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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 You can hold court with tales of how they originally made the wine, shipping it across the equator so that it would literally cook.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
FOOD PAIRING: Chilled, by itself

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

PRODUCER: Dows 2004
FOOD PAIRING: Mousse au chocolate

STYLE: Vintage
PRODUCER: Fonseca 2001 Panascal

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

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

WINE: Errazuriz, Sena, Chile



You can picture it. A drop-dead gorgeous lady is holding court at a dinner party. She begins her spiel with a story about drinking Champagne at The Four Seasons with Gianni, who you would just ADORE. While she continues her story I start to drift off. I wonder if it really was Champagne that she was drinking, and if she ended up sleeping with Gianni.

Chances are that it was Prosecco, and Gianni went home with nothing but the bill. But the point is that I feel sorry for the Champenois, who have worked so hard to protect the name of the place where they make their sublime bubbles. Alas, for many wine drinkers, sipping some god awful sparkling wine from Peru still qualifies it as Champagne. Shame on you.
Although Champagne is the benchmark, there are some very good quality sparkling wines made around the world. Actually, there are some that outclass Champagne itself. And given the price of the real deal, it’s worth looking at what other options exist.

The short story, for those of you who are already bored of reading, is that California produces the best bubbly outside Champagne and it’s half the price. If you want to spend even less then consider Spanish Cava, which is a bargain. And if you like something fruity and oh-so-sophisticated to pronounce then order some Prosecco. Finally, if you’re 18 and its Prom night then fill your boots with some sweet frothy Asti, close your eyes, and hope for the best.

When you are evaluating quality in sparkling wine the key things to look for are complexity of aromatics and flavors on the palate. You want a wine that evolves, with layers of flavors. Another key aspect, that is unique to bubbly, is the texture of the mousse. It should be soft and creamy, rather than sharp and aggressive. Otherwise, the acidity is important, and should be balanced with the dryness and fruitiness, so you avoid anything being too tart, or too flabby for that matter.

Champagne is the benchmark because many of them have exactly these qualities. They make wines that undergo much longer ageing than most other sparkling wines. This allows the nuances of toasty notes, hazelnuts, and fresh baked bread to evolve, the impression of acidity to soften, and the wines to take on great depth. Plus of course they have the inherent quality of the grapes which is due to the chalky soils, cool climate and other aspects of this unique terroir.

But if you’d like to explore other sparkling wines then try some Cremant, which means French sparkling wine made outside the Champagne area, but using the same methods. You can find good Cremant from the Loire valley, where they use Chenin Blanc for the most part. These can have lovely flavors of ripe apple, and a bracing thread of acidity that will make your mouth water for minutes.

Alsace also makes some very nice Cremant, often using Sylvaner, a white grape variety. Some people accuse the producers of only using lesser vineyards or poor quality grapes to make Cremant, but in fact some of these can be quite delicious. I once met a producer who specialized in Cremant in Alsace, and claimed to have beaten the Champenois in blind tastings. But alas the marketing might of the famous Champagne houses are always quick to dismiss such claims, with a polite but gentle shake of the head, as if to say that you can’t compare a Ferrari to a Honda.

Anyway, you can find Cremant from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and even the south of France in Limoux. Each region uses different grapes but the wines are almost always bone dry, light to medium in body, with a crisp and crunchy acidity. Expect to pay between $20-$30 for most of them, but don’t expect layers of complexity.

Elsewhere in Europe, you’ll find a gigantic amount of sparkling wine from Spain, known as Cava. I’m always amazed at the price of Cava, which is often under $20. They use the same traditional methods of production as the Champenois, but the grape varieties are usually indigenous Spanish things with impossible names. Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada hardly roll off the tongue.

The style of Cava can sometimes be identified as having a smell of freshly raked gravel, for those of you who like sniffing driveways. There are usually apple and citrus notes, and almost an earthy touch to the flavor profile. Is there such a thing as high quality Cava? Yes, and some of these have a splash of Chardonnay in them. But in general, I look at Cava for unbelievable value for money.

Staying within Europe, the Germans have always been fond of a glass of sparkling and they produce ocean loads of Sekt. Some of these, like Henkell Trocken, find a home in hotel mini-bars around the world, inflicting untold punishment on weary travelers who polish off a bottle after a stressful day.

Most of the German Sekt that reaches our shores is actually made from grapes grown in France and Italy, and then turned into sparkling wine using the so-called “tank method”. The essence of the tank method is adding yeast and sugar to a tank of still wine, and closing the lid so the carbon dioxide cannot escape. So the second fermentation takes place in a large tank which means you don’t get the complex flavor effects caused by the yeast breakdown within a smaller container, such as a 75cl bottle.

But, like with Cava, there is such a thing as high quality German Sekt. These are usually made from Riesling, grown in prestigious regions in Germany, and the producers follow the traditional Champagne method. But good luck finding these. They tend to get snapped up in Germany, where they’ll drink them at the breakfast buffet.

Over in Italy, one of my favorite wines is Franciacorta, a little known area in the north that produces wines on a par with Champagne. This is worth tracking down. Expect to pay around the $50 mark for a mature bottle. It is made in the traditional method, from the same grapes that they use in Champagne, and matured for long enough to create the complex flavors that make for high quality sparkling.

But outside Franciacorta, Italy is much more famous for Prosecco, which has become trendy in recent years. To me it often tastes cheap and has a terrible sweet fruit salad flavor to it. Obviously I’m not cool enough to enjoy this popular choice.
I think I’d even take an Asti over a Prosecco, although Asti is primarily a sparkling wine for dessert because of its sweetness. It’s fashionable to hate Asti, and call it “nasty Asti”, but I like the peach, apricot and honey flavors, especially with a plate of fresh fruit. Maybe it’s just because Prom night was such a success.

But seriously, the only place I regularly buy sparkling wine from outside Champagne is California. Now we’re talking quality. After all, California is the location of choice for several of the great French Houses. You’ll find Roederer, Taittinger, Chandon and others. It’s also where you’ll find some great American Houses, like my favorite called Schramsberg, who produce wines that can outclass Champagnes.

Thankfully, American consumers think you should only drink sparkling wine on special occasions. This means that prices are very attractive, and so expect to pay between $25-$50 for most of them, which is a comparative deal.

Otherwise, for sparkling wines outside of Champagne, you have to include Australia and New Zealand. Both these countries are significant producers and consumers of bubbles. It’s true that there are the cheap and not-so- cheerful versions such as Seaview, Yellow Tail and even that sparkling Shiraz stuff, which is vile at the best of times. But actually there are some outstanding sparkling wines made in Tasmania and in the Yarra valley. Some of these are better than your average bottle of Champagne.

So the bottom line is that Champagne still represents the pinnacle, but if you want to save a few dollars and try something else then look to California. If you want to go even further on austerity measures then maybe Cava is for you, or perhaps even a bottle of Cremant. Yes, they can be good, but frankly I’d rather save my shekels and spring for the real deal – like a nice bottle of Bollinger, Taittinger, Roederer, or Krug.

Wine : Schramsberg
Region : California
Food pairing : Smoked salmon

Wine : Roederer
Region : California
Food pairing : Caviar

Wine : Pierre Spar
Region : Alsace
Food pairing : Oysters

Wine : Segura Viudas
Region : Spain
Food pairing : Goats cheese

Wine : Henkell Trocken
Region : Germany
Food pairing : Mimosas

Wine : Batasiolo
Region : Italy
Food pairing : Fresh fruit plate