Friday, 23 June 2017

Loire Valley Podcast

This blog takes a new track as it's now going to feature a series of educational podcasts. These are designed to help WSET students, particularly for Levels 3 and 4, as well as those taking other wine courses.

They can be found on my SoundCloud page and iTunes, as well as here on the blog.

The first episode is on the Loire Valley. Enjoy!

music by Bensound

Monday, 19 June 2017

Cru Beaujolais

Beaujolais may be the second most misunderstood wine in the world, after sherry. It's known, often to its detriment, for inexpensive, fruity wine that's designed to be drunk young. There's certainly a lot of that, but it also produces complex, sometimes challenging wines that demand ageing. These wines come from the ten crus, based around spectacularly situated hilltop villages. Vines abound here, crawling up the slopes in incredibly densely planted vineyards. The grape is Gamay, a high-yielding, early-ripening grape that often produces fruity and simple wines. Control those yields, however, and subject the juice to serious vinification and suddenly the grape produces high-quality wine - kind of what happens with any other grape variety in the world.


The problem that Beaujolais has, of course, is Beaujolais Nouveau, a style of wine that's marketed as one to be drunk young rather than to be aged. Beaujolais Nouveau grew out of a series of crises that afflicted the region - phylloxera, subsequent overproduction, and two world wars - and it in effect performed a rescue act that allows us to enjoy the wines of Beaujolais today. There's a place for Beaujolais Nouveau, as after all most people like to drink young, fresh fruity wines for immediate consumption, but it dogs the image of Beaujolais and prevents people understanding that the best wines of the region get better and better with time.

Basic Beaujolais comes from the flat plains to the south of the region, the grapes grown on clay and limestone soils that do little to limit yields. The plains rise to the north, where 38 villages contribute to Beaujolais-Villages, a higher-quality appellation. At the top of the slopes are the ten crus, where the granite-based soils, mixed with quartz, schist, and sand, limit yields and create much more intense wines.

I attended a tasting in San Francisco which featured wines from each cru. There were some fantastic wines on display, demonstrating how the ten crus differ in style and taste. Neighbouring Burgundy successfully markets such intra-regional differences as terroir, causing the wines to command very high prices. Cru Beaujolais is much cheaper, just as varied, and in my opinion just as good: the discerning consumer is in the advantageous position of being able to afford wines of such quality.

The problem that Cru Beaujolais has is not just one of image, but that it's very hard to categorise. Each cru has its own distinct character, and each producer have their own distinct style. Some producers make their wines with a form of carbonic maceration, making their wines softer and fruitier. Others destem and ferment the wines 'normally,' allowing the tannins to express themselves. Few, however, use new oak - and this is a wonderful aspect to Beaujolais as you get to taste the wine rather than the oak.

the ten crus

So, how to make sense of Beaujolais and its varied crus? The simple fact is that each cru and their producers make fantastic wine: it's hard to go wrong. These are very food-friendly wines that go well with salmon, chicken, pork, beef, or game dishes. They can be drunk young because of the natural fruitiness of Gamay, but they can age extremely well too - if you spot an older cru Beaujolais snap it up.

The highlight of the tasting was Domaine Marcel Lapierre's 2015 Morgon. Marcel Lapierre, who died in 2010, was one of the icons of Beaujolais, with a focus on quality and minimal intervention in the winery. The wine was simply incredible: fruity, chewy, ripe, crunchy, and spicy, with a long, warm finish. 2015 was a hot vintage, so the wine is probably bigger than usual, but there's still an elegance and balance to it. If you can get hold of a bottle, it retails for $48. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪

the ten crus from north to south


sales apparently shoot up around Valentine's Day. Yes, that's the culture we live in. The wines are bigger and spicier than most Beaujolais.


the cru that's in the middle of all Beaujolais's styles, and therefore my favourite: fruity, with some tannins and ageability.


one of the more famous of the crus and one of the more ageable.


floral and pretty wines that can still age: Clos de la Roilette's Marque Déposée is a great example.


we tried Domaine Damien Coquelet, a producer who made his first wine in 2007 when he was twenty. He's trying to revive Chiroubles's reputation and doing a very good job.


there is a verb in French, though I don't know if anyone still uses it: morgonner - to Morgon, which means when a wine becomes like Pinot Noir as it ages. Morgon, like many of the crus, can certainly taste like Pinot Noir as the wine gets older.


the youngest of the crus (it became an appellation in 1988) and high up, the wines are aromatic and best drunk young.


fruitier and designed for earlier drinking. This is the furthest south of the crus and more like Beaujolais-Villages wines.

Côte de Brouilly 

from the mountain above Brouilly, the wines are much more intense and tannic. For either Brouilly or Côte de Brouilly, try Château Thivin.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Rhône Rangers

In the 1980s, a small band of Californian producers teamed together to form the Rhône Rangers to promote wines made from varieties, such as Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier, grown in that great French region. Then in 1989, the Perrin family, who own Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, bought property in Paso Robles, together with their US importer Robert Haas. While waiting to establish the Tablas Creek winery, they imported cuttings directly from their property in the southern Rhône, making available for the first time other quality Rhône varieties such as Mourvèdre and Counoise as well as whites like Grenache Blanc.

The popularity of these wines is still small, but production and quality is rising. Paso Robles, with its warm climate and limestone soils, has emerged as the epicentre of Rhône styles of wine. It's not the only region though: Santa Ynez Valley further south makes peppery Syrah; the Sierra Foothills, hotter and higher, have great potential for wines from Mourvèdre; and, beyond California, Washington, with its more continental climate, also makes great wine from Rhône varieties.

At a Rhône Rangers event in San Francisco, I tasted a number of wines, some blends, some from famous varieties, and some from little-known varieties. Here are some of the highlights.

wines and their makers

Tablas Creek Terret Noir 2015 ($35)

There are 18 different varieties allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, some of them rarely used and if so only for blending. As Tablas Creek have access to cuttings of all the Châteauneuf grapes, they have the chance to experiment with them and learn what the wines from the more obscure varieties actually taste like. They have just 0.2ha of Terret Noir, which they plan to use for blending but they've also made a varietal bottling to share the taste of this obscure variety. The grape has big berries and dark skins, yet, conversely, it produces a very pale coloured wine reminsicent of Nebbiolo. The wine is floral, herbal, and spicy, with red fruits and really dry tannins (again not dissimilar to Nebbiolo). It would make a fantastic pairing with a wide range of food (duck, game, meat, roast veg) and I hope Tablas Creek continue to make wine from the variety. ✪✪✪✪✪

On a side note, two people at the tasting described the tannins of the Terret Noir as "tacky." I've never heard this word used to describe tannins and it was equally confusing to Tablas Creek winemaker Neil Collins who said "that doesn't sound very pleasant." A dictionary has the following definition: "(of glue, paint, or other substances) not fully dry and retaining a slightly sticky feel: the paint was still tacky." So I suppose describing the dry tannins of the Terret Noir as tacky was accurate, but, given it usually refers to something that's cheap and low-quality, it's still not a word I'll be using.

Adelaida Vineyards Picpoul Blanc 2015 ($35)

Picpoul is allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, although most white wines from there are blends of other varieties. Further west, Picpoul is the grape variety for Picpoul de Pinet on the Languedoc coast, one of the few French appellations that contains the name of the grape (other areas now technically have to spell it Piquepoul). The wines there are light, fresh, and acidic - Picpoul literally means "lip-stinger." Picpoul wines being made in Paso Robles are quite different, heavier and fuller-bodied, but still with a refreshing acidity - Adelaida's winemaker, Jeremy Weintraub, said the wine had over 9g/L of total acidity, which is remarkable in such a warm wine region. Adelaida's Picpoul Blanc was a great example of a balance between the rich ripeness coming from the warm climate of Paso Robles and the natural acidity of the grape. ✪✪✪✪✪

Qupé Roussanne 2012 ($30)

Under Bob Lindqvist, Qupé were one of the original Rhône Rangers. They're based in Santa Maria, making wines from Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, and, most notably, Roussanne and Marsanne. These are two of the great white grapes of the Rhône, but it's rare to see them elsewhere. Marsanne, which has a waxy, oily texture, is the base of white Hermitage in the northern Rhône, while Roussanne, which has more aromas and acidity, is at the heart of white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Roussanne is my favourite because of the rich aromatics, acidity, and the easy way it takes to oak ageing. Both these grapes also age wonderfully well in bottle, maintaining their structure while developing mature, complex aromas: this wine was from 2012 and still felt young and fresh. ✪✪✪✪

Mourvèdre geek: where are the accents?

Seven Oxen Mourvèdre 2014 ($42)

In contrast to Qupé, Seven Oxen is a new project and I tasted three of their wines from the 2014 vintage, just their second. Their winemaker is Bastien Leduc from south-west France, so he's used to working in the warm climate of Paso Robles. Because of the climate, late-ripening Mourvèdre works perfectly in Paso, the hot summer and warm autumn getting the grape gradually ripe. There were plenty of good examples at the Rhône Rangers tasting; Seven Oxen's Mourvèdre stood out with rich, ripe black fruit, warm mouthfeel, and dry (not tacky) tannins. ✪✪✪✪✪

Wrath Ex Anima Syrah ($25)

Oak abounds in California, so it's always refreshing to taste wines that have seen no new oak. There were quite a few wineries emphasising the lack of oak in the wines, so maybe the tide is turning. Wrath are based in Monterey, an area that has history with Rhône varieties (mainly because of Bonny Doon, another of the original Rhône Rangers). This Syrah is only aged in old oak, so the purity of the fruit really shines through. It also makes it easier to drink young, but there are plenty of complex black fruit and spice aromas. Even better, the lack of oak cuts down on the price. ✪✪✪✪

A lot of these Rhône Rangers are beginning to produce single-varietal wines (which is what I've focused on here) as a means of attracting consumer interest. Don't forget the blends, because that's what the Rhône itself excels in, but if these single-varietal wines can get people drinking wines from the wonderful range of varieties it can only be a good thing. And the love for these styles of wines is definitely spreading: I got to taste for the first time wines from Arizona! Grown at 1,700m altitude just an hour from the Mexican border, the Viognier and two Grenache wines I tasted were pretty good. If there's a future in Arizona for winemaking, maybe it will come from the Rhône...

Rune wines from Arizona, with labels by a local graphic artist

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Chicago Beer

Chicago is a long way from San Francisco, a four-hour flight in fact. It's not just the distance but the culture that made a trip to Chicago seem like visiting a different country. This is a city built on Irish, Polish, and German immigrants, surrounded by the cold, continental extremities of states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. Food is hearty and substantial. This is certainly not wine country; although grapes are grown on the other side of the lake in Michigan, the climate is not suited at all to vine growing. Nor is wine central to drinking culture. I remember serving customers here in Napa and asking them if they drank much wine at home. "We're from Wisconsin," was their direct, pointed answer.

Beer is the drink of choice, much of it inexpensive lager. Back in the nineteenth century, Frederick Miller and Pabst and Emil Schandein, all German immigrants, established breweries in the Chicago area; the companies now make the ubiquitous and much drunk Miller Lite and Pabst Blue Ribbon (although the latter is now made in LA). Beers like these are found in bars all around the city, and there is an unquestioning attitude to food and drink that's different from the Bay Area in California.

It's seventeen years since I visited Chicago, the first time I'd been to a US city. My welcoming experience then was a bowling alley where I was served Budweiser in a bottle the shape of a bowling pin. How was I going to last in this country? I asked myself. But I quickly and thankfully learnt that the city and surrounding states are home to a fantastic craft beer scene, which goes from strength to strength, based around great bars and vibrant, young drinkers. I finally revisited Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, where I got to taste several beers from a number of breweries. 


Although I didn't get to visit the brewery itself, the beers from Pipeworks were the stand-out of my trip. As with many craft breweries in the States, their labels are bright, vivid cartoons which require powerful beers to match. Ninja vs Unicorn is a famous local beer, even though Pipeworks only opened in 2012. It's a Double IPA which I drank from a pint-sized can (quite common in Chicago) at a great pool-hall/games room/bar called Emporium. The beer was wonderful: pungent, fruity, hoppy, and intense, yet very drinkable. Even better though was their Emerald Grouper, the label of which features a grumpy looking fish. This is an Imperial IPA, coming in at 9.5% ABV, and which has been brewed with honey. I'm always suspicious of beer made with honey, as it can be too rich and sweet. Despite this - and despite the alcohol - this was an incredibly balanced, hoppy, textured beer which I drank and enjoyed greatly with tomato soup at a Polish restaurant called Podhalanka which can only be described as very Polish.

Half Acre

Established in 2008, Half Acre have a brewpub decorated with some amazing, quirky artwork and which serves good food. The menu is based around burritos, but in true wino style we chose a couple of small plates featuring burrata cheese and salmon rillette. Their most famous beer is Daisy Cutter, a light, dry, biscuity Pale Ale. I also tried Tuna, an Extra Pale Ale; I've no idea why the beer is called that, but it was fuller and more tropical than Daisy Cutter. Both, it must be said, went extremely well with the cheese and the salmon.


Rather like Rogue in Oregon, Revolution's labels have an interwar Soviet constructivist aesthetic which feeds into beers called Anti-Hero and Fist City. They have a brewery as well as a pub, busy with eager drinkers on a Saturday afternoon. Revolution make perhaps the easiest drinking beers of the breweries I visited: Anti-Hero is a citrusy IPA, Galaxy Hero is a seasonal, more hoppy Double IPA, and there's also a refreshing approachable hibiscus-infused beer called Rosa that works well in the summertime.

Three Floyds

Based in neighbouring Indiana since the mid-1990s, Three Floyds are one of the founding fathers of the local - and for that matter national - trend for small, sought-after breweries. Unable to visit, I was excited to find some of their bottles in a small shop near Humboldt Park. They too make intense IPAs complete with eye-catching labels and high alcohol but Deesko stood out as a little different: a white beer that had tart citrus aromas and a smoky intensity.

It's the nature of the craft beer scene that much of the best beer is only available locally. So if you're in the Chicago area check out these breweries, they certainly are a welcome alternative to Miller Lite.

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.


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; ✪✪✪✪✪).


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. (✪✪✪✪)


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.


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; ✪✪✪✪✪)