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Working the Vineyard

The most fun I’ve ever had in the last 20 years working in the wine trade has definitely been working vintages. I’ve been fortunate to do a few of them in Bordeaux and Australia, and one in Napa and the Okanagan.

It’s certainly the best way to learn about wine, and I’ve always been perplexed by so-called wine experts that have never done this. You can’t learn everything from a book.

My advice would be to pick a country or a winery where they speak your language. You won’t learn much if you can’t understand a word they’re saying. Next, give yourself a minimum of 3-4 weeks so you can see a good chunk of the process and keep in mind that harvest in the southern hemisphere is in our Spring.

To land a job, simply email dozens of producers in the targeted area offering your services. The directories of all the wineries can usually be found on the national trade associations website, such as Wines of Chile.

Wineries often take on additional “cellar rats” at harvest, and if you can show you are keen and reliable then sooner or later someone will take you on. If you offer to work for free then the replies come back much faster… Some of the places I worked at gave you accommodation, meals and a small payment.

The critical thing is to find a winery that will let you move from one task to another, so you get to work in the vineyard sampling grapes, then working the crusher/destemmer/presses, managing ferments, working in the barrel cellar and the lab etc.. That way you’ll maximize your learning experience. Don’t get stuck picking grapes for a month.

Your best bet might be to make friends with a visiting winemaker to a local wine festival. When you’re asking for a job in person you’ll have more chance of success, especially if you smile pretty.

Blends versus single varietal wines

Blends are not necessarily better than single varietal wines. Otherwise, all wines would be blends.

It is true that by blending different grape varieties together you can sometimes create a higher quality wine. Some of the great wines of the world are blends, such as Port, which typically has 5 or 6 different varieties blended together. A certain variety may bring depth of color, another stronger aromatic intensity, another tannic structure, and all combined there can be a myriad of different aromas and flavors that creates complexity – the Holy Grail in wine quality. Bordeaux, most Champagne, many of the Super-Tuscans and Sauternes are all examples of top quality blended wines.

But many of the world’s great wines are also made from one single variety. Fine red and white Burgundy, Barossa Shiraz, Sancerre, Napa Valley Cabernet, and Sonoma Zinfandel are all single varietal wines that are clearly outstanding examples of their type.

What is often forgotten is that all wines are blends, even single varietal wines. A wine could be a blend of multiple vineyards of the same variety. Or a wine might be a blend of different clones of the same variety from a single vineyard. Even when blending the final wine from a single grape there will likely be significant differences amongst the various “lots” that a winemaker has to draw from.

Personally, I’d rather drink a single varietal wine most of the time. This helps you understand the style of that varietal in a certain place. But hey, it’s not like I’d turn down a Bordeaux or Port either.

Cabernet Sauvignon – The Emperor of Red Wines

If I had to pick a favorite grape, which is like picking a favorite child, then it would have to be Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the final analysis Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. I can hear the mutterings of dissent. So I’ll present my case.

If price is a gauge of quality, then Cabernet Sauvignon holds the world record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. When the hammer came down at the Napa Valley Auction, the cult Cabernet from Screaming Eagle went for a whopping $500,000 for a single large format bottle. People will pay more for Cabernet than any other varietal.

Still not convinced? The Grands Crus of the Medoc and Pessac in Bordeaux are the most classic wines in the world and dominate the fine wine market. In B.C. wine enthusiast’s line up all night outside Liquor Stores just to get their hands on a few bottles of Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Haut Brion, Margaux and others. You can’t say the same for any other variety, not even Burgundy.

In terms of ageability, the prize goes to Cabernet. Wine critics devote pages of poetic prose to describing the nuances of the 1947 vintage, comparing it to the 1929, or perhaps the 1900. There are not too many Pinots, Syrahs or Merlots that can age for 100 years.

But the argument is that Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. Aside from Bordeaux and Napa, it’s easy to rattle off famous names like Coonawarra and Margaret river in Australia, some of the great Super-Tuscans, the icon wines of Chile, and you could even make a case for Washington State, pockets of Spain, Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, parts of Sonoma, and, wait for it…., Lebanon. The same can’t be said for the other classic red varietals.

Granted, many of these wines are blends of Cabernet with Merlot, and perhaps some Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, or even Shiraz and Sangiovese. But at their core, it’s Cabernet that dominates the blend.

So what is it about this grape that makes such outstanding quality wines? In their youth they are intensely colored, with a very deep ruby that can have shades of blue, black and purple. The nose typically shows intense aromas of fresh blackcurrant, cedar, chocolate, coffee and sometimes mint. The palate is always dry, rich and full bodied, with structured tannins providing backbone. The greatest wines show superb length, with an after-taste lingering for hours. The whole experience can be breathtaking

But it’s with age that Cabernet really shows its breed. The bouquet develops and become more nuanced, with notes of forest floor, wet earth, and sometimes a beautiful spice. On the palate the tannins soften, becoming smoother and more velvety, yet the wines can remain powerful and concentrated for decades.

It’s a cliché, but quality does start in the vineyard. Whilst Cabernet is fairly mobile, being planted in dozens of countries and regions, it prefers warmer climates. If I owned a vineyard in England, northern France or Germany then Cabernet wouldn’t be on the list of possibilities. My Cabernet vines would opt for Napa Valley, where they could bask in the sunshine. The cool nights are important too, helping to retain acidity and freshness.

Cabernet can be planted on a variety of soil types, but for top quality wines the key is to find sites that have low fertility. The Medoc has a high proportion of gravel. Coonawarra is famous for their red clay soils, known as terra rossa. And you can even see good results on the sandy soil of the Black Sage Bench in the Okanagan.

The berry size is small, and the skins are relatively thick. This contributes depth of color and the tannic backbone. When cropped at low levels, such as two tons per acre, there can be immense concentration of flavor. Some of the hillside vineyards in Napa, like Howell Mountain, have such poor soils that the yields are a fraction of the sites on the valley floor.

The grape also ripens late, usually a few weeks after Merlot, which can be a challenge in areas prone to rain during the harvest. But when the weather stays warm and sunny, this extra ripening time allows for additional flavor development.

In the winery, the great wines usually see extended maceration. The grape juice is pumped over the skins for 3 weeks or more, extracting all the goodies from the berries. One of the great arts of making Cabernet, and all red wines for that matter, is knowing when to stop the maceration because excessive extraction can potentially lead to harsh tannins.

And then come the French oak barrels, although wineries like Silver Oak in Napa have proven that American oak can produce top notch wines too. In Bordeaux the barrel ageing time is usually between 18 to 20 months, although it can go longer. This is a winemaker’s personal preference, and Heitz Cellars in Napa shows that spectacular wines can result from 36 months aging. Some wineries go for 100% new French oak, and others prefer far less. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just a stylistic preference.

So what should you buy when searching for these classic Cabernets?

The so-called Left Bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux is the benchmark for collectors. In great vintages like 2000, 2005 and 2009 it’s hard to go wrong. Obviously the 1st Growths are spectacular but expect to pay over one thousand dollars per bottle. But you can buy wines that are much less expensive and arguably just as good quality. My favorites are Ducru Beaucaillou in St Julien, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, and Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac.

Napa Valley has stolen my heart. It’s not just the wines, but it’s also the wonderful hospitality and beautiful weather from May until September. It’s so difficult to pick out favorites without listing 50 wineries, but Heitz Cellars, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Shafer and Chateau Montelena are on my short list. And if you go to Napa, make sure you visit Spring Mountain Vineyard. It’s like a journey into the Garden of Eden.

Wine critics love to compare Bordeaux and Napa, but frankly they are quite different in style. Napa is more about richness, ripeness, power and concentration, with softer, plushier tannins, and fresher fruit aromas. By contrast, Bordeaux is typically drier, more tannic, not quite as full bodied, and has a more earthy character.

In Coonawarra in South Australia, it’s the fun-loving Ian Hollick whose wines stand out as my favorites. Coonawarra makes some of the finest Cabernet in the New World. The wines can have very perfumed cassis aromas and minty flavors. They are typically much less expensive than both Bordeaux and Napa, and so they score additional points for their value for money.

In Chile, it’s the classic Cabernet from Don Melchor, owned by Concha y Toro, which never fails to impress. If you think that only great Bordeaux can age for 10-20 years then think again. This wine proves that Chilean wines can have style, grace, and individuality. You just have to get over the fact that Chile is mainly in the cheap and cheerful category.

In Tuscany, Sassicaia is one of the benchmark Super-Tuscans. These are wines that contain a blend of varieties, typically including Sangiovese to one degree or another. Sassicaia was the winery that started the whole super-Tuscan movement, when they made a wine that did not conform to Tuscan wine regulations because it was based on Cabernet Sauvignon. The Italian authorities refused to give it the more prestigious DOCG designation, and relegated it to Vino da Tavola status, making it the world’s most expensive “table wine”.

And then there’s Torres in Spain, whose Mas La Plana can give anyone’s Cabernet a run for their money. Bob Betz in Washington State makes Cabernets that will blow your socks off, and merit the very high ratings his winery consistently receives.

The list could go on. But you’ve probably got enough recommendations to keep you from becoming dehydrated anytime soon. You could call Cabernet the King of wines, and the wine of Kings. But there are others who make this claim, namely the superb sweet wines of Tokaji in Hungary. So perhaps Cabernet is more like The Emperor of wines because at the very pinnacle of quality, there’s nothing else like fine Cabernet.

WINE & FOOD SUGGESTION

Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, Bordeaux
Leg of Lamb

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux
Filet Mignon with frites

Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Hollick, Coonawarra, Australia
Aged Cheddar Cheese