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Tasting the ferments

Well I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I’ve tasted more young wines than you’ve had hot breakfasts, but I have had a few. OK OK I’m not some artiste winemaker, but I have had the good fortune of learning a little about this from some of the top winemakers in Bordeaux, and 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 oenologue, Monsieur Fort. Wines constantly need to be checked throughout the fermentation for their progress in terms of alcohol conversion, yeast activity and any issues with that, and all of 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.

Once we had drawn all the samples, we were quick to volunteer to take them to our lab, which meant a 3 minute drive to the office. Arriving at the office in France was always a scene. It took forever to say hello to everyone, which you were absolutely obliged to do otherwise people could get very upset. It’s a French thing. So it was kissing central with all the ladies. Some got 2 kisses, and others got 4. There was the odd person that always went for 3, and so literally in the space of 5 minutes you kissed 10 women 75 times and smashed your nose on half of them as you forgot how many each person got. And everyone does this to everyone first thing on the morning and at the very end of the day. Budget for 15 minutes per go so you could cover the 20+ people.  Sometimes I’d get carried away and kiss the bosses wife and suddenly realize she was off-limits. That was NOT how you greeted her – Madame ie local Bordeaux royalty.

Anyway, it would be tasting time with the oenologue. 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 that tank which is not fermenting well, drain that other one because it is 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, and tasted in the morning, well, 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, well just make sure you spit because you always walk out very slightly buzzed from the absorption anyway.

Cellar hygiene – Bordeaux 1993

In the early 90’s, possibly before you were born, cellar hygiene was not what it is today. These days you have all these young winemakers graduating from fancy 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 to cap it all off, there’s the man in the white lab coat!

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.

So there’s Jean Pierre, standing inside the tank with me, half naked, shovel in hand, and a smoke hanging out of his mouth. We were shoveling the red grape skins out of each tank for them to be pressed.

Jean Pierre was sweating like a pig, red wine dripping from every pore, and he was taking a quick break. Alors James, he said, what are you having for dinner tonight? You see to the French food is everything, and they spend a great deal of time each day talking about what they just ate, and what they will eat next. I dared not reply that back at our “apprentice/stagiere” house that night we intended to crack into the 32 liter bag-in-box of red at 11.5% and have some cheese and crackers for dinner. We were 23 years old…

Anyway, what I found amazing was not Jean-Pierre’s questions but that he was actually smoking inside a tank. I didn’t know much about wine but I sure found this strange. But nobody batted an eye-lid. In fact there were numerous other incidences when sanitation wasn’t exactly tip top. It’s not that it was really bad because they made beautiful wine, it’s just that it was a far cry from today’s practices at most wineries.

But 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 just not the same as some of these hospital-like new world wineries.

But the La Chappelle wine is better than almost any other Syrah in the world, and sometimes it’s been the best 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. 1945 Gran Reserva. Now that was made before all these lab technicians came on the scene…

Anyway, as Jean Pierre’s ash dropped into the red grapes at his feet inside the tank I asked him if it was OK for him to smoke in the tank. And he shrugged, as only the French can do, and said with a huge grin, “no problem, it gives complexity”.

Swimming in Sauvignon – Bordeaux 1993 harvest

One of the highlights of every day was watching the French cellar workers freak out when machines broke down, which was about every 15 minutes. If you so much as looked at a pump it would stop working. The crusher, destemmer, the press, you name it, it broke down.

With all these machines constantly breaking down one of my frequently assigned jobs was to go and fetch Jean-Pierre from the garage just across the chateau’s beautiful gardens. He was the mechanic. Full time. And very busy.

One day we ran into an issue when trying to drain a tank that was doing a pre fermentation cold soak. It was Sauvignon Blanc, an
experiment by the winemaker, for which there is no such word in French. Oenolgue, Directeur Technique, Maitre de chais, but nothing that translates as winemaker. Because it’s the terroir that makes the wine in France…

The problem we had was that the valve at the bottom of the tank was completely plugged with grape skins. We couldn’t unplug it even if you
reversed the pump.

Jean-Pierre was consulted. There were some deliberations. And then the decision was made. Someone had to actually dive into the tank, swim
a few short strokes down to the bottom, feel around till you found the valve, and then jam your hand in there and dislodge the grape skins. This, according to our think tank, was the only solution.

Of course nobody quite knew what you might run into, or swim into. Obviously there would be a lot of grape skins and juice, it would be cold
and impossible to see. But it wasn’t fermenting yet so the consensus was you wouldn’t die. Standing there listening, surrounded by Frenchmen, I realized that nobody was volunteering for this job.

And that’s when I saw my out. If I went for a swim in Sauvignon I would be soaked in sticky juice and need to go home. I could then have a long hot shower and a relaxing breakfast, maybe a few coffees, relax a bit more, no hurry…. Lunch is at 12 noon. See you then.

The Sauvignon tasted very good, although it stung your eyes. It was cold, thick with skins and stems and lots of citric juice. True, there was a moment of terror when I couldn’t find the valve and my breath was running out, but it all worked out. One upside was that I bonded with some of the French cellar workers that day, who must have been laughing at the dumb Brit behind my back, and making their usual roastbeef and ruby digs. They were a great bunch of guys, very welcoming and always inviting for dinner at their homes.

Since then I’ve had a pretty good hit rate on Sauvignon in blind tastings ever since. The benchmark is the Loire, especially Sancerre. This is home to by far and away the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world, at the ultimate level. New Zealand is hard to knock, especially for consistency and value, and then you have places like Chile and South Africa producing solid examples. California is on the list, but can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan – sorry.

In Bordeaux it is usually blended with Semillon and can produce unbelievable wines. It is often barrel fermented in new French oak and then
aged for 10-12 months. They are richer and broader than straight Sauvignon, thanks to the Semillon. The oak adds flesh and vanilla notes, but there is still that vibrant acidity and those citrus flavours, and often a passion fruit aroma. And they can age for a decade or so at the top estates, especially Smith, Domaine de Chevalier, and a few others of course.

I love watching winemakers taste Sauvignon must as it drips out of a press, or after they fill a glass from a fermenting tank. It’s usually
cloudy, thick with particulate matter, and sometimes a strange green color, almost like milky green tea. They sniff, take a sip, spit, and to them it’s like they just saw the future.

Meritage: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot

Meritage – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot

Chateau Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, AC Pauillac, 2008

Bordeaux, France

In the classification of 1855, which still stands today, this remarkable property was ranked as a Second Grand Cru Classe. In short, that is to say it is unquestionably among the best wines of Bordeaux, certainly within the top 10 wines of the Medoc.

The stately chateau, complete with turrets and French flags flying, is flanked by Chateaux Latour and Pichon Baron, suitably aristocratic neighbours. The vineyard is 78 acres in total, a sizeable estate, and is blessed by deep and fast-draining gravel soils. The Gironde river is within view, which brings a gentle breeze and cooler microclimate compared to further inland. The local winemakers often say that the greatest estates are within sight of the river.

Cabernet Sauvignon brings intense blackcurrant and cedary flavors along with tannic structure, enabling the wine to age for over 20 years. Merlot adds plum and chocolate, increases the weight, and adds a soft touch to the tannins. The Cabernet Franc infuses a floral perfume and a sublime elegance, and the Petit Verdot grape injects depth of colour and power on the palate.

We are thrilled to offer such a stunning quality and prestigious estate for you to enjoy. The wines from this fantastic chateau are consistently rated over 90 points by the most respected critics.

Food and wine pairing: Ideally paired with red meats or hard cheese.

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 Gerard, 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 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. 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.

One time, and yes, it was after lunch, Xavier the head of production came racing into the cellar all furious that we had not done all the sugar additions. It had been more than 24 hours now, and he could get caught in the regular audits that take place in French wineries. Didier, the Cellar Master, took great offence to Xavier’s attack and defended us all “mais alors Monsieur, it was lunchtime, in France we eat at lunch, we don’t work, mais s’il vous plait Monsieur”.

The post boss blowout re-enactment was enough to make you howl laughing. The French can get themselves worked up about things like nobody’s business. Because of the commotion we actually forgot how many sacks of sugar we had emptied into one of the vats. More laughter. Do we, or don’t we, add another sack? Better safe than sorry, and in it goes.

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, Didier.

Chateau Recougne, AC Bordeaux Superieur 1993


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. Age is just a number… 😉

One day after a long lunch where everyone consumed at least 75cl of red down at the main chateau, Didier came up with an elaborate plan to
manage a stuck fermentation. One of the tanks simply wasn’t fermenting well and so we wanted to swap the juice with another tank that was racing along. This required that we use two pumps and a variety of hoses, so as to swap wine from one vat into another.

To us this was an engineering feat, and we executed it with a simultaneous, and ceremonious, starting of the 2 pumps. Satisfied it was working, we left that part of the cellar with a mental note to return in 40 minutes.

Suddenly out of nowhere there was shouting coming from the corner of the cellar that housed our elaborate experiment. We ran over to see
what was happening, and there it was, a red wine bloodbath. One pump was running faster than the other and so it had drained one vat entirely, and all of that juice was now overflowing out of the other tank. Gushing would be more accurate. Red wine flooded down the tank walls, the floor was inch deep, and thousands of Francs were literally being thrown down the drain. I was glad I wasn’t Didier the Cellar Master, especially when he was going to have to explain the debacle to the owner.

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 – but
surely no thanks to my feet. All you need is a pair of swimming trunks (hopefully not revealing ala JCB) 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. Repeat, and enjoy the hits of carbon dioxide, which is surely why so many winemakers are a little spacey, and, like, so artistic dude. I’m gonna get in trouble for that!

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 prissy little grape. Pinot. It’s so annoyingly trendy “oh, I just love Pinot” she says with a flick of her hair – gawd…  I reply
that my favorite is Merlote just to wind them up.  Half of all Pinots use terroir as an excuse for just being plain bad. I’ll get in trouble for that too 😉 At Chateau St Jean in Sonoma, which does make lovely wine especially the Bordeaux blend Cinq Cepages, I did the punch-downs the American way, akin to playing a video game. A mechanical plunger is controlled by a few buttons which enable you to move it around and sink the head into the must. It works well, and is a lot of fun. But otherwise punch downs are usually done by hand.

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. Yeah, all agreed?!

On my bucket list is a trip to the Douro during harvest to foot stomp Port in a lagar. I visited the Douro once, but not during harvest. That said we drank so much old tawny and vintage Port at lunch at Ferriera one day it could have been Christmas for all we knew. I’m glad I don’t do that
anymore. The folly of youth. In the Douro at the top estates 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, when it’s party time in the tank. The music turns upbeat, people dance together, they pass around wine and drink from the bottle, and I imagine that there are romantic glances, stolen from across the lagar. Which reminds me we have a tour to Portugal this September! Come on
a tour and hop into the lagar! Portugal will be GREAT!

There are many key stages in red winemaking, but I’d put the maceration right up around the top. 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 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. Lafite 1982 was just fermenting juice at one stage. Imagine if they accidentally dumped a whole tank of that….

Chicago: Fine Vintage brings WSET qualifications to The Chopping Block in Chicago

Chicago – Fine Vintage is thrilled to announce a partnership with Chicago’s premier cooking school, The Chopping Block, to offer its prestigious Wine & Spirit Education (WSET) courses.

The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is the “gold standard” in wine education, offering certification courses that are recognized around the world as formal qualifications in wine. The UK based WSET runs courses in 55 countries.

The courses are open to all wine enthusiasts as well as being popular with the wine trade. Members of staff from the hospitality
industry, retailers and wine distributors will join interested wine consumers to expand their wine knowledge and gain formal certification.

James Cluer, one of only 312 Masters of Wine in the world and only 38 in North America, is the founder of Fine Vintage and has put
together a team of the most knowledgeable wine experts in the United States and Canada. He will teach the first courses himself.

In addition to the expert instruction, Fine Vintage prides itself on offering an array of exceptional wines at all courses to show students
benchmark examples. There are also food and wine pairing exercises.

Fine Vintage is delighted to partner with The Chopping Block, Chicago’s premier cooking school and gourmet retail store. With a history of educating home cooks for over 17 years, The Chopping Block offers hands-on and demonstration classes for every type of food lover, from ethnic cuisine to Culinary Boot Camp. Their kitchens in the historic Merchandise Mart offer a large and comfortable space, the perfect setting to inspire lively food and wine pairing discussion at each course.

Bookings are now being accepted online at for the first classes as follows:

Level 1: Foundation – a 1-day course that covers basic wine knowledge and the fundamentals of wine and food pairing

Date: Saturday March 8th 9:00am-5:00pm

Location: The Chopping Block at the Mart

Cost: $349

Level 2: Intermediate – a 3-day course that provides instruction on professional wine tasting and extensive coverage of the main grape varieties and the regions they come from.

Date: Sunday March 9th, Saturday & Sunday March 15th and 16th 9:00am-5:00pm

Location: The Chopping Block at the Mart

Cost: $950

Both qualifications include all textbooks, wine tasting glasses, course materials, wine samples throughout the course and the WSET

To learn more about Fine Vintage Ltd and register please visit

To learn more about The Chopping Block, please visit

Temperature control

Chateau Recougne, Bordeaux Superieur, 1993 harvest

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

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

But making wine the old fashioned way in Bordeaux wasn’t without its amusement. The actual thermometer had to be tied to a stick. That
way it could be plunged deep enough into the fermenting must so as to get an accurate reading.  But it wasn’t always exactly accurate. There are hot spots in the cap and so sometimes it would be up at 35 c and Didier would panic, and other times it had sunk below the previous days reading, and Didier would panic.

One time the whole contraption failed. Standing over a tank, with the owner right next to me, I plunged the stick deep into the cap, waited
1 minute and then pulled it out. The only issue was the thermometer was no longer attached, and had disaapeared somewhere in the thick mash of grape skins. Ah merde, said the owner glaring at me. I launched into typical British profuse apologies. But this was not totally unusual. When we drained the tanks we’d find all kinds of stuff. A very red stained glove, a glass bottle that had fallen off the coat hanger used to draw a sample, a cigarette lighter…

Of course temperature control has become such a critical metric in managing fermentations that to think it was done this way, ie not at
all, is mind-boggling to most winemakers. You can use cooling to cold soak must on arrival at the winery. You can keep ferments moving at a nice pace by preventing them from taking off and spiking  in reds over 35 C which would likely result in a stuck fermentation, and you getting fired if it’s a lot of valuable tanks. Of course in white wines it is even more important, especially for aromatic whites like Sauvignon Blanc done unoaked in tank. Cold temperatures can help preserve the vibrant youthful aromatics.

But as a cellar hand, it was much more fun to plunge a thermometer into each vat rather than looking at panels of computer read-outs.
There was something artisanal about it, and perhaps with all these old methods being abandoned we see so much more homogenized wine these days as a result. Should we modernize? Of course, when it makes sense, otherwise you’re just being stubborn, although I have a real fondness for those types of opinionated traditional winemakers.