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.


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. 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Cabernet Sauvignon

Next week is D-Day: I take the Unit 3 exam for the WSET Diploma. This unit is called "Wines of the World," which encompasses just about every wine region you've heard of and plenty you haven't. From Israel to Itata, Greece to Geelong, Chinon to Cafayate, I need to know something about everything. It's going to be a long day: two hours blind tasting four flights of three wines followed by three hours writing five essays.

For all the areas covered though, there are some basics that are likely to come up in the exam in some form. So for our last meeting, our study group tasted five Cabernet Sauvignons from major regions around the world: Bordeaux, California, South Africa, Western Australia, and Chile.

It was a fascinating tasting, revealing why winemakers around the world are so drawn to this grape. Each wine in its different way represented its region, with a surprising variety of flavours and styles for a grape that can sometimes be produced in a homeogeneous way.

the grape

In France, Cabernet Sauvignon is the backbone for some of its greatest wines in Bordeaux. There, however, it is usually blended with other Bordeaux grapes, particularly Merlot (for its ripe fruits and soft tannins), as well as Cabernet Franc (for its red fruit aromas) and Petit Verdot (in warm vintages adding black fruits and deep colour). Following Bordeaux's lead, I generally believe that Cabernet is at its best in a blend: its big tannins, which come from its thick skins, and its concentrated blackcurrant aromas need to be softened. There's also a practicality to blending in Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon ripens late and not always reliably in Bordeaux's moderate maritime climate, so the other grapes are planted as a back up.

In warmer regions around the world, ripening Cabernet successfully is not a problem. This makes blending less of an imperative, though I feel it still adds quality to the wine. The commercial importance of varietal labelling pressurises winemakers not to blend - but, as in most regions a varietal wine need only be 85% of that variety (75% in California), there's still room for experimentation.

the regions

Cabernet is now grown pretty much anywhere it's warm enough for it to ripen. Even cool areas such as the Loire and Germany (albeit only 353ha) see it planted. It led the rise of Bulgarian wine in the 1980s, the international rise of Napa, and the trend for high-quality, expensive superTuscans: it's this versatility that makes the grape so attractive to growers and producers. There are many other grapes varieties I prefer but there are few that adapt to so many different areas.

the wines

Kathryn Hall Napa Valley 2009 (c.$55)

This was quite a beautiful example of Cabernet Sauvignon, showcasing the appeal but also the frustration of Napa. Ripe, black fruits, smoky oak, dried fruits of prunes and currants, and an earthy, leathery maturity, this wine is ageing well. However, not unusually for Napa, alcohol is a colossal 15.8% and it was the most expensive wine we tasted. It's impressive that such a high alcohol wine can have so much finesse but that level of alcohol is avoidable. ✪✪✪✪✪

John X Merriman Rustenberg Stellenbosch 2011 ($30)

When underripe, Cabernet Sauvignon can have noticeably green, herbaceous aromas. I quite like them, as long as they don't dominate, but I have met Napa producers who see that greenness as a sign of failure. This South African wine embraces that underripe greenness, with a very herbaceous nose, but engages in quite a bit of blending to counter it: 55% Cabernet, 37% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Malbec. The cool climate is also reflected in the incredibly dry, dusty tannins. South Africa prides itself in being more Old World than New World and this wine demonstrates that sensibility. However, I would have liked to have seen riper fruits to break through the big, drying tannins. ✪✪✪✪

Cape Mentelle Margaret River 2011 (c.$45)

From the winery in Western Australia that created New Zealand's Cloudy Bay, this wine felt a little weak after the first two wines. It was, however, characteristic of Western Australia, with aromas of mint and eucalyptus apparent over the black fruits. Alcohol was lower than the first two wines at 13.5%, making it more balanced. Overall, however, the wine lacked complexity and concentration. ✪✪✪✪

Black Box Central Valley Chile 2013 ($20)

Wine in a box certainly has its place and $20 for the equivalent of four bottles is a deal. Working out at $5 a bottle, though, means that quality is compromised. A very bitter, green, stalky nose with chocolate, cola, currants, and cherries gives lots of aromas, but not all of them are pleasant. If I were at party drinking this boxed wine, I'd be happy enough. Although Jancis Robinson says there is a revolution in the quality of Chilean wine, I'm still looking forward to tasting it. ✪✪✪ 

Château Beauregard-Ducourt Bordeaux AC 2010 (c.$15)

And we finished with Bordeaux, the spiritual home of Cabernet. I find Bordeaux either too expensive to know what it tastes like or too cheap to want to taste it. This fell into the latter category. The nose was pleasant enough with raspberries and blackcurrants, lavender and roses, with some smoky, clove-like oakiness, but the palate was dominated by acidity and tannins which just weren't in balance. ✪✪✪

The finest wine of the five was from Napa, but it was also the most expensive and the one most likely to lead to domestic violence. South Africa provided the best value for the quality, and tasted more Bordeaux than the Bordeaux itself. The wine also provided the advantage of being blended with other grapes bringing their own moderating qualities: the wine may have been undrinkable if it had been 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. I think there's a lesson in that.

Thursday, 28 May 2015


When I started drinking wine, I had a European sensibility: place names meant more to me than grape varieties. I didn't know which grapes went into Châteauneuf-du-Pape, St-Emilion, or Rioja, but I knew those wines. That was the 1990s and times have changed: now drinkers, including myself, want to know the precise percentage of each grape variety in a blend or buy wines solely on the variety.

On a trip through south-west France several years ago, I passed through Cahors. It's a pretty, relaxed town situated next to the Lot river, with one of the most famous bridges in France. The land is rugged and off-beat, south of the Dordogne on the way to nowhere, quietly doing its own thing as much of France does. I was stuck for something to eat and dared to walk into a dingy bar that had a surprisingly good menu advertised outside. Asking to eat, the barman gestured me to the back past some beaded curtains. I warily stepped through them into an large, tastefully decorated restaurant. Satisfied that the meal was going to be as good as advertised outside the bar, I ordered a local wine and fell in love with it, determined always to drink Cahors whenever I found it in the future. The fruits were black, the oak grainy, the supple yet appealingly rustic texture inviting another sip.

I had no idea the wine was from Malbec, a grape I only heard of later in the context of Argentina. The wine spoke of its place - warm, rural, and timeless - not solely of its grape. Yet everyone now knows the name Malbec, and if anyone knows the place Cahors it is because of Malbec - even though in Cahors it's actually called Auxerrois.

Malbec in France

Malbec was little known until its sudden Argentinian emergence because it never succeeded in France outside of Cahors. It is a Bordeaux grape, but conditions in the moderate maritime climate are difficult: it's susceptible to spring frost and it ripens late and not always successfully. In 1956, spring frost killed off the Malbec vines in both Bordeaux and Cahors. Bordeaux growers simply did not bother replanting, Merlot replacing it as the preferred blending grape (and plantings of Malbec had long been in decline anyway). Now only the Côtes de Blaye consistently adds Malbec to blends. Cahors growers, however, decided to stick with Malbec and replanted it, rewarded with appellation status in 1970, still the only AC in France dedicated to the grape.

Malbec is also grown in the Loire Valley, where it's often called Côt. The wines in this cooler climate are much lighter, with more red fruits than black, and not dissimilar to the Gamay also grown in the region.

Malbec in Argentina

In the late 1980s, the Argentinian economy stabilised for the first time since before the Great Crash of 1929. Up to that point, the wine industry had been focused entirely on the cheap domestic market in a country that had record levels of consumption - 100 litres of wine per person a year in the 1970s. Such had been the neglect of quality grapes in Argentina, Malbec had been pulled up throughout the 1980s, reducing plantings from 50,000ha to 10,000ha (it's now back to over 20,000ha). With the recovery of the economy, more ambitious winemakers decided to focus on exports. Malbec, brought into Argentina by French winemakers fleeing the ravages of phylloxera in the mid to late nineteenth century, was the grape that defined the new era of Argentinian wine. 

Since the first plantings in Argentina in the 1550s, the best sites have been identified in the Andean heights above Mendoza. These sites are particularly suited to Malbec because there is no spring frost. Furthermore, the high altitude, with hot days and cool nights, ensures a long growing season which retains the acidity in the grape but enables full ripening. Nowhere else does the ripening of Malbec's sugars and aromas happen so harmoniously - though I do think that Washington state with its day/night temperature variations has great potential.



Buoncristiani Napa Valley Malbec 2012 (c.$60)

Malbec is grown a surprisingly great deal around Napa Valley, though usually as an ingredient in Bordeaux blends. My problem with Napa wines is that although they have varietal character, they all taste too similar: high alcohol, aggressive tannins, and intense fruit and oak aromas.

This wine, a rare single-varietal Napa Malbec, suffers from this problem. Even though the grapes are grown on hillside vineyards, the alcohol is too high (15%) and the acidity not quite high enough. The grapes have ripened fully - Malbec does not have the same problem in Napa that it does in Bordeaux - so there are lots of ripe blackberries and cherries. A great wine to go with steak, but it's impossible to justify the price. ✪✪✪✪

Maryhill Clifton Bluff Vineyard Wahluke Spoke Malbec 2012 ($25)

A defining characteristic of Washington reds is their acidity: the cool nights throughout the growing season keep it refreshingly high. In this wine from Wahluke Slope, that acidity lifts the drying tannins and smoky oak. The hot days, meanwhile, produce fruity wines and there is plenty of ripe blackberry, blueberry, and mulberry - all typical of Malbec. ✪✪✪✪

Perdriel Colección Malbec 2009 ($20)

The best wine of the four, this shows why Mendoza does Malbec so well. Very good value, and with immediate, fun, yet complex aromas of roasted almonds and hazelnuts, cedar and smoke, and chocolate and coffee, with ripe tannins and high alcohol, held together by good acidity. ✪✪✪✪

Leval Malbec 2013 ($9.99) 

I couldn't find a Cahors wine at the last minute, so I had to settle for a Malbec from the Languedoc. This wine was so appalling it's best not to describe it: I've been reluctant to use it even as cooking wine. French wines like this one are not going to compete with Argentinian Malbec. ✪
*If I find a Cahors wine soon, I shall add it to the blog as a more meaningful comparison to Argentina.*

For all the romance of European place names, Malbec is successful because of single-varietal wines from Argentina. And this is where grape and place come together. Mendoza is so ideal for Malbec that the two are now synonymous. Just as Cahors expresses its remote rusticity through its Malbec wines, so too does Mendoza its sense of place: hot days and cold nights, high mountains, and beef steak, all in a bottle of wine.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara
With summer-loving students on their skateboards, surfers riding the waves that roll up to sandy beaches, and the main street lined with tall palm trees, Santa Barbara is as Californian as it gets. The culture is laid-back, self-confident, and independent, keen to assert its differences from the rest of the state even if to the outsider it seems quintessentially Californian.

the area

Santa Barbara is a coastal town about 150km north of Los Angeles and is as far south as quality winemaking gets in California. Santa Ynez Valley AVA is 30 minutes inland and within it is Santa Rita Hills AVA, which is the coolest AVA in California. Winds and fog come from the Pacific Ocean, cooling pocketed microclimates that are ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further north, about an hour and a half from Santa Barbara, is the large Santa Maria Valley AVA which is also cooled by coastal fog and which became famous for its Pinot Noirs in the 1980s. There are lots of vineyards here, but most wineries prefer to base themselves within the more attractive area of Santa Ynez.

Santa Ynez Valley

the towns

I stayed in Solvang, a small tourist town in Santa Ynez Valley and one of the strangest places I've visited. It was founded by Danish settlers over a hundred years ago and now functions as a model Denmark village. There are pizza-selling windmills rising around the town, gift shops pushing Danish embroidery, quasi-Danish pubs and restaurants, and Danish flags blowing in the breeze besides American ones. Danish is not spoken. It's a busy town full of tourists from all over the world; clearly, this Danish-American hybrid holds some fascination that draws people in.

Further south along the coast, Santa Barbara is a university surfing town. The main street is State Street, a long boulevard lined with shops, restaurants, and palm trees, leading to the ocean. Further away from the centre is Isla Vista, the university area known for its party scene, populated with tanned students on skateboards wearing back-to-front baseball hats. I only got to spend a couple of hours in Santa Barbara, but I liked the relaxed, easy, seaside way of life.

the wines

view from Au Bon Climat
The AVAs are renowned for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - Santa Barbara was made famous by Sideways nearly ten years ago. (The Hitching Post, a small, nondescript wooden restaurant featured in the film, is near Solvang.) The Pinots are fruity and oaky, yet with depth, structure, and subtlety. The use of oak in the Chardonnays varies, but they are marked by tropical fruits. Riesling, unusually for California, can also be successful because of Santa Rita Hills's cool climate. Rhône grapes also do well: Syrah is peppery in Santa Rita Hills and fuller and fruitier in the rest of Santa Ynez Valley. The two wineries which define the area are Au Bon Climat and Qupé: the former specialise in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while Qupé are known for their Rhône varieties - their single-varietal Roussanne and Marsanne are unique, ageworthy wines that develop for years in the bottle.

Au Bon Climat

The purpose of my visit to Santa Barbara was for a wedding, but that enabled me to meet Jim Clendenen at his Au Bon Climat winery in Santa Maria Valley - not only that, but to share a lunch cooked by Clendenen himself. 

Clendenen's lunch
Clendenen is a maverick: something of a hippy who since his first vintage in 1982 has built a 70,000-case winery; a brash, up-front individual who makes wine of individual character appreciated in the finest restaurants around the world; passionate about wine and the industry and wonderfully dismissive of big names (off the record of course); and a loving father with two ex-wives.

Au Bon Climat make almost exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The major exception is Hildegard, a wine that demonstrates Clendenen's willingness to challenge preconceived truths. The blend is Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Aligoté, the three grapes that were planted on Corton-Charlemagne, before Burgundy changed the rules to allow only Chardonnay in the Grands Crus. Clendenen wished to name the wine C. Charlemagne, but was advised that was not a good idea, so called it after Charlemagne's wife instead. An historic, world-class tribute to a style of wine that Burgundy refuses to make any more, the Hildegard is one of my favourite wines and I got to try the 2012 and 2006 side by side. The 2006 proved just how ageworthy this elegant but bold wine is, retaining its rich creaminess and acidity while gaining mature nutty notes.

For non-Burgundy wines, Clendenen uses the Clendenen Family Vineyards label. The 2008 Syrah-Viognier is a fruity wine that has a classy, concentrated structure: I was lucky to take an open bottle back with me and it was still drinking wonderfully well two days later. The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding too, fermented and aged in a small amount of new oak: the grape is taken seriously instead of being a New Zealand wannabe.

The lunch was predictably epic, with risotto, chicken stew, vegetables, bread, and salad to choose from, accompanied by 15 wines. The rich Chardonnays worked less well with the heavy food than the Sauvignon Blanc and Qupé's 2011 Roussanne, both of whose light acidity balanced the food. Of the several different Pinots, the Isabelle - named after Jim's daughter - was my favourite with its dark fruits, smoky intensity, and gripping tannins.

view from Riverbench winery, Santa Maria Valley

The AVAs of Santa Barbara are young, with quality wine dating back only to the 1980s. In that time, they have quickly established themselves as producers of world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - though the Rhône grapes deserve more recognition too. It's quite a different area from Napa for instance, cooler in climate but also in sensibility. The producers are quietly learning their trade, aware of their inexperience but unpretentiously and rightly confident in the quality of their wines.