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CABERNET SAUVIGNON, The Emperor of Red Wines

If I had to pick a favorite grape, which is like picking a favorite child, then it would have to be Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the final analysis Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. I can hear the mutterings of dissent. So I’ll present my case.

The argument is that Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. Aside from Bordeaux and Napa, it’s easy to rattle off famous names like Coonawarra and Margaret river in Australia, some of the great Super-Tuscans, the icon wines of Chile, and you could even make a case for Washington State, pockets of Spain, Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, parts of Sonoma, and, wait for it…., Lebanon. The same can’t be said for the other classic red varietals, including Pinot Noir.

Granted, many of these wines are blends of Cabernet with Merlot, and perhaps some Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, or even Shiraz and Sangiovese. But at their core, it’s Cabernet that dominates the blend.
If price is a gauge of quality, then Cabernet Sauvignon holds the world record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. When the hammer came down at the Napa Valley Auction, the cult Cabernet from Screaming Eagle went for a whopping $500,000 for a single large format bottle. People will pay more for Cabernet than any other varietal, the rare Burgundy aside.

Still not convinced? The Grands Crus of the Medoc and Pessac in Bordeaux are the most classic wines in the world and dominate the fine wine market. Wine enthusiast’s line just to get their hands on a few bottles of Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Haut Brion, Margaux and many many others. You can’t say the same for any other variety, not even Burgundy to the same degree.

In terms of ageability, the prize goes to Cabernet. Wine critics devote pages of poetic prose to describing the nuances of old vintages like 1961, 1945 and 1929, or perhaps the 1900. There are not too many Pinots, Syrahs or Merlots that can age for 100 years.

So what is it about this grape that makes such outstanding quality wines? In their youth they are intensely colored, with a very deep ruby that can have shades of blue, black and purple. The nose typically shows intense aromas of fresh blackcurrant, cedar, chocolate, coffee and sometimes mint. The palate is always dry, rich and full bodied, with structured tannins providing backbone. The greatest wines show superb length, with an after-taste lingering for hours. The whole experience can be breathtaking.

But it’s with age that Cabernet really shows its breed. The bouquet develops and become more nuanced, with notes of forest floor, wet earth, and sometimes a beautiful spice. On the palate the tannins soften, becoming smoother and more velvety, yet the wines can remain powerful and concentrated for decades.

It’s a cliché, but quality does start in the vineyard. Whilst Cabernet is fairly mobile, being planted in dozens of countries and regions, it prefers warmer climates. If I owned a vineyard in England, northern France or Germany then Cabernet wouldn’t be on the list of possibilities. My Cabernet vines would opt for Napa Valley, where they could bask in the sunshine. The cool nights are important too, helping to retain acidity and freshness.

Cabernet can be planted on a variety of soil types, but for top quality wines the key is to find sites that have low fertility. The Medoc has a high proportion of gravel. Coonawarra is famous for their red clay soils, known as terra rossa. Poor soils can lead to great wines.

The berry size is small, and the skins are relatively thick. This contributes depth of color and the tannic backbone. When cropped at low levels, such as two tons per acre, there can be immense concentration of flavor. Some of the hillside vineyards in Napa, like Howell Mountain, have such poor soils that the yields are a fraction of the sites on the valley floor.

The grape also ripens late, usually a few weeks after Merlot, which can be a challenge in areas prone to rain during the harvest. But when the weather stays warm and sunny, this extra ripening time allows for additional flavor development.

In the winery, the great wines usually see extended maceration. The grape juice is pumped over the skins for 3 weeks or more, extracting all the goodies from the berries. One of the great arts of making Cabernet, and all red wines for that matter, is knowing when to stop the maceration because excessive extraction can potentially lead to harsh tannins.

And then come the French oak barrels, although wineries like Silver Oak in Napa have proven that American oak can produce top notch wines too. In Bordeaux the barrel ageing time is usually between 18 to 20 months, although it can go longer. This is a winemaker’s personal preference, and Heitz Cellars in Napa shows that spectacular wines can result from 36 months aging. Some wineries go for 100% new French oak, and others prefer far less. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just a stylistic preference.

So what should you buy when searching for these classic Cabernets?

The so-called Left Bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux is the benchmark for collectors. In great vintages like 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 it’s hard to go wrong. Obviously the 1st Growths are spectacular but expect to pay over one thousand dollars per bottle. But you can buy wines that are much less expensive and arguably just as good quality. My favorites are Ducru Beaucaillou in St Julien, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, and Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac.

Napa Valley has stolen my heart. It’s not just the wines, but it’s also the wonderful hospitality and beautiful weather from May until September. It’s so difficult to pick out favorites without listing 50 wineries, but Heitz Cellars, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Shafer and Chateau Montelena are on my short list. And if you go to Napa, make sure you visit Spring Mountain Vineyard. It’s like a journey into the Garden of Eden.

Wine critics love to compare Bordeaux and Napa, but frankly they are quite different in style. Napa is more about richness, ripeness, power and concentration, with softer, plushier tannins, and fresher fruit aromas. By contrast, Bordeaux is typically drier, more tannic, not quite as full bodied, and has a more earthy character.

In Coonawarra in South Australia, it’s the fun-loving Ian Hollick whose wines stand out as my own favorites. Coonawarra makes some of the finest Cabernet in the New World. The wines can have very perfumed cassis aromas and minty flavors. They are typically much less expensive than both Bordeaux and Napa, and so they score additional points for their value for money.

In Chile, it’s the classic Cabernet from Don Melchor, owned by Concha y Toro, which never fails to impress. If you think that only great Bordeaux can age for 10-20 years then think again. This wine proves that Chilean wines can have style, grace, and individuality. You just have to get over the fact that Chile is mainly in the cheap and cheerful category.

In Tuscany, Sassicaia is one of the benchmark Super-Tuscans. Sassicaia was the winery that started the whole super-Tuscan movement, along with Tignanello, when they made a wine that did not conform to Tuscan wine regulations because it was based on Cabernet Sauvignon. The Italian authorities refused to give it the more prestigious DOCG designation, and relegated it to Vino da Tavola status, making it the world’s most expensive “table wine”.
And then there’s Torres in Spain, whose Mas La Plana can give anyone’s Cabernet a run for their money. Bob Betz in Washington State makes Cabernets that will blow your socks off, and merit the very high ratings his winery consistently receives.

The list could go on. But you’ve probably got enough recommendations to keep you from becoming dehydrated anytime soon. You could call Cabernet the King of wines, and the wine of Kings. But there are others who make this claim, namely the superb sweet wines of Tokaji in Hungary. So perhaps Cabernet is more like “The Emperor” of wines, because at the very pinnacle of quality there’s nothing else like fine Cabernet.

Wine: Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, Bordeaux

Food Suggestion: Leg of Lamb

Wine: Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux

Food Suggestion: Filet Mignon with frites

Wine: Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley

Food Suggestion: Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Wine: Hollick, Coonawarra, Australia

Food Suggestion: Aged Cheddar Cheese

THE MAGIC OF VALPOLICELLA

THE MAGIC OF VALPOLICELLA

Trust the Italians to use the same grapes to make four completely different styles of wine under the Valpolicella banner. First you have the mainstream Valpolicella, which is light and fruity. Second, you have a fuller bodied and richer version called a Ripasso. Then you have a monstrously dense blockbuster called an Amarone, and finally a relatively rare sweet red desert wine called a Recioto.

Maybe the Italians got bored. Maybe they wanted to broaden their portfolio for commercial purposes. Or maybe they got tired of wine snobs criticizing simple Valpolicella and decided to come out with a massive, full bodied, high alcohol Amarone. You almost need a knife and fork when you crack open an Amarone, which is surely amongst Italy’s great wines.
Unlike in most of the New World, there is a real history to production here in north-eastern Italy. Grapes were grown by the ancient Greeks who cultivated the hillsides. The wines were enjoyed by the Courts in the 6th century, and noted for their special powers.

Over the years, Valpolicella became so successful that producers sold everything they could make. Inevitably, growers increased the yields on their vineyards so they could produce more, but the quality of the wines began to slip because the grapes lacked concentration. The local authorities also granted permission for growers to cultivate new areas, which were generally on the fertile plains. These areas were not well suited for high quality vineyards.

So in some respects, Valpolicella became a victim of its own success. The large volumes of simple wine masked the exceptional quality of the best producers. But on the other hand, the reasonable pricing of the wines (usually sub $20) was a bonus for consumers, and the light bodied fruity style made straight Valpolicella the perfect pizza wine. You can chill it, you can drink it within hours of release, and it’s often the house wine at the millions of Italian restaurants that have helped showcase the country’s wines at export.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to straight Valpolicella you have Amarone, which is a stunning wine, revered amongst wine lovers, and made in the most bizarre and unique way. The growers harvest the ripest and healthiest looking bunches from their vineyards, the rest being for regular Valpolicella production. They then take these perfect bunches and spread them out on straw mats, and sometimes they even tie a piece of string to the stems and hang them from the ceiling in a warehouse, or their kitchen, as the case may be. There are not many other winemakers doing this elsewhere in the world…

Over the next five months the grapes then shrivel into raisins, which means the water content evaporates and you are left with a sweet concentrated flavor of dried fruits. The grapes are then fermented, and because they are so rich in sugar the alcohol degree ends up being around 15% and the wines still taste very slightly sweet. After long ageing, they are released onto the market and can be enjoyed for a few decades thereafter.

Amarone is a thrill. The color is almost black, the viscosity coats the glass, the bouquet is heady with notes of dark chocolate, prune, raisin and stewed fruit. The palate is explosive, rich and full, with the high tannins masked by the massive concentration. On the finish the warmth of the alcohol screams for a log cabin, a roaring fireplace, and an iPhone that’s out of range. Many of them cost around $60+ dollars. Of all the more premium wines I’ve shared with people, I’ve never seen someone turn their nose up at an Amarone.

But if you want something a bit more moderate, both in terms of price and quality, then buy a Ripasso. In terms of style, this is halfway between a straight Valpolicella and an Amarone. A Ripasso is a Valpolicella that has been refermented on the skins of the Amarone. This gives it more weight and extract, boosts the alcohol, and makes for a much richer style of wine. Many of them cost between $20-$30 and so they are good value, and make for a perfect match with lasagna.

The last style of Valpolicella is called a Recioto. This is basically a sweeter Amarone, where the ferment has been stopped in order to leave more residual sugar. This is a perfect match with Christmas cake or blue cheese.

Recioto is a unique red wine with an exciting taste. When you drink it you get a burst of energy, and it sends tingling sensations across your taste buds. The combination of sweet dried fruit flavors and black forest cake are to die for, and typically at less than $50 for a bottle it’s one of the world’s buried treasures.

So there are plenty of styles to choose from when it comes to wines from Valpolicella. But what they all have in common is the use of the Corvina grape and it’s cousins, usually complemented by Molinara, Rondinella and others.
Masi is probably the most famous producer, but there are dozens of others to look out for including Bertani, Tommasi, and Allegrini. I always look for the words “Classico” on the label, indicating that the wine was produced from vineyards in the original planted area, which is considered to be the best. And if you’re going to crack a bottle of Amarone, then be sure to decant it for an hour or so, to let the genie out of the bottle.

UNDERSTANDING WINE SCORES

UNDERSTANDING WINE SCORES

Robert Parker, for many years the world’s leading wine critic, explains on his website that “scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall qualitative placement of a wine.” He goes on to say that “no scoring system is perfect” and “there can never be any substitute for your own palate.”

And that just about sums it up. The bottom line is that wine buyers are faced with an overwhelming amount of choice and it is useful to get some guidance from a professional critic. A wine that scores 95-100 points is a classic, 90-94 points is outstanding, 85-89 is very good, and 80-84 points is just considered to be good. Beyond that, well, you don’t want to know.
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the point scoring system is very controversial. Some major critics refuse to use it. They think it’s impossible to give a numeric score to something likened to art. Giving points to wine is like giving scores to Picasso’s great works. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Another important reason for not using the 100 point system is because even professional tasters can be inconsistent in their ratings. Dr. Vino, a wine critic, attended a tasting of top flight Bordeaux with Parker himself where all of the wines were tasted blind. The result? Parker’s gave the highest score to a wine that he had scored the lowest in his most recent publication.

Dr. Vino’s published article does give weight to the argument that there is inconsistency even amongst the top critic’s. At the same tasting, Parker identified several Medoc wines as coming from the Right Bank.

The 100 point system also causes confusion amongst the more inquisitive consumers. It’s perplexing that a wine costing hundreds of dollars per bottle can be rated the same as one costing just $15 or $20 dollars. The major critics state that they taste wines within their peer groups. But where exactly does a peer group start and stop?

Take New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as an example. Would you class wines costing between $15-$20 as a peer group, or is it more like $15-$30 as a price range? The latter price range would be more advantageous to the more expensive wines, at least in theory.

Another argument against the 100 point system is that every wine seems to get at least 85 points. In fact, the ratings start at 50 points and if a wine is particularly poor then the review may not get published. Today, a score between 85 and 88 isn’t worth much to a winery or the trade. It’s the 90 pointers that make an impact.

But there’s also the related issue of how tough the scorer is relative to another critic. Some wine critics rarely give over 90 points to a wine, whereas others seem to be running out of points.

The “anti-point” contingent argues that the major critics, who make markets with their scores, have become so powerful that producers are making wines just to suit their palates. There is some truth to this claim. This can result in homogeneity of wine styles, where all red wines look very dark in color, have gobs of sweet fruit, and no shortage of power and concentration. This is a shame, because part of the richness of wine is the celebration of its diversity.

But the bottom line is that the 100 point system is the most consumer-friendly and it helps the wine industry too. If a winery scores highly then the cash register will start ringing. The major trade buyers are more inclined to list it because they know it will help sell wine. And sales representatives, Sommeliers, and retailers love it because it gives third party endorsement to what they are saying.

Keep in mind that it’s usually only the better quality wines that get scored. The wines that sell massive volumes at inexpensive prices are not usually rated, and this seems wrong, given that this is where the majority of consumers are looking for advice.

I believe that the major wine critics act in the best interest of the consumer, and are trying to simply give some guidance to the best of their ability. A score is easier to understand than a flowery tasting note. Numeric scores immediately give an indication of the relative quality of the wine. And essentially it’s that, an indication of quality, but it’s not a perfect system.

But finally, I would caution the consumer. Tasting wine and scoring wine is tricky business. The critics can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. The actual tasting skills of some critics is debatable. And lastly, they may be tasting and scoring wines in very challenging conditions. At some of the major competitions a critic is often asked to score 100 wines before lunch. Absurd…

INSIDE NAPA VALLEY

INSIDE NAPA VALLEY

There’s no place like it. San Francisco is one hour away. The coastal beaches and surfing are just over the hills in Sonoma, and the skiing in Tahoe is within a 3-hour drive. It’s perfectly located in one of the most picturesque spots in all of California, the Golden State.

The sun shines in the winter and there’s barely a drop of rain from May until the end of October. People live on ranches. They have stables, glistening swimming pools, and vineyards surrounding their estates. It’s wealthy. It’s beyond beautiful. And it’s called Napa Valley, the native name for “the land of plenty”.

Tourists flock here to visit the 400+ wineries, lounge at the spas, and dine at some of America’s shrines to gastronomy. It’s a mecca, and it’s the 2nd most visited tourist destination in the State. If you want to spend $1,000 a night at a top hotel, then book early. It gets busy.

But many people know all that. Napa is so famous. But what the eye doesn’t see is a highly sophisticated wine industry run by professionals who drive winemaking quality to the next level and develop a vast global distribution network.

In winemaking, the top consultants like Michel Rolland, Aaron Pott, Heidi Barrett, Philippe Melka and a host of other magicians roam the valley tinkering in the cellars. Nowhere else are consultant winemakers so well utilized and the results can be astonishing.

But the new hero is the grape grower. Fortunately, growers are blessed with a perfect climate, where sun beams all day, and then temperatures plunge at night. It’s the perfect environment for grapes, and people. Tons per acre can be low. On the hillsides it can be down as low as one ton to two tons. This is almost unheard of in most regions. But it makes most Napa wines extremely concentrated. You don’t usually hear them described as thin.
Behind the pretty cypress trees and inside the cellars, you’ll find boardrooms. They are host to regular meetings of shareholders, merger and acquisition strategists, and internal meetings attended by Directors of PR, Marketing, Sales, Online Wine Club, Visitor Experience, Export, and so on. These people, as a whole, are such experts that Napa Valley wines sell for higher average prices than any other wine region in the world, including Bordeaux.

There are several wineries that dominate the volume side of the business. Beringer, Trinchero and Mondavi are amongst the big hitters. But ask them what they’re most proud of and you’ll taste a host of outstanding wines. Anyone who thinks these companies aren’t serious about fine wine needs to rethink. Being a 15 million case enterprise isn’t a bad thing. It’s what drives R&D, Marketing campaigns, Health awareness, and their corporate funding is critical in fighting the anti-alcohol lobby in Washington.
The Napa Valley Vintners Association, which represents the wineries, is one of the most cohesive groups in wine. Producers go out on tour around the world together to promote this small valley that has become known to anyone who drinks wine. Unlike some European associations, Napa appears to the market as a group that marches to the beat of the same drum.

And largely, that drum beat stands for quality. The region markets quality. Sure, there are some less expensive Napa wines, but not many. The wineries focus on communicating about their quality, driven by the allure of points in the high nineties. In a recent tasting in Finland, where a collection of 100 of the world’s greatest wines ever produced were tasted, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1974 came out on top, beating Petrus, Lafite, and every other great name you could think of. The vintages tasted went back into the 1800’s. The quality of Napa’s top wines is outstanding.

The current focus is on developing direct sales through Online Clubs, mounting social media campaigns, and driving exports to Europe and Asia. China is the number one target for many wineries. And the Visitor Experience is of paramount importance. At Darioush, you can take a private tour for $350 per person, and taste 1st growth Bordeaux alongside their own wines, sitting in a luxurious underground cellar being served by your own chef. It’s beyond what anyone else is doing in other regions.
But the best part of Napa is that if you go to someone’s house, just a regular person who doesn’t work in wine, you’ll often be welcomed with glasses of really beautiful wine. It’s part of the culture. Your everyday drinker has bottles of Schramsberg in the fridge. Out of the blue one of their friends drops by with a sample of a new blend under consideration. And that friend just happens to be the GM of Screaming Eagle. That’s Napa.

THANKSGIVING WINES – What to drink?

THANKSGIVING WINES – What to drink?

Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s Eve. Valentine’s Day. Bless their hearts for coming up with so many occasions for us to crack open a few bottles of wine.

If you’re like most people at Thanksgiving you want to enjoy some beautiful wines without spending a fortune. With that in mind, here are some recommendations and food pairings that won’t break the bank but will certainly make for a memorable occasion.

Kick off the meal with a glass of bubbly. California sparklers can be excellent value, typically between $25 and $35. For me, many of them are on a par with the quality of entry level Champagne and yet they are half the price.

Many California sparklers are made by famous Champagne houses anyway, or Spanish Cava producers. Gloria Ferrer is a sure bet, and the Mumm Cuvee Napa can be very tasty too. They pair well with smoked salmon.

For the clean crisp taste of Sauvignon Blanc, bursting with grapefruit and citrus flavors, buy from Chile or New Zealand, although Sancerre in the Loire is the benchmark. Good Sauvignon Blanc can be had for less than $20.

Santa Rita makes some excellent wines from the Casablanca valley in Chile, and so does Villa Maria in New Zealand. A goat’s cheese salad is the perfect match before the main course.

If turkey is on the menu, then think Riesling, Gewurztraminer or a soft fruity Pinot Noir. These varietals typically work well with white meat but have enough flavor intensity to stand up to the stuffing, and all the other trimmings.
Pfaffenheim Riesling and Gewurztraminer from Alsace is always a hit, and run between $20-$30. Pinot Noir from Oregon and California can be very seductive too.

After a little rest, the festivities can continue with a luscious sweet wine to pair with a light fluffy cheesecake. Sauternes can be stunning, although they can be more expensive. Chateau Doisy Vedrines is classic. But there are other options too, and a late harvest wine from B.C. like Quails Gate Optima is also delicious.

Thanksgiving is a special day, and so we’re not finished yet. Where’s the Port? Whilst these can be extremely expensive, the best deals are in Late Bottled Vintage. Dows and Taylor Fladgate are good deals and delicious. One benefit to an LBV is that you can leave the bottle open for at least a few days, in the event you don’t polish it off. A little chocolate mousse is the ticket, along with vows of going to the gym next year.

You’re wondering if you find high quality in lower priced wines? Yes, to a degree, you can. The price of a wine is influenced by many factors.

First, a producer has to consider the costs of production. From a vineyard standpoint, the key factors are the cost of land or grapes, the cost of labor, and the yield that is harvested from an acre.

Then you have the winemaking costs. One of the key factors are the maturation vessels, with new French oak barrels costing up to $1400 each, as opposed to wines made in stainless steel tanks. Another factor is how long a wine needs to be matured before release, and it’s tough on producers to carry large stocks of red wines in barrel for 2 years, and then maybe some time in bottle thereafter.

Then you have the packaging costs, which include the labels, closure, carton, capsule, and bottle. You can spend as little as $2 for an entire package, or as high as $4 just for a glass bottle. Marketing costs can be very high, or almost non-existent.

When pricing wines the producer will always consider the market demand, which is often influenced by the prestige of the area and his winery. He’ll also consider the demand for the varietal or blend and the media reviews. Ego can play a part too.
So if you are bargain hunting look for wines from lesser known wine regions or obscure varietals, and wineries that haven’t established a reputation yet.

To learn far more and taste dozens of wines come and take a wine course from us at www.finevintageltd.com

OAK BARRELS – WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?

OAK BARRELS – WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
By James Cluer MW

You simply couldn’t make many of the world’s greatest wines without oak barrels. It’s as simple as that. Take the barrel out of Chateau Lafite and, well, it wouldn’t be selling for a few thousand bucks a bottle anymore.

Oak does much more to a wine than just add nuances of vanilla, spice, and toasty notes. Perhaps most importantly, barrels act as the lungs of a wine, allowing it to slowly breathe through the microscopic pores. This can result in a tiny amount of oxidation, which can help fill out the wine, giving it more depth, breadth and complexity. But that’s not all it does. Barrels can potentially add wood tannins to the wine, giving it more structure, changing the texture, and possibly allowing it to age for longer. Barrel aging can also change the color of wine, usually making white wines deeper.

As such, winemakers go gaga over oak barrels. Their barrel cellar is their pride and joy. They love leaning against a barrel, wine thief in hand, explaining their preference for one toasting level over another, or perhaps a certain forest, or their adoration for a certain cooperage. At around $1,200 for a top French oak barrel these are expensive toys and the barrel bill is likely to be the largest capital expense each year after labor costs.

The marriage of wine and wood is a complex subject. First, you have a variety of different types of wood that either are, or have been, used on wine. Pine, and certainly pine resin, imparts a rather distinctive taste, best left to lovers of Retsina. Other types of wood, such as chestnut, are occasionally used, but sometimes impart harsh flavors into the wine. So the coopers have settled on oak as the best type of wood amongst all the options.

There are, of course, different species of oak tree. The species that is most commonly used from America is called quercus alba, which comes from around Missouri. Some winemakers describe it as having overt coconut flavors, and being too loud, obnoxious and in-your –face. But frankly, I’ve had some extremely delicious wines made out of American oak. Old style Rioja is typically aged in American oak, and that’s hardly obnoxious wine.

On the cost front, you have the benefit of American oak costing half as much as French oak because more can be extracted from the tree. The trees are typically 80-120 years old before being harvested, so there’s some planning ahead involved.

The French oak species, known as quercus robur, is the species that is the most highly prized. But even within France there are different forests, and each forest has its own terroir, and so the trees grow differently. Therefore, the wood not only tastes different from one forest to another, but the size of the pores can vary, changing the degree of oxygenation. Most winemakers say that French oak is more subtle, with more spice and nutty flavors.

Once a tree is harvested it is taken to the cooperage and cut into staves, which look like planks. Some coopers then put these in stacks and leave them outside to be seasoned. As the planks of wood are exposed to the elements the undesirable tannins seep out, and after three years only the finest flavors and tannins remain. Other coopers think this is a waste of time, and they kiln dry the wood, so it is ready in a matter of weeks after the harvest. But the cognoscenti frown on this. You can’t hurry perfection.
Once the staves have been seasoned they are put into the hands of the barrel maker, who will toast the wood over an open fire to char it. The more it is “smoked” the stronger the toasty flavors in the wine. This is an art. Some barrels may need a light toasting, whereas others may need longer, and of course there’s always the option of toasting the heads of the barrel too. Other cooperages leave the decision to technology, and have an electronic nose sniff around in there to determine if certain aromatic compounds are present. As a winery, you can order your barrels with an extra dose of vanilla if you so wish…

The barrels are then shipped off around the world, ready for the Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Pinot Noir, and various other red varietals that commonly go into them. A handful of whites like Chardonnay are often aged in barrel too, and sometimes Sauvignon Blanc can be fermented and aged in barrel, like in California or Bordeaux.

It then falls into the hands of the winemaker as to how he might use his precious toys. Most are nervous about over-oaking a wine and it’s a fine line to tread between getting the most out of a barrel and not over-doing it. As such, many winemakers don’t use 100% new oak, and instead use both one and two year old barrels. But on the other hand, there are wineries that produce such dense wines that 100% new oak treatment is the way to go, and some cult wines even go for 200% new oak by using a new set of barrels half way through the ageing process. The bottom line is that there is no magic formula and every winemaker will have his own preferences.

But when it comes to modern wine-drinkers tastes, we’ve been told that we shouldn’t like oaky wines anymore. All those vanilla and toasty notes, accompanied by a dose of melted butter, is no longer in style. But just wait 10 years, and it’ll be all the rage again.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course at www.FineVintageLtd.com It’s time and money well spent.

CELLARING WINES

CELLARING WINES
By James Cluer, Master of Wine

WHY START A CELLAR?

There’s something magical about going down to a wine cellar and rummaging through stacks of dusty old bottles. After lengthy deliberations with yourself, you select the perfect bottle, and then emerge victorious to rapturous applause from your thirsty friends.

It’s great fun to have a stash of wine. It’s one of the pleasures of life. Each bottle has a story to tell. Some might have sentimental value, others are kept for a special occasion, and hopefully most of them have increased in value. Yes, you can potentially make big bucks on wine as an investment, but that’s another story.

The main reason for cellaring wines is to allow them to improve in quality. Over time some wines can develop amazingly complex bouquets and flavors. Great wine needs time to evolve and mature, and it is only with cellaring that fine wines show their true pedigree. Sadly, the vast majority of high quality wines are drunk far too young.

In fact, the current situation in the fine wine world is a bit sad. Consumers typically want immediate gratification and most bottles are opened within 24 hours of purchase. Producers don’t want to be the ones financing stocks. It’s already expensive and takes long enough to make wine, so selling it soon after bottling is the name of the game. The result: great wines are put on the market far too soon and consumers guzzle them before they’ve had time to show their magic.

Coming from me, it’s a bit ironic to say that you should be more patient. But patience has its rewards. Start a cellar, and start thinking and planning long-term. You’ll be glad you did.

But what types of wine should you buy and how can you tell if a wine should be cellared? A certain amount of experience and expertise in tasting goes a long way, but here are the key things to look for.

TASTING FOR CELLARING POTENTIAL

First, evaluate the overall quality of the wine. If it is a poor quality wine then it will usually only get worse.
Second, wines need to have good structure in order to age well. I have a close look at the tannins in reds. Wines should have quite high amounts of fine tannins to give them structure, and these tannins will soften over time. What I’d be worried about is green tannins, and any other signs of a lack of ripeness. Green notes don’t tend to go away…
Both red and whites should have a reasonable amount of acidity too, which will help keep them alive. Acidity is really the spine of the wine, and is the key reason for wines like Mosel Riesling ageing so effortlessly for decades.

There should also be a good degree of fruit ripeness because wines lose their primary fruitiness as they age. If a wine is lacking ripeness and concentration, then it won’t have the stuffing to take it the distance.

Finally, all of these components need to be in balance. So look for some harmony between the fruit, acid, tannin and alcohol. If the alcohol is so high that it feels like you’re drinking Tequila then this is only going to get worse with age.

SELECTING REGIONS AND VARIETIES WITH PROVEN TRACK RECORDS

Another way to approach it is to focus on high quality wines that come from classic regions with a track record of improving with age. White wines like top quality vintage Champagnes, fine German and Alsatian Rieslings, some great white Burgundy (especially Grand Cru Chablis) and Bordeaux, and curiosities like Hunter valley Semillon can all age well. A good cellar has a nice selection of white wines so don’t overlook these.

The list of reds is much longer. I’d get excited to see stacks of northern Rhone reds from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, throw in some Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and a healthy dose of benchmark Burgundy from the Cote de Nuits. From Bordeaux the classic appellations of the Medoc and the wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol are a must. Without them it’s just not a serious cellar.

From Italy the essentials would include Barolos, Barbarescos, Brunellos, Super-Tuscans and Amarones. Don’t forget Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat from Spain, classic Napa Cabernets, and the icon wines from Chile, Argentina and Australia.

Finish off the cellar with a section of the great sweet wines from the Loire, Sauternes and Tokaji. Throw in a few cases of vintage Port and you’ve got enough supplies to see you through any dinner party. Think of it as the ultimate Emergency Preparedness kit.

WHEN DO I KNOW TO DRINK THEM?

The next question is when to actually drink all these treasures? Wines go through three key phases. They are either improving, at peak, or past their best. The trick is to buy at least three bottles of anything you decide to cellar. Check on the internet when the critics are saying the ideal drinking window is. When you think a wine might be approaching its time then crack open a bottle and see how you like it.

If I think a wine is fantastic then I scribble that down on the actual label. I’ll write a note on the label about how much longer I think it can cellar for. So on the empty bottle you’ll read something like – OUTSTANDING! Drunk August 25th 2017, Hold 2-4 yrs more.

But if the wine is not showing well and is simply too young then I’m inclined to give it a long period in a decanter to help it open up, and note on the label that the next bottle shouldn’t be drunk before a certain date.

Sometimes people wonder what all the fuss is about with wine. Why are some people seemingly mad about wine? Their passion and excitement can border on a clinical condition. Well, if you’ve tasted fine wines that are a few decades old, you’ll know that the bouquet and flavors are like nothing else on earth.

To become a better taster and learn more about wines worth cellaring take a wine course at www.FineVintageLtd.com It’s time and money well spent.

How to start a career and get a job in the wine industry

I’m fascinated by wine and want to make a career change. How can I get a job in the wine industry?

There are so many different options for working in the wine industry. The two key sectors are production and sales, but there are dozens of others to consider.

If you want to get into production then the best way to start is by getting a job at a winery as a cellar hand. Simply go and visit, and ask to speak to the Winemaker. It’s remarkably easy to get a job helping out during the harvest, which is the most exciting time of the year.

Obviously a job with a fair amount of physical labor won’t pay a fortune, but you’ll quickly figure out if production is for you. Make sure you work for someone who speaks your language, and someone who will take you under their wing. Otherwise, you’ll have no idea why you’re doing the various tasks. Ask to spend 2-3 days doing a task like operating the press, doing punch-downs or working in the lab, and then move on. It’s pointless to spend 3 months doing the exact same thing in a winery.

If you like working in a vineyard or a winery, then it’s time to take some courses. UC Davis in California is well regarded, and they have some good courses in Washington State too. Obviously France, Australia and NZ have some of the very best schools but perhaps less convenient depending on where you live or want to go.

These days it’s important to have formal training. Some growers and winemakers seem to just take a few courses here and there, and miraculously declare themselves as professionals. There’s a frightening amount of this in Canada. My suggestion, if you want to be serious, is to get a degree.

Whilst studying you could start to specialize in a certain area, because expertise in a particular field like irrigation or oak barrels will help you tremendously in your career. Maybe you can be the world expert on a tiny bug that attacks the vine, or develop a new technology to help with the science of winemaking. Then you have something…

On the sales front, many people start in wine retail. It’s pretty easy to walk into a shop and ask for a job paying a low hourly rate. But it is a great place to start. You’ll have the chance to taste lots of different wines and learn from your colleagues. Most importantly, you’ll start to understand consumer behavior and that will be invaluable in the years to come.
Alternatively, one of the best jobs is as a Sales Rep. I loved the freedom to disappear into the city with a trunk full of samples. You’ll get to meet dozens of customers in the hospitality and retail industries. Along with a start in wine retail, this is probably the best way to learn the ropes.

In terms of formal education in Sales and Marketing, you could do an MBA at a number of different schools. Sonoma State, Bordeaux and Adelaide have excellent programs. Having these qualifications, which can often be done part-time over 12-18 months can really open doors and help with your career. And don’t forget, there is much more money in sales and marketing compared to the average salaries in production so that’s something to consider too.

After getting some formal training like an MBA, you could consider working in export sales. It can be fun to fly around the world selling wine, although after a few years hotel rooms and airports quickly lose their appeal. Eventually, many people working in sales start their own import companies or become brokers, or develop their own trading business of one type or another. These can flourish.

There are dozens of other niche businesses. If you want to be a wine writer then getting accredited is a good start, although it doesn’t seem to be mandatory. Writing doesn’t seem to pay much for all but the top 10 in the world and even they seem to moan about the low pay. But they do like the incredible experiences, the travel, the wonderful wines and effectively they can live like a millionaire so that counter-balances the fees paid by magazines and newspapers. Sadly, very few people in the world are interested in reading about wine, at least compared to food.

Designing packaging and websites could be another area to consider, and the top designers can do very well. Or maybe you want to be a professional Wine Buyer or Consultant; although a certain amount of training is required before you make purchasing recommendations or dish out advice. Or maybe you want to rep a line of glasses, or have a wine storage business, or do in-store tastings en masse for large companies, or analyze wines at auction to see if they are fake, or be a Sommelier, or work in logistics, or, or , or… The good news is that there are hundreds of options. Just start thinking out of the box.

To get started you can visit www.WineJobsCanada.com , www.WineJobsUSA.com, www.WineJobsEngland.co.uk, or one of our other sites in HK, Oz, or NZ. I hope you’ll find the perfect job that meets all your needs.

What path should I follow in wine education and who is the best Sherpa?

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.