Tuesday, 19 July 2016


I often get asked about screwcaps, particularly here in the US where most bottles are still stopped with corks. Screwcaps are slowly beginning to emerge for less expensive wines, but consumers still prefer corks, associating them with high quality as well enjoying that sound of a cork being pulled. Elsewhere in the New World, screwcaps are much more common: in New Zealand, around 70% of wines have a screwcap closure. I once met the actor Sam Neill, who owns the Two Paddocks winery in Central Otago, and asked him why he didn't use corks and he pulled a face of dramatic disgust, "You can never trust a cork."

The reason for his disgust was, of course, because corks have a tendency to become infected with TCA. As I wrote in a previous blog, TCA is a chemical compound that makes a wine smell and taste bad and comes from cleaning the cork with chlorine or unclean winemaking practices. This was an especially problematic issue in the 1990s, when possibly up to 10% of wines were infected with TCA. Things have got a lot better since then as the cork industry has worked hard to remedy the problem, but there's still a 2-5% chance of a wine being faulty, whereas with a screwcap that's nearly zero.

So why doesn't everyone use a screwcap?

The downside to screwcaps is that they arguably don't allow a wine to age as well as a cork does. A cork lets small amounts of oxygen to permeate into the bottle, allowing the wine to breathe, develop, and mature. A screwcap, again arguably, does not allow a wine to develop the same complexity as it is completely airtight. 

Many wineries are experimenting and coming to different conclusions. A few years ago, I visited the Andrew Will winery in Washington and the maverick, charismatic owner and winemaker Chris Camarda kindly poured me two versions of the 2008 Sorella, one of the great wines of the US. One bottle had been stopped with a cork (which is how the wine is sold) and the other closed with a screwcap. The differences were subtle, but the screwcap bottle was fruitier while the cork bottle felt more integrated and complex, with spicier and more oak flavours. That confirmed my impressions that a bottle stopped with a cork ages more gradually and complexly than with a screwcap. That was again confirmed by the recent decision of a leading Chablis producer, Laroche, to switch back to cork for their Grands Crus, having used screwcap since the mid-2000s but feeling that the wines were not ageing as gracefully as they would have wished.

it's complicated

However, as with everything in life, it's complicated. Last week my wife and I opened a 2006 bottle of Chardonnay from New Zealand producer Kumeu River (pronounced Q-moo River), based near Auckland where an increasing amont of quality Chardonnay is being made. Although they're a good producer (the owner and winemaker, Michael Brajkovich, is a Master of Wine), I wasn't expecting that much from a ten-year-old Chardonnay bottled with a screwcap. Quite the opposite: it was sensational. It was incredibly fresh - perhaps because of the screwcap - with rich, fruity green apple and citrus aromas, and a smokiness coming from oak. And - despite the screwcap - it had a slight nuttiness that I would normally associate with slow oxidation, something that with a cork may have been more pronounced. On the back of the label, Brajkovich stated that the wine would age for four to six years. Ten years later, it's still going strong, which shows how much we have to learn. One thing I can say, though: opening a screwcap is a lot easier and quicker than pulling a cork...

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

New WSET Level 3

It's been over three years since I took the WSET's Level 3. At the time, it was exactly what I was looking for: a broad, comprehensive, yet vigorous overview of the world of wine, how wine is made, and how to taste wine. Since then, I've gone on to take the WSET Diploma, taught both WSET Levels 2 and 3, and taken the WSET Educator course which puts me on track to becoming an accredited WSET Educator. Despite the many strengths of the Level 3 course, I've also discovered some of its weaknesses - its concentrated focus on France can be off-putting to many students, its structure can seem too formulaic, and, put bluntly, the blind tasting exam is too easy.

But all that is about to change, as in August the WSET are launching a new Level 3 which is quite different from, and I think better than, the previous one. The biggest and most immediate change is to the tasting exam. Under the current format, 95% of students were passing the exam, which is far too high a proportion. I remember dreading the tasting part of the exam, and before taking the course I went to Berry Bros & Rudd in London to take an evening class to prepare for the blind tasting. As useful as that class was in honing my tasting skills, it wasn't really necessary. The tasting wasn't truly "blind," as there was a choice of three wines at the bottom and it was obvious which one was correct. In my exam, the choice for the white wine was Soave, New Zealand Chardonnay, and Auslese Riesling. It was immediately apparent that the wine was a Chardonnay, and I could write a tasting note without even tasting the wine. That's what a lot of students were doing, which is why the WSET have changed the format of the exam. There will no longer be a choice of wines; in fact, the student will not even have to identify the wine. Instead, they will have to write an accurate tasting note based on what they are tasting rather than what they think the wine is. I think this is a much needed improvement: it will sharpen students' tasting skills and, by making the exam harder, it will better prepare students for the Diploma where students' tasting abilities have been found to be lacking.

The other change to the tasting part of the course is to the Systematic Approach to Tasting, the WSET's sometimes frustrating guide to tasting a wine. Whereas the aromas were previously divided into floral/fruit, spice/vegetable, and oak/other, now they are divided into primary, secondary, and tertiary and these are terms students have to use in the exam. This is to ensure that students are able to show where aromas in a wine come from: primary aromas (flowers, fruits, herbs) come directly from the grape; secondary aromas (oak, MLF, lees) come from winemaking practices; and tertiary aromas (oxidation, bottle ageing) come from maturation.

The theory part of the course is also different. Previously, classes were organised by region which meant a prolonged trudge through France's many, varied regions without looking at any other countries for several weeks. Now, the classes are arranged by style; for example the aromatic white wines of Alsace, Germany, Austria, and Hungary will be studied together rather than separately. I think this is a vast improvement, as continually comparing regions will force students to think about what makes each one distinct.

Another major change is that spirits will no longer be covered - hopefully, there will be a separate Level 3 for spirits in the near future. Madeira is also no longer covered, as apparently students found its terminology too difficult. Now, it's only to be studied for the Diploma. That's a great shame, but I guess we have to remember what a minor category madeira now is.

I'm excited to teach this updated version of Level 3 as I think it will be both more challenging and more invigorating for students. I'll let you know if that's the case in practice.

Saturday, 25 June 2016


My second visit to Oakland saw a sun-soaked evening with views that could have been straight from Marseille in Provence. Appropriately enough, because I was there to join a long-established San Francisco tasting group to explore the wines of Bandol, a small Provençal appellation not far from Marseille, with vintages going back to 1993. As we sipped on a rosé from legendary Bandol producer Domaine Tempier, while looking out on Lake Merritt, the city hall, and San Francisco in the background, one member of the group commented, "This almost makes me want to move to Oakland."

the place

Bandol, like the rest of Provence, is best known for its rosés, as these complex, aromatic wines, based on the Mourvèdre grape, go beyond the general perception of rosé as a simple, light-coloured, easy-drinking summer wine. If there is one rosé worth spending $30-50 for a bottle, then it's Bandol. However, these rosés - unusually - overshadow the great reds of Bandol, again based on Mourvèdre. These big, structured reds emerged around the time of the Second World War, from grapes grown on steep terraces directly overlooking the Mediterranean. The climate is warm, with intensely hot summer days and mild winters, ideal for the late-ripening Mourvèdre. The altitude of the high terraces, together with the moderating influence of the sea, help cool the climate to prevent the grapes developing too powerful aromas. All of these complex dynamics lead to wines that are tannic and closed when young, but which slowly open up with time.

domaine tempier

Domaine Tempier are an example of Provence's long winemaking history, dating back to the eighteenth century, but also of the recent development of the region's great red wines. Until the late nineteenth century when artists came to paint the beautiful, remote landscape, Provence was a rural Mediterranean region cut off from metropolitan Paris. This meant that its wines did not develop in the same manner as regions such as Bordeaux which were more connected to cosmopolitan markets. It was in the 1940s that Domaine Tempier emerged as one of the leading wineries of Bandol, when Lucien Peyraud and his wife Lucie Tempier moved into the property. They weren't the only ones to notice the potential of Bandol, and with a handful of other producers they pushed to have Bandol recognised as a great winemaking region by basing the wines on Mourvèdre. Sought-after if still not widely known, Domaine Tempier's wines are defiantly old-fashioned: funky and difficult when young, but concentrated and long-lived, and one of the great expressions of the Mourvèdre grape. 

mourvèdre and the blends

eight Mourvèdre-based wines
Bandol is the one appellation in France where Mourvèdre is the most important grape. It produces smoky, earthy wines with bramble fruits and plays a small, if significant, role in the wines of southern Rhône. In warm Bandol, this late-ripening grape comes into its own; at the same time, however, I feel Mourvèdre is still at its best in a blend, even when the dominant grape. (This is true too of Paso Robles in California, the one other region I know of that excels in Mourvèdre-based wines.) The big black fruits, black pepper and liquorice spice, and dry tannins are best balanced by the red fruits and low tannins of Grenache and the fruity softness of Cinsault. This was the case with the seven Bandol wines I tasted: my three favourite wines had 50-70% Mourvèdre in them. This highlights the complexity and range of the Bandol appellation, with a series of grapes working together to create extraordinary wines. 


the wines

These wines were all tasted blind, apart from the rosé. I'm not a huge fan of tasting wines this way, as instead of being educated about the wine it becomes a guessing game. We also had to rank the wines from first to last, again difficult given the range of vintages. But the tasting highlighted the consistent quality of Bandol reds, their ageability, as well as how surprisingly approachable they can be while young.

Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé 2015

Floral, aromatic, and casually sophisticated, this is a young wine that is easy to sip on but has enough structure to continue ageing and to be paired with a range of foods, including salmon or soft cheeses. The only one of these wines not to be tasted blind. ✪✪✪✪✪

my tasting notes and ranking

Wine A: Domaine la Suffrène 1998

This was my number one ranked wine, with mature earth, game, leather, mushroom aromas, but still with fresh black fruit aromas of brambles, together with black pepper and liquorice aromas. The tannins were drying but old enough to be well intergrated. ✪✪✪✪✪✪ (#1 for me; #3 for the group)

Wine B: Domaine de la Bastide Blanche 2012

I've tasted this a few times teaching, and I again liked this wine with its smoky, toasty, floral, and blackberry aromas, the tannins not too aggressive despite its youthfulness. A good example of how Bandol can be approachable when young. ✪✪✪✪✪ (#3 for me, #5 for the group)

Wine C: Domaine de Terrebrune Rouge 2011

Founded in the 1960s, Domaine de Terrebrune also helped push Bandol into the international spotlight. Another good example of Bandol at a young stage of its development, with floral, spicy, black fruit aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪ (#4 for me and for the group)

Wine D: Domaine Tempier la Migoua 2003

From one of Domaine Tempier's most famous vineyards: this should have been very exciting to taste, especially at a perfect point of its development at thirteen years old. However, I personally found the wine disappointing and wondered if it was corked. The rest of the group loved it though ... ✪✪✪ (#8 for me; #1 for the group)

Wine E: Porvey 2015

This was the ringer in the tasting - a Mourvèdre from California. As it was only from 2015 and tasted like it had only just stopped fermenting, it was quite easy to spot. It was from the Sierra Foothills, which I do think has great potential for Mourvèdre. ✪✪✪ (#7 for me; #7 for the group)

Wine F: Domaine Tempier la Migoua 1993

tasting notes and results
On tasting these wines blind, I found this wine very similar to Wine D - it was in fact from the same vineyard - but more alive, fresh, and vibrant, despite its faded colour and nose. The palate was particularly, and surprisingly, fresh with lively black fruits and acidity together with mature, animal aromas. This wine proves how well Bandol ages. ✪✪✪✪✪✪ (#2 for me; #2 for group)

Wine G: Domaine Tempier Cabassaou 2013

This time, a little too young: Domaine Tempier, and Bandol in general, do need time to open up, especially with the drying tannins. Still, attractively floral. ✪✪✪✪ (#5 for me; #6 for group)

Wine H: Château de Pibarnon 2010

Perhaps the least interesting of the wines tasted, and the one with the most Mourvèdre (90%), with a confusing combination of high tannins, high acidity, fading colour, black and dried fruits. Neither old nor young, probably needing some more time to come together. That's the way wine can work: immediate and appealing when young; attractively mellow when old; but confused and indeterminate when adolescent. ✪✪✪ (#6 for me; #8 for the group)

Monday, 20 June 2016

Fortified Wine Exam

Much has changed since I started the WSET Diploma in January 2014. Then, I was working for a wine merchants in Manchester, now I'm working at a winery in Napa. Oh, and I'm also married. That's how much time it's taken to complete the Diploma, my studies prolonged by my move to California. It was a year ago that I took the exhausting and exhaustive day-long Unit 3 exam (Wines of the World); this week, I was back in San Francisco to take the final exam on fortified wine. This is one of the few exams I've genuinely looked forward to, if only because it would mean a welcome and overdue end to studying for the Diploma. I also love fortified wine, especially sherry, but that doesn't make being examined on it any easier. I'll find out in a couple of months how I did, but here's how it went on the day.

Unlike last year when I nearly missed the exam due to a three-hour car journey caused by faint drizzle, I made the exam in plenty of time by taking the beautiful ferry trip across San Pablo Bay into San Francisco. A fellow student and I met before the exam to taste a little bit of sherry to acclimatise our palates and to steady the nerves. 

At this late stage, I don't see much point cramming information into one's overloaded brain, but most students were busy reading books when we walked into the exam venue. Given the wide range of subjects covered, it's impossible to guess which pieces of information you're likely to need to know and which you're not. For me, it was more a case of staying calm and relaxed until the exam eventually began. 


The exam is 65 minutes long, with a blind tasting of three wines and three theory questions, each of which take ten minutes to answer. I tackled the theory questions first, in part to get them out of the way but also because running out of time is a real danger with the theory questions. 

Turning straightaway to the questions, I felt a sense of relief as the topics were relatively straightforward. I left the trickiest topic (Key Madeira Shippers) till last, going straight to Fortification of Sherry. This involved describing when fortification happens (after fermentation which is different from most other fortified wines), and the different levels of fortification that result in the many styles of sherry. The next question was on Rutherglen, an area of Australia I would love to visit one day and about which there is a lot to write. Key Madeira Shippers I found trickier because there are only seven independent producers plus a co-op in Madeira and production is small, so it was hard to know what the examiners were looking for. I felt that I answered all three questions comprehensively, though, and that all my studies had been worthwhile.

Students taking the exam in Europe were asked about Key Madeira Shippers, The Fortification and Maturation of Vins Doux Naturels, and Pale Cream Sherry, while students in Asia were asked about Key Madeira Shippers, Sherry Varieties, and The Fortification and Maturation of Vins Doux Naturels - all questions I would also have been confident answering.


The tasting was harder. My ideal tasting would have been three distinct styles of sherry, but as soon as I saw the bottles of wine I knew we were in for a port tasting. The question revealed that the wines were indeed from the same region; we didn't have to answer which region, but which style each wine was. And this I found very difficult: the first and third wines were a similar deep ruby colour, while the middle wine was much paler and more faded. On first sight, I guessed this was a tawny but overthought it: the colour was more garnet than tawny and although there were lots of dried fruit aromas I didn't sense the nuttiness that is typical of a tawny, so I put that it was an LBV. Wrong: it was a tawny. Always go with your first instincts - at least when you're right. The other two wines were very similar and I really didn't have a clue what style each one was. The first was complex and intense, and I guessed it was a young vintage port: it was a ruby. The third was less complex and less intense, so I guessed it was a ruby: it was a vintage port. I hope my tasting notes were accurate enough to make up for mistaking the wines; if not, I also hope my theory answers were strong enough to compensate for the tasting. I really don't want to have to do this exam again; I want this Diploma over and done with.

wines tasted

Taylors First Estate Reserve Port ($20) 

I'm going to have to seek out a bottle, because I thought it was fantastic!

Niepoort Tawny Dee (not on sale in the US, sells for £6-10 in the UK) 

used to sell this wine in the shop in Manchester, so disappointed I didn't recognise it.

Ferreira Quinta da Leda Vintage Port 1999 (again not on sale in the US, but would be around $50) 

once more, disappointed I wasn't able to spot a vintage port that's nearly 20 years old - at the same time, I didn't find it that impressive.

I'll be getting the results in a couple of months, let's see how I do ...

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Old Vine (not just) Zinfandel

There are a few select areas around the world graced with gnarly old vines, planted in the nineteenth century and still producing wine. These vines are special because they produce exceptionally concentrated wine (albeit in small quantities) and because they are a direct, physical connection with the distant past. Ironically, it's the so-called New World that has rich plantings of old vines, particularly in phylloxera-free parts of Australia and also here in California, where nineteenth-century vines have survived the twin ravages of phylloxera and Prohibition.

I visited Ridge's property in northern Sonoma County, on the border between Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley, where there are vines planted in the early 1900s after phylloxera struck California in the 1890s. There are even some vines from the 1880s planted to the St. George rootstock by canny growers who were learning from France, where the devastating effects of phylloxera were countered by grafting vines to American rootstock. Walking through the vineyards made me realise how connected we are to the past, as some of the practices of the nineteenth century still hold true today, and how winemakers and growers from around the world have always learnt from one other.

the passing of time


1990s Carignan vine, with a higher-trained canopy
old vine, with a lower-trained canopy

The Ridge vineyards have many old vines with thick, wrinkled trunks, growing in different, maverick directions, determined to do their own thing after many years growing, yet disciplined in the quality of grapes they produce. These are interspersed with thin, seemingly weedy vines that are easy to train but produce fruity, upfront, almost undisciplined wines. These young vines have been planted to replace the old vines that one by one die. The contrast between the young and old vines was stark, but with time one will grow into the other. Ridge are intensely interested in preserving California's wine culture, but also in building on it. The younger vines are trained higher than the older ones, so that the canopy can be better controlled, but still without trellises which are almost uniform now across California (with the exception of Syrah, which has wildly productive canopies).

zinfandel, and other varieties

Old Vine Zinfandel is the most famous style of wine in California which connects the state's rich winemaking culture with today's drinkers. Rightly so, because old Zinfandel vines produce wines with much more concentration of flavours than young vines which result in fruity, somewhat simple wines. But on Ridge's property, there are over 20 other grape varieties planted, some of the vines dating back to the nineteenth century. Zinfandel is at its best as the main part of a blend, and those other grape varieties add what Zinfandel can sometimes lack according to the site: colour, acidity, or tannins.

These other varieties include Petite Sirah, which was planted far more than I was expecting in Ridge's vineyards, providing colour and tannin, as well as two other much-maligned grape varieties. Carignan is often dismissed as a high-yielding, low-quality grape, but old Carignan (spelt Carignane by Ridge as it was in California in the nineteenth century) can produce intense, concentrated wines, and it can also add acidity to a blend. Alicante Bouschet is dismissed even more often, planted during Prohibition to give colour to home winemakers' amateur efforts. Not only do Ridge have old Alicante Bouschet, they're still planting it now - for its historic importance in California as well as the colour it adds to a wine.

blending and field blends

Mataro, or Mourvèdre as it's known in France
In the nineteenth century, all those grape varieties were often planted together in the same vineyard without any particular rhyme or reason. Or at least, so it can seem. I walked through the vineyards with Ridge's viticulturist Will Thomas, who explained that the winery had conducted experiments to see if co-fermenting the field blends was better than fermenting the different varieties separately. The field blends won. Turns out those nineteenth-century European immigrants knew what they were doing, and now Ridge are deliberately planting some of their vineyards as field blends.

old-vine Pinot Noir
Having said which, there was one old vine, planted in 1901, in the middle of all those warm climate varieties. Its canopy was far more developed, aggressively so, and the grapes ripen more quickly than the vines around it. Will had conducted quite a bit of research to learn which variety it was: unexpected answer, Pinot Noir. There must be few older Pinot Noir vines in the world, and here it was planted entirely in the wrong place.

This on-going learning experience is now focused on two newly-planted rows with over twenty varieties, arranged in alphabetical order from Alicante Bouschet to Zinfandel. These vines have been planted to see how the different varieties perform in the same conditions. It was incredible to walk down the rows and see how the canopies are larger with some varieties (Syrah); others have noticeably waxy leaves (Grenache Gris); while others grow firmly upright (Mataro, or Mourvèdre).

old-vine Syrah
The most intriguing of all these field blend vineyards was one planted to Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Peloursin. Petite Sirah, also called Durif after its creator, is a crossing of Syrah and Peloursin, an extremely tannic grape. Here was a vineyard that had the mother, father, and child all growing together: in California, where vines were only first planted two hundred years ago.