely because I thought they were excellent.  

What’s the story on all the different wine education providers?

Now that you’ve chosen a path you need to chose a guide. And not all Sherpa’s will get you to the top of the mountain.

I started our company Fine Vintage precisely because I was horrified by the terrible experience I had at some other schools. Shitty wines, boring instructors, and presentations that were as exciting as watching paint dry. Harsh, but true.

You have to be taught by someone who has some qualifications and experience themselves, otherwise it’s like the blind leading the blind. If the instructor doesn’t really know how to taste then they might do you more harm than good. So check-out your instructor. Ours all have the Level 4 Diploma, are in the MW program, or are industry veterans.

Then you need to taste good wines and lots of them. You don’t learn much by tasting a couple of wines that all cost under $20, but the wine school sure saves money… We spend over double, often triple what other wine schools spend on wine. Yup, it stings when I see the monthly wine expense report.

But it’s our Fine Vintage mantra to pour outstanding wines and lots of them. That is a key reason why we have over 4,000 students per year coming back to take their next course with us. We all fell in love with wine because of the amazing aromas and flavours we discovered in that first magic bottle, and that’s why we come back again and again.

Another major point for you to consider are the exam pass rates at the various schools. There’s not much point going to a school where the failure rate is shockingly high. Obviously with the higher Levels the onus becomes increasingly on you to study and prepare for exams because the body of knowledge is too voluminous to be covered exclusively in the classroom. But your Sherpa should be able to help you stay on track, on a schedule, and ensure you know what lies ahead.

At my own schools we have one of the highest pass rates around the world, and have been nominated and awarded as WSET Educator of the Year more times than any other school in the world in the last 10 years. Every day I receive copies of student’s exam results and it’s always a thrill to exchange a few e-mails with our wonderful instructors congratulating them, and then be able to tell our students the good news.

NAPA VALLEY – LAND OF PLENTY

When people ask me what’s my favorite wine region in the world it’s easy to answer. Napa Valley, hands down. It’s always exciting to land in San Francisco, drive across the bridge, and arrive in a valley filled with gorgeous vineyards and hundreds of wineries.

The warm climate, Spanish architecture, swaying palm trees, and the laid back character of the vintners is all part of the appeal. And that’s not to mention the stunning wines, which are among the very finest in the world. Of course, Cabernet Sauvignon is the signature of Napa. But they also produce outstanding Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay and, for me, the best sparkling wines outside of Champagne.  

When you sing the praises of Napa Valley there’s usually someone who starts rolling their eyes. They sometimes criticize it for being pretentious, probably out of jealousy. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been a struggle for most wineries. It’s only in the last 30 years that they’ve really thrived and the owners that I’ve met couldn’t be more down to earth.  

The history of Napa is fascinating because it’s a region that has shot to fame in a relatively short period. Winemaking started in the latter part of the 1800’s, during the boom times of the gold rush. Italian and German settlers were amongst the first to plant the vine, using their savoir faire gleaned from winemaking back in the old world.

But in the early 1900’s the First World War put the brakes on their success, only to be followed by Prohibition, which almost decimated the industry. Only a handful of producers survived, using their license to make wine for sacramental and medicinal purposes. In the early 1960’s there was less than 20 wineries, and very few tourists ventured up to Napa.  

But in the 1960’s a handful of adventurous new producers opened their doors, led by one of the greatest figures in the history of wine, Robert Mondavi. And so the modern history of Napa began, and the most successful wine region in the New World started gathering momentum.

The infamous Paris tasting in 1976 catapulted the region to fame, when Stags Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena won in a blind tasting against the finest wines from France. Americans finally started to realize that truly great wine could be made in Napa. Sales skyrocketed, prices increased, and newcomers like Baron Philippe de Rothschild started ventures in the valley.

But during the boom times of the 1980’s Napa suffered another set-back. Phylloxera, the deadly vine louse, attacked and destroyed most of the vineyards. Some vintners packed up and left, but others persevered and replanted using the latest viticultural techniques, and focused on just a handful of classic grape varieties. In many respects, there was a silver lining to the phylloxera disaster. Up until then most vineyards were planted with a mishmash of lesser known varietals, sometimes even in the same row. Now, Napa started to build a brand around top quality Cabernet.

The hospitality industry developed alongside the rapid pace of the vintner’s success. Stunning hotels and resorts were built, and some of the best chefs in America created restaurants that became culinary temples. Limousines rolled up Highway 29, and cult wines became all the rage, with stratospheric prices to match.

In the 1990’s the Napa vintners stated to refine their understanding of the vastly different terroirs that you find in the valley. Whilst it only takes about 45 minutes to drive from Carneros in the south to Calistoga in the north, the climate varies dramatically. The fog that rolls in off the Bay, particularly in the summer, shrouds the vineyards in the southerly part of the valley, making it cooler and better suited to early ripening varieties like Pinot Noir. Yet up valley, around the quaint town of St.Helena, it is significantly warmer because the fog burns off faster, and sometimes doesn’t even reach that far north.

It also became clear that the soils varied dramatically. Over 33 different soil types have been identified from the heavier clays in Carneros, to the red soils of Oakville, and the shallow hard rocky soils found on the hillsides. Stylistic differences between the wines became obvious based on the different terroirs, and so Napa was carved up into dozens of AVA’s, resembling the French appellation model.

I’m a big fan of the hillside AVA’s, especially on Spring and Howell Mountains. The Cabernets tend to have more tannic structure and less overt sweet fruit. But there’s no denying that AVA’s like Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap produce stunning wines, which are rich and opulent, warm and generous, with blackcurrant, vanilla, chocolate and sometimes a minty character.

But it’s a mistake to think that Napa is just about Cabernet. Saintsbury and Cuvaison make some lovely Pinot Noirs in Carneros, and the sparkling Houses of Schramsberg, Chandon and Domaine Carneros make some excellent bubbly too.

Whilst Sonoma has a reputation for the finest Zinfandels in California there are some beauties made in Napa too. These are big, rich and ripe wines with some baked characters and a slight jammy style to the fruit. Caymus and Storybrook Mountain make some excellent Zins.

And Merlot can be fabulous too, even as a stand-alone varietal. Duckhorn led the charge back in the 1970’s and there’s no denying the wines are gorgeous.

It is actually possible to go to Napa valley for the day from San Francisco. It’s only about 60 minutes drive across the Golden Gate bridge to the vineyards of Carneros for a glass of bubbly, and then another half hour up to St Helena which is the winemaking HQ. So turn off the e-mail, close the computer, and discover the greatest wine region in North America.

What order do you serve wines in at a dinner party?

It’s best to kick off with sparkling wines, which can be sipped all by themselves or paired with light appetizers such as smoked salmon.

Following that you can move into white wines. I recommend starting with drier styles of aromatic wines like Sauvignon Blanc and then move into heavier, richer, and potentially oaked varietals such as Chardonnay.

When you start on the red wines, make sure you pour the more delicate ones first, such as Pinot Noir or Gamay. Follow the lighter reds with heavier wines that have richer and more concentrated flavors, such as an Australian Shiraz or California Zinfandel. These big reds can overpower the lighter ones and so best to work upwards in terms of body.

The debate is still out in terms of the serving order of young versus older wines. Personally, I recommend serving older wines first because they can have more delicate and complex flavors, which are harder to appreciate after a young tannic red.

Sweet wines should be next on the agenda. There are some delicious sweet wines from Sauternes, Tokaji, the Loire and Germany, not to mention Canada. The golden rule is that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert otherwise they will taste tart and sour.

Wrap up the evening with fortified wines such as a Port or Madeira. After the stronger alcoholic content of these wines it’s hard to appreciate the subtleties of the other types and styles of wine. After a glass of Port it’s hard to go back!

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

What are the best white wines under $20 to buy for summer?

There are dozens of white wines under $20 that offer excellent quality for the price.

I love Sauvignon Blanc for just sipping by itself and Chile and New Zealand offer plenty of great value wines. Look for Marlborough on the label of Kiwi wines and the Casablanca valley on Chilean wines. These are the most respected regions.

The best value Rieslings come from Germany, Alsace, and Australia. Often German Rieslings can have a touch of sweetness, even at QbA level, and pair well with spicy food. Rieslings from Alsace are much drier, with crisper acidity and citrus flavors. Australians love their Rieslings too, but these can be extremely dry and only for those who like crisp, steely, austere wines.     

Pinot Grigio from Italy will usually run you less than $20 a bottle and these are easy drinking wines. They mainly come from the cooler reaches of northern Italy. They are dry, light to medium in body and always marked by crisp refreshing acidity. Try them with scallops and crab cakes, or simply on their own.

Gewurztraminer is under-rated and, as such, many of them are underpriced. It’s partly to do with the tricky pronunciation of the grape. But don’t let that put you off because these can be sublime, especially from Alsace.  They can be very floral and tropical, smelling of roses and exotic fruits, and usually full bodied and heady. 

When it comes to Chardonnay, look to Chile and Australia for real bargains. These are consistently well-made and economies of scale allow for attractive pricing. California is another option. If they are oaky then try them with richer foods, such as roast chicken.

The list could go on, given the multitude of other varietals lining our shelves, but we’ll leave the rest for another time. Oh, don’t forget Spanish sparkling wine, known as Cava. Now that’s a deal. 

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com