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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long can I cellar Port for?

Ports are one of the longest lived wines because they are fortified, they have the support of tannin, a degree of acidity, and massive concentration of fruit. These are some of the key criteria for longevity. In fact, other than Madeira, they are the longest lived of all wines. But there are a number of different styles of Port and so I have to answer your question according to each style.

Vintage Ports, the greatest wines from a single year, are designed for long term cellaring. The general guideline is that they should not be opened for at least a decade after the vintage, and most will be showing their pedigree at 15-25 years of age. Of course, it depends on the quality and style of the vintage, but a really great Port could easily mature for 40-50 years, and some of them for much longer.

With Vintage Port you must drink the whole bottle within 1-2 days of opening. These wines are bottled after just a few years in the cellar, so they oxidize faster because they haven’t been exposed to a lot of air. So beware of ordering Vintage Port in a restaurant. Often they have been sitting there for, well, much more than 2 days.  

Late Bottled Vintage Ports (LBV), which is the best value for money, are aged by the producer and only shipped when ready to drink. Whilst you certainly can age a top LBV for a few years, and you may even see some improvement, this is not the intention of the producer. The producers are hoping that you’ll pull the cork the day you buy them, given that they already matured them for over 6 years themselves.

Ruby Port is the entry level category, and these are intended for immediate consumption. They are deep red, full bodied, with heady black fruits, sweet spices and a fiery kick on the palate. If you age them for more than a few years they risk losing their freshness. So don’t cellar these.

Finally, Tawny Ports, which are my favourites, can be kept in bottle for a few years, depending on the quality and style of the wine. But the intention with these beauties is that you buy them and drink them without further cellaring. In production, they have been exposed to air for many years before bottling, sometimes 40+ years in the top age category. So they are more stable, and you can keep the bottle open for a few weeks, if you can resist the temptation.

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

How to identify aromas and flavors in wine.

It can be tricky to pinpoint the exact flavors in some wines, and even amongst the experts there can be some disagreement because of the subjective nature of taste.

In fact, we all taste slightly differently. Some people have very low sensitivities to bitterness, others have a sweeter tooth, and different nationalities can have their own taste preferences. It’s for this reason that some wine producers make the same wine in different styles to suit certain export markets.

My recommendation would be to play blind tasting games with different fruits, spices, and other common aromas found in wine. Blindfold your partner, or have them close their eyes, and then ask them to smell different fruits and guess what they are. Then move into the spices. You’d be amazed at how often we get them wrong.

There are also aromas kits that you can buy from companies like Le Nez du Vin, but these can be very expensive and are not for everyone. Another option is to take a wine course where you are professionally trained to taste and describe wines.

The good news is that practice makes perfect. There are certainly some tasters that have an ability to write beautiful tasting notes and identify a wide range of flavors in wine. But keep in mind that this is a profession for such people and the skills didn’t develop overnight.

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

Can you train yourself to become a good wine taster?

The short answer is that, yes, in most cases, you can train yourself to become a good wine taster. It just takes a lot of practice and, most importantly, you need someone to explain what to look for, and how to look for it. Don’t let the blind lead the blind.

But the speed of your progress will depend, at least in part, on your natural-born ability as a taster. And it is shocking just how differently we taste. Women are considered to be superior to men. And it is generally accepted by sensory scientists that the population can be broken up into 25% Supertasters, 50% medium tasters, and 25% nontasters.

The 25% nontaster statistic sends most people running to the bathroom mirror to inspect their taste buds, known as fungiform papillae, in scientific circles. But it’s hard to count the roughly 10,000 taste buds in your average person’s mouth.

The real test, which determines which category you fall into, is based on your sensitivity to bitterness. Scientists use a compound called PROP to rate your response. At one extreme, some people find it tastes unpleasantly bitter (the Supertasters). At the other extreme, some people don’t notice the bitter taste at all. In sensory science there is much talk about thresholds, because people differ widely in their ability to notice something. The nontasters can’t notice some things at all.

It’s no surprise that professional wine tasters usually fall into the Supertaster or medium taster category. So if, in fact, you turn out to be a nontaster then it might be a challenge to train yourself to become an accomplished wine taster. Discussions about tannins might be limited.

So how can you find out? You could certainly speak to your doctor and see if they could organize a test for you. Unfortunately some people actually suffer from a complete loss of smell, known as anosmia. It is less common for people to have a taste disorder, but it also exists. The Monell Centre leads the research in the science of smell and taste, and will perform testing on individuals too.

All being well, most people fall into the category of medium tasters. This means that you can confidently get on with your plan to become the next Robert Parker.

But beware of a few pitfalls. Firstly, the older you get the less sensitive you become to certain tastes and smells. So the ideal age to start your wine tasting education is straight out of High School. Another important tip is that you should do your practice before lunch, around 11 am, when the senses are heightened. Tasting wine late at night after a spicy Thai takeout is not ideal.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t taste well if you are tired or stressed out. One of the most respected tasters in history, Emile Peynaud, said that your physical health has a significant impact on your ability to taste. So if you are out-of-shape, hauling on cigars, and auditioning to be the next Bar Star then you are not exactly primed to progress at full speed.

I’ve often found that my tasting is at its best after swimming in the ocean, thanks to the effect of the salt water. I’ve also found that the impression of certain components in a wine, like tannin, changes depending on the frequency of your tasting. If you haven’t had any red wine in a while then the first taste will seem more astringent than if you were regularly drinking reds.  

So presuming that you’re fighting fit, well rested, and in a Zen-like state you can begin your training to become a good wine taster. For the average winelover the best way to progress is to buy a few different grape varieties, or regions, and try them all side-by-side. Comparative tasting is always the most instructive, and it’s even better if you can do it blind. You can also experiment by blind tasting fruits and vegetables, and smelling flowers and spices.      

If you are attempting a more serious challenge, like a wine tasting exam, then some people find themselves sitting down to 12 wines before lunch, and then another 12 after lunch. It’s a full time job. But then again some people are employed to review and select wines for magazines like Wine Spectator, major newspapers, hotels, restaurants, and retail stores.

Now that you have trained yourself to be a good wine taster, your job is to stay relevant to your audience. The issue here is that your customers, or readers, are usually not as well versed as you about wine. You run the risk of alienating them if you don’t speak their language.

Some wine tasters write in-depth reviews about tannin textures, various styles of acidity, and give a laundry list of flavor descriptors. This can perplex the reader, who then simply looks at the point score. That number is so much easier to understand.

The ultimate skill is to use your knowledge to buy wines for others that they will like, even if sometimes you might not like the wine very much yourself. A good taster can understand how others taste, and can predict what they will like. They can also describe wines in a language that the targeted consumer for that particular wine will relate to, and find helpful. And to do that you simply need to train yourself. Supertaster ability is not required.

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

Chateau Recougne, AC Bordeaux Superieur 1993 PUMP OVERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cellar hygiene Bordeaux 1993

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting the Ferments, Bordeaux 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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