Monday, 18 August 2014

California Sparkling Wine II: Iron Horse and J Vineyards

Part two of my visits to Californian sparkling wineries; unlike Mumm and Gloria Ferrer, the two wineries here are wholly American, yet using the traditional method of production, as in Champagne.

Iron Horse

The setting of Iron House is as spectacular as Schramsberg, but in a more laid-back, friendly way. The winery sits at the top of a long, single-car road full of potholes, with spectacular views over the Russian River Valley. There's a bar where you can taste flights of wine, with very much a beach feel, though with views of waves of vines. Iron Horse's first vintage was 1980; like Schramsberg, it was begun by an ambitious couple who fell in love with the land and, likewise, they have established the winery as one of California's best - one of their wines was served at the 1987 summit between Gorbachev and Reagan.

The wines are also made using the traditional method, with at least three years' ageing. The 2009 Ocean Reserve Extra Brut ($45) is a Blanc de Blancs, with apples, lime, and toast on the nose, green apples on the palate with high acidity, a little sweetness, and a bit of a tart finish. The 2010 Wedding Cuvée ($42) is a rosé originally made for the owners' daughter's wedding, a salmon-coloured wine with a light yeasty toastiness on the nose with redcurrants, red apples, and strawberries; on the palate, there's a bready mousse with red berries and rose petals. Again, the wine is a bit tart on the finish, with the acidity and sweetness not quite balanced. There was no sugar in the dosage of the 2009 Brut X ($50) and it could have done with some sweetness to counter the acidity, but it has autolytic complexity with lightly bruised red apples. The 2009 Classic Vintage Brut ($40) is to all extents and purposes the same wine (apart from the Ocean Reserve all the wines were 74% Pinot Noir), but with residual sugar levels of 7g/L. This is a wine that feels it could mature nicely: toasty red apples on the nose, the slight sweetness balancing the acidity, with a dry bready finish which finishes with spices. The 2009 Russian Cuvée ($40) is named for being served at the 1987 Russian summit and has 11g/L of residual sugar. Bruised red apples and toast on the nose, with a surprisingly dry finish with red apples and lemons.

Iron Horse also produce a series of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, which I did not taste.

J Vineyards

Yet another example of the pioneering Californian spirit: founder Judy Jordan was travelling through France in the 1980s and fell in love with Champagne. She came back determined to make sparkling wine of the same quality and style and, with a little help from her father who owns Rodney Strong next door, she set up J Vineyards, which has gone from producing 6,000 cases from its foundation in 1986 to 145,000 today. 70% of production is sparkling wine, with still wines from Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir being made since 1994; also planted, somewhat surprisingly, is Pinotage. The wines come from fourteen different vineyards, all owned by the winery, seven of which are Pinot Noir, four Chardonnay, and three Pinot Gris, and all in the various Sonoma AVAs.

Once again, the wines were all of high quality. The Rosé Brut NV ($38) is a delicate, but complex wine; a light salmon-orange colour, with a floral nose of rose petals and orange blossom, and pomegranates and redcurrants. Off-dry with subtle autolytic flavours of brioche and scone, finished off with redcurrants and cinnamon. Cuvée 20 ($28), made to celebrate the company's 20th anniversary and now their most popular wine, is very pleasing: sour apples, citrus fruits, and a lightly bready, spicy finish. 2007 J Vintage Brut ($48) has spent five years on its lees and is predominantly from Chardonnay. It shows lovely autolytic, bready, biscuity notes, with green apples and a nutty, dry finish. The most unusual of the wines is the J Bin 1008 NV ($48), which comes from two different riddling bins (each of which holds 504 bottles) and has an eaux-de-vie dosage. With four years on its lees, there are complex autolytic notes of apple strudel and pastry, with a yeasty finish. Despite this complexity and structure, the wine is immediate and fun. The most complex, and also the driest, of the wines I tasted was the J Cuvée XB NV ($45), particularly on the nose: crème brûlée, baked apples, and toast, with dried fruits that make the wine smell sweeter than it is. On the palate, the flavours are a bit simpler and not as engaging, which I felt came from the dryness of the wine, which meant that the high acidity dominated; still toasty and honied though.

My visit ended with a most unusual wine: Ratafia ($45), a sweet wine made from a combination of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Meunier, and Vioginer, and fortified with eaux-de-vie from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel from the Germain-Robin distillery. Almost like a rich, sweet sherry, but without the long ageing, with hazelnuts and chestnuts, and a toasty, oaky, spicy palate. Nothing to do with sparkling wine, but another example of the willingness of Californian winemakers to experiment.


There are a couple of wineries which I did not get to visit: Domaine Carneros, who are owned by Taittinger (and which I did visit back way back in 2001), and Korbel, a mass-market producer who still insist on labelling their wines as Champagne. Of those I did visit, the wines were all of a consistently high standard. All are modelled on Champagne, in the grapes and production methods used, but they are all also willing to experiment and do their own thing: continuing to use hand-riddling, adding Pinot Gris to the mix, making still wines, all to maintain their own identity and not just be Champagne imitators. Given that the history of sparkling wine in California is still very young, the consistency and quality is extremely impressive. 

Although all the wineries I visited are consciously indebted to Champagne, all of them are committed to making their wines Californian and not some pale imitation. In this, it was the American wineries I found most successful and interesting: Schramsberg expressing the long history of Napa Valley in its caves and wines, the secluded beach house feel of Iron Horse, and the start from scratch ambition of J Vineyards. Although these wines arguably lack the lasting complexity of the best Champagne, they are gradually moving towards their own individual, more confident styles of sparkling wine that before too long we may be able to describe as uniquely Californian.

Friday, 15 August 2014

California Sparkling Wine I: Schramsberg, Mumm, and Gloria Ferrer

"I'm trying to find something similar to Prosecco," I overheard a customer explaining at Iron Horse, a premium producer of sparkling wine. Everybody loves bubbles in their wine, but it's surprising how few know the difference between styles of sparkling wines and how varied they are.

Prosecco, it turns out, is as ubiquitous in the US as it is in the UK, and why not? It's cheap, simple, and fun. What it most emphatically not is Champagne. The latter, and any wine made in the same style, has a complexity and flavour derived from years ageing in the bottle on its lees (dead yeast cells that form during the second fermentation when the bubbles are formed). This is the style that top producers around the world, including England, Franciacorta, and California, attempt to emulate. I've visited five different sparkling wine producers in California to see how they match up to the original Champagne. Here are the first three, including the state's oldest sparkling winery and two off-shoots from large European producers.

when is sparkling wine not Champagne?

this is not Champagne
The term Champagne is often used as a catch-all for any sparkling wine, but it can only be used to describe wine from the Champagne region in north-eastern France. Under EU law, the words "Champagne" or "méthode Champenoise" cannot be put on a bottle unless they are from that area. For many years, the Champagne industry have also been trying to outlaw the term "méthode traditionelle," but with no success.

These rules exist as a guarantee of style and (hopefully) quality. When a consumer sees Champagne on a bottle, they should know where it's from and what it's going to taste like. Despite an agreement between the EU and the US in 2006, some Californian producers continue to put the word "Champagne" on the bottle - not only does this shamelessly trade on the success and quality of Champagne, the wine is not likely to be any good.


Schramsberg is the most historic sparkling wine producer in California. The winery dates back to 1861, when a German immigrant, Jacob Schram, bought 120 acres on top of a hill between St Helena and Calistoga. This was only the second winery in Napa and was successful enough to be at one point making eighteen different wines. Upon his death and the onset of Prohibition, the winery fell into disuse, to be rescued by Jack and Jamie Davies in the 1960s. The success of the project was almost instant: the 1969 Blanc de Blancs was served on Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972.

The settings of the winery are stunning, a long, winding drive leading up to a tranquil set of hilltop buildings. What's even more impressive are the underground caves. The winery is located in one of the hottest spots of the region where Jacob Schram found it impossible to store wine properly, so he had his workers dig a series of underground caves in the hillside. In 1982, the Davies extended these caves further, so that they are now able to store 1.3m bottles. These cool caves wind through the hill, with bottles and bottles stacked up to the earthy ceilings which have weeds and plants growing downwards out of them.

The wines are all made using the traditional method, imitating the Champagne producers to the point that all the wines apart from the Blanc de Blancs are hand-riddled. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are sourced from the cool regions of Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley - Bordeaux grapes more suitable to the local hot conditions are planted around the estate for increasing production of red wine. The 2011 Blanc de Blancs, of which 20,000 cases a year are produced, is great value at $38, bready, with stone and tropical fruits, green apples, and a crisp, fresh, young palate. The J Schram 2006 ($110) is their tribute to the founding father, stored in extra fat bottles which take longer to riddle. It's yeasty and toasty, with red apples and citrus fruits, with an elegant depth and length from the mainly Chardonnay content. The 2010 Rosé ($50) is full of vibrant red fruits - strawberry, cranberry, redcurrant, raspberry - toasty, and with some tannins. The fullest bodied and yeastiest of the four wines I tried was the 2005 Reserve ($110), which is 74% Pinot Noir and has been aged for seven years. A mature wine with bread and brioche, nuts and mushrooms, caramel and butterscotch.

Mumm of Napa

In the 1980s, the Champagne house G. H. Mumm sent their winemaker Guy Devaux over to the US to find the ideal site for sparkling wine production. Perhaps surprisingly, he decided to base the winery in Rutherford, right in the centre of the hot Napa Valley, but it was a commercially very successful decision. The grapes are all sourced from 115 acres of vineyards and forty other growers in the cooler Carneros region of Napa and Sonoma, but the winery is located right in the middle of the tourist trail; when I visited on Monday lunchtime, the attractive outside terrace was already very busy.

steel fermentation tanks, with blending tank behind
The industrial nature of Mumm is highly impressive. 340,000 cases of wine are produced annually, by far the highest amount of any Napa winery I’ve visted. Mumm use the traditional method, but it’s all as high-tech as can be. There are 130 large stainless steel tanks for the first fermentation, after which the wines are pumped into a mammoth, 750,000L blending tank – our guide told us that if you drank a case a day it would take 72 years to finish all the wine the tank can fill. The wines are aged on their lees, but, rather than in underground caves as at Schramsberg, in large wooden crates in rooms that can hold up to a million bottles. As with most modern Champagne houses, the bottles are not hand-riddled but turned for seven days on a gyropallette. There’s even a machine called Bob, who puts and takes bottles in and out of the wooden crates, able to hold thirty-six bottles at once.

Two equally effective ways of storing and ageing wine: Mumm to the left, Schramsberg to the right

All this industrial mechanism may make the wines seem characterless, but the three I tasted all had a distinct personality. The Brut Prestige ($22), Mumm’s biggest selling wine, is aged for 18 months and has a delicate breadiness, high acidity, and light aromas of crisp apples. This is a good introductory wine: its flavours are immediate enough to appeal to the casual drinker, but just complex enough to satisfy the more experienced sparkling wine drinker. It sells at a very good price too. Unusually, there is a little Pinot Gris in the wine, as well as the three Champagne grapes. The Brut Prestige Extended Tirage ($32) is the same wine, but aged for twice as long. It’s still delicate, but breadier, with lightly bruised apples. For that length of ageing, I’d expect some more complexity. The final wine was the Demi-Sec ($32), which has 35g/L of residual sugar. At first the sweetness dominates, but there’s a nice breadiness to it, with a long spicy finish – this would be a great wine to have with Asian food.

There are a series of other wines, including a rosé and two sparkling reds, one solely from Pinot Noir and a sweeter one with 3% Syrah. They also make a wine in collaboration with Carlos Santana and another for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. This is one serious, high-profile operation.

Gloria Ferrer

Enter another sparkling wine giant, this time the world's largest producer of sparkling wine, Freixenet from Catalunya. Cava, meaning cellar, is the protected Spanish term for sparkling wine. Nominally made in the same way as Champagne and mainly produced in Penedès just on the coast outside Barcelona, Cava is inexpensive, rubbery, and vaguely off-putting.

Freixenet's California offshoot is quite different, however. Pedro Ferrer, who converted Freixenet into a sparkling wine concern at the beginning of the twentieth century, came to the United States to look for land to plant grapes for sparkling wine production in the 1930s, but was forced to return to Spain for the Civil War, in which he died. His youngest son and successor José fulfilled his father's dream in the 1980s, settling on Carneros in Sonoma. The winery is named after his wife, still living in Barcelona.

It was quite a far-sighted move. Carneros, despite the hot days, has cool mornings and nights and is ideal for the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two major Champagne grapes. Equally foresighted was to abandon the traditional, obscure Cava grapes of Xarello, Parellada, and Macabeo (which Freixenet have until recently stuck to in Spain) in favour of the Champagne grapes. Hence, the wines of Gloria Ferrer have more in common with those of Champagne than those of Catalunya.

Gloria Ferrer's production room; "Roberto" is at the front; at Mumm he is called "Bob"

The winery is quite different from the clean efficiency of Mumm, though; Ferrer's winery is, or seems, haphazard and small (the wines are aged elsewhere), with none of the impressive vastness of production of Mumm's. It wasn't helped by the tour guide describing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as "light Rhône grapes, like Sangiovese," or admitting she didn't know what the winery's Chardonnay tasted like because she didn't like white wine. A bitchy comment on my part, yes, but the tasting rooms and winery tours of California are all about selling the wine to the eager consumer.
I tasted three wines. The Blanc de Noirs NV ($22) is a misnomer: it was 92% Pinot Noir, with 8% Chardonnay. It had also received 12 hours skin contact, giving the wine a light golden colour. It is a very well priced wine: crisp red apples, with a nice acidity, light sweetness and toastiness, and a lingering cinnamon finish. The 2010 Blanc de Blancs ($40) is 100% Chardonnay and a winery exclusive. A much paler colour, with oranges and apple blossom, but quite simple. The 2006 Royal Cuvée Brut ($37) has been aged on its lees for six years, with lightly complex aromas of brioche, apples, and cinnamon, more so on the nose than on the palate.

In the next blog, I'll be looking at two other California sparkling wine producers, Iron Horse and J Vineyards, and posting my summary of Californian bubbles.

beautiful views from the Gloria Ferrer terrace

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Terroir of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley made its name on the back of Cabernet Sauvignon and now every winery makes Cabernet the star of the show, even if it's not their best wine. Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is an expression of the different soil types found in, and within, the different AVAs. Wineries proudly show their different single-vineyard or single-AVA Cabernets next to each other to highlight Napa's many terroirs - once a dirty French word in California.

I've tasted a number of Cabernet Sauvignons over the last two weeks and I have been surprised by the variety of style, though the quality has generally been high. This variety comes from the vineyard, the winemaker, but also the vintage - 2010 had an intensely hot period of 4-5 days which led to rapid maturation of the grapes, 2011 was a cool year, while 2012 and 2013 have been near perfect. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is expensive here, due to the price of land, the renown of wineries, and the customers' pockets. The cheapest wine I've tried is Laura Michael's 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($47.50), the most expensive Corison's 2008 Kronos Vineyard ($210), with everything in between. Wines that expensive can have the effect of undermining the more reasonable, affordable wines, especially from Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Merlot - but there's no point going to Napa for inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon.

the grape


Cabernet Sauvigon's home is Bordeaux, where it is the dominant grape in famous Left Bank appellations such as Médoc, Pauillac, St-Julien, and Château Margaux. In these appellations, however, it is always blended with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc. In its New World guises, it is often sold as a single-varietal wine, which has led to the grape becoming the most planted in the world. Many New World regulations allow a wine to be labelled as single varietal as long as there is at least 85% (75% in California) of the varietal in the wine. This allows blending with other grapes, and I believe Cabernet Sauvignon is at its most expressive and complex in the company of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as other Bordeaux grapes, Petit Verdot and Malbec, and also sometimes Syrah/Shiraz.

The grape has a very distinct character, which is easily recognisable after a few tastings. Blackcurrants are the most apparent fruit flavour, and the wine can be quite herbaceous with menthol or capsicum aromas. The grape's berries are blue, small, and thick-skinned, which create a deeply-coloured wine and heavy tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon, on its own or in a blend, is often aged in oak, which is where the complexity of the grape really develops. The oak lends aromas of cedar, pencil shavings, smoke, and tobacco, all of which become more mature and complex as the wine ages in bottle.

Besides Bordeaux and Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon excels in Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia, the latter producing wines particularly similar to Bordeaux. Bolgheri in Italy, like Bordeaux and Margaret River by the sea, is home to some of the world's most renowned wines - Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Tignanello, all Cabernet Sauvignon heavy wines.

Other areas which produce Cabernet Sauvignon wines worth looking out for, and which don't command the prices of Bordeaux or Napa, are Washington, Argentina's Mendoza, Provence in the south of France, and Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island.

The AVAs

There are now 16 AVAs in the valley, plus the all-encompassing Napa Valley AVA, all expressing the different microclimates of the area. The valley is surrounded by the Mayacamas mountains to the west, which bring in the morning fog from the Pacific, and the Vacas to the east, which provide protection from the searing inland heat. The Napa River winds through the valley. Despite huge drought issues throughout California, Napa is coping due to underground streams that have provided natural irrigation over the years and allowed wineries to hold stores of water. 

As the river heads northwards, the valley gets hotter, from Carneros at the southern end, where much of the region's Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are grown, to Calistoga at the north. The most famous AVAs are in the centre of the valley, Stags Leap, Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena. The soils vary dramatically and the microclimates subtly within these AVAs, which is where certain winemakers really focus on single-vineyard expressions of the grape. The mountain AVAs on both sides of the valley are cooler, allowing for a longer ripening season.

The wines

Laura Michael

2008 Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon Barlow Vineyards ($52)

This is the best value Cabernet Sauvignon I have tasted, even though it's still an expensive wine. Nearly six years old this has mature notes of dried fruits (raisins, sultanas) and tobacco, but still has fresh menthol, blackcurrant, plum, and vanilla aromas. The tannins are still high but in check, giving a dry finish but with a juicy fruitness sweetening the wine. Despite its age, the wine has lots of potential yet, with a developing complexity. 


Gustavo Brambila began working at Chateau Montelena in 1975, moving his way up the industry until he set up his own winery in 1996 with Thrace Bomberger; the two parted ways a couple of years ago, leaving Gustavo to begin rebranding the project from his small office winery just outside Napa. A shy, serious Mexican, Gustavo makes wines quite different from himself: big, bold, and expressive.

2009 Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon ($75)

From an AVA I hadn't previously known about to the east of Napa below the Vacas mountains, a cool climate area where the grapes are small and thick-skinned, with fresh, deep blackberry sensations. On the nose, the wine has ripe black fruits, cassis, oak, and vanilla; on the palate, I gulped back the wine and gasped, "Tannins." Gustavo nodded with a small smile, "I enjoy my tannins," before adding that the wine has to be "balanced around" them. And indeed, beyond those tannins lies an engaging, complex, oaky, and ageworthy wine reminiscent of a Spanish red.

Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena are at the centre of Napa, and by extension California, wine history, for their Chardonnay was the top white at the 1976 Judgement of Paris. However, it is the Cabernet Sauvignons they have always wanted to be judged by - the 1973 Chardonnay was only released while they waited for the Cabernet vines to mature.

Chateau Montelena

2006 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($165)

The vines are grown above the historic estate north of Calistoga, the hottest part of Napa Valley. The days in the mountains are extremely hot, but the nights cool dramatically, conditions which lead to a longer ripening period and a greater intensity of flavours. Tasted alongside the savoury 2005 and still young 2010, the 2006 had pleasingly aggressive fruity flavours, with sharp tannins, a balanced spicy oakiness, and a long finish. A very good wine, but at a hard to justify price.

Nickel & Nickel

12 (twelve) single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons are made here, a dedication to terroir that our enthusiastic guide, ex-surfer Walt, described as Burgundian. This dedication goes as far as having a barn full of stainless steel fermenting vats, one for each vineyard, with another underground cellar with rows and rows of Bordeaux barriques lined up vineyard by vineyard.

12 Napa soils

2011 Hayne Vineyard ($100)

The four single-vineyard, wholly Cabernet wines were all exceptional, perhaps too much so: there was a cleanness to them which cut out any rough edges, for example in this cooler vintage any herbaceous greenness. Nevertheless, each wine had distinctly different characteristics to them, again demonstrating a real dedication to the terroir of each vineyard. The Hayne Vineyard, from St Helena, was perhaps my favourite of the four, with fresh black cherries, blackberries, and boysenberries on the nose, fruits which were quite sharp on the palate, overlaid with some dustiness, with an oaky finish giving way to a spiciness which became more complex with each tasting.


Saddleback Cellars

Nils Venge has been making wine since studying at University of California, Davis in the late 1960s, working at some of Napa's most prestigious wineries, including Groth, whose 1985 Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was the first Californian wine to score 100 points from Robert Parker. Saddleback began as a side-project whose first vintage was 1983, producing around 6,000 cases a year.

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($68)

Most of the grapes for the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are grown around the large shed that serves as a winery in Oakville, but some also come from Rutherford and Carneros. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are also blended in, at 7% each. At nearly five years old, this is a young wine that still needs plenty of time, full of gripping and chewy tannins that are relieved by a juicy acidity. It's complex and engaging, with cassis, menthol, violets, and figs; a big, full wine that meets a lot of the Napa stereotypes but which, with its heavy tannins and green, minty aroma, is quite Bordeauxesque.


An astonishing amount of work goes into making Quintessa's one wine, which costs around $150. On their Rutherford ranch, there are 280 acres (of which 92 are forest to maintain a viable ecosystem), 26 vineyards, seven different soils, five hills, five different microclimates, and two lakes. Within the large, concrete winery, a visually stunning design built into the hillside, there are nearly 1,600 square metres given over to oak barrels, of which there are around 3,000 at any given time. Five grapes varieties are grown - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Carmènere.

Quintessa: 75% of the winery is within the hillside

From all this, Quintessa produce one wine, a blend of all the various grapes, vineyards, and barrels, which varies each year to reflect the vintage. Having bemoaned the emphasis in Napa on single varietal wines, it is exciting to see a winery so focused on representing the character of a vintage in all its forms rather than making a wine that reflects the nature of the grape. The two vintages I tried were very different, involved expressions of their vintage, as well as the dusty Rutherford terroir.

The wine has only been in bottle for three months and will be released around October. As already mentioned, 2011 is seen as a difficult year but this is a wonderfully elegant expression of a vintage others found challenging. A young, inky nose with violets, oak, vanilla, and cloves, as well as the usual cassis notes. On the palate, the oak is grainy and toasty, with young tannins and high acidity; there's also a welcome greenness in the form of green bell pepper, from the cooler vintage. At first, the youth of the wine is apparent, taking time to open up and reveal its subtle complexity. The wine slowly unwinds and the oak and black fruits grow more structured, integrated, and dense: this is a serious, intense, yet expressive and elegant, wine.

A much bigger wine right from the nose. The fruits are richer, riper, and darker, with vanilla, liquorice, and chocolate, and an intense pepper spiciness. There's a bitter black chocolate finish, which underlines the more aggressive, less elegant nature compared to the 2011. These two different wines will appeal to different palates, emphasising that Quintessa make wine to reflect the vintage not to target a certain taste in wine.

Trefethen are based in an impressive nineteenth-century farmhouse, surrounded by 440 acres of vines. Initially established as a grape-growing farm, high-quality Chardonnay and Cabernet have been made since the mid- to late-1970s. As with all of the Trefethen wines, the Cabernets were supremely balanced and controlled wines - and which benefitted from a little blending with other Bordeaux grapes.

75% of the grapes come from Hillspring, a vineyard the other side of the estate across Highway 29 which provides the water for the rest of the estate. Blended with Malbec and Petit Verdot, this is a floral, perfumed wine with notes of roses and violets. On the palate, it's intense but balanced, the fruits, oak, and tannins all integrated to give a structured wine with a long finish. 

Cabernet grapes dropping before harvest at Trefethen

2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($160)

A great opportunity to taste an older example of the previous wine, but one you have to pay an extra $60 for - buy your wines early for better value. The wine has matured beautifully, with immediate aromas of leather, game, and mushroom. The acidity, tannins, and fruits are still highly expressive, but underpinned with a leathery, oaky spiciness. 

Rich, ripe black fruits on the nose, which are distinctly chewier on the palate; herbal, floral, and highly perfumed, due to the bay leaves on the Hillspring property; tannins gripping, but smooth from the long ageing before release (the wine isn't available until October); oaky and spicy: despite these big, complex flavours, this is a balanced, integrated wine with a long, lingering finish. 


One of the few wineries owned by a woman, Corison was established in the mid-1990s by Cathy Corison who had been working in Napa since graduating in the late 1970s. Situated on St Helena Highway near some of Napa's grandest wineries, Corison is little more than a large barn full of barrels with a couple of small tasting tables. Despite the humble surroundings, the wines are expensive but, without hestitation, worth the price: it is a pity, though, that only a select few can afford them.

2010 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($80)

Despite the Napa Valley assignation, this is a single vineyard wine from one that straddles the Rutherford and St Helena borders. The nose is immediate, with up-front black fruits that are not too ripe with a little greenness, and a full Cabernet nose. The palate has good, gripping tannins washed up by balanced, ripe black fruits with a long juicy finish and an oaky backbone.

2006 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($95)

A perfumed nose with still vivid cassis, but with dried fruits such as currants coming through; a light, developing earthiness/gameiness, with tobacco leaves. Greener on the palate, tannins still gripping, fruits gently fading into dried fruits, backed up by an oaky spiciness. Long, gripping finish, full of lingering spices.

2011 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($80, not yet released)

From this supposedly difficult vintage comes this wine with huge ageworthy potential. Aged for even longer than the usual 22-24 months to compensate for the closed, difficult nature of the wine, the 2011 has immediate menthol and cassis aromas, but it's on the palate that it becomes extremely interesting: lots of oak and spice, a young wine full of its potential and ready to mature. The tannins are big and chewy, the fruits juicy, with a long finish.

2008 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($210)

From vines grown around the winery and planted in 1971, this is a stunning, unforgettable wine. A velvety, floral, perfumed nose of violets, iris, and lavender, with chocolate and deep black and blue fruits: it's the perfume of the nose that makes it's special. On the palate, the tannins are ripe and gripping at the same time, with light, caressing spices on the tongue. The oak is beautifully integrated, to give the fruit a round structure. The acidity is high, lightening and freshening the complexity. The finish is long, gorgeous, and all in balance.

Kronos vineyard, old vines

The latter wine is one of the greatest I have ever tasted, just when I was wondering whether the price of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon could be justified. At the levels I've been tasting, it's difficult to correlate quality and price: is a wine ever worth $200? Or, many might ask, $50? But when tasting these wines, there are so many things to factor in: the cost of the land, the sustainable farming many wineries are committed to, the investment needed to run a winery, as well as the rarity factor of some of the wines. My conclusion is that once Napa Cabernet Sauvignon falls below $60, it's less likely to have the qualities and characteristics that make the wines so memorable. These prices may not seem very democratic, but it's been amazing and wonderful to see how excited American visitors to Napa are to taste and to experience the wines the area has to offer.

At their very best, Napa Cabernet Sauvignons are evocative reflections of the area's many microclimates and soils; as much as any region I've visited the wines of Napa are a vivid expression of that very French concept, terroir.

Monday, 4 August 2014

California: First Impressions

For the next two months or so, much of this blog is going to be focused on California, whose wineries and regions I'll be visiting. I've been here exactly a week now, and here are some brief highlights before I get round to visiting some renowned wineries in the next few days.


I'm staying in Napa where, no surprises, it's hot. Temperatures have regularly hit the mid-30s during the day, the sun intense and unfiltered by cloud. This is mitigated by the morning fog, which makes the beginning of the day disconcertingly cool. The fog, which rolls in from the Pacific Ocean across the Mayacamas mountains, is famous for allowing Napa Valley to make wines of world renown; what's actually more surprising is the diversity of climates in this part of California. Calistoga, 20 miles north of Napa, is even more blisteringly hot, yet winemakers often source their grapes from just across the mountains in Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley, where temperatures are several degrees cooler. These AVAs are in Sonoma County, the other side of the Mayacamas from Napa Valley, but much more exposed to the cooling ocean winds and fogs. I've tasted Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels from Dry Creek Valley far less intense and more varied than their Napa equivalents, as well as cool, restrained Sonoma Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. A weekend trip to the Sonoma coast, just over an hour's drive from Napa, made it evident why the region is capable of producing such classic styles of those grapes: the ocean coastline was constantly shrouded in fog and temperatures didn't rise above 20 degrees.

no vineyards here, but plenty of coastal fog


August Briggs Leveroni Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 ($32*)

Calistoga is a sleepy, hot town straight from the wild west of the nineteenth century. The last thing I expected on stepping into a tasting room off the main street was a such a balanced, refined Chardonnay - which is because the grapes are from the Sonoma side of the Carneros AVA. Aged in 30% new French oak, with 50% malolactic fermentation, this is an understated Chardonnay yet one full of expressive flavour: stone and tropical fruits, particularly apricot and pineapple, with a creamy vanilla character, emphasised on the finish with cinnamon.

August Briggs is a winemaker who used to be a consultant elsewhere in California, as well as Oregon, before setting up his own winery in 1995. He sold the winery three years ago to three former employees, including his nephew, with the intention of retaining Briggs's principles. I also tasted three Pinot Noirs, all single-vineyard and completely different styles, as well as a Syrah from the Page Nord vineyard in Yountville and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley. Despite being based in Calistoga, none of the grapes was actually sourced from the area, instead from elsewhere in Napa and across the mountains in Sonoma. Without doubt, those from the cooler Sonoma AVAs were of greater interest.

Laura Michael Dry Creek Old Vines Mayo Family Vineyards Zinfandel 2010 ($35)


Laura Michael Oat Hill Estate Zinfandel 2011 ($45)


zinfandel in veraison at Laura Michael
Just a couple of minutes north of Calistoga, Laura Michael Wines is another winery that sources its grapes from all over Napa and Sonoma, though the best wine by far came from a vineyard just a few metres from the tasting room. There's a Chardonnay and a rosé (one of the few wineries I've visited that have any rosé left to taste), but the focus is on Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter were all good, especially the Calistoga Barlow Vineyards ($52), but it was the two Zinfandels that shone.

I've always found it too easy to dismiss Zinfandel as too fruity, jammy, and alcoholic. Although the alcohol is still an issue (these two wines were 15% and 14.5% respectively), I've tasted some serious examples of Zinfandel over the last few months which have changed my mind about the grape. The Dry Creek had lots of immediate ripe fruits, as one would expect from a wine made from Zinfandel, but more red fruits than I was expecting (strawberry, cherry, plum, raspberry), and it was very spicy on the palate, with further oak-influenced vanilla and cream. As pleasing and surprising as this wine was, the Oat Hill Estate, from grapes grown at the winery, was stunning: a more sophisticated wine, perfumed and floral, with subtle but evident spices on the palate; fruits still ripe, but backed up with dry, gripping tannins. This has been aged in American oak (both new and old) for 19 months, giving real structure to the wine. From the hottest AVA of Napa, yet with a just about manageable alcohol.

Laura Michael is, and isn't, a person. The winery was until fairly recently called Zahtila Vineyards - established in 1999 by Laura and her husband. The couple later split, Laura keeping the winery. The name change came when she remarried her first husband, Michael, who now plays a major role in the day-to-day running of the winery. The wines are only sold at the winery or to wine club members: a real shame, for these are wines that deserve to be known.

every winery should have a dog

*California, like most other US states, lists prices before sales tax, meaning the advertised price is never the one you end up paying. 

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Funk's in the Stink 2

Last September, a trip to Portland, Oregon opened my eyes to a type of drink I'd previously found too difficult or plain weird: lambics and gueuzes, or sours as they are known in the States. These are beers which have undergone long, wild ferments, allowing yeasts such as Brettanomyces to develop, giving the beer distinctly funky, stinky aromas. They are also aged in oak over a period of time, sometimes together with fruits, to make the complex, difficult character of the beer yet more individual.

In June, I presented a masterclass on Belgian beer and it was amusing to see the customers react to Cantillon, one of the great beers of the world, exactly as I had when first tasting sours in Portland: with a mixture of horror, disgust, and disbelief, but with an almost involuntary compulsion to smell and taste the beer over and over to make sure the senses weren't playing tricks on the brain. Yes, the beer really does smell like that. And yes, it should. And yes, it's great, isn't it?

It can take some convincing to say yes to the final question, but once persuaded this is a world of beer that invites a neverending exploration, particularly in the States where imaginative, involved beers are evolving all the time. On my recent trip to Seattle, I tasted four more - one from Belgium and three from the Pacific Northwest - which once again demonstrated the possibilities of this wonderful, whacky style of beer.

the line up


Drie Fonteinen Golden Doesjel 6%

It's important to remember that Belgians don't churn out this stuff just because they're Belgian, or even because there are a number of American beer geeks drinking it like it's fizzy pop. Lambics and gueuzes are two of the most difficult styles of beer to make as well as sell, and it takes real dedication to battle against fashion and time to continue to make them.

Drie Fonteinen, one of the classic Belgian producers of lambics and gueuzes, is a case in point. For many years, the family blended lambics from three other breweries, Boon, Girardin, and Lindemans (hence the name of the brewery, "three sources") at their restaurant to make gueuze, before setting up their own brewery in 1998. Disaster struck in 2009 when there was a huge explosion at the brewery wiping out 80,000L of stock. The enterprise was only saved by volunteers mopping up all the beer to collect for distillation. Making and blending lambics was already a labour of love, and it only took heavy persuasion and help from the world's beer community to restart the business.

It's clearly worth it. The Golden Doesjel ("Snoozer") is an old, oak-aged lambic and a magnificent example of the complexity of lambics that somehow comes out as fresh, delicate, and delicious. Bottled well over two years ago, there's an old-sock funkiness to it, of course, with sour apples and blue cheese, but there's also a refreshing acidity and an incredibly long finish. This is a beer you could drink quite a bit of over the course of an evening, while all the time wondering at its complex flavours.

Collage Conflux Series No 1 11.8%
Belgian beer is famed for its high alcohol, but the lambics and gueuzes are often relatively restrained, especially in comparison to their American counterparts - the three we tasted tonight were all pushing 12%.

This beer is the first in a series of collaborations between two major Oregon brewers, Hair of the Dog and Deschutes, combining four of their beers: "Fred" and "Adam" from the former and "The Dissident" and "The Stoic" from the latter. It's interesting that two breweries should hook up to do this, but I'm not sure it quite works. A major part of the problem is that these are four very distinct beers, high in alcohol, and all aged in particular ways: the tasting notes for the beer state that it has been aged in "Rye Whiskey, Cognac, Sherry, Pinot Noir, Bourbon, new American Oak, and new Oregon Oak" casks. Whatver the genesis of the drink, that's far too many casks.

A dirty brown colour with a stinky nose - "offensive to at least two of the senses," in the words of @drinkaddition - it is surprisingly clean, if a little obvious, on the palate - malt, caramel, toffee, and treacle, creamy to the point of being described as like a milkshake. An interesting experiment, but difficult to drink more than a glass of.

The Dissident 2012 11.4%
Fascinating to try this straight after the previous beer, of which it formed a part. In the blend, the complex qualities of the beer were lost; here, they stand out for themselves. Aged in Pinot Noir barrels with Oregon Montmorency cherries, this is a great, balanced beer. An orange-brown colour, with flavours of citrus fruits (orange, tangerine), developing into more complex notes of coffee and chocolate, all overladen with the cherry backbone. Despite the alcohol, it's not too sweet, as it's balanced by the rich aromas and the bitter finish.

Cascade Bourbonic Plague 2011 12%
There is quite a fad for ageing beers in Bourbon casks, which I'm not quite convinced by. I've tasted beers which seem to have been left in the oak as if that were enough, producing sickly sweet beers that the brewer hasn't had enough control over. This beer shows what a skilled brewer can do, though it still left me wondering if beer should be treated like wine to this extent.

It's been aged in oak for two and a half years - 18 months in Bourbon and wine casks, then for another 12 months with dates and spices. The result is a heady, sweet beer that should be drunk like wine - slowly and with gradual appreciation. A very dark brown colour, the immediate flavours are of wood or wood related - charred wood, sandalwood, charcoal, smoke, tar, tobacco leaf - followed by sweet red fruits; on the palate, the dates and sweet spices become very apparent, the dates making the beer quite chewy.

The overall impression was of an aged, sweet red wine: powerful and alcoholic, with oak and dried fruit flavours. Given a choice between this and a recioto or a port, though, the beer would come third. As engaging and involving as it is, the flavour profile is upfront and obvious compared to the great sweet wines. If this criticism seems a little harsh, then this beer warrants it, for it's trying very hard, and coming very close to succeeding, in being an ageworthy, truly outstanding drink.

This brief tasting underlined that what's going on in Belgium and the US is quite different, even if the underlying principles are the same. The very best Belgian beers are drawing on decades or more of tradition to continue to create some of the world's great beers, while US brewers are experimenting, with a great deal of success, to redefine how we think about beer. Either way, these beers will change your palate forever.