Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Premier Cru Chablis

Chablis must be one of the most difficult regions in the world to consistently make wine in: notorious spring frosts can kill a vintage off before it's even begun and harvesting grapes is all about maintaining the "fragile equilibrium," as it was described to me at a recent tasting in Napa, between the ripeness of the fruit and aromatic complexity.

The wines of Chablis vary subtly from vineyard to vineyard. They share a high acidity, a reserved saline character, and a purity of fruit, but location changes the quality and intensity of a wine. The tricky cool climate makes aspect all-important, the best vineyards raised towards the sun for the grapes to attain full ripeness. Such a situation can transform a simple wine from the flat vineyards of Chablis into a wine much more powerful, complex, and expressive.


evocative photo of Chablis's soils
Chablis's soils are a younger limestone than those of the rest of Burgundy further south. For this reason, fossilised oysters are found in the vineyards. I doubt there is any direct influence from these oysters on to the wines, but there is a definite saline quality to Chablis not dissimilar to Jerez or Rías Baixas. The soils in Chablis are called Kimmeridgian (named after the Dorest village, Kimmeridge, in the south of England), with marl and layers of sedimentary rock besides limestone and oysters. The word "minerality" is often used to describe Chablis's best wines. It's a word I really dislike, but in the tasting I heard the best description of what the word may actually describe. "I once asked my father," one winemaker related, "what this strange word minerality means. He told me to pick up a rock and lick it. That is minerality."

climats and lieux-dits

In Chablis, a climat is a vineyard that has been classified as a Premier or Grand Cru, while a lieu-dit is a site within a climat with its own name. The name of a climat is most often used as they are more recognisable, but the name of a specific lieu-dit may be used instead. For example the Premier Cru Fourchaume is a climat which has three lieux-dits within it - L'homme mort, Vaupulent, and Côte de Fontenay. In the rest of Burgundy, a climat is simply a designated vineyard, a lieu-dit a vineyard good enough to have a name but not elevated into a Premier or Grand Cru.

premier cru and grand cru

There are forty-seven climats in Chablis, forty of which are Premiers Crus (in total, 800ha) and seven Grands Crus (100ha). There is some controversy about the number of Premier Cru vineyards, as it was felt that the 1943 classification awarded vineyards which did not have a historical reputation of producing distinct wine. The Premier Cru climats lie halfway up slopes of varying aspects and where there is more marl and fossilised oyster shells. The seven Grand Cru climats are all on one slope on the right bank overlooking the town of Chablis. Hopefully, the differences between the seven will be the subject of another blog post, but there's another small and confusing controversy: there is a lieu-dit called La Moutonne straddling two of the climats which does not have Grand Cru status.

left and right banks

Chablis is a small town through which runs the river Serein. From this valley rise hills on which are found the best Chablis vineyards. Some divide these vineyards into "left bank" - described as tighter and leaner - and "right bank." However, the vineyards face in so many directions on each bank that it's difficult to generalise about a distinct left and right bank style. Instead, it's the character and aspect of each vineyard that's more important, as well as the winemaker's production methods.

oak and MLF 

At the tasting, I asked Jean-Pierre Renard of the Ecole des Vins de Bourgogne if the use of oak were controversial. I received a very French response - "No, of course not," before he described in some detail why it is controversial. Most people, he continued, agree that oak is not necessary because it smothers the purity and stony, steely nature of the wines, implying that anyone using oak is doing something very non-Chablis. He also made the good point that not ageing the wine in oak allows producers to release wines when they are younger, fruitier, and more approachable. If a winemaker does wish to age a wine in oak, it needs to be full-bodied and complex enough to absorb the oak, which is why only Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines see oak and then only in small amounts.

I also asked how common malolactic fermentation is in Chablis. I received the answer that 99.9% of wines go through MLF, except in the warmest of years. As the climate is so cool and the acidity so naturally high, it does not surprise me that MLF is used to soften the acidity but I still find it hard to detect any MLF aromas in the wines of Chablis. If the best Chablis wines can go through malolactic fermentation without disturbing their pure, lean expression, it indicates how high the acidity must be in the first place.


I tasted six Premier Cru wines, all from the 2013 vintage, three from the right bank and three from the left. 2013 was a vintage which had a cold, wet spring, followed by a warm ripening season. In general, the wines are round, soft, with a fresh but not aggressive acidity. Tasting Chablis can be difficult - rather than looking for and describing the fruit aromas of a wine, it's much more about its structure. The name of each Premier Cru in the wines below is underlined.

Chablis tasting at Torc, Napa


J. Moreau et Fils Vaillons Premier Cru 2013

Vaillons - literally "little valley" - is a steep, rocky east/south-east facing slope directly overlooking the village of Chablis on the left bank. I immediately encountered a seashell quality to the wine, which I realised, as I tasted through the other wines, was a salinity characteristic to Chablis. Another characteristic is green apple, together with a taut acidity. Light floral and spicy notes of hawthorn and cinnamon added some complexity to the wine, which lacked concentration compared to the following wines. ✪✪✪✪

Jean-Marc Brocard Vau de Vey Premier Cru 2013

Again, green apples and salinity in this wine which came from very slightly further north than the previous one. The acidity here was so high I could almost smell it. However, there was a rich, ripe intensity to the wine which gave it greater depth, with concentrated aromas of beeswax and hazelnut. The paradoxical aspect of Chablis is that the fewer adjectives one can find to describe the wine, the greater it probably is (something Chablis shares with nearby Champagne). ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine Guy et Olivier Alexandre Fourchaume Premier Cru 2013

Guess what? Green apples, but this time with lemons and lemon blossom, as well as quince, ginger, and salted almonds. A very pretty yet intense wine. From the right bank's Fourchaume vineyard, one of the better known of Chablis's Premiers Crus and whose name refers to its previous use as a hanging site. I was expecting the right bank to produce a richer wine than the first two, but in actual fact it was just as lean. ✪✪✪✪✪

La Chablisienne Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru 2013

From Chablis's largest producer - a cooperative making 25% of the region's wines - and from another right bank climat, Montée de Tonnerre, which is west-facing and whose cool air produces fruit which slowly matures and results in austere wines. I certainly found it difficult to pick much out of the wine - some gooseberry and citrus - with a little creaminess on the palate from the small amount of oak used. Overall, a little too neutral for me. ✪✪✪✪

Domaine Long-Depaquit Vaucoupin Premier Cru 2013

Again on the right bank, this wine at first also seemed quite neutral but its greater concentration and intensity became apparent on repeated tastings. There was also some oak used - one- to five-years-old - which gave the wine a smoky, round richness but very well integrated with cinnamon and lemon pepper. There was power, structure, and balance, and a long finish which gave the lie to its initial neutrality. ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine Vincent Dampt Côte de Lechet Premier Cru 2013

Back to the left bank for a wine which a had slight spritz (at least in my glass). There was an intense, difficult, concentrated character to this wine. There was some lemon zest and pear, but more important were the herbal (tarragon), floral (elderflower), and spice (cinnamon, ginger) aromas. The first line in my tasting notes reads: "I like this but hard to describe." The best of Chablis in a nutshell. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Furmint Revisited

My most popular blog post to date has been on Furmint, the grape which is the foundation for the great sweet wines of Tokaj in Hungary. That post was based on a tasting of twelve dry white wines made from Furmint, which is the new focus to promote the Hungarian wine industry (in part because it's an easy name to pronounce). I was then very impressed by the quality of the wines, which were marked by high acidity, a stony, steely mouthfeel, and a nutty marzipan texture, and by their value for money. Last night, I had the welcome opportunity to revisit Furmint, as FurmintUSA, an organisation established for the promotion of wines made from the grape, are once again travelling through California. The tasting took place at The Wine House, a warehouse-cum-shop in San Francisco's industrial Dogpatch district. I was again highly impressed by the quality of the wines, and there was a welcome extra development: these wines, which represent extraordinary value for money, are now available in California. Here are my highlights.

Erzsébet Cellar Estate Furmint 2012 ($21)

Although these Furmint wines are being marketed as dry, many of them are in actual fact off-dry. The acidity is so high, however, that it's difficult to notice the residual sugar. This wonderful balance between the sharp, crisp acidity and the body and richness of the sugar is exemplified in this excellent wine. Also aged on its lees, the wine has appealingly complex aromas of marzipan, tea, hibiscus, peach, white pepper, and a creamy yeastiness. ✪✪✪✪✪

Holdvölgy Vision 2013 ($24)

Ironically, given the focus on Furmint, my favourite wine of the tasting was a blend, in this case 65% Furmint, 25 Hárslevelű (the second most important variety for Tokaji), and 10% Kabar (a crossing I had previously never encountered). Again with a lovely balance between acidity and some residual sugar, this is almost Riesling-like with green apples and cinnamon on the long finish, with a nutty, creamy marzipan nose. ✪✪✪✪✪

St. Donat Estate Márga Furmint 2013 ($25)

Not all Furmint comes from the Tokaj region. St. Donat are based in Csopak above Lake Balotan, an area which is much drier and there's no botrytis. The two wines I tasted from this producer were quite different, maybe a combination of the region's diverse soils and winemaker's Tamás Kovács's unobtrusive winemaking style. The wines are marked by high acidity and very little residual sugar, and there is a steely, mineral, metallic, yet creamy quality to the Márga which reminded me of a dry Chenin Blanc from, for example, Savennières. ✪✪✪✪✪

Béres Vineyards Löcse Furmint 2011 ($25)

From vines planted over thirty years ago, this wine is extremely concentrated, with lime, petrol, nuts, and a resinous quality. The nose is quite reminiscent of Riesling, but having been aged for six months in small new oak barrels the palate is creamy, oaky, spicy, and rich. Imagine if Burgundy were made from Riesling. ✪✪✪✪✪

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Sweet Stuff

There are different ways of making a wine sweet. The simplest sweet wines are made so by adding what is in effect unfermented grape juice. The greatest, most complex wines use other methods. The most famous is picking grapes when they are affected with noble rot (botrytis cinerea), a mould which causes the grapes to shrivel, concentrating the sugar levels in the juice. Noble rot is behind the sweet wines of Sauternes, Germany (for Trockenbeerenauslese), and Tokaj in Hungary. Other methods can be used, as outlined below, to create truly extraordinary wines.


Hot, inland Rutherglen has been producing some of the greatest and most memorable sweet wines since the nineteenth century. These wines are so sweet, the Australians have an apt name for them: "stickies." There are two styles of Rutherglen, Muscat and Topaque (which used to be called Tokay, but the name was changed for legal reasons). The former, made from a dark-skinned version of Muscat à Petits Grains Blancs, can be aged for years and released very old (sometimes a century later); the latter is generally younger and less complex, made from the Muscadelle grape. Both are made in similar ways, however, in a solera system in tin huts accumulating heat in Rutherglen's warm climate. Instead of killing the wines, as one would expect from such conditions, the heat adds complex oxidative aromas as it does in Madeira. The grapes are picked when turning into raisins, fortified during fermentation to maintain high sugar levels, before being aged in oak barrels. Although producers regulate themselves, there are four tiers for both Muscat and Topaque, rising in maturity and quality: standard, Classic, Grand, and Rare.

Pfeiffer Classic Rutherglen Topaque NV ($40; 500ml)

A pale amber colour, with lots of dried fruits - raisins, sultanas, figs - on the nose, and quite floral too - roses and honeysuckle (Muscadelle is an aromatic grape). There are also oxidative aromas of toffee, fudge, and caramel. The palate is quite spicy (peppercorn, juniper), which perhaps comes from the alcohol (17.5%). I can imagine this with sticky toffee pudding, one of my favourite desserts.   ✪✪✪✪✪

Pedro Ximénez

As intense, dense, and sweet as the wines of Rutherglen are, those made from the white Pedro Ximénez grape are even more so. Although most of the wines are produced in the sherry region, the majority of the grapes come from neighbouring Montilla-Moriles where it's drier and disease-prone Pedro Ximénez escapes rot. After the grapes are picked, they are laid out in the sun to dry and turn into raisins. The sugar is so concentrated that the juice can only be fermented to around 5%, before being fortified and aged in a solera system. The wines are a dark brown, sometimes mahogany colour, and are intensely sweet, as much as 450g/l of residual sugar. They are so sweet that they can be difficult to drink on their own but make the ideal accompaniment to the sweetest of desserts. There is nothing more indulgent than pouring a PX - as the wines are usually abbreviated to - over vanilla ice cream.

Gonzalez Byass Nectar NV ($30; 750ml)

A characteristically brown colour, with a deceptively restrained nose that slowly opens up to a wonderful array of dried fruits - figs and prunes and blueberries - cloves and anise, coffee, leather, and tobacco, and oxidative aromas of toffee and caramel. The wine is intensely sweet, at 370g/l of residual sugar; the sweetness is intensified further by a low acidity (sherry is one of the few wines that can get away with low acidity because of the viscous acetaldehyde). The alcohol is relatively low at 15%, which lightens the wine a little. Those complex aromas from the nose are matched on the palate, with some ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon to add. A complex, expressive wine that's as good as PX gets. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪


Yet another way of making a wine sweet requires a great deal of labour and dedication. For an Eiswein (Icewine in English), the grapes are left on the vine into the cold winter until they are frozen. They have to remain healthy and the varieties used must be ones with such a naturally high acidity they will retain it until November or December. The grapes are generally picked in the dead of night when temperatures are -8˚C or below. To ensure the grapes don't thaw, they are often pressed on site before returning to the winery. When pressed, all the water in the grapes is frozen and the juice which comes out is a sugary syrup, which leads to intensely sweet wines. This is a labour of love.

Rosenhof Orion Eiswein 2012 ($29; 350ml)

Rosenhof Blaufränkisch Eiswein 2012 ($37; 350ml)

The grape most commonly associated with quality Eiswein, due to its aromatic complexity and high acidity, is Riesling. It was interesting, therefore, to taste two Eisweins made from varieties not usually associated with the style. The Orion is from Grüner Veltliner, Austria's signature white grape and which is high in acidity. It has a rich, honeyed nose, with cooked apricots and peaches, honeysuckle, orange blossom, and orange rind, with white pepper - characteristically associated with Grüner - and ginger notes on the palate. ✪✪✪✪✪ Even more unusually, the Austrian producer also make an Eiswein from Blaufränkisch, a black grape. It looks, smells, and tastes like a high-quality sweet rosé: a vibrant, light, yet intense orange colour, with perfumed floral aromas of rose petals and violets and ripe red fruit aromas of cranberries, pomegranates, strawberries, and raspberries. The acidity isn't quite as high as the Grüner, but nonetheless a refreshing, sweet wine. ✪✪✪✪ The Grüner I would enjoy with apple strudel, the Blaufränkisch with strawberry shortcake. Food is where sweet wines come into their own: they make desserts even better. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016


Someone recently commented to me that no grape changes from region to region as much as Syrah. I countered with Pinot Noir, but he had a point. Whereas a wine made from Pinot Noir can vary according to vineyard, wines from Syrah can differ radically according to the region in which the grapes are grown. Climate, altitude, soil, and aspect all influence the style of the wine, and the way in which a wine is produced also causes great differences. Which other grapes Syrah is blended with also results in different styles of wine. I have recently tasted three wines made exclusively from Syrah which have highlighted the wonderful, expressive variability of the grape.

Côte Rôtie

The "roasted slope," called so because the sun beats down on the steep hillside vineyards enabling Syrah to ripen fully. Just south of the city of Lyon, this is as far north in France that Syrah will reliably ripen. The struggle that Syrah undergoes on the rocky soils produces intense wines full of pepper and dark berries with big, gripping tannins. The tradition has been to add a little Viognier to the blend to soften that intensity, a practice which has become quite fashionable in Australia. As in neighbouring appellations such as Hermitage, there's a pull between traditional winemaking methods of using old oak and no destemming and the more contemporary use of new oak and greater extraction of fruit and colour. 

From a vineyard with particularly steep slopes and rocky schist soils, Pierre Gaillard Les Viallières 2007 (bought for $72) is a wine made for the US market, and has a contemporary, international taste with ripe, voluptuous fruits on the nose. It follows the tradition of adding Viognier (as much as 20% in this case), which adds attractive floral aromas. There's a wonderful cross between the modern - spicy new oak - and the old, with coarse, drying, yet integrated tannins. That combination of fruit, flowers, spices, oak, and old-fashioned tannins makes for a truly sensational wine and one of the best I've had in some time. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪

Washington State

I wrote recently about the quality of Washington's Syrah - the state is producing consistently the highest quality Syrah in the States. The warm, sunny days and cool nights in the desert-like conditions lead to a complex combination of ripe black fruits, enlivening acidity, and firm tannins. Owen Roe are one of my favourite producers; the name comes from a 17th-century Irish soldier, while the winemaker and co-owner is called David O'Reilley. Their Syrahs, particularly the stunning Chapel Block ($55) made from a steeply sloping vineyard in Yakima Valley's Red Willow, have a ripe, fruity, tannic seriousness. The Ex Umbris 2013 ($21) is less tannic, more immediate and friendly, fruity, forward, and very drinkable. ✪✪✪✪

Victoria, Australia 

Here's an unusual wine: a Shiraz that calls itself Syrah. I again wrote not too long ago about how Australia's historic association with Shiraz is leading to wines of increased sophistication. Grapes are being sourced from cooler sites and there's less emphasis on fruit-driven wines. Jamsheed Harem's La Syrah 2013 ($25) comes from two cool regions in Victoria: Upper Goulburn, high up between two mountain ranges, and Yarra Valley, a cool, historic region which not only produces great, refined Syrah but also Australia's best Pinot Noir. The wine is a very good example of site-driven winemaking, with ripe but restrained black fruits, an uplifting acidity from the cooler climates, and a smoky, peppery structure. ✪✪✪✪

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Millennials

I missed out on being a millennial. Born between 1980 and 1995, the generation came of age as the twenty-first century thrust us into a loose, chaotic world connected by new technologies. I'm old enough to have only discovered email when I went to university, but for the next generation email was an integral part of their schooling. Indeed, it's such an old technology now that it's taken for granted, superceded by social media and smartphones. I'm suspicious of lumping an entire generation under one heading, but this technological upbringing does distinguish millennials, who have grown up in a global, fast-paced, often insecure environment.

They're also a generation with disposable income, even if that income is based on debt or parents' money. Marketing teams, keen to hook young consumers, increasingly focus their attention on this generation of spenders. (Which reminds me of one of my favourite scenes from A Hard Day's Night, when a fashion mogul tries to predict the next trend while dismissing George Harrison as a troublemaker.) I just attended a hospitality symposium (yes, such things do exist) here in the Napa Valley, and one of the seminars was on the millennial generation. It provoked some interesting discussion, and brought home just how different the world is now from when I was growing up in the 1980s.

Generation Me

For the cynically minded, this dismissive description may seem more accurate than the millennial term. Millennials are often demeaned as narcissistic with a sense of entitlement and a short-attention span - what they want, they want right now, and no one will stop them getting it. But this is a generation with the world at their fingertips: knowledge is a click away, a friend the other side of the world is within instant communication. There's also a desire for information; the internet, especially sites such as wikipedia, make that information easily accessible. It may mean that millennials lack the patience to search for knowledge that's difficult to attain, but they're constantly looking to learn something new.

For any retailers, whether in the wine industry or another, millennials' attention has to be caught straightaway or it's lost. They are constantly looking for new experiences, and the internet has a mine of information on those new experiences. Social media and review sites such as yelp and tripadvisor are trusted as friends. This is little different from previous generations who learnt about new experiences through word of mouth, it's just that instead of sharing those experiences with a few friends, they're now shared with potentially millions of people.

Wineries looking to capture millennials' money (and there are 79 million of them in the US alone) need to offer unique experiences. A tasting room is no longer enough; the wine experience needs to be immersive and interactive, which is why more wineries offer food and wine pairings or live music. Wineries must also be on social media, part of the conversation that their consumers are having online. Developments such as the selfie - perhaps the single most ludicrous thing to emerge in the twenty-first century - need to be embraced: all those photos being shared on instagram make consumers brand ambassadors - they'll even pay to promote a winery if they like it enough. No business can afford to be static and expect the consumer simply to come to them because of the quality of the product.

They Travel in Packs

At the tasting room in Sonoma I previously worked at, limousines and buses full of twenty-somethings visiting from San Francisco regularly pulled up. These groups of ten to twenty people wanted to taste good wine, but what they really cared about was being together and sharing the experience with each other. Going out as a couple or with a small group of friends is no longer enough; there needs to be at least ten in the group to validate the experience. This provides a lot of challenges, as dealing with a large, often drunk, group with a short-attention span taking selfies while doing cartwheels to reveal knickerless nether regions is not what I got into the wine business for. But somehow these groups need to be catered for, with interactive experiences that will hold their attention. And there is an end result: provide these groups with the experience they're looking for and they will spend money.

Social Media

So much has changed in the last twenty years that it's possible to forget that we once existed without wikipedia, facebook, or email. Frustratingly, some wineries still refuse to admit that these technologies are a vital part of everyday life. For all the focus on millennials, any business needs to acknowledge that almost everyone from grandmothers to toddlers uses a smartphone. Be on facebook, twitter, instagram, pinterest; have a hashtag or @handle that consumers can easily find and use; contribute to yelp and tripadvisor and don't avoid them for fear of the bad review; put contact details at the top of a web page so they will load first when a potential customer is searching with a bad network; get customers' emails in order to contact them with news of upcoming events. This may seem obvious, but it's amazing how many wineries do none or little of this. Whether you're a millennial or remember the Second World War, we're all part of a fluid online conversation.


If you've made it this far, you're probably not a millennial - but you need to be reaching out to them, the latest generation of drinkers.