Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Bordeaux Blends

Here in Napa, many wines are described as Bordeaux blends without any real discussion of what that means or how the wines of Napa are in fact very different from those of Bordeaux. Most red Bordeaux wines are Merlot-based, yet those of Napa are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa wines increasingly contain Malbec in the blend, even though it's rarely used in Bordeaux nowadays. In addition, Napa's Mediterranean climate is very different from Bordeaux's wet maritime conditions, meaning that Napa's and Bordeaux's wines often don't have that much in common. All of which leads me to ask, What is a Bordeaux blend exactly and why use that term?

climate contingency plans

Bordeaux is as far north in France as Cabernet Sauvignon will reliably ripen (although it is planted, mainly for rosés, in the cool Loire). For this reason, the earlier-ripening Merlot is also planted as a back-up if Cabernet doesn't successfully ripen. In contrast, Merlot can be subject to spring frosts which will ruin the crop - here, the later-budding Cabernet can act as a back-up. These climate contingency plans are the fundamental reason that all Bordeaux reds are blends. On top of this, the characteristics of the two grapes naturally balance each other out, making them great blending partners. In warmer, more temperate climates such as Napa, blending is done for style and taste rather than through necessity, whereas in Coonawarra in Australia, they just go for straight Cabernet, impossible in Bordeaux.

left bank vs right bank

This may suggest that all Bordeaux is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which is not the case. The only area of Bordeaux where Cabernet dominates is the Left Bank - short-hand for the Médoc and Graves regions which are planted to 70% Cabernet Sauvignon. Here, the soils are gravelly, retaining heat during the day that's released in the evening to help continue the ripening. Elsewhere in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon simply won't ripen, which is why Merlot is such an important grape for both simple and complex wines. The most famous Merlot wines are found on the Right Bank in the villages of St-Emilion and Pomerol, where they are often blended with Cabernet Franc. The great Cabernet-based and Merlot-based wines of Bordeaux can sometimes be hard to tell apart, but they are very different: Cabernet-based wines are more aggressively tannic, while Merlot-based wines are softer and fruitier.

the grapes 

Cabernet Sauvignon

plantings: 28,000ha - 25% of Bordeaux's black grapes
The reason the term Bordeaux blend often refers to a Cabernet-based wine is because the historically great Bordeaux wines are those of the Left Bank. These wines are concentrated in the Haut-Médoc, in the villages of St-Estèphe, Paulliac, St-Julien, and Margaux, as well as Pessac-Léognan in Graves. It's still very rare to see a wine with more than 80% Cabernet in the blend, and it's often a lot less than that - and this is one reason why the wines of the Left Bank are quite different from their Cabernet-heavy New World counterparts.


plantings: 69,000ha - 62% of Bordeaux's black grapes
Merlot is generally an easier grape to grow than Cabernet Sauvignon because it ripens earlier, but that also makes it a more difficult grape to make great wine out of. Merlot dominates plantings in the undistinguished parts of Bordeaux that produce entry-level wine, but it's also the most important grape in mid-level regions such as the recently-created Côtes de Bordeaux - a group of appellations producing good, affordable red wine. And then it's the base for the wines of St-Emilion and Pomerol, some of the greatest and most expensive wines of the world.

Merlot has been subject to much ridicule since the release of Sideways, a movie in which one of the characters refuses to drink Merlot (in his words, "I'm not drinking any fucking Merlot.") This was in response to the cheap Merlot that was being produced in California and Washington in the 1990s. Though many viewers didn't quite get the joke, the movie ends with him drinking his favourite ever wine, Cheval Blanc - an iconic St-Emilion wine that's a Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend.

Cabernet Franc

plantings: 13,000ha - 12% of Bordeaux's black grapes
Cabernet Franc is the great unsung hero of Bordeaux, playing a small but significant part in both Left Bank and Right Bank wines, not least as it's the parent grape of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carmenère.

Until the 1960s, it was planted in Bordeaux as much as Cabernet Sauvignon, because, like Merlot, it's easier to ripen and it can also survive rainy weather during harvest. Like its off-spring Cabernet Sauvignon, it can be quite tannic, but it has distinctive flavours of red fruits and in cooler vintages green bell peppers, and it also contributes acidity to a blend. It's fallen from favour because Cabernet Sauvignon replaced the white vines ripped up in Bordeaux in the 1960s and has since taken over the world, but a Bordeaux wine without Cabernet Franc is like a home without books.

Petit Verdot

Bordeaux plantings: 479ha
Petit Verdot is planted to provide backbone and structure in difficult years. It's an incredibly tannic, deep-coloured wine and it can be very difficult to drink on its own. In Bordeaux, it's most complex in the best years, but paradoxically it's not needed in those years because other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon already have plenty of richness and structure. There's an unwritten rule in Bordeaux that a wine should have no more than 10% of Petit Verdot. This is a rule that's generally followed in the warmer New World regions that use the grape, even though adding its power to an already big wine isn't really necessary.


Bordeaux plantings: 974ha
Malbec originates from south-west France, where it is the main variety for the Cahors region and is known as Auxerrois or Côt. It was introduced in the eighteenth century to the Right Bank by Château de Pressac (still an important St-Emilion producer and one of the few to plant Malbec and Carmenère) and to the Left Bank by Sieur Malbek, where the grape's international name comes from. It was much planted, but there were several problems: the wines it produced weren't as good as Merlot, which overtook Malbec in plantings, and Malbec is susceptible to many diseases as well as spring frost. In 1956, that frost killed off many of Bordeaux's Malbec vines, and, as Malbec plantings were already in retreat, few bothered to replant. It's now mainly grown in Blaye and Bourg, both of which form part of the Côtes de Bordeaux.

After its near devastation in south-west France, Malbec has become an extremely popular black grape due to its success in Argentina where it was introduced by French immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. In warmer climates, the grape, which ripens late, does not struggle like it does in Bordeaux. Because of this, Malbec is much more likely to be found in a New World Bordeaux blend than a wine from Bordeaux.


Bordeaux plantings: 4ha
No one cared about Carmenère until the 1990s when it was discovered that a lot of the Merlot being produced in Chile was in actual fact the old and mostly-forgotten Bordeaux variety Carmenère - and it's still unclear whether many of the plantings in Chile are Merlot or Carmenère. Chilean producers understandably want to make Carmenère their national grape, given there's so little planted elsewhere in the world. However, I have yet to try an interesting wine made from Carmenère, which in my experience has simple, ripe blackcurrant aromas.

best regions for Bordeaux blends

In Bordeaux itself, the best value Cabernet-based wines can be found in Moulis and Listrac, which border the Haut-Médoc. Likewise, the satellite regions of St-Emilion produce good, affordable Merlot-based wines.

Many regions around the world have their own take on Bordeaux. In the US, Washington marries the ripe fruits of the New World with the tannins and acidity of the Old - the Red Mountain AVA is particularly good for both Cabernet and Merlot based wines. Napa is more fruit forward, bigger and bolder, and more Cabernet. In South Africa, the best wines are from Stellenbosch and they are complex Cabernet-led blends. In Australia, the ocean influence on Margaret River in Western Australia, together with the region's gravel soils, make the wines similar to those of Bordeaux -  the blends are likely to be Cabernet led. Finally, New Zealand's Gimlett Gravels, whose name gives a clue to the soils found there, produces some of the best-value, quality Merlot-based blends. Whether based around Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, climate and winemaking make Bordeaux blends very different from one another across the world.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

WSET Diploma - done and dusted

On a grey winter's day in Manchester I started the WSET Diploma; two and a half years and eight exams later, on a sunny summer's day in California I finally received the result for my last exam on fortified wine. I passed, meaning that I passed all six units at the first attempt, and I am officially done and dusted with the Diploma, feeling both euphoria and relief.

It's been a long, exhausting, and challenging process, but I've got a huge amount out of it. When I started I thought I already knew a lot about wine, but I now realise how little I actually knew. The world of wine is huge, and for the Diploma I've had to write an essay on China, study Indian, Japanese, and Cypriot wine, and learn the differences between all the Burgundy villages. And that's just wine: one of my first exams was on spirits, and I had to jump into a month-long crash course on all the varied production methods and styles of spirits. (Somehow, I passed that exam with merit, I don't know how.) 

Despite occasional frustration, it's all been worth it. I'm a much better taster, my writing has become more precise, and my knowledge about wine is extensive - although I'm perhaps more humble about admitting what I don't know, because one thing I've learnt is that you can never know everything about wine. 

I'd highly recommend anyone who is serious about a career in the industry taking the WSET Diploma, but don't take it lightly. It's a lot of hard work and the WSET require a very rigorous approach to both tasting and writing about wine. Even as someone who has a PhD, the Diploma is as tough a qualification as it's possible to take. Which is why I'm pretty proud to have passed. 

Tuesday, 2 August 2016


I once heard the quote that the Italians have too many varieties to know what to do with, and the hundreds of different grape varieties indigenous to Italy have certainly led to a great deal of confusion among both producers and drinkers. Some are famous and the backbone to great wines (Nebbiolo for Barolo, Sangiovese for Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino). Others are overly planted and forgettable (Trebbiano, for instance). There are those which give their name to wine regions (Barbera d'Alba). To add to the confusion, there are grapes which share their name with towns which they have no connection with (the grape variety Montepulciano has nothing to do with the wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). And then there are many which are obscure and overlooked despite their quality, probably because of the sheer number of grape varieties around.

the grape

Sagrantino is one such variety, but one which has undergone a small fashionable revival as winemakers and consumers look to the unknown rather than the familiar. It's grown in Umbria, north of Rome and south of Florence, and was traditionally made into a sweet red wine - the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOC was created in 1977 for passito wines made from air-dried grapes, Montefalco being the most important area for the grape. However, it's the relatively recent phenomenon (1970s onwards) of dry red wines which have captured people's attention, and the region was upgraded to a DOCG in the 1990s. These wines are herbal with prickly black fruit aromas; they're also hugely tannic and long-lived. Ian d'Agata, in his indispensable book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, says that, "Sagrantino is Italy's most tannic red wine, by far." In a land of tannins, that's quite a statement. There is also a Montefalco Rosso DOC for fruity Sangiovese wines blended with Sagrantino.

the producer

Several producers led the move towards dry red wines from Sagrantino in the 1970s, and Arnaldo Caprai was one of them. Although there are now many quality producers in the Montefalco DOCG, Caprai is still one of the most prestigious. Arnaldo Caprai himself was a textile producer, who bought a vineyard on the Montefalco hillside in 1971 where he discovered the Sagrantino grape. His son Marco joined in 1987, expanding the vineyard holdings, modernising the winery, and recently moving towards sustainable farming.

the wines

I tasted two Arnold Caprai wines, the producer's two best known, and both from 2009.

Collepiano 2009

Aged for around two years in barriques, the Collepiano was fruity and spicy, quite a forward wine, its tannins much softer than I had been expecting - tasting Sagrantino with a little bit of age certainly helps. ✪✪✪✪✪

25 anni 2009

First made to celebrate the winery's twenty-fifth anniversary back in the mid-1990s, the 25 anni is exceptional. Although the wine is aged for the same amount of time as the Collepiano, the oak felt slightly more integrated. Likewise, it had the same black fruits (blueberries and brambles) as the Collepiano but they weren't quite as jammy. There was also a wonderful, almost undefinable prickly intensity to the wine. Again, the tannins were softer than I was expecting, but this could certainly age for another ten years. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Both these wines were excellent, with an intense fruitiness and integrated tannins and acidity. I'd recommend drinking them with beef or game dishes, rather than traditional pasta fare. I'll certainly be looking to drink more Sagrantino in the future.

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-mew 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.