Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A Year in the US

It's now a year since I flew into the US. A lot has happened in that time: I've got married, gained my green card, and started working. I've tasted several hundred California wines and partially finished in San Francisco the WSET Diploma I started in Manchester. And day-to-day I've lived the American life that I'd only briefly witnessed on holidays and TV. Here are some cultural observations on the US, and maybe how the US has changed me.

view from the Mayacamas mountains towards San Francisco

tipping


Getting used to tipping no matter what the service - though it's usually good - took some getting used to. Buy a beer and tip a dollar, even if you've been waiting five minutes and the glass isn't full. Go to a restaurant and all of a sudden the expensive meal becomes very, very expensive when you add a gratuity - again, regardless of whether the food was good or arrived on time.

After a month or so, it became second nature to me, adding on the 20% without even thinking about it. And now I find myself complaining about not being tipped. I'm working in a tasting room, where I serve five pours of wine, talk extensively about wine and the weather, and look after each set of customers for around 45 minutes. And receive next to no tips. This has always been my problem with tipping culture: in certain situations you are supposed to tip (bars, restaurants, the hairdresser, taxis) and so you do; in others, there is no expectation to tip, and so you don't. Somehow I need to integrate the concept of automatic tipping into tasting room culture.

wine and regulations


Tasting rooms are unlike most found in Europe. They range in style - some are big and ostentatious, others are small and intimate, designed to reflect the ethos of the winery. Especially in the Napa Valley, tour buses and limousines pour into tasting rooms, depositing drunken groups of visitors eager to spend lots of money.

every winery has a dog
This is part of a very different wine culture. For a start, it's still young, to a certain degree recovering from Prohibition. Many drinkers like their wines sweet (even reds); others claim to abhor sweetness in their wines and complain about dry wines being sweet. Understanding of wine is very much varietal driven which results in a lot of resolute prejudice - "I don't like Chardonnay. It's too sweet."

Regulations are another hangover from Prohibition. A winery cannot serve food unless the customer buys wine with it: a concept I kind of like. Wine, such an integral part of the California economy, cannot be shipped to many other states because those states (Kentucky, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennyslvania) don't want their people drinking too much booze. That's right, Louisiana, home of New Orleans, won't allow wine to be sent directly to people's homes.

driving


The US has one particular rule that makes driving a nightmare: you can both undertake and overtake cars. In theory, this opens up the road and makes passing slower cars easier. In practice, it leads to drivers hogging one lane because they're too scared to change lanes. And this often means four cars all lined up next to one another going the exact same speed. Roundabouts are scarce. Instead, there are stop signs at every junction at which every driver has to halt even if there isn't a car in sight. Outside a major city such as San Francisco, public transport is virtually non-existent. With this dependency on the car and rules which directly clog up traffic, driving in California is slow, often stop-start, even outside rush hour. It's the one negative aspect of living in this warm, sunny, wine-soaked state.

San Francisco


I've lived in some interesting cities - cocky Manchester, dirty Dublin, and mad Madrid - but my visits to San Francisco have revealed a city quite like no other. It's unforgettably beautiful, surrounded by water and mountains, rising on its own small peninsula. It's vibrant, each block revealing its own character, bars and restaurants driven by youthful enthusiasm. There are established, well-to-do areas and edgy quarters still emerging from industry and neglect. On one visit, a taxi driver described it to me as "beautiful but dysfunctional," which is very accurate. The city is full of roadworks and construction, trying and failing to keep pace with a constantly growing population, bringing traffic to a regular standstill. Rent prices are impossibly high, and commuters sit in rush hour traffic around the city for hours on end. For all its attractions, I'm not sure I could live in San Francisco.

the wine itself...


Napa Valley wine is uniformly expensive and uniformly Cabernet Sauvignon. There are some extremely good wineries in Napa, but I wish there were more variety and more affordable wines available. Land in Napa is so expensive, though, that it's difficult to make wine without having to charge high prices - which is why everyone sticks to Cabernet because that's what customers will pay money for.

The price of wine is not only a Napa problem. California wine is either dirt cheap or expensive. Far too few wines offer truly good value for money. Here in California, that doesn't matter too much as people are willing and able to pay, but if California is to compete on the global stage with Chile, Argentina, South Africa, or Australia it has to produce more competitively priced wines.

Outside Napa, there's wonderful variety. Name a grape and someone somewhere makes a varietal wine out of it. Sonoma produces everything from Pinot to Zinfandel, with obscure French and Italian varieties in between. Paso Robles has exceptional Rhône blends. Santa Barbara and around is known for Pinot and Chardonnay, but has perhaps the greatest potential in California for Syrah. And then there are the hippies in the Sierra foothills, sometimes - whether deliberately or accidentally - producing great wine at decent prices.

...and other drinks


I'd argue that California is still behind the rest of the States in its craft distilleries - although in Germain-Robin they have the original and best, producing brandies from cool, wild Mendocino as good as the greatest Cognacs. I am surrounded by great breweries, all producing very drinkable, hoppy IPAs as well as their own distinctive creations: Bear Republic in Healdsburg, Lagunitass in Petaluma, Sierra Nevada in Chico, and, best of all, Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, as well as a host of up-and-coming microbreweries. It's a good time for a beer drinker to be in California.

boo to the metric system


I've become so accustomed to fiercely dry, hoppy IPAs that on a brief trip back to the UK the malty bitters I'd been drinking all my life were quite a shock to the system. Other aspects of American life I've found more difficult to become accustomed to. The US is the only country I've ever visited which defiantly avoids the logical metric system: recipes call for cups and ounces; temperatures are only given in fahrenheit; the twenty-four hour clock is never used; and an American pint is smaller than a British pint, one unit of imperial measurement I am familiar with.

Californians talk about the weather a lot, even though every sunny, warm day is the same as the last. A life of sunshine and no rain - now that's something I've begun to take for granted.




Sunday, 12 July 2015

Behind the Mind of Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen


­
In May, @kt_canfield and I met Jim Clendenen, one of the most charismatic and influential winemakers in California. Here's the account of our lunch with him.
 
Meeting with Jim Clendenen, “the mind behind” Santa Maria’s acclaimed Au Bon Climat, would be a difficult feat for any journalist hoping to come out with a clear argument to their story. This lack of clarity, however, only reinforces how integral Clendenen’s work is for California wine, still just a teenager in search of its place in the global industry.

California Pinot Noir is emerging as a serious wine category, particularly in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, so it was enlightening to meet one of the original architects. Clendenen, who made his first vintage in 1982, is based in Santa Maria Valley and his iconoclastic and individual wines are standard bearers for California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


Katie Canfield meets Jim Clendenen

Clendenen wasn’t always considered so mainstream. Like many of the old guard of California wine – think Frog’s Leap in Napa – his wines were not especially fashionable in the 1990s and early 2000s: not brash, fruity, or alcoholic enough. “The concept of 16% wines is one I never understood,” Clendenen exclaims. “Are you so stupid with your palate that you’re paying $300 for wines from Napa that are undrinkable? … Do you want to fight with your wife every night?”
 

The global reputation of California wine has for many years been based largely on Napa Valley, which has succeeded in producing collectable wines at sky-high prices. “Some of the most disappointed people as they get older are collectors of [Napa wine],” Clendenen counters, as they realize that the $50 bottles of wine they had purchased before the 2008 crash were better and more drinkable than the $350 bottles they had bought to collect. 

The question posed in recent trade discourse has been whether or not California wine is changing, evolving into something more restrained and food friendly – and if this trend is just a passing fad or truly an evolution. If so, many California wineries are well placed to take advantage of these new attitudes toward food and wine.
Clendenen preparing lunch at his winery

“Food and wine pairing in America has simultaneously gotten more informed and more complicated,” Clendenen says. “Wine and food pairing is a slam dunk. If you’ve got food and you’ve got wine, that’s already good. If you’re drinking wine as a cocktail, that’s already bad. That was America in the ’70s and ’80s. The bigger, the more opulent, the more single, stand-alone statement the wine got, the more delicious it was.” For Clendenen, wine and food are ideally suited counterparts, an idea augmented by the home-cooked meals that he serves regularly to his staff, alongside a line-up of new and older vintages of the wines.
 

Part of Au Bon Climat’s reputation has been gained by their presence in restaurants across the US. Clendenen has long made house wines for many of the restaurants he supplies. This is also helping make Clendenen’s wines fashionable once again, even if he isn’t doing anything differently from what he has always done. His food-friendly wines link into the US’s sommelier-led wine culture, and are readily available on wine lists suddenly short of Burgundy.
 

Although Clendenen has a tremendous respect for others in the wine industry, he does not mince his opinions. “Oregon is the most confused place on the planet,” he claims. “The whackier you plant, the less chance you have of making any money. There are limits to profitability because of yields.” He does see Oregon providing competition to California in that the state is attracting elite French winemakers, especially due to the recent “nightmare” vintages in Burgundy: “What they don’t realize is that Oregon is always a nightmare.”
 

Burgundy itself presents an opportunity of a different sort. The 2013 vintage in Burgundy looked good “until greatness was snatched away at the last minute.” As a result of three consecutively difficult vintages, consumers have had to turn elsewhere and established producers such as Au Bon Climat are well placed to take advantage. “I believe that Burgundy and I peacefully co-exist. With yields so low there right now it’s a huge opportunity, but only because I’ve been doing it for thirty-three years.” 

Much of what Clendenen says applies to the winemaking scene throughout California. Brian Mast, of San Francisco’s Wait-Mast Cellars, also believes that, “I don't feel like we're competing with Burgundy, for example when we're trying to get our wines on a list at a nice restaurant. I think it is a little more compartmentalized, where some lists will have a mix of Burgundies and domestic Pinot Noir.” It is the vibrant food scene that will draw consumers to these wines “as winemaking and consumer tastes are starting to lean towards more balanced, food-friendly wines.” 

The dynamic of US wine culture is changing. With Jim Clendenen’s long experience making world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, smaller-scale producers in California can follow his lead to put the regions in the global spotlight.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Red, White, and Blue Bubbles

This weekend was my first ever 4 July celebration, bringing to life Bruce Springsteen songs and Tom Cruise movies. During the day I received many comments, sometimes amusing, on how it must be for a Brit to be in the US. As most of my family are Irish I don't really care, but I still enjoyed making fun of the Americans having to rely on the French to be free of the British.

I spent the evening of 4 July at my wife's family home in Chico watching a spectacular firework display, followed the next day by a tasting competition between a Champagne and a California sparkling. A couple of days later I tasted an English sparkling wine, all of which made for a red, white, and blue stand-off.


California


The wine was Schramsberg's 2011 Brut Rosé, a blend of Pinot Noir (61%) and Chardonnay (39%). Schramsberg have successfully carved out a niche for themselves as California's premier indigenous sparkling wine producer, challenged only by Iron Horse and J Vineyards (sadly recently bought out by Gallo). They make their wine in one of the hottest parts of Napa Valley - site of Jacob Schram's winery, one of Napa's earliest - but source their grapes from northern California's coolest regions, Carneros, Sonoma Coast, and Mendocino. Despite those cooler climates, the wines are most definitely Californian: fruit forward with a much lower acidity than a region such as Champagne.

Schramsberg have been making sparkling wine since the mid-1960s - their 1969 Blanc de Blancs was served at the Nixon-Mao summit in 1972 - but there's still a long way to go before their wines match those of Champagne. That balance of acidity, sugar, fruits, and autolytic aromas is a unique combination that is very difficult to find in California. So it was with the Brut Rosé: an onion skin colour, a full, yeasty nose with aromas of strawberries, and a sweetness on the palate that the acidity could not counter. ✪✪✪

France


What distinguishes Champagne from every other sparkling wine is acidity: this is such a cool region that acidity is just as about as high as it could be. Most, though not all, Champagne houses put their wine through malolactic fermentation to soften that acidity, though even then it's still often noticeably bracing. Gosset, however, are a producer who do not do any favours for the drinkers' palate: their wines are made without any malolactic fermentation whatsoever.

The Gosset wine we tasted was the Grand Rosé Brut ($85; 58% Chardonnay, 42% Pinot Noir, 8% red wine) and I was expecting to be overwhelmed by the acidity. That acidity was a key characteristic of the wine, but it was wonderfully integrated with the sweetness (9 g/L of residual sugar), the red fruit aromas, and the light autolytic aromas. This really was Champagne at its integrated, elegant best. As expensive as it is, California really didn't stand a chance. ✪✪✪✪✪

England


And then came along the English, as they often do. The English inadvertently invented Champagne by making it bubbly, but the very recent movement of English sparkling wine was led by two Americans, Stuart and Sandy Moss, who in 1996 founded Nyetimber, whose 2003 Classic Cuvée won best sparkling wine in the world in 2009. Nyetimber's success revolutionised the tiny English wine industry; whereas plantings had previously been dominated by hybrids and German clones, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are now the two most planted grapes. There are many things set in place for England to produce quality bubbles, with the soils the same as Champagne's and a climate getting gradually warmer. The main disadvantage is that making wine is very expensive, and there's a great deal of vintage variation.

The main attribute of English sparkling wine is that acidity is even higher than in Champagne: these are wines that benefit from some sweetness, which is currently unfashionable. Balance that acidity and English sparkling wine could be as great as any in the world.

The wine we tasted was Gusbourne's Brut Reserve 2008 ($30; 36% Chardonnay, 37% Pinot Noir, 27% Meunier). Unlike the Gosset, the wine has undergone full malolactic fermentation, giving a pleasant creaminess to the wine and ensuring a balanced acidity - residual sugar is 10g/L. This was a yeasty, brioche wine, not as subtle as Gosset, but with very attractive mature aromas of bruised apples. ✪✪✪✪

By dad has a saying: the French are arrogant, but they have a lot to be arrogant about. Gosset were founded in the 1500s, and although Champagne has changed greatly over the last four hundred years, the region still produces the world's best sparkling wine.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc is one of the least understood of the major French grapes. It comes in a variety of styles - sparkling, rosé, light and young, serious and oaky - and is grown in both cool and  moderate climates. It takes on the green, herbaceous aromas that producers often don't like in the other, more famous Cabernet, Sauvignon. Its fruits are redder and generally lighter, and it's often used as a small part in a blend, which can make it easy to dismiss. Single-varietal versions appeal more to wine geeks who like to argue about how best to pronounce Bourgueil than to the general consumer who takes one look at the word Bourgueil and moves on. Nevertheless, its herbaceous expressiveness makes single-varietal examples remarkably distinctive and unpredictable.

where it's grown


Cabernet Franc's home is Bordeaux, where it's also called Bouchy and where at some point it mated with Sauvignon Blanc to produce Cabernet Sauvignon. There, Cabernet Franc is generally used as a blending grape (Cheval Blanc, one of the world's most prestigious wines, is a notable exception). In the wines of St-Emilion, Pomerol, and around, it replaces Cabernet Sauvignon as it's a more reliable ripener, giving aromas of red fruits, tannins, and pencil shavings to contrast Merlot's lush fruit. It's these wines that producers around the world try to emulate, rather than the more difficult, green wines of the Loire.

Under the instructions of Cardinal Richelieu in the seventeenth century, the variety was planted in the Loire (by an Abbé Breton, which is still a local synonym). It's grown in Anjou-Saumur and Touraine to make rosés, sparkling wines, and reds. The best rosés are Cabernet d'Anjou, medium sweet but with high acidity. Cabernet Franc is one of the grapes allowed in Crémant de Loire and is the main grape for Saumur's pink sparkling wines - again, the grape's naturally high acidity in the cool climate proves ideal.



cellars dug out of tuffeau
In Bourgueil and neighbouring St-Nicholas-de-Bourgeuil (the Loire has so many appellations it's hard to keep track of them), the red wines are medium bodied, perfumed with red fruits and gripping tannins; St-Nicholas wines are softer and more fragrant than the surprisingly tannic wines from the chalky, tuffeau soils of Bourgueil. These can be exceptionally beautiful wines, as concentrated as red wine can get in a climate as cool as the Loire's. Chinon is just to the south of these two appellations. Near the river, the sandy soils produce elegant, light-bodied wines similar to St-Nicholas, while on the limestone hills the wines are fuller bodied and longer lived. Anjou-Villages is another appellation for intense reds, while Saumur Rouge wines are lighter bodied and fruitier.


wines


Domaine du Bel Air Clos Nouveau Bourgueil 2009 ($40)

A very good example of Cabernet Franc as it matures, with a pleasingly dirty nose of game, leather, mushrooms, figs, and prunes. The wine is still fresh, however, with strawberries and firm, gripping tannins. ✪✪✪✪✪

Russiz Superiore Collio 2012 ($30)

French grapes are grown throughout northern Italy; Cabernet Franc is grown in Fruili near the Slovenian border where the wines, with cooling breezes from the Adriatic and the Alps, resemble the Loire. This wine is a good example of Cabernet Franc, but certainly exaggerates its green, underripe qualities. It's perfumed, floral, with red fruits (cranberry, redcurrant), and soft but gripping tannins. ✪✪✪✪

Pulenta Gran Cabernet Franc Mendoza (Luján de Cuyo) 2011 ($42)

From the heights of Luján de Cuyo (around 1,000m above sea level), this may be the greenest red wine I have ever tasted, and gives a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc a run for its money in its vegetal aromas: green beans, peas, and asparagus are aromas I generally associate with Sauvignon Blanc. Tasting a wine like this, it's no wonder that the two grapes got it on. The wine is like a cooked vegetable salad, not something I'm entirely sure I want in a wine. ✪✪✪

Lang & Reed Two-Fourteen Napa Valley 2012 ($48)

Once again, the most expensive wine on the list is from a Napa producer. It's a very well made wine: red fruit, floral, perfumed, and herbaceous. On the palate, there are firm, gripping tannins, rich and luscious. Very Napa. ✪✪✪✪

Easton Monarch Mine Vineyard Sierra Foothills 2012 ($23)

Cabernet Franc certainly encourages the winemaker to do their own thing. I really like the potential of Sierra Foothills, which is three hours' drive inland from Napa, as it has the altitude to create a cool enough climate in an otherwise very hot region. With winemakers' hippy-laden tendencies, it's also far removed from Napa. This wine goes a bit too far though, with a stinky nose of caramel and sweet coffee, followed by a palate of smoke, coffee, and caramel. ✪✪✪

Savage Grace Cabernet Franc Rattlesnake Hills 2014 ($22)

From Washington, a wine that has a Beaujolais feel that's also characteristic of Chinon: a green bubblegum nose that gives way to herbaceous aromas, with sweet spices, firm but light tannins, bananas and rhubarbs, and red fruits (strawberries, raspberries). It's almost like a white, red, and rosé combined. Deliberately underripe, young, and very Cabernet Franc: this may just get better in the bottle. Astonishing that this is 2014, a vintage only just passed. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Owen Roe Rosa Mystica 2010 ($32)

A very different expression of Washington Cabernet Franc: richer, oakier, fruitier, and riper. This could feel too full, but the tannins are soft and forgiving and the acidity lifts the wine. ✪✪✪✪✪

Hermanuspietersfontein Swartskaap 2010 ($25)

With a name like that, this wine can only be South African. The winery is located in the cool coastal climate of Walker Bay. This proximity to the ocean produces a serious wine with drying tannins and restrained red fruits without being too green. ✪✪✪✪✪

One thing these wines have in common is price: all between $20 and $50, they represent good value for money. Many of them also demonstrate Cabernet Franc's green, herbaceous character, although not all of them do so successfully by integrating it with the red fruits and firm tannins. Perhaps this is why Cabernet Franc has generally formed part of blends - it takes real mastery of the grape to make balanced, high quality single-varietal versions. However, when the winemaker has that mastery, individual wines expressive of their place result.


Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Longest Day: WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam

The ideal way to approach an exam is to be relaxed, calm, and focused. So I set off at 6:45 to make the hour-long journey from Napa to San Francisco for the day's tasting and theory exams. The plan was to do a quick tasting with my study group before the exam to get into the right frame of mind. I knew there'd be traffic but I did not factor in rain. The slightest drizzle brings the Bay Area to a halt. Yes, there's a drought in California, yes, rain is unusual here, but believe me Cali folk it is safe to drive faster than 20mph in light rain. Crawling along the freeway, the 50-mile journey took 2 hours 45 minutes. I stumbled, sweating, shaking, and just about ready to cry, into the exam room at 9:30, the very minute it was scheduled to start.

Thankfully, our tutor Adam Chase had delayed the start and I hadn't missed an exam I'd spent over a year preparing for. There was even time for a member of my study group to give me a taste of a Vouvray - never has Chenin Blanc tasted so good. And it proved that a quick sip of a refreshing, dry white wine is a great way to prepare the palate for an intensive tasting. 

the tasting 

Twelve wines, organised into four flights of three. We were given an hour to taste the first six wines, followed by a ten-minute break and then the final six wines. 

flight 1

Each flight had a different theme. The first flight was three white wines, all the same variety. As with all the wines, we had to write a tasting note, assess the quality, and state its readiness for drinking and its ageing potential. We also had to say which country and region each wine was from, before concluding at the end of the flight which grape variety the wines were made from, giving reasons for our conclusion. The wines were quite clearly Chardonnay; working out which region each wine was from was more difficult as Chardonnay is made in such an international style.

William Fèvre Chablis 2013

I got some oak on this wine, so although I said it was from Burgundy I didn't think Chablis - but Fèvre have been using more oak in their wines in recent years. It would have been nice if the WSET had chosen a more typical example of Chablis.

Hardys HRB D652 Chardonnay 2011 (Australia)

An oak bomb that could have come from any warm climate region: I guessed California.

Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay 2012 (California)

From one of my favourite producers, the Wild Boy is only available in the UK. As this exam is taken all around the world, choosing wines that are distributed in different countries may help. I guessed the wine was from Chile, as I'd already gone for California for the previous wine.

flight 2

The second flight had one white and two reds: this time we had to say which country/region they were all from, as well as deciding which grape variety each wine was made from, again giving reasons. I actually got all three grapes, but changed my mind on the first wine at the last minute as I was confused trying to think of a country that makes sweetish Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet blends. I could only think that the wines were from France, so at the last second crossed out Riesling and wrote Chenin Blanc - forgetting that New Zealand produces forgettably small amounts of medium-dry/sweet Riesling.

Te Kairanga Martinborough Riesling 2011

Medium-dry and rather shallow, yet with lime aromas characteristic of Riesling. Should have stuck with my instincts.

Yealands Estate Reserve Central Otago Pinot Noir 2013

This was a good Pinot Noir, though rather too full-bodied and fruity - factors which should have led me away from Burgundy.

Villa Maria Reserve Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2010 

Balanced and integrated, this was a really good example of a Cabernet Sauvignon from a moderate climate. It was slightly herbaceous, with green, minty aromas which made me think of Bordeaux.

I finished one minute before the time was up: 6 wines in 60 minutes leaves very little time for reflection. Instead, it's a case of constantly writing while simultaneously trying to assess the quality, identity, and connection between each wines. The one good thing about this is that, right or wrong, you just have to move on.

flight 4

For the next set of six wines, I decided to do the fourth flight first as it featured two whites and a red. This was a mixed selection of wines we had studied, with no link connecting them. As well as assessing the quality, we had to state the grape variety/ies and the region the wine came from.

Baumard Carte d'Or Coteaux du Layon 2013

I figured out this was a really sweet wine, so my tasting notes should be quite accurate. I concluded, however, that this was a Riesling from Rheingau rather than Chenin Blanc from the Loire: once again I got my Riesling and Chenin Blanc mixed up. If only the Chenin Blanc I'd quickly tasted in the morning had been sweet rather than dry. This was the only wine of the twelve which I rated outstanding.

Fillaboa Albariño (WSET haven't released the vintage)

This was a beautifully aromatic wine, grapey with ripe stone fruits, but with a really dry, mineral palate. Albariño didn't cross my mind though - the nose was so grapey that I went for Muscat from Alsace.

Trapiche Gran Medalla Malbec 2011 

I went out on a limb with this wine and called it a Recioto from Valpolicella, as there seemed to be a definite sweetness on both the nose and the palate. I was completely wrong about that.

Failing to get the grape or the region right may seem a disaster, but even though I declared that the Malbec was a sweet red wine I actually think my tasting notes were pretty decent.

flight 3

I then moved back to the third flight, which was wines all from the same region. Strangely, we didn't have to identify that region. Instead, we had to give a detailed assessment of quality - for this section there were 8 points rather than the 4-6 points for the other flights. Having found out the identity of the wines, I'm glad we didn't have to name the region. I was convinced these three wines were from Rioja: the first two wines were oaky, with red and dried fruits, while the third was young and fruity.

Domaine le Couroulu Vacqueyras Cuvée Classique 2011

The nose and palate of this wine were so mature and developed that I instantly concluded that it was a Gran Reserva, and one that was ten years old at that. It was quite a beautiful wine albeit losing some of its freshness, and I was very surprised to learn it was less than five years old. Because I thought it was so much older, this is one wine from the exam I will have lost quite a few marks on.

Val de Garrigue Cuvée du Pape Jean XX Vielles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012

I thought this was a modern Reserva; as it's been aged in oak for 12 months, I at least got the ageing right. This had really nice red fruits, but didn't seem quite balanced - maybe a bit too young still.

Les Galets Côtes du Rhône 2012

Young, fruity, and nondescript, this completed the trio of basic appellation, good appellation, and top appellation.

I came out of the tasting exam already exhausted but content that I'd done enough to pass. Although I'd misidentified some of the wines, I felt my tasting notes were accurate enough - which is what I think wine tasting should be about. Put simply, all I want to know when I taste a wine is, What does it taste like? and Is it good? 

the theory 

After a near three-hour drive and a two-hour tasting exam, the last thing I wanted to do was a three-hour theory paper. But did it I did. 

I was expecting some obscure questions designed to torment us, but all of them were fair enough. I still made some basic errors which I'm annoyed about but there's no changing anything now. Here, paraphrased, are the five questions I answered, followed by the two I avoided.

Account for the differences in the style, quality, and price between the following appellations:
a) Pauillac b) Barsac c) Entre-deux-Mers
This was the complusory question, the one everybody was dreading in case it asked something we knew nothing about. This was a very approachable question, though: very high-end red AC from Haut-Médoc; sweet white from next to Sauternes; and basic dry white from the biggest producing area in Bordeaux. (If I had been answering this question in Manchester, where I started studying for the Diploma, I would have had to answer on Pomerol instead of Pauillac. The questions vary slightly for Asian, European, and American papers.)

"Riesling can claim to be the world's finest white grape variety." Why is this the case (60%)? Why is Riesling unfashionable in some markets? (40%)
This was another question you could really get your teeth stuck into.

Describe the red wines of the south of France from:
a) IGP/Vin de Pays b) Corbières c) Bandol
I engaged in a bit of bluster for this one, but hopefully I threw in some accurate information along the way. My answer for Bandol can be summed up as, The red wines are really, really good - which I think is impossible to dispute.

Discuss the climate and choice of grape variety in five of the following regions:
a) Aconcagua b) Clare Valley c) Okanagan Valley d) Central Otago e) Salta f) Central Valley USA
This is the answer I am least confident about, with a lot of repetition (particularly the phrase diurnal temperature varitation). I also got confused about Salta, saying Chardonnay was grown there instead of Torrontés. That really annoys me, because I knew that and I lost some easy points. The region I avoided was Canada's Okanagan Valley: I could describe the climate (cold winters, very hot summers, arid conditions) but couldn't remember which grape varieties are grown there. Wines from Okanagan are not ones I encounter every day. (On the European paper, Coonawarra and Lodi were asked about instead of Salta and Central Valley.)

Write about three of the following grape varieties:
a) Assyrtiko b) Savatiano c) Agiorgitiko d) Xinomavro (60%)
What are the challenges facing the Greek wine industry when selling the wines abroad? (40%)
I was able to cover most relevant points regarding Assyrtiko, remembered that Savatiano is the main grape in Retsina, and wrote down some information about Agiorgitiko, some of which was accurate. I could still be writing about the challenges facing the Greek wine industry. 

Describe the following wines and discuss how factors in the vineyard and winery determine their character: premium Stellenbosch Pinotage and bulk Worcester Chenin Blanc. (70%) What advantages and disadvantages might producers of these wines face in the market place? (30%)
There's only one wine I would rather less write about than Pinotage: bulk Chenin Blanc.

With reference to the wines of Italy, write about five of the following:
a) Gaja b) Dolcetto c) Teroldego d) Bianco di Custoza e) Collio (Collio Goriziano) f) Gattinara
Going into the exam, I felt quite confident about Italy. I took one look at these options, however, and moved on to Greece. (The options on the European paper were very different and, apart from Valtellina, I would have felt more confident answering them: Gaja, Teroldego, Arneis, Bardolino, Colli Orientali, and Valtellina.)


This was as tough a day as expected: the range of wines and theory questions covers just about every area imaginable. It requires not just factual knowledge, but interpretation of that knowledge. It also demands five hours of writing by hand, something I haven't done since my school days. Although I hope I've passed both papers, I feel - as I did after taking my spirits and sparkling wine exams - that I'm now better prepared to take them than I was going in. Whatever the outcome, there's always more to learn about wine, but for the time being I can go back to studying and tasting (drinking) wine for my own pleasure rather than for an exam.

After all that, there was still the drive back to Napa. Seeing the traffic going on to the Bay Bridge I pulled over for a much-needed nap. Waking up, the traffic was still there, so I went for a much-needed beer. After that, I still found myself in stand still traffic for half an hour before it finally eased up. I got back home at 9pm, a long 15 hours after I'd left, and poured myself a much, much-needed tequila.