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OAK BARRELS – WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CELLARING WINES

CELLARING WINES
By James Cluer, Master of Wine

WHY START A CELLAR?

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

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

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

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

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

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

TASTING FOR CELLARING POTENTIAL

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

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

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

SELECTING REGIONS AND VARIETIES WITH PROVEN TRACK RECORDS

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

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

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

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

WHEN DO I KNOW TO DRINK THEM?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to take a course that will result in professional certification with international recognition then, in my opinion, there is only one choice: Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This is the world’s leading independent wine education institute, operating in over 75 countries and 20 languages. It’s the gold standard, simple as that.
There is an introductory WSET course called the Level 1, which is perfect for beginners. You can progress up to the Level 4 Diploma, which is a challenging 2-year course. After that, the next step is to apply for acceptance into the Master of Wine program. So the WSET offers a clear and structured path.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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