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How important is the vintage of a wine?

How important is the vintage of a wine?

The importance of vintage depends on the region of production and the quality of the wine.

The vintage date can be of critical importance in cooler, more marginal climates. If it was a good year then the wines can be dramatically better in quality compared to a year when the heavens opened at harvest time and the crop suffered from dilution and rot. Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Champagne, Piedmont, Tuscany, parts of Germany are typically more susceptible to vintage variation. Prices can fluctuate according to the quality of the vintage, so it is important to ask a Product Consultant or check on the internet for the reviews.

In some regions there is little vintage variation because the weather is quite consistent from year to year. In hot parts of Australia and California I’m really not too worried about the vintage date, but more concerned about the maturity of the wine. That’s to say that inexpensive wines are usually best drunk young while they are fresh and fruity, whilst top quality red wines often benefit from some age.

So I would be more concerned about a wine from a lesser region, or of lesser general quality, being too old. A Chardonnay that is 5 years old from California’s Central Valley, exhibiting a worryingly deep gold color, is cause for concern. It’s an unlikely scenario though.

On a few wines there are no vintage date and so it’s not an issue. Non vintage Champagne is a classic example, and so are Ruby Ports and Sherries. This is because several vintages are blended together so the producer can achieve a degree of consistency in the house style.

Yes, it is difficult to keep up on the merits of vintages in dozens of wine regions around the world and few people have the time or inclination to stay up-to-date. But if you are buying some more expensive wine from classic areas it’s definitely worth finding out because it can mean the difference between a great bottle and a disappointment. When in doubt, turn to Wine Spectator or Decanter for reviews.

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

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

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. 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.

For more on our courses check out www.FineVintageLtd.com

CALIFORNIA ZINFANDEL, No Wimpy Wines

CALIFORNIA ZINFANDEL – No Wimpy Wines

When I think of Zinfandel I think of big, juicy, high-octane red wines from producers like Seghesio, Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. My mind drifts off to the rolling hills of Sonoma, especially the Dry Creek area, where you find some of the best wines. Amongst the mustard flowers you see these thick gnarly old vines. Some are over 100 years old. Zinfandel, the signature variety of California, is definitely rated a “Buy”.

A number of countries are blessed with having their own signature grape variety. Argentina has Malbec, Chile has Carmenere, there’s Pinotage from South Africa, and the list goes on. But I reckon that California has one of the best grape varieties to call its own. Zinfandel can produce some excellent wines at the very top end.

Ravenswood’s slogan “no wimpy wines” pretty much sums up the style of the big wines, which are amongst the most powerful and concentrated of any red. A classic high quality Zinfandel is always very dark in color, with plenty of viscosity when you swirl it in the glass. Because of the warm climate in most of California the nose is typically jam-packed with ultra ripe fruits, which can include strawberry compote, sweet black cherry, and there is often a spicy note too.

The palate is very full bodied, usually clocking 14.5%+ alcohol, and the tannins tend to be fairly smooth and supple. In the big wines you can often find raisin and jam notes, along with cloves and licorice, vanilla and coconut. It’s hedonistic pleasure in a glass.

But there are various styles of Zinfandel, principally distinguished by their weight in the mouth, the ripeness of the fruit, and their alcohol degree. Some producers, the more extreme ones, flaunt wines at 17%+ alcohol, which is amongst the highest in the world for regular wines. They delight in calling them “fruit bombs” or “blockbusters”. These styles of Zin pair well with loud Hawaiian shirts and a plate of ribs.

But there are also some Zinfandel producers who prefer a lighter and more elegant style, which wouldn’t be too far off a very ripe and full bodied Pinot Noir. The trick to recognizing these is often by looking at the alcohol degree on the label, and if it is 13.5% or less then chances are it will be a lighter style.

But Zinfandel is versatile enough to produce another style of wine, known as white Zinfandel. Astonishingly, white Zin became the best-selling wine in the United States for two decades. Granted, classic producers of red Zinfandel typically roll their eyes when you mention white Zin, as if an ugly duckling was ruining their brand image. And to a degree they are right, although they’re probably jealous of all the money the white Zin producers are raking in.

The pioneer of white Zinfandel is Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home. He had the great fortune to have a stuck fermentation in one of his tanks back in the 1970’s. Instead of making a dry red Zin he ended up making a slightly sweet pink wine that charmed the pants off Americans for decades. His winery now sells millions of cases a year of it, and Bob is a very happy man.

He explained that for most people the jump from drinking sodas/pops to dry tannic red wine is too much of a stretch. So the best way to ease into wine is with something chilled, a touch sweet, and with candied strawberry notes. In the winery the maturation time for a white Zin is short. You can skip the oak barrels, and have it shipped in a flash. So it actually pays wine producer’s bills too.

When it comes to viticultural origins, you can bank on Zinfandel to spark wine lovers into a demonstration of superior knowledge. The first person usually remarks that Zinfandel is actually the Primitivo grape of southern Italy. The second connoisseur usually then jumps in to mention that the grape has its origins in Croatia and is in fact a grape called Crljenak Kastelanski. If the pronunciation can be pulled off then the conversation usually ends there, and the other guests roll their eyes at the wine snob who won.  

But whatever the origin, what matters is that Zinfandel’s home is in California where it is the workhorse grape, planted throughout the State. If you had a glass of red wine back in the 1850’s then chances are it was Zinfandel.

It’s generally agreed that Sonoma produces some of the finest examples. The Dry Creek AVA is particularly well regarded, but the Alexander valley isn’t to be forgotten either. There are some famous wines from the Russian River as well and it’s quite common to see “Old Vines” proudly mentioned on the label of many Sonoma wines. Some of the plantings date back over 100 years. Seghesio is a favorite of mine.

But there are also some excellent Zinfandels in Napa too, particularly from vineyards “up valley” around St Helena and Calistoga where the temperatures are warmer. Caymus, Storybrook Mountain, and Ch Montelena all produce sought-after wines. I find these wines to be very polished, particularly plump and soft, with an explosion of sweet ripe fruit covering the palate.

Another area to look for, particularly for value priced wines, is Lodi in the Central valley.

This area is where the bulk of California’s wine comes from, but that’s not to say that low yielding vineyards don’t produce high quality wines. Ravenswood do well in this sector, with their distinctive logo and fun slogan.

There are certainly other parts of California, like Mendocino and Monterey that produce good Zinfandel too, but these aren’t the best known areas. So in almost every corner of California you’ll find people making Zinfandel. And lots of them are small producers, usually with an artistic bent. Yes, there can be a certain hippy style to these farmers living on ranches in the beautiful valleys that line the California coast.

A key criteria for ripening Zinfandel is a high level of heat units. In wine speak, that means it should be pretty warm, even hot, where you plant it. And whilst some of the coastal regions see a thick marine fog roll in during the summer months, these same valleys can also get nice and toasty from noon onwards.

And then, as harvest approaches, winemakers need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to picking. The sugars in Zinfandel can rocket up in a few days and all of a sudden you have grapes that might create a 16% alcohol wine. The good news is that nobody will accuse it of being thin and weedy – the ultimate insult for Ravenswood… So you have to be fast when you decide to pick.

Speaking of price, one of the attractive things about Zinfandel is that even for the most famous producers, including their single vineyard wines, you rarely pay more than $60 per bottle on the shelf in Canada. And when you compare that to the top Pinots, Cabernets and Syrahs, then Zinfandel starts to look like a bargain. In my tastings I’ve been impressed with wines costing less than $30 a bottle.

In terms of food pairings, a steak is a sure bet, and so are burgers and ribs. The more refined the wine, the more refined the food should be. Because they are usually very big and powerful you can go with a rich dish. But some of the slightly lighter styles can drink well by themselves because the tannins aren’t too aggressive.

So what’s the future for Zinfandel? There will always be detractors who say they lack ageability, can be short on complexity, and often a tab too sweet. But personally, I like them and so long as there are high quality wines made then I imagine there will be a market for them.  

If you want to learn more about the signature grape of California and join it’s legions of devotees then visit www.zinfandel.org. ZAP, which stands for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers is the HQ of all matters relating to the grape, and has information on their tastings, which have a cult-like following.

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

Wine:
Bonterra, Mendocino
Food Pairing: All by itself
***
Wine: Ravenswood, Lodi
Food Pairing: Burgers
***
Wine: Caymus, Napa
Food Pairing: Roast beef
***
Wine: Seghesio Rockpile, Dry Creek
Food Pairing: BBQ steaks
***
Wine: Ridge, Lytton Springs
Food Pairing: Leg of lamb

SUGAR ME UP — THE GREAT SWEET WINES OF THE WORLD

SUGAR ME UP
THE GREAT SWEET WINES OF THE WORLD

Sauternes from Bordeaux, Tokaji from Hungary, Coteaux du Layon in the Loire, icewine, sweet Germans, late harvest from Alsace, well, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to dessert wine. Personally, I’m a huge fan. I find the unique production methods to be fascinating and the sheer quality of the wines can be staggering.

But most of all, I love a glass after a great dinner. It’s the icing on the cake. So don’t forget that before the Port, you’ll need to serve some dessert wine with a cheesecake, a fruit tart, a selection of cheese, and various other delights.

Sauternes is arguably the king of all sweet wines. It certainly wins the prize for being the most expensive with Chateau d’Yquem ranking amongst the most pricey wines in the world. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a half bottle from an average vintage. And if you come across a bottle from the 1800’s then expect to remortgage your house. But there are plenty of less famous Sauternes around $30-$50 too, so you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy it.

Sauternes is part of the Bordeaux region, in south west France. In the fall, autumn mists lift off the river Garonne where it intersects with the Ciron, because of the temperature differences in the water. This mist shrouds the vineyards and creates very humid conditions which are the catalyst for the development of botrytis, or noble rot. It doesn’t sound good, and it doesn’t look good either, but this noble rot attacks the berries and punctures small holes in the grapes which cause them to shrivel. As a result the water content of the berry evaporates and you’re left with a high degree of sugar, and ultra-ripe tropical fruit flavors.    

But botrytis doesn’t affect all of the grapes at exactly the same time. This means that picking has to be done by hand, with harvesters passing through the vineyard in waves, selecting only the berries with noble rot. At some estates the pickers may go through the vineyard several times, armed with no more than a pair of nail scissors. To put it in perspective, a single grape vine will often produce at least one 75cl bottle of top quality red or white wine, but in Sauternes the yield is so low that you’d be lucky to extract one glass of the sweet liquid gold from a single vine.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the grapes of choice. The former is highly susceptible to botrytis and the latter helps counter-balance the sweetness with a refreshing acidity and a spectrum of different flavors. The fermentation is halted at approximately 14% alcohol leaving plenty of unfermented sugars in the wine, and then it is transferred to oak barrels for around two years of maturation.

Expect honey to predominate, with notes of pineapple, brown sugar and crème brulee, in a full bodied style. The French love to serve it with foie gras as a starter, but I prefer it with a cheesecake at the end of a meal. When it comes to sweet wines, Sauternes is still my first choice.

But those Hungarian Tokaji’s can be so good too. It’s like picking your favorite child. Tokaji is gorgeous, replete with an expansive bouquet of marmalade and honey, and a thread of acidity that can enable them to last for decades.

True, Tokaji is not as well-known and perhaps the fact that it is made in Hungary doesn’t exactly help win consumer’s affection. But it is the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines, as they say. And the way they make it is entirely unique.

Botrytis is triggered by the same phenomena as in Sauternes, caused by temperature differences in the waters of two rivers that intersect. But here the grapes are different. You have Harslevelu and Furmint, which are hardly household names. A dry white wine is made from Furmint and then the botrytis affected Harslevelu is added. On the label you will see a statement about the number of Puttonyos. The number of Puttonyos ranges between 3-6, and if you buy a 6 then expect it to be sweeter than a 3,4, or 5. Puttonyos is the name of the wicker baskets that the pickers use, filled with botrytis affected grapes.

The Loire, including Coteaux du Layon, Quartz de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, made with Chenin Blanc, can display succulent honeyed flavors, in a wine that tends to be a little lighter and more acidic than Sauternes. One of the nice things is the price, which tends to be less than Sauternes and Tokaji, at least for Coteaux du Layon. I’ve found some stunners that are around $30, which is half the price of icewine. Try these with some blue cheese, as the saltiness is offset by the sweetness of the wine.  

Germany and Alsace can produce some fabulous sweet wines too. In Alsace look for the words Vendange Tardive (late harvest), or Selection de Grains Noble for the botrytis affected ones. Riesling and Gewurztraminer is king, and I love the incredibly intense aromas of an Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Red roses, spice, honey, apricot and a rich oily texture are the hallmarks. I always look for the wines of Domaine Weinbach, a family-owned producer, established hundreds of years ago.

But whilst sweet wines are a rarity in Alsace, Germany specializes in them. Look for the designations Auslese and Beerenauslese on the label if you want something with an undeniable amount of sweetness. These rather complicated terms refer to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest. This is the basis of the German wine laws, where sugar is prized above all else.

The great thing about these wines is the phenomenal balance between sweetness and acidity, delicacy and power, and the unusually low alcohol. Most of the sweet wines from the Mosel have an alcohol degree around 8.0%. This is a good thing, because nobody likes being hungover.

The Mosel valley in Germany produces many of the benchmark classic wines. Some of the vineyards are planted on slopes that are so steep that one slip and you could end up in hospital. Fritz Haag, Egon Muller, Selbach-Oster and Dr Loosen all produce stunning wines.

Of course, Canadian icewine is a speciality. It’s local and the fact that the grapes have to be picked at -8 Celsius is unique in itself.

Canada produces more icewine than any other country, especially in Ontario where there are massive volumes made. Riesling and Vidal are widely used, and producers wait until frigid temperatures freeze the grapes on the wine. This can happen as late as January, which highlights the fact that many sweet wines are made by taking a tremendous risk.

Once the grapes are picked, which is often during the night, they are pressed whilst still frozen and the small amount of sweet juice is inoculated with a powerful yeast to trigger the ferment. A few months later, usually at around 11% alcohol, the ferment is halted and a colossal amount of unfermented residual sugar remains. These are some of the sweetest of all wines, and sometimes can be syrupy, and cloying.

There are other sweet wines that you should track down, like the amazing Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, from the southern Rhone. Although this is a fortified wine, it is only lightly so, and the gorgeous floral, orange and honeyed aromas will blow everyone away. At around $25 for the half bottle you’ll get amazing value.

The list could go on. But that’s enough to get started. So next time you are planning a dinner party make sure you don’t forget the sweet stuff. There’s a reason why they call it the nectar of the Gods.

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

WINE: Sauternes

PRODUCER: Ch. Doisy Vedrines  

FOOD PAIRING: Blue cheese

***

WINE: Tokaji    

PRODUCER: Ch Dereszla              

FOOD PAIRING: Strawberry Cheesecake

***

WINE: Alsace VT

PRODUCER: Domaine Weinbach

FOOD PAIRING: Crème Brulee

***

WINE: Mosel Auslese    

PRODUCER: Selbach-Oster                          

FOOD PAIRING: Tropical fruit plate

***

WINE: Canadian icewine               

PRODUCER: Inniskillin                 

FOOD PAIRING: Well chilled, by itself

RIESLING – the best white grape in the world?

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: Dry Riesling

Winery: Tantalus Old Vines, Okanagan

Pairing: Prawns, scallops, goat’s cheese

***

Style: Off-dry Riesling

Winery: Selbach Oster Kabinett

Pairing: Sushi, German sausages

***

Style: Medium sweet

Winery: Dr Loosen Spatlese

Pairing: Spicy Thai chicken curry

***

Style: Sweet      

Winery: Fritz Haag Auslese

Pairing: Fresh fruit plate

***

Style: Dry Riesling

Winery: Domaine Weinbach, Alsace

Pairing: Munster cheese

Wines of the Mediterranean

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     

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

PORT & HAPPY ENDINGS

PORT & HAPPY ENDINGS

Great dinner parties are marked by a spectacular beginning and a climatic ending.

The beginning is usually done pretty well. Champagne hits the mark, especially when served in magnums. Sabering a bottle leaves everybody riveted, mainly because they’re waiting to see if you cut off your fingers.

But the initial excitement can fade when white and red wines are then served. It’s difficult to keep up the momentum. So to ensure that your guests leave on a high note, you’ve got to go out with a bang. And that’s where the Port comes in.

A vintage Port sits in a decanter, gently breathing for 2-3 hours. The bottle stands beside it. There is a year boldly marked on the label. The wine is older than you.

A glass is poured, people sip, and the OMG’s start flying. It’s the climax.

There are other ways to finish off. You could go for a Sherry but I’d be careful with that. You may ruin the night as many people don’t like the unique tastes, and you’ll be left sitting there trying to convince everyone that it’s such an amazing wine. Irritated, you’ll go to bed grumpy about the lack of sophistication of your guests and they’ll leave gossiping about how awful that last wine was, and accusing you of prematurely ageing. Grannies drink Sherry.

Madeira could be an option, but again, you’re playing with fire. You can hold court with tales of how they originally made the wine, shipping it across the equator so that it would literally cook. Chances are that guests will be intrigued, and then a comment will slip out from someone about how they think the story is amazing but they don’t really like the wine. No offence, of course. And so the climax is ruined.

So you’re left with Port, a wine that is sure to please both the casual drinker and the connoisseur. It’s partly the sweetness, but it’s also the rich dark fruits and chocolaty flavors, the full-body and heady power that people fall in love with every time. And don’t get me started on those Tawnies.

It’s one of the most amazing wine regions for several different reasons. First, it’s located in one of the most arid and rugged places on earth. The vineyards have been planted on steep terraces cut out of brutally hard rock. Sometimes they have to use dynamite to blow a hole in the rock so they can plant a vine. The fact that the terracing was done by hand, using a pick and a shovel, over 300 years ago, simply defies belief. This is the Machu Picchu of wine regions.

Then you have the fact that much of the vineyard work is still done by hand. Most of the terraces are so steep and narrow there’s no hope of racing around in a big machine harvester. You typically see Portuguese women wandering through the vineyards tending to the vines, and sometimes dusting them with a spray, all done by hand.

When it comes to quality control, you can’t just buy any old vineyard in the Douro valley and start making Port. No, you’ll be told if your vineyard merits making Port by the local regulators, and then they’ll tell you how much Port you can make. So the viticultural aspects are strictly controlled in order to maintain a minimum quality standard, unlike in much of the world.

In fact, each vineyard is classified on a scale of A-F. It’s kind of like being at school. If you’re grade A then your vineyard has the best terroir and you have the most chance of making high quality Port. If you’re graded F then I’m afraid you’re not allowed to make any Port at all. Bad boy.

And so in this way the regulators, called the IVP, ensure that poor quality vineyards don’t make Port and they also regulate the volume produced so there isn’t a surplus. The Australians could have benefited from this type of regulation.

Another fascinating aspect of viticulture in the Douro valley is the grape varieties they have planted. Over 80 different varieties have been identified. All of them have bizarre Portuguese names, and in some vineyards there are dozens of different varieties inter-planted, even in the same row. In fact, for the longest time, growers didn’t even know what they had in the vineyards. It just made Port.

But over the years about 5 or 6 different grape varieties have been deemed to produce the finest Port. People often use Bordeaux as an example of the benefits of blending varieties, but Port is a better one. Touriga Nacional forms the backbone, Tinta Barroca adds color and dark fruit characters, Tinta Amarela contributes fragrance, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) adds flesh, and Tinta Cao notches up the complexity. The art of blending is the ultimate skill in fine winemaking.

So the grapes are harvested. They arrive at the winery, called a Quinta, and at traditional wineries they are unloaded into lagares, which are concrete tanks about the size of a paddling pool. The pickers then jump in, thigh deep in red grapes, and start stomping. This is to extract as much color, flavor and tannin from the grapes as fast as possible and the human foot does a great job. This is the preferred method at the top estates.

Even the foot stomping is regulated. The Boss orders the stompers to march up and down the tank, back and forth, to the sound of a drum. After a few hours, and if you’ve behaved, he’ll announce the libertad and then the party starts in the lagar. Wine is swigged from pig-skins. Music plays. People smoke. Passion and character is infused into the dark red nectar. You see, in my opinion, all this bullshit squeaky clean winemaking can rob a wine of character.

Along comes the winemaker, and when there is around 6-9% alcohol from the fermentation, he’ll add a powerful grape spirit at 77%. The yeast dies as soon as they come into contact with such a strong potion, and so the ferment is arrested, and the wine is left partly sweet. It’s half fermented grape juice.

They then put the wine into barrels, and usually transport it down to the coast, to Vila Nova de Gaia, where it becomes the responsibility of the cellar master. Arguably his most important job is to decide what style of Port each batch of wine will make. In Port, there’s a range of qualities and styles.

To cut to the chase, my favorite is the 20 year old Tawny and the Colheitas, which are single-vintage tawnies. And that’s mainly because you don’t often see, or get to taste, the 30 or 40 year olds. Tawny Ports are the preferred style for many of the Portuguese shippers. They find it smoother, more refined, and easier drinking in the heat of the Douro. You can serve it slightly chilled.

What’s fascinating about Tawny Port is the fact that it is aged for so incredibly long. Twenty years is the average age of the wines found inside a 20 year old Tawny. So the producers are holding stocks for decades, and decades. They must have lunch with the bank at least once a month.

An aged Tawny turns a brownish red color and becomes the epitome of smooth, with all the tannin integrated or dissipated. The toffee, nuts, raisins, and butterscotch are so silky, yet rich and concentrated. It’s both power and elegance. It is surely the most enjoyable Port to sip by itself.

Of course, deep dark red Port from a single vintage is the ultimate for many. This is arguably THE greatest fortified wine in the world, capable of ageing for half a century or more. It is only the finest parcels in the greatest years when a vintage is “declared” by a House, and that is after the IVP regulators have approved the quality as “vintage”.

Now vintage Ports can be pricey. But I always search out the older ones, like the 1994, or even older, because they are ready to drink and cost much less than some of the newer releases which are not ready to drink. Cost aside, when you hit the mark with a vintage Port, served with Stilton, it’s an experience. Raisin, milk chocolate, sweet black cherries, spices, density, and built like a Roman palace.

But the best kept secret in Port has got to be Late Bottle Vintage, or LBV. LBV is a wine from a single year that must have been aged for between 4-6 years in cask before being bottled and released. It’s wine that didn’t make the cut for the “vintage” batches.

But keep in mind that some years they don’t make vintage Port and so LBV becomes the next closest thing, and at least half the price. It’s the best deal you’ll find in fortified wine. For less than $30 you can be drinking a wine that is dark and inky, heady and perfumed, and explodes with flavor.

The best dinners are ones when the room is filled with laughter. Great wine is the catalyst. So next time you’re planning a party make sure you pick up a bottle of Port, maybe a mousse au chocolate, a few truffles, and some Stilton. Happy ending guaranteed.

STYLE: 10 Year Old Tawny
PRODUCER: Grahams
FOOD PAIRING: Chilled, by itself

STYLE: 20 Year Old Tawny
PRODUCER: Taylor Fladgate
FOOD PAIRING: Caramel tart

STYLE: LBV
PRODUCER: Dows 2004
FOOD PAIRING: Mousse au chocolate

STYLE: Vintage
PRODUCER: Fonseca 2001 Panascal
FOOD PAIRING: Stilton

STYLE: Vintage
PRODUCER: Dows 2007
FOOD PAIRING: Truffles and cheese

MERLOT & the love to hate.

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: Chateau Petrus , Pomerol
FOOD PAIRING: A nice inheritance

WINE: Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, Pomerol
FOOD PAIRING: Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

WINE:
Chateau Grand Mayne, St Emilion
FOOD PAIRING: Steak Frites

WINE: Tua Rita, IGT Toscana
FOOD PAIRING: Pasta in a tomato sauce

WINE: Duckhorn, Napa
FOOD PAIRING: Leg of lamb

WINE: Woodward Canyon, Washington State
FOOD PAIRING: Stew

WINE: Errazuriz, Sena, Chile
FOOD PAIRING: Bison