Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Pommard

in Pommard last April
Pommard is a beautiful village, small with a church dominating the main square. Just south of the important wine town Beaune, Pommard finishes before it's even begun, the vineyards merging into Volnay's. Very much in Chardonnay territory, Pommard and Volnay are the two major villages of the Côte de Beaune that produce only red wine. Its reputation goes back hundreds of years, not least because, unlike other lighter, more delicate wines of Burgundy, its wines were able to survive the journey to England. Today, Pommard is still known for producing powerful, relatively tannic wines.

the terroir

Nowhere is more associated with terroir than Burgundy, the vineyards producing subtly different wines as they stretch from village to village. This is particularly true of Pommard, which, despite being so small (just 320ha of plantings), has 28 different climats leading, in the words of local winemaker Aubert Lefas of Domaine Lejeune, to 28 different wines. Vineyards' different aspects, altitude, and soils cause such a variety of terroir. The altitude of vineyards ranges from 250 to 330m; although most of the best Côte d'Or vineyards are halfway up the slope, some of Pommard's, such as Les Epenots in the northern part of the village, are lower down due to particularly shallow topsoils. These result in lighter expressions of Pommard, while vineyards in the southern part are higher up and are iron-rich, leading to deep coloured, more powerful wines.

Les Croix Noires vineyard with Les Chaponnières on the other side of the road and Les Rugiens behind it

There are currently no Grand Cru vineyards in Pommard, due to disagreement among local winemakers when the appellation was created in 1936. Just over half of Pommard is Premier Cru (116ha); two of those vineyards, Les Epenots and Les Rugiens (which means red-coloured because of the iron in the soil), have applied for Grand Cru status which will take another ten to fifteen years to achieve.

the style

Described by Victor Hugo as a fight between night and day (C'est le combat du jour et de la nuit), it is hard to generalise about the taste of Pommard. Each vineyard has its own style, ranging from light and elegant to rich, tannic, and powerful - complicated further by the style of each producer. Due to the wines' tannins, Pommard is considered one of the most ageworthy of Burgundy's appellations. It's also 20-30% cheaper than Gevrey-Chambertin, one of Burgundy's most famous villages, and therefore well worth investing in.

the tasting


Domaine Maillard Père et Fils La Chanière 2012

This was the fruitiest and easiest drinking of the wines I tasted, with lots of ripe, fresh red berry aromas of raspberry and strawberry, as well as liquorice, vanilla, and paprika, with surprisingly ripe tannins on the palate. Its fruity, forward nature made it very popular with the Americans I was tasting it with. ✪✪✪✪

Domaine Parigot Les Riottes 2012

From the bottom of the slope rather than the top, this provided quite a contrast with the first wine. A deeper colour, with a meaty, smoky nose, firm tannins giving the wine stucture, and concentrated aromas of cherries and blackberries. ✪✪✪✪✪

Maison Louis Jadot Clos de la Commaraine Premier Cru 2011

The first two village wines were from the fruity, ripe vintage of 2012, while three of the Premier Cru wines were from the more difficult 2011 which produced tannic, less concentrated wines. This Premier Cru (one of Thomas Jefferson's favourites) from major producer Louis Jadot was a little disappointing, with blackcurrants and figs and rather drying tannins, but the next two wines demonstrated that 2011 is indeed capable of quality wines. ✪✪✪✪


Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot Les Jarolières Premier Cru 2011

Perhaps the highlight of the tasting, from Les Jarolières Premier Cru on the border with Volnay. From 65-year-old vines inherited from Boillot's grandparents, the wine had wonderfully pure, precise fruit aromas of raspberry, red plum, blackcurrant, and blackberry, with a bitter, smoky spiciness, and firm tannins. The wine was aged in 50% new French oak, which could have dominated, but Boillot does not practise pumping over or punching down during maceration in order not to extract too much tannin, resulting in a very balanced wine. ✪✪✪✪✪

Maison Joseph Drouhin Les Rugiens Premier Cru 2011

A wine which perhaps showcased the winemaker Véronique Drouhin's sensibilities as much as the highly-regarded, iron-rich vineyard. Véronique Drouhin is a winemaker who aims for finesse and elegance in her wines, and with just 20% new French oak this was a reserved, restrained wine. However, the aromas were extremely concentrated, with fine, ripe, integrated red fruit aromas, and dried roses and dried herbs such as tarrogon giving the wine a subtle depth. ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine Lejeune Les Argillières Premier Cru 2008 

Also called En Largillière (referring to its clay soils), this is an example of how Pommard can age. Quite restrained on the nose with developing aromas of mushrooms, undergrowth, and dried herbs, it was on the palate that the expressive, subtly powerful aromas shone. The tannins were drying and structured, with refreshing acidity, and a long finish with raspberries and cherry stones. Fermented on whole clusters with no destemming, this was Pommard at its most individual yet characteristic: elegance and power combined. ✪✪✪✪✪



Sunday, 31 January 2016

Vin Doux Naturel

The most famous fortified wines of the world, port, sherry, and madeira, developed through war and trade, but the lesser known fortified wines of France emerged much earlier as a tribute to the sweet wines of the ancient Greeks and Romans. These wines are called Vins Doux Naturels, which is rather misleading as it means naturally sweet wines: the sweetness is anything but natural as it comes from fortifying the wine rather than from residual sugar. Vins Doux Naturels are made in the south of France, particularly the Rhône and Roussillon. They are something of an endangered species, but are richly expressive of France's wine-drinking history.

origins

Vins Doux Naturels date as far back as the thirteenth century, when in the late 1200s a Montpellier student called Arnaud de Villeneuve perfected the art of distillation discovered by the Islamic world a few centuries before. This allowed this part of Catalan France to replicate the sweet wines of the Greeks and Romans by fortifying the wine during fermentation, and today Roussillon (which borders Cataluyna in Spain) is still the main area for French fortified wine.

styles

There are two grapes used for the production of Vins Doux Naturels: Grenache and Muscat. The Grenache wines were traditionally made in a deliberately oxidised manner called rancio. These oxidative aromas can make a Vin Doux Naturel seem like a red sherry, and differentiate the wines from the much fruiter, more forward aromas of port. Muscat wines retain the fresh, grapey aromas of the grape and its naturally high acidity.

how they're made

Fortification takes place when the grape must has reached 6% ABV, fortifying the wine to around 15-16%, lower than port and most sherries. The Muscats are generally not aged for a long time, but can be macerated on their skins to add extra flavour and colour. The Grenache wines can be aged for years in mixture of old oak barrels and large glass jars (called bonbonnes, or demi-johns in Victorian English) to form very developed, mature aromas.

the appellations

The Rhône has two distinct appellations for Vins Doux Naturels: Rasteau, where it is increasingly rare and being replaced by unfortifed dry red wine, and Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. The Muscat grape has been grown in this small town since the days of Julius Caesar, and it is perhaps these wines that most replicate those of the Romans: sweet, white, rich, but with a floral delicacy.

It's Roussillon where the most famous fortified wines are made. The most common is Muscat de Rivesaltes, which is sold the spring after the harvest. Its counterpart is plain Rivesaltes which can be made from a variety of grapes including Muscat, different colours of the Grenache family, and the local Maccabéo (like many Roussillon grapes also grown in north-east Spain). This undergoes a longer ageing, which can take part in a range of vessels according to the producer and the style. In my research for this post, I touched two bottles of Rivesaltes from 1931 and 1946 (both priced at around $180).

Although inland Maury is another historic town in Roussillon, the most renowned appellation is Banyuls, a seaside town on the Mediterranean. These are Grenache-dominant wines, where tannins and flavour come from shrivelling the grapes on the vine and from leaving the wine in contact with the skins weeks after fortification. At their best, the wines are aged for twenty to thirty years before release when they will develop characteristic rancio aromas, but the modern trend is to release them young and fruity.

tasting

 

Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 2012 (375ml; $17)

Not quite as delicate as other Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise I have previously tasted, but nevertheless with pleasing floral aromas of acacia and honeysuckle, with quite pronounced aromas of cooked apples and poached pears and peaches. A very strong ginger, nutmeg feel on the palate made the wine more aggressive than I would have liked, but with the body and sweetness to stand up to a fruity dessert. ✪✪✪✪

Cornets & Cie Banyuls Rimage 2012 (375ml; $20)

The most interesting aspect of tasting this wine was to see how it differed from port. It was nowhere near as fruity as a ruby, nor as rich and developed as, say, a LBV. It was also not as spicily alcoholic (at 16% rather than 20% ABV) and the wine was a lot oakier and smokier than most ports. There were clear similarities though, with dried strawberry and cranberry aromas, and grainy, coarse tannins. Still young - older Banyuls is more interesting and distinctive. ✪✪✪✪

Monday, 25 January 2016

TCA

One of the most frustrating aspects of wine is the number of bottles that are faulty. A well-made beer or spirit tastes exactly like it should, while a wine, however well made, may taste nothing like it should. A faulty bottle of wine can be caused by a number of reasons, but the main one is TCA, a nasty chemical compound called in full 2,4,6-trichloronanisole. A wine affected by TCA tastes like wet cardboard, a musty room, nail varnish remover, and downright nastiness. Such a wine is often described as "corked," because the damage TCA causes comes from a reaction in the cork between penicillum mould (as found in blue cheese) and chlorine used in the sterilisation process.

The instances of corked wines came to a head in the 1990s, after a complacent cork industry failed to address the issue. Screwcaps and various types of synthetic cork were a response to the number of wines affected by TCA. New Zealand, as modern a wine country as there is, made a conscious decision in 2001 to reject corks and now just under 70% of wines are bottled under screwcap. Since the 1990s, however, the cork industry has certainly cleaned up its act - literally, as corks are no longer cleaned with chlorine, the main cause of TCA.

Estimates vary as to how much wine is corked. It may have been as much as 10% in the 1990s, falling to 5% today. Conscientious wineries should be aiming for 2%. That's still high - a winery producing 50,000 cases may be distributing 1,000 cases of corked wine despite their best efforts.

It requires a great deal of effort in combating TCA. Using screwcaps or thoroughly analysing corks may not be enough: it can be found in cardboard packaging, in the winery, even contaminating glass bottles. Also don't forget that if a wine has been stored badly - particularly in an overly warm or bright environment - it will also be faulty, regardless of how it's been stopped.

The number of corked wines is intimidating because the overbearing restaurant experience of a waiter pouring some wine for you to taste is for you to check whether the bottle is clean or faulty: determining whether that bottle is faulty or not requires skill, experience, and confidence. Often a bottle which a customer dislikes is faulty, but they lack the knowledge to describe it as such. Waiters and sommeliers can be too protective to admit that they are serving a corked wine - even though it's a regular and unavoidable part of the job.

I just undertook a test in which I smelt forty-five wines back to back. They were organised in rows of three, in which one was faulty and two were clean. The nine faulty wines had been deliberately tainted with TCA, but to various degrees. The hardest to detect had 1 part in a trillion; the easiest had 4 or more parts (most people can detect 7 parts per trillion - that's how potent TCA is). I spotted 8 of the 9 tainted wines, meaning I am now entitled to a certificate proving I am capable of detecting 1 part of TCA per trillion.

The organisers, Vinquiry, based in Sonoma County, claimed that spotting TCA is genetic, and certainly some people will find it naturally easier to spot than others. But I also think it's part of the experience of regularly tasting. Even if you're readily able to detect TCA, you still need to know how to describe it and distinguish it from a wine that's simply badly made. This is especially true of a wine that has the faint 1 part per trillion: spotting that small amount comes, I think, from the misfortune of regularly tasting corked wine.


Sunday, 17 January 2016

Port

The Diploma is finally nearing its close! I have just one unit left to complete which is on fortified wine, one of my favourite subjects. The main focus of the unit is port and sherry, but I will also be studying madeira, the vins doux naturels of southern France, and the unique and often extraordinary stickies of Rutherglen in Australia. This week I have been focusing on port, its history, and its different styles, indulging in a tasting of five different wines to help understand the varied styles.

a bit of history

Like sherry and madeira, port emerged through trade and war. When England and France were at loggerheads in the seventeenth century, French goods, including wine, were subject to sanctions and high taxes. To sate England's thirst for wine, the English turned to one of its European allies, Portugal. After finding the coastal red wines of Vinho Verde too astringent, English merchants went further inland to the Douro Valley and its rich, ripe, full-bodied red wines. The wines were shipped to England in barrels (the practice of bottling wine on site and shipping it in bottles had not yet been developed); to ensure that the wines arrived in good condition, brandy was added to the wine.

This strong, high alcohol wine proved extremely popular and the practice of fortifying the wines became standard. Although at the height of port's popularity practices were wayward - the wines were fortified to an extra strength for the English market and often had elderberries added - various styles of port emerged which exist today.

the area

Port is made in the Douro Valley, whose boundaries still mostly follow local politician Marquis de Pombal's 1756 designation. The soils are schist, a form of slate, on steep terraced slopes on the banks of the river. The valley is divided into three areas: the Baixo Corgo, which is cool and wet and produces the lightest, most inexpensive ports; the Cima Corgo, which is warmer and drier and produces the most complex wines; and the Douro Superior, which is hot and dry and the focus of recent plantings as it is flatter and easier to maintain.

how it's made

Port is a sweet wine because it is fortified with a grape-based spirit (called aguardamente in Portuguese) during the fermentation. The high alcohol (77% ABV) kills the yeast in the wine with sugar still remaining. There are over 80 permitted grape varieties allowed for port, which were traditionally grown together in vineyards without anyone really knowing what was what. Since the 1970s, five varieties in particular have been identified as being ideal: Touriga Nacional (low yields, high tannins, very perfumed), Touriga Franca (the most planted), Tinta Roriz (Spain's Tempranillo, adding colour and body), Tinta Barroca (high alcohol, low acidity), and Tinta Cão (literally "red dog"). Port is always a blend of different grapes, each of which brings different qualities to the wine.

the styles

ruby

Simple, inexpensive, fiery, fruity, and young, ruby was until the 1960s drunk by the British with lemonade. It's now most popular in France where it's served as an aperitif. There's also ruby reserve, a higher quality version introduced in the late 1960s by Cockburn's after the British taste for ruby and lemonade faded.

late bottled vintage

LBV for short, it's a port which has been aged for four to six years in old oak barrels before release. It comes in three different styles. The most common is filtered before bottling and has a stopper; the second isn't filtered, has a cork, and generally needs decanting; the third is aged in bottle for three years before release and can be similar to a vintage port in style. Like vintage port all the grapes come from one year and the wines have a similar fruity, tannic intensity, but even the best LBVs lack the heady concentration of a vintage port as they are made every year, not just those that are outstanding.

vintage

Made only in years a producer considers outstanding, when a warm summer produces grapes of optimum ripeness. Vintages are declared around three times a decade, although some producers will declare a year a vintage while others may not. The wine is aged in old oak barrels for three years before bottling (unfiltered, which is why vintage port needs decanting). After that, it's up to the customer to age the wine: vintage port can be at its best at fifty years' old even though it's released so young.

tawny

This is my favourite style of port, perhaps because it's deliberately oxidised like sherry. Its name comes from its colour, the deep ruby port fading in the barrel due to the exposure to oxygen. Inexpensive tawnies are put out in the sun to quicken the ageing, but the best wines are aged gradually over time to develop a nutty complexity. These usually have an age indication of 10, 20, 30, or 40 years (which is an indication of the wine's average age, as tawnies are non-vintage). A vintage tawny is called a colheita (Portuguese for harvest), which has to be aged for at least seven years. It displays the character of the vintage as well as the nutty maturity of an aged tawny.

the tasting

 

Passagem Ruby Reserve NV ($18)

Simple, but at this price very appealing. Fruity, jammy red and black fruits with spicy alcohol on the palate. ✪✪✪

Quinta do Infantado Late Bottled Vintage 2009 ($24) 

For a few dollars more and from an extremely good year, this wine offers a lot more complexity with aromas of liquorice and cloves, irises, blueberries and blackberries, and dried fruit aromas of figs and prunes, with a gripping tannic structure. Intense, but very approachable. ✪✪✪✪✪

Quinta do Infantado 10-year-old Tawny ($41)

My wine of the tasting. Incredibly pronounced, concentrated aromas of every dried fruit imaginable: cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, figs, prunes, currants, and raisins, with spice aromas of cinnamon, cloves, anise, and liquorice. The tannins are faded, but the acidity is high enough to balance the sweetness. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Niepoort 1999 Colheita ($52)

After the tawny, this was somewhat disappointing - perhaps a reminder that just because a wine has a vintage on the label doesn't make it superior (the same is true in Champagne). The aromas were similar to the tawny - floral and with dried fruits - but lacked the same intensity. ✪✪✪✪

Quinta do Infantado 2007 Vintage Port ($50) 

When I bought this wine I knew it would be far too young, but old vintage port is not easy to come by at an affordable price. This wine was really closed and tight and difficult to assess, but nevertheless lots of complex aromas emerged: brambles and blackberries, mint and lavender, cloves and nutmeg, black pepper and liquorice, sultanas and raisins, and strawberries, redcurrants, and raspberries. I'd love to taste this in another ten or even twenty years. ✪✪✪✪✪

It's remarkable how different these styles of port are: the fruity, hot ruby, compared to the closed, difficult, and still young vintage, in contrast to the tannic, concentrated LBV; and then there's the faded colours of the tawny and colheita, offering a reserved, intense maturity. The range of these styles are perhaps confusing to many consumers, but understand the label and there's a wealth of choice in these wines.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Enomatic Wine Dispensers

Back in Manchester, I just visited a fairly new wine bar called Salut, located on a corner near the Town Hall. It’s an attractive bar, airy and industrial, where you can buy wine by the glass, bottle, or through four enomatic wine dispensers. To access these machines, you get a (free) card at the bar, top it up with money, and insert it into the machine whenever you’re ready for a wine. My sister and I put £80 on our card (there’s a reason we put so much money on, which will become apparent shortly), and settled down to taste our way through a choice of thirty-two different wines.

These machines work by replacing wine taken out of the bottle with inert gas, which protects the wine remaining in the bottle from oxygen. This means that the wine stays fresh for some time after being opened, enabling multiple pourings over the course of several days. In essence, Coravin works in much the same way, with the advantage of being portable and easy to use at home. The latter is becoming widely used as it allows sales reps, restaurants, and winery tasting rooms to share expensive bottles without wasting leftover wine. Meanwhile, the enomatic machines are increasingly popular in bars and wine shops as a means of giving customers a taste of a wide range of wines that they may go on to buy. It’s also possible to choose between 125ml or 175ml servings if you’re looking for a glass of wine rather than a sample. One final advantage, especially for shops that specialise in retail rather than service, is that customers help themselves to the wine rather than relying on members of staff.

At Salut, we tasted seventeen of the thirty-two wines available, from nine different countries, and at a range of prices (£15-£100 a bottle). The wines at the cheaper end of the scale were fairly run of the mill and not that exciting to taste, though they do provide a good by the glass option. It’s with the more expensive wines that the machines come into their own, as they allow you to taste wines that often aren’t readily available to those without a thick wallet. Two wines from Spain’s Ribera del Duero really stood out: 2010 Flor de Pingus (£7.15/50ml//£89.50/bottle), from one of the region’s top producers, and 1983 Vega Sicilia Unico (£25.40/50ml), one of Spain’s most iconic wines and the reason we topped our card up with so much money. £25 for a 50ml shot of wine is of course expensive, but we were – or more to the point I was – unable to resist trying a vintage 32 years old, most likely a once in a lifetime opportunity.
 
After that build-up, the wine itself was a disappointment. It was heavily oxidised, its tannins had fallen away, and, although the acidity was still remarkably fresh, the red fruits were faded. Tasting the wine raised two of the disadvantages of the enomatic machines: how long can they actually keep a wine fresh and should they be used to serve a wine that’s more than thirty years’ old? Putting to one side the question of whether the Vega Sicilia had been stored properly before the shop bought it, I feel a wine as delicate as that should be opened, decanted, and drunk straightaway, before it has time to oxidise. For that reason, wines of that age are always going to have a scarcity factor if they are to be appreciated at their best. 

With both the enomatic wine dispensers and Coravin, there seems to be an assumption that the wines will last indefinitely once opened because they’re protected by inert gas. That’s certainly not true with Coravin – once the bottle is half empty, it should be finished off as it’s impossible to insert enough gas to continue protecting the wine. This may also be true of the enomatic machines, as I had to send one wine back – a Mendocino Chardonnay – that had come from the end of the bottle. A member of staff assured me that it being the last pour should make no difference, but in tasting the wine from a newly opened bottle the difference in the wine’s freshness and vibrancy was noticeable. Personal appreciation and understanding of a wine is more important than faith in a machine.