Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Portugal's Many Indigenous Varieties

Portugal is a small country with an incredible amount of native grape varieties. With over 250 of them, Portugal has more indigenous varieties planted per square kilometre than any other country in the world. In trying to market the wines abroad, this sheer number of grape varieties presents different problems for Portuguese producers: consumers don't know anything about the varieties because nowhere else grows them; the names are not only unfamiliar but they're difficult to pronounce; the same variety goes by different names in different parts of the country; and Portuguese wines are often blends of these many varieties, with an understandable focus on regionality rather than the individual characteristics of a grape.

Portugal is old-fashioned and traditional, reluctant to embrace international trends. This means a welcome lack of over-familiar international grape varieties, but it can also hold Portuguese wine back as growers cling on to small holdings of field blends. The wine scene is slowly changing though, with a focus on single-varietal wines from indigenous varieties. Educating the public about all these varieties will take some time, which is why I found myself at an art gallery in San Francisco tasting single-varietal wines from Portugal's highest-quality varieties as well as some I had never heard of. Here are some of the stand-out wines from varieties worth looking out for.



Alvarinho

This is the most famous white Portuguese grape, the same as Albariño across the border in Spain's Rías Baixas. It's grown in the Vinho Verde region, around the villages of Monção and Melgaço. This is the coolest and wettest of Portugal's wine regions, and the wines in general have low alcohol and high acidity. Traditionally, those wines have always been blends but now Alvarinho is allowed to be labelled as a single-varietal wine as long as the grapes were grown in the Monção and Melgaço sub-regions.

The best producer is Soalheiro (literally "sunny place"), who were one of the first to take advantage of the liberalised wine laws in Portugal after the fall of the dictator Salazar in 1974. The wine we tasted was "Primeiras Vinhas," referring to the family's first plantings of the variety in 1974 from which the wine is made (under Salazar producers couldn't own their own vineyards). Alvarinho on its own is different from Vinho Verde, as it has higher alcohol (this wine is 13%) and doesn't have the slight spritz. It's a grassy, mineral, creamy wine with citrus and stone fruit aromas ($22; ✪✪✪✪✪).

Louriero

Another Vinho Verde grape usually found in blends but now being made on its own, Louriero literally means "laurel-scented." It may be the power of suggestion, but the wines can smell of laurel leaves. The wine we tasted, Estreia Grande Escolha Loureiro 2016, was astonishing value at $10, with aromas of ripe peach and passion fruit, low alcohol (11.5%), and a fresh, gripping acidity. It's made by a co-op, Viniverde, proof that co-ops can make good wine. (✪✪✪✪)

Castelão

Described as "Portugal's answer to Grenache," Castelão used to be the most planted variety in Portugal but has now slipped to third. It's grown all over hot southern Portugal, but is at its best around Lisbon under the influence of the Atlantic. The wine we tasted, Quinta de Chocapalha Castelão 2015, certainly had a resemblance to Grenache with red fruits but with a bit more acidity and the dry, dusty tannins so typical of Portuguese reds, as well as game aromas associated with the Castelão grape. Again, good value at $12. (✪✪✪✪)

Touriga Nacional

Portugal's great black grape, providing the heady perfume for the best ports and now increasingly being made as a dry table wine. Yields are low, and it's a grape that growers have often avoided. With a renewed focus on quality, plantings of Touriga Nacional are increasing - which is a good thing because Touriga Nacional produces some of the greatest wines in the world. I personally prefer it as the major component of a blend, but on its own the wines are still fascinating. It produces wines with floral, red and black fruit aromas, with high tannins and acidity, wines that manage to be both delicate and powerful at the same time.

The two wines we tried showed just how varied the wines Touriga Nacional produces can be. Julia Kemper's 2011 ($25; ✪✪✪✪✪) is from the Dão, a region protected from the winds of Spain and the rains of the Atlantic by a series of mountain ranges. There's a wonderful, deceptive delicacy to this wine, with pretty, perfumed, floral, and herbal aromas belied by a big tannic structure on the palate. The Quinta do Passadouro 2014 ($40; ✪✪✪✪✪) is from the Douro, the classic, dry, hot region for port. This was a much darker, smokier, chunkier wine, with ripe, weighty fruits, and dusty tannins. This was one of a few wines we tried that had been foot-trodden, the traditional method of crushing the grapes to extract as much colour and tannins. Both wines were excellent, but so different.

Baga

Government interference in Portugese wine production has rarely had a positive influence. Baga was banned outright in the 1750s by Marquês do Pombal who, coming from the Douro, didn't want any other region to rival the production of port. Baga also happens to be a very difficult grape variety, producing highly tannic wines that take years to open up. The best comparison to make is with Nebbiolo, and the best wines have the same tannic concentration, red fruit and floral aromas, with tar and leather as they age. It's much lower in alcohol, however: one of the two Bagas we tried, Niepoort's Poeirinho 2014 ($39; ✪✪✪✪✪), was an astonishing 11%. Despite the low alcohol, the comparison to Nebbiolo was clear, with high acidity and dry tannins alongside floral, red fruit, and tar aromas. We also tried a Baga from 2000, Quinta do Moinho, by producer Luis Pato, one of the first modern producers to take the grape seriously. This showed just how well this variety ages. The tannins were still dry and very much present, together with mature earth, mushroom, and dried fruit aromas. ($65; ✪✪✪✪✪✪)

Alicante Bouschet

A much maligned grape and not one that's actually indigenous to Portugal, but one that's taken seriously albeit usually part of a blend. It's at its best in Alentejo, a hot, sparsely populated inland area traditionally associated with simple, fruity wines, but which is now producing wines of increasingly impressive quality. On its own, Alicante Bouschet tastes very much like Petite Sirah (with which it is planted in field blends in California): dark, black fruits, bitter chocolate, and very tannic. Adega de Borba's Grande Reserva 2011, an "iconic" wine of Alentejo only made in the best years, is a blend of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira, another black grape suited to Alentejo's hot climate producing deep-coloured, spicy wines. From another co-op, the wine was tannic but floral and elegant at the same time; even from 2011, this is still a young wine with great potential for ageing. ($32; ✪✪✪✪✪)

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Expensive Wine: Is It Worth It?

One of the most legendary wineries in the world is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, or DRC for short. That it's known through a TLA (three-letter abbreviation, yes I hate them too) shows just how iconic the winery is. They're the sole owner of La Romanée, one of Burgundy's most prestigious vineyards, and also make wines from other Grands Crus such as La Tâche, Richebourg, and Echézeaux. I had never tasted any of their wines before, which gives an idea of how hard they are to get hold of. They're only available on allocation or through auction to rich, passionate wine collectors, and the cheapest wine has an opening price of $600 a bottle. I've always wanted to taste some DRC in order to answer the simple question: is it worth it?

Dante and Carlo Mondavi

I went to a tasting showcasing a Sonoma winery, Raen. This winery is run by two brothers, Carlo and Dante, who just happen to be the grandsons of Robert Mondavi, the scion of Napa wine. Mondavi helped transform Napa wine (and fall out with his family at the same time) after visiting Bordeaux and Burgundy and being convinced of the importance of terroir - that the best wine must reflect where it comes from. In 2002, he took his family, including Carlo and Dante, back to Bordeaux and Burgundy, where the two of them fell in love with Pinot Noir after a day tasting Domaine Leflaive, DRC, and Domaine Dujac. I sometimes wish I had been born into that kind of family.

At the tasting, they generously poured a bottle of DRC and the perhaps less famous but equally prestigious Domaine Dujac. This wasn't just generous of them, but it was brave to pour two renowned Burgundy producers alongside their own wines. They poured one wine from their first vintage in 2013, as well as three wines from the more challenging dry, warm 2015 harvest. The Raen wines were of course very different from the Burgundy counterparts, riper, fuller, and softer - as they should be, because California has a warmer and more consistent climate than Burgundy. The severe frost currently ravaging much of France is never going to be an issue in California. These wines cost $60-80; expensive but par for the course for high-quality Sonoma Pinot Noir.

All of the wines had been made with a fair amount of whole cluster fermentation, a method of making wine which adds spice, body, and tannin. For this reason, there was a green stalkiness to some of the wines, and this was particularly evident in the DRC from the Echézeaux vineyard. The wine was quite tannic, almost aggressive, with a firm stucture and a fruitiness which certainly suggests the wine will age well for years to come. Was it worth $900? Of course not, but there are enough people, including the Mondavis, who are willing to pay that price.

DRC front left, Dujac front right, all the others Raen

As for the Domaine Dujac from Morey-St-Denis, that was simply one of the best wines I've tasted. Morey-St-Denis is my favourite village in the Côtes de Nuits; less famous than its neighbours, it combines the power of Gevrey-Chambertin with the elegance of Chambolle-Musigny. This wine was wonderful: fine and lightly grainy tannins, rich fruits, spices, and a long, long finish which just wouldn't go away. The cost of this wine: around $100. This was a village wine and Dujac's Premier and Grand Cru wines go for much more. I can only imagine how good they must be, because I can't afford to buy them.

The co-owner of DRC, Aubert de Villaine, has been known to complain that the expense of his wines makes them unaffordable for all but the wealthiest collector. It might seem a strange complaint to make - why charge so much for them? - but the market sets the price of the wine much higher than he would like. And it is a shame because I would like to be able to drink these wines more often and share them with friends. I can't do that, but luckily there's plenty of wine out there just as good for a tenth of the price.





Thursday, 13 April 2017

Washington v. The Rest of the World

I've blogged about the excellent wines being made in Washington a few times now, so it was refreshing to attend a tasting that approached the region in a different way. The tasting was located at Sunset Magazine's new headquarters in Oakland, led by a panel of leading Washington winemakers, Bob Betz of Betz Family Wines, David Rosenthal of Chateau Sainte Michelle, and Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars. They spoke passionately and enthusiastically about Washington's wines, and the geographical, topographical, and climatic characteristics of the state which make it different from other regions.

What made this tasting particularly enlightening was the way it was structured, with three flights of wines each featuring one of Washington's major grape varieties. In each flight, the first of the four wines was a named wine from Washington acting as a template for the other wines. The other three were tasted blind, examples of the same grape variety to act as a comparison without prejudice. This was a great way of focusing on the characteristics of Washington wine, learning about other regions, while really making us think about why each wine tastes like it does.

Riesling

The best wines from Riesling are made with little interference in the winery, and it's all about the variety and the vineyard or region the grapes come from. I'm still not as excited about Washington's Riesling as some local winemakers are, so it was interesting to taste a couple of wines in comparison to Australia and Germany. The template was Eroica ($22; ✪✪✪✪), a collaboration made since 1999 between Chateau Sainte Michelle, by far the state's largest producer, and Ernst Loosen, one of the iconic winemakers of Germany. It's a pleasant, good-value, medium-dry wine with citrus and stone fruit aromas, but one that seems aimed more at local rather than international tastes.

The three wines tasted blind alongside it were around the same price. The wine from Australia, Yalumba's Pewsey Vale ($20; ✪✪✪✪), is a classic representation of Eden Valley, one often used in educational tastings to demonstrate the intense lime and dry mineral characteristics of Australia's world-class Riesling. The German Riesling was from Mosel, a Kabinett whose sweetness and weight made it feel more like a Spätlese: there's a combination of elegance and richness to the best German wines that no other Riesling-producing region can match. Drink Christoffel's Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett ($27; ✪✪✪✪✪) with spicy food, and have a tongue-twisting competition saying the name.

The other Riesling was an outlier: again from Washington, made by the dramatically named EFESTĒ ($20; ✪✪✪✪✪) and again from Evergreen Vineyard in Ancient Lakes AVA where the Eroica mainly comes from. It was off-dry with an intense texture, which made most people in the room mistake it for Alsace. The wine made me reassess Washington Riesling - that it can compete with, and be mistaken for, Rieslings from around the world, and at a very good price.

Syrah

Greg Harrington, an MS turned winemaker, described Syrah as a wine for Pinot Noir lovers with sophisticated palates. This brought out a chuckle, but he was making a serious point. He continued that there are Syrah producers who make the wines to be like Cabernet Sauvignon, and there are others who make it like Pinot Noir. He firmly places himself in the latter category - not least because the northern Rhône, geographically and in terms of climate, is so close to Burgundy.

One of the wines we tasted underlined his point, albeit in a roundabout way. Wind Gap are an eclectic producer from California; their Nellessen Vineyard Syrah ($42; ✪✪✪✪), which we tasted blind, was from a cooler area of Sonoma. Fermented in whole clusters it smelt very carbonic, that's to say bubblegum and strawberries. If I hadn't known it was Syrah, I would have guessed the wine to have been from Beaujolais, a region which has the same granite soils as the northern Rhône and a similar climate - and I've read old nineteenth-century textbooks that group Beaujolais and the northern Rhône together. It may be that we should be thinking about the connections between Syrah and Gamay, or the northern Rhône and Beaujolais, much more - even if it takes US producers to point out those connections.

The Rocks District
The template wine was called Lagniappe and made by Gramercy ($55; ✪✪✪✪) from Red Willow, one of Washington's first and still leading vineyards. Another of the blind wines, The Psycheledic by Sleight of Hand ($60; ✪✪✪✪), was also from Washington, from the recently-established AVA, The Rocks District of Milton-Freeman, one of the many Washington regions which excels in Syrah. The two wines highlighted the differences that come from a winemaker's philosophy as well as Washington's terroir: Gramercy's wine was noticeably restrained in comparison to the smoky, meaty qualities of the other wine.

The final wine was the 2014 Côte-Rôtie by Saint-Cosme ($65; ✪✪✪✪✪), a tannic, dry, subdued wine which reminded me of just how French French wine is, showing how expressively Syrah reflects where it comes from.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Willow Vineyard
I often find it hard to write anything interesting about Cabernet Sauvignon, but this was a refreshing line-up. The template was the 2013 Père de Famille from Betz Family Estate ($75; ✪✪✪✪✪), which showed just how well Cabernet works in Washington. The wine has the tannic structure expected of Cabernet, with the ripe black fruits that come in a fairly warm New World climate - a combination which summarises Washington red wine. Another of the blind wines was again from Washington (that was the one predictable aspect of the tasting). The 2014 Cabernet from Abeja, an established producer, tasted like it was from Coonawarra in Australia, minty and herbal ($52; ✪✪✪✪). Napa was featured as a comparison too, the 2012 from Forman was dusty and massively tannic ($115; ✪✪✪✪) - Washington wines are much more approachable when young. Finally, there was a wine from Margaux. It's not often I get to taste expensive Bordeaux, and I certainly wasn't expecting to do so at a Washington tasting. The best Bordeaux needs to be tasted with some age, and the 2009 from Château Rauzan-Ségla ($155; ✪✪✪✪✪✪) was evolving wonderfully, with mature leather aromas, but with fresh acidity and black fruits.

Can the best of Washington age as well as the best of Bordeaux and other established regions? Maybe that could be the subject for another tasting. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Wars and Myths of Burgundy's Climats

Over the weekend, I finally read Wine and War, published way back in 2001 and a history of French wine during the Second World War recounting the uneasy relationship French winemakers had with the Germans, involving collaboration, resistance, subterfuge, fraud, and unlikely friendships. The book is well worth reading, demonstrating just how integral wine is to French culture (as well as how much Germans love French wine).

I was reminded to read the book after attending a tasting in San Francisco centred around the climats and lieux-dits of Burgundy. A climat is a vineyard that has over many centuries distinguished itself for its particular style and unique identity. The very best climats in the Côte d'Or were designated Grand Cru in 1937 when the appellation system was introduced in France. The Premier Cru designation was created in the early 1940s as a way of warding the Germans off the wines, as they weren't allowed to confiscate the "first growths." The ways in which the French resisted the German occupation were cunning, mischievous, and risky.

Although the vineyards awarded Premier Cru status during the war were deserving of the recognition, it shows that official acclaim is often a result of chance as much as merit. For the first few years of the Second World War, France was split between Occupied France and Unoccupied France, which was governed by an increasingly fascist French regime from Vichy but nominally free from German control. Burgundy was split: the Côte d'Or and the northern part of the Côte Chalonnaise occupied by the Germans; the southern part of the Chalonnaise and all of Mâconnais was part of the zone libre. As a result, all the Premier Cru vineyards were in the Côte d'Or and in northern/central Chalonnaise villages such as Mercurey and Givry.

Such wartime necessities have led to distinctions which still determine a wine's reputation. Pouilly-Fuissé, the furthest south of Burgundy's winemaking regions, is held in less regard than it should be, in part because its wines are sometimes fuller-bodied and richer than the Chardonnay made in the Côte d'Or but also because there are no Premier Cru vineyards. If the Germans had occupied as far south as this distinctive part of Burgundy, the appellation structure would be completely different.

Not all climats have names, but those that do are called lieux-dits ("named places" - sometimes there are several lieux-dit in one climat). These names can express a lot about the nature of the vineyard, as long as you speak French: the names come from the soil (Les Perrières refers to its pebbles), from local geographical conditions (Les Bois Gautiers refers to the trees surrounding the vineyard), or from past owners (La Romanée-Conti).

vineyards are divided by small stone walls
The origins of other names are lost in time or immersed in myth. The most famous vineyard for Chardonnay is Montrachet. At the tasting, a Burgundy winemaker explained the origins of Montrachet's name and of its surrounding vineyards. Montrachet, the story goes, was a nobleman who rode off to the crusades back in the twelfth century. He left behind his virgin daughter (pucelle), whose protection he entrusted to a knight (chevalier). They, of course, had an affair which resulted in an illegitimate child (bâtard). The nobleman returned, discovered the affair, but eventually welcomed (bienvenue) the child into his family. Hence the names of the famous series of vineyards that produce some of the world's greatest Chardonnay: Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, and Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, as well as the Premier Cru Les Pucelles. There are variants of this story, but it most likely isn't true: Bâtard-Montrachet probably comes from the fact growers used the vineyard for young, experimental vines. Still, there's nothing like drinking some expensive, bastard Montrachet.


We tasted six wines to demonstrate the different styles found in Burgundy.

Domaine Auvigue Pouilly-Fuissé Les Chailloux 2015 ($40)

Pouilly-Fuissé still has no Premiers Crus, although it is likely to be awarded some soon. This is the warmest part of Burgundy, so the wines are richer and fuller-bodied with stone and tropical fruit aromas. The wine we tasted was a very good example of Pouilly-Fuissé, expressive and inviting. This is the one area of Burgundy that could be confused for the New World, but the high, refreshing acidity was noticeable. The name of the climat is Les Chailloux, which comes from the French word chaille for flint. ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine Pinson Montmains Chablis Premier Cru 2013 ($40)

The most northern and coolest part of Burgundy, Chablis is the opposite of Pouilly-Fuissé. Aspect is key in the cool climate, and the best vineyards are on slopes which soak up the sun to give the grapes an extra ripeness. The name of the climat, Montmains, refers to its location on a small hill between two larger ones. I wasn't a huge fan of this wine, finding it a little too acidic and tart. Nevertheless, a white wine in its fourth year shows how Chablis retains its acidity and structure. ✪✪✪✪

Domaine Latour-Giraud Les Genevrières Meursault Premier Cru 2014 ($120)

Some of the richest Chardonnay comes from Meursault in the heart of the Côte de Beaune. Oak and malolactic fermentation add even more richness, and this wine almost had a tannic structure. Les Genevrières refers to the juniper trees grown around the vineyard and it's particularly known for its rich wines. This wine was wonderful: very concentrated and powerful, with a refreshing acidity. ✪✪✪✪✪✪


Domaine Michel Sarrazin & Fils Les Bois Gautiers Givry Premier Cru 2014 ($45)

Givry is in the Côte Chalonnaise region, just south of the more famous Côte d'Or. Here the land is more arable and there are fewer vineyards but those are planted on limestone soils similar to the Côte d'Or. Les Bois Gautiers refers to the woods that surround the vineyard, cooling and sheltering it from the wind. Despite that cooling effect, the red and black fruit aromas were quite ripe, although held together with a gripping tannic structure. ✪✪✪✪

Maison Chanzy Les Gravières Santenay Premier Cru 2014 (€35)

The more I learn about Burgundy, the more convinced I am that Santenay is my favourite village. It's the furthest south in the Côte d'Or, so there's a warmth, richness, and a certain meatiness to the wines. At the same time, they're not as full-on, dark, and intense as the more famous wines further north in the Côtes de Nuits. I have also learnt that the best climat in Santenay is Les Gravières, whose name refers to its gravelly soils. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine des Beaumont Aux Combottes Gevry-Chambertin Premier Cru 2015 (c.$125)

Not only did I learn quite a few new French words at the tasting, I learnt a new English word too. Aux Combottes refers to the combe in which the vineyard sits - a combe being a hollow in a valley, or, in geological terms which apply to the Côte d'Or, "a dry valley in a limestone or chalk escarpment." Aux Combottes, which has a deep, pebbly soil, is a Premier Cru vineyard, though in essence it is considered Grand Cru: the initial rules created in 1937 stated that a vineyard within the village of Gevry-Chambertin could only be Grand Cru if it touched either Chambertin or Clos de Bèze, both of which Aux Combottes is close to but not touching. Such distinctions do nothing to aid the accessibility of Burgundy's wines. Aged in 60% new oak barrels, this was a deep, rich wine, with ripe black fruits, liquorice, and vanilla, and quite tannic. The power and tannic structure of Burgundy's Pinot Noirs, especially from the Côte de Nuits, can often be overlooked. ✪✪✪✪✪

Does it matter if a wine is a climat, a Premier Cru, or a Grand Cru? A Grand Cru may not be better than a Premier Cru which may not be better than a named climat. The designation certainly changes the price of a wine, but more importantly the name on the label can tell you a lot about the style of a wine, the village it comes from, and where in that village the grapes were grown. And, what's such an integral part of Burgundy's appeal, the name expresses the history (and the myths) of a vineyard.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Oregon Beer

My trip to Oregon was initially about wine, but segued into a beer journey. That isn't too surprising: Oregon is one of the great states for craft beer, and visitors travel from across the US for the beer alone. The beer scene is extraordinary; spread around the state, it's concentrated in the major city of Portland and the smaller, remote, and very beautiful town of Bend. Beer here is treated with a fanatical fervour, its quality debated heatedly in bars and breweries.

ninkasi, eugene

I'd only tried one beer from Ninkasi before, Total Domination, a widely-available IPA I had found a little too sweetly aggressive. Nevertheless, while in Eugene I wanted to visit the ten-year-old brewery to see what else they had to offer. I'm glad I did. They have a small, intimate, and very friendly tasting bar, with ten beers on tap. Visiting a brewery or its tasting room offers the opportunity to taste beers that aren't distributed, and here I was able to taste two newly released beers. Their winter ale was brown, malty, and nutty, perfect for the rainy weather. The Megalodom was something else. Based on Total Domination (which the barmaid admitted was her least favourite of Ninkasi's beers), it's a whopping 10% ABV and dangerously drinkable. Such a beer encapsulates the trend of West Coast IPAs: extremely well made, highly alcoholic, fruity and hoppy, big but balanced, and not for the faint-hearted.

grain station brew works, mcminnville

Portlandia is a TV comedy which lampoons the touchy-feely habits of those who live in Portland. The first episode features a couple who won't order the chicken in a restaurant until they've visited the farm where the chicken was raised to establish that it was treated properly. I experienced a similar moment in McMinnville, a small town in the heart of Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir country. "Are your fries gluten free?" I heard a young girl behind me ask. The waiter responded, "All of our ingredients are gluten free, but I can't guarantee there isn't gluten in the environment." Thus ensued a half-hour debate, interspersed with the waiter going back and forth from the kitchen to check the gluten status of each product on the menu. "The fries are briefly cooked in sunflower oil, but we can't determine if that results in some gluten in the fries."

This was at Grain Station Brew Works, a brewpub located in an old timber barn and which I stopped off at for lunch to avoid the pouring rain. I had two beers: the Bet the Farm IPA, which was excellent, malty, fruity, and not too hoppy. I then ordered the RyePA, a request which prompted the waiter to ask me if I was sure I wanted it. The Oregonians can be a little too concerned with the customers' happiness, as it was a good, spicy rye IPA.

cascade, portland

A drinker from Florida sat next to me at the bar declared that he was "in heaven." He couldn't believe that a brewery was devoted to making so many sours. These are Belgian-inspired beers that small breweries like Cascade have taken to extremes, merging wine-making techniques with beer-making practices. Cascade have been doing this for so long that they can almost exclusively focus on aged beers. I tried two vintages of their Sang Rouge, a red ale aged in old oak barrels of different sizes. Ageing beer in wine and whisky casks is becoming common across the country, but doing it well is very difficult. The 2013 was fruity, sour, and still a little closed; the 2009 was tannic and leathery, with aromas of dried fruits and mushrooms, and as close to wine as beer will, for better or worse, ever get. Cascade are probably the best producers of sour beers in the States and their beers, although expensive, are well worth seeking out.

deschutes, bend

I drink a lot of Deschutes, mainly their Fresh Squeezed IPA, a green, hoppy, herbaceous summer beer that's now their best seller - overtaking Mirror Pond Pale Ale, another very drinkable beer. They're based in Bend, a town that's next to spectacular forests and far from anywhere. They started in 1988, beginning a trend that's led to Bend becoming one of the most beer-centric towns I've ever visited, with at least fifteen breweries in a town of 80,000 people. The Deschutes bar/restaurant was heaving when I visited, yet the two barmen were able to serve beer tourists like me while entertaining locals. The Bachelors' Bitter was as good an English-style beer as I've tried in the US (the other contender is Blue Bell Bitter by Magnolia in San Francisco).

boneyard, bend


This is quite a different operation, located in a reconstituted garage full of old car and garage parts (hence the name boneyard). It's down to earth, with full-on tattoo-style artwork, and still very low-key. The beers aren't bottled, and the tasting room only pours them by the 28ml (1oz) serving - though you can have as many as you like for $1 a pour. The IPAs are as magnificent and as full-on as the artwork. The RPM IPA is their best-known beer, distributed throughout Oregon, but Incredible Pulp was perhaps the best of those I tried: briefly infused in blood oranges, it's subtle, balanced, yet orange and intense. Boneyard encapsulate the Oregon - and by extension West Coast - beer scene: no frills but an intense concentration on quality and innovation.