Château d’Yquem Sauternes 1997

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Château d’Yquem Sauternes 1997

Château d’Yquem Sauternes 1997

This is a bit of an unusual post for me, and though I think I can make it worthwhile, some context is required before I dive into my hundredth wine post, the Château d’Yquem Sauternes 1997.

In the wine trade, there are some things that are sancrosanct.  To many they include such things as the first growths of Bordeaux or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti of Burgundy.  They’re never questioned in terms of how good they are.  They are just regarded as the pinnacle against which other wines are measured.  There are certainly complaints as to how much they cost, or their availability, but their quality is only ever judged within a very limited context, and that is vintage to vintage.  The only way to judge the quality of a particular DRC is to compare it against the other DRC vintages.  You’ll only ever see someone comparing a first growth Bordeaux to another wine when they’re trying to tell you how good the other wine is, not when they’re trying to tell you about the first growth itself.

And so while those wines are rarified and in a class all their own, Château d’Yquem takes that to an even higher level, and I don’t just mean because in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification they were the sole producer rated Superior First Growth (Premier Cru Supérieur). People not only compare Château d’Yquem to other vintages of the same, sometimes they restrict themselves to comparing it to its own vintage, just tasted at different times throughout its development.  Given the longevity of the wine, that still leaves a great deal with which to work.

All of this is my way of saying that I will certainly endeavour to tell you about Château d’Yquem, about sweet wines of Bordeaux in terms of the grapes used and how they are made, and I’ll tell you a bit about Sauternes the region.  However, when it comes to assessing this wine, there are people who are experts on Château d’Yquem who will be writing books where this wine will comprise an entire chapter.  For my part, I did jot down my tasting notes, and I can certainly tell you what I found in the glass, but there are others able to judge this wine in the manner it is most appropriately assessed with the full context of other vintages and other tastings of this vintage.  That said, let me tell you what I can about it.

First, the region.  Sauternes is an area of Bordeaux in the Graves district, along the south bank of the river Garrone, near where it meets the tributary Ciron.  It’s a a low lying area with some gentle hills and soils of gravels, limestone and clay, and its climate is broadly maritime though it is among the furthest of the Left Bank regions from the Atlantic.  What makes the area special geographically is the interactions of the rivers.  The Ciron is spring fed and typically cooler than the tidal Garrone.  Where the two rivers meet, mists form in the autumn evenings, blanketing vineyards until the following day.  The moisture encourages the growth of Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot, a type of fungus that removes moisture from grapes, concentrating their sugars, acids and flavours, while adding a unique flavour of its own.  While the resulting grapes are rather unappealing in appearance, that is raisins covered in mold, what remains inside is capable of producing some of the most intense and long lasting sweet wines.

The traditional grapes of Sauternes are Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, for richness, acidity and aromatics respectively.  Yields are incredibly low – limited by regulation to less than half of what many neighbouring areas allow, but in practice typically much lower still.  Producing wine from botrytized grapes is a gamble, even in the best of years, as waiting for the grapes to shrivel on the wine exposes them to the whims of the weather.  Yields vary greatly year to year, and in some years conditions are so unfavourable very little wine is produced.

Producing Sauternes is also very expensive.  Grapes are hand harvested, but as botrytis can be quite patchy in its attack, often several passes through each vineyard over weeks are required, multiplying costs.  Fermentation often takes place in barrel, leaving a sweet wine of roughly 14% with another 4-7% potential in unfermented sugar.  Barrel ageing over 18 to 36 months is then required, often with new oak, before the wine may be sold.

This is not the first time this blog has come across Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc, but as I’ve not written about a Bordeaux white blend, a quick word is in order.  While Bordeaux is best known for its great red wines, and to some extent for its great sweet wines such as this one, it also produces some fine white wines as well.  Traditionally everything in Bordeaux is a blend, with the red style being imitated the world round.  California producers went so far as to coin the term Meritage to describe the blend of red grapes in their context.  The white blend of Bordeaux is classically described as Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle.  However, there are some other white grapes grown for base level white Bordeaux AC, including Ugni Blanc, Columbard and Merlot Blanc.  So while Sauternes producers are best known for their sweet wines, they retain the option of making still wine from their grapes.

I can only cover the very basics with regards to Château d’Yquem, but here it goes.  The property itself dates to 1593 when it was acquired from the French monarchy by Jacques de Sauvage, and vines were first planted in 1711.  There is a great deal of history over the subsequent 300 years, including the appreciation of Thomas Jefferson when he was based in Paris, the subsequent 1855 Classification, and no small amount of family intrigue and struggles.  Fast forward to the end 20th century and it is majority owned by Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, and soon thereafter is being run by Pierre Lurton of Château Cheval-Blanc fame.

The vineyards themselves are 113HA in total, with roughly 100HA in production at any given time.  The vines are 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, eschewing Muscadelle.  They ferment in barrel, and typically keep wines in new oak another three years, with yearly racking.  They’ve also employed the very expensive process of cryoextraction, whereby grapes are exposed to very low temperatures, and then immediately pressed, with only juice being extracted from the ripe grapes while the less ripe grapes are completely frozen and thus yield no juice.  Roughly 8,000 cases are produced annually, a small percentage of the wine made by other classified producers.  In addition to their sweet wine, they also produce a dry white in some years called Y or Ygrec.

As you can tell from the photo, I was tasting this from an Enomatic, paying dearly for each sip.  While it is expensive, I did once manage to buy a half-bottle to accompany the starter and dessert of Thanksgiving dinner, and it was magnificent.

This wine is clear and bright in the glass, with a medium amber colour.  The nose is clean, developing, with medium plus intensity and notes of honeycomb, orange marmalade, a hint of vanilla, and some lemon rind.   On the palate it was sweet, with high flavour intensity, medium plus alcohol, a full body, medium plus acidity.  The palate delivered what the nose promised, with all parts of an orange – the peel, oils, marmalade, but not orange juice – rather candied orange.  It had long length and a marmalade finish.

This is a wine of outstanding quality.  The concentration and complexity is fantastic.  I don’t have the context required as far as multiple tastings of d’Yquem and revisiting of past vintages to do this wine justice, but if the only way you’ll get to enjoy it is a small tasting sip, it is still well worth the experience.  It’s the perfect wine with which to toast a hundredth wine post, and so I raise a glass to the next hundred.

Self-indulgent Meta

The post that follows this marks the 100th wine I’ve covered, and so what better time to have a quick look back at how it’s gone.

I passed the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma Unit 3 Exam (the original aim of this blog), and with it the Diploma as a whole, meaning I’m an Associate Member of the Institute of Wine & Spirits, and can therefore use the letters AIWS after my name.  I then went on to do very poorly on the Court of Master Sommeliers exam, but somehow still managed to end up with a document that proclaims me a Certified Sommelier (probably an administrative error).  Finally, I’ve complete the  WSET Educator Training Programme and can now claim to be a WSET Certified Educator.  So over the last six months, I’ve gone from being a struggling student to a graduate and instructor, which makes me happy.

This blog has had something of a transformation as well.  When it launched, I was the only person reading.  That’s no longer the case, and while Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker haven’t been trying to hire me as a consultant, knowing that there’s some visibility into what I’m doing has encouraged me to step up my game somewhat.  I now try to cover the grapes, region and producer in each post, particularly if I haven’t written about one or more of them before, as well as writing a proper(ish) WSET SAT style tasting note for the wine in the glass.

Furthermore, I’ve made what I like to think of as improvements to the structure of the blog itself.  I’ve gone back and put in reasonable titles for each post about a wine, added a map for each, compiled them in a big map that shows the origins of all the wines I’ve tasted, and built up a listing of the grapes I’ve tried and each wine that used them.  I’ve also made decent progress in term of trying to hit a century of varietal wines, with the 50 grape mark just last week.  I’ve also recently implemented custom post types and custom taxonomies so you can quickly see all wines that are from the Adelaide Hills or are Varietal Pinot Noirs.  There’s more I’d like to do in that respect, and I may be the only person who uses the new functionality, but as a programmer I like to tinker and doing a bit of PHP hacking is rewarding in its own way.

So if there are three ways I can spend the time I put into the blog, the writing and the site itself are obviously getting the vast majority, which leaves very little time for promotion and trying to draw people to the site.  I did get around to setting up a linked Facebook account, and I do tweet when there are new articles, but that’s largely it.  I’m not so naive to think that if I just write good articles, people will flock to the site, but I guess I’m just not fussed.  This isn’t about having people read what I write – it’s about the writing itself.

I haven’t even gone so far as to tell most people with whom I’m friends that I’m doing this, though now that I’m about to hit my hundredth wine, I think I might change that.  No one wants to hear about a new blog that might never get updated after the fifth post, but after six months this has some momentum so I may let some friends know.

Finally, in terms of people knowing I write this blog, one of the reasons I have kept it quiet is that being anonymous affords some level of insulation between who I am online and who I am in real life.  However, I wouldn’t write anything here that I wouldn’t say offline, so if anyone thinks it’s important to know who I am, I’m happy to reply to communications with my real name and contact details.  It’s not a huge secret – there were only ten Diploma Graduates in Australia, only two of whom are based in Adelaide, and of those two, only one is male, so there you have it.

So that’s the looking back bit, and now it’s time for the looking forward and what I want to do.  The first step is really to have a look around.  I’ve been largely blogging in a vacuum, and there are a number of excellent wine blogs out there from which I could steal learn.  So I’m probably going to spend a chunk of time over the next week coming up with a list of things I want to do, along the lines of the To Do list I posted in February.

Beyond that, I am keen to hit 100 varietals, so I’ve been picking wines with an eye to that, which means you should see varietal Barbera, Viognier and Cabernet Franc in the near future.  The problem is that the closer I get to 100, the harder it is to locally source wines.  I think I should be able to get to 70 before I really start scratching, but I’ll probably be searching out rarities before too long.  Also, there are some producers who do a number of unusual varieties but I’m trying not to go back to the same producer twice in my first year.  So alas, I won’t be writing about the Tissot Poulsard because I’ve already covered their Savagnin.

Finally, I’m hoping that the blog will become somewhat more conversational over the next six months.  I get the odd comment, often from the producer I’m reviewing, but I’d really like it if there were more regular contributors.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the few people who do comment – I absolutely do – but rather I’d like them to have some company other than just myself.

To anyone who made it all the way through this self-indulgent blog post about blogging, I salute you, and return you to your regularly scheduled wine coverage.

Sadie Family Columella 2007

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Sadie Family Columella 2007

Sadie Family Columella 2007

While they’re certainly thin on the ground here in Australia, I’m a big fan of the wines of South Africa.  I started this blog by writing about an entry level white, Goats Do Roam, and now as I approach my hundredth wine, I have one that is at the other end of the price spectrum, The Sadie Family Columella 2007.

In researching this wine, I think I’ve come across yet another iconic winemaker about whom I knew almost nothing, a bit like when I went to the Stephen Pannell tasting, and that despite having personally carried some of his wines back with me from South Africa almost two years ago.

When I was last in South Africa, the trip was all about the World Cup and hardly at all about wine.  However, I did manage to swing by a wine shop and picked up a mixed case, largely consisting of wines I had enjoyed on my previous visit.  However, the Chenin Blanc I wanted from Ken Forrester was unavailable.  The merchant suggested instead that I try an unfamiliar wine, Palladius, which was a white blend.  I picked up two bottles, brought them back to Australia, put them in the cellar, and never bothered to investigate what I had brought home.  It turns out they are wines of The Sadie Family, made by Eben Sadie who I now know as the first celebrity winemaker of South Africa.

Eben Sadie worked throughout the world in the wine industry, before returning to South Africa in 1998 to work with Charles Back, who is best known for producing wines of The Spice Route and Fairview, makers of Goats Do Roam.  (See what I did there?  It’s all connected!)  After very quickly making a reputation for himself, he started his own winery in 1999, initially using the Spice Route facilities, and produced the first vintage of Columella in 2000.  He co-founded a vineyard in Priorat, Spain in 2001 where he produces a wine in partnership with Dominik Huber, a restauranteur from Munich.  In 2002 he produced his first vintage of Palladius, and in 2003 branched out to produce Sequillo wines which are something of a more affordable second label.

I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do justice to Eben Sadie, having covered the dates and dry facts.  Apparently he is something of a personality, and I think he’s relatively young, turning 40 this year.  He’s considered a wine guru, having seen how wine is made both throughout Europe and in Oregon and then deciding he was going to apply that in South Africa.  He’s been described as an enfant terrible by Tim Atkin MW in Decanter, a prophet by Jancis Robinson, and an artisan by Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof (who I’ve always thought of as an artisan, so he would know).  He eschews the term winemaker, preferring the wine to be an expression of terroir, and therefore his job is to stay out of the way so that can happen, rather than trying to make that happen.

This is not a unique profile – many winemakers spend their early years working vintages around the world to return to their homelands and apply their learning.  Likewise many winemakers have similar ideas as to non-intervention in winemaking and expression of terroir.  It’s actually a pretty easy formula, but it really doesn’t explain anything, because there’s clearly something unique about Eben Sadie and his approach that isn’t evident in any of the articles about him that I’ve read or the documents released related to his wine.  But there is absolutely something that sets him and his wines apart, and if I could pin it down I might like to follow in his footsteps.  But experiencing winemaking in different parts of the world isn’t enough, nor is having the best intentions and practices.  There’s something else, and I don’t know what it is, but he has it.

Columella, the wine, is named for Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who Sadie describes as the first wine writer.  A first century agriculturalist, he authored De Re Rustica, a twelve volume work on all aspects of agriculture.  The wine as a tribute to him is reflected in the entirety of the label being in Latin.  This includes place names, which means Swartland from Dutch/Afrikaans turns into Nigra in Terra in Latin, then into something along the lines of Black Country in English, apparently to do with a native plant with a dark appearance after rains.  The wine itself is a blend, with 80% Syrah being the core, along with 20% Mourvèdre.

Swartland is something of a new wine region for me, though having now just found it on a map, I drove right through it while I was on honeymoon.  (I hope I can be forgiven for having had other things on my mind.)  It’s north of Cape Town on the west coast of the country as part of the Western Cape Geographical Unit, and within that the Coastal Region.  The climate is warm though mitigated by proximity to the Atlantic and very stable.  It is a traditional breadbasket for grain production in its flat, open plains, with vineyards on foothills or along the river Berg.  The area had been known for production of bulk and fortified wine, and it is home to the largest co-operative in the country, but there has been a recent trend toward high quality wine from smaller producers.

As to the particulars of The Sadie Family vines, they lease seven vineyards throughout Swartland.  They do not irrigate, and roughly half their vines are trellised, with the remainder being bush vines.  They have very low yields generally, and thin their crop further in dry years.  Their soils are a mix of decomposed slate, decomposed granite, and sandstone and slate / clay mixtures.  They hand pick into baskets, and then hand sort the grapes.  After destemming, half are crushed, and then left to cold soak for two to four days.  Fermentation is by natural yeast in open top wooden fermenters over three to four week with controlled temperatures, followed by additional maceration on skins for up to three weeks.  After pressing, the wine is transferred into barrels using buckets rather than pumped, and gravity is used for other transfers.  The parcels are eventually blended and mature in oak for up to two years, then bottled without fining or filtering.

In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with a medium plus purple colour and slow legs with a bit of colour to them.  The nose is clean and intense, but took ages to get this way – decanted four hours ago and was very closed at that point.  It has notes of perfume, blueberry and chocolate.  On the palate, it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium plus body, medium plus alcohol, medium minus soft tannins, and medium plus flavour intensity.  It’s a rich wine with notes of chocolate, green peppercorns, blueberry, cherry, cola, and coffee.  It has a bit of fruit sweetness to it – not to do with residual sugar, just fruit.  It has long length with a herby finish.

This is an exceptional wine.  It’s intense, long lasting, and well balanced – not overly tannic or alcoholic (though there’s enough), but with a solid punch of flavour and supporting cast. It has a very solid structure, but not one based exclusively on tannins.  Yet it’s graceful – it allows appreciation if you stop to consider it in your mouth, but not overly obvious.  It’s not exactly subtle, but somewhere in between – you’ll think it’s nice, but only when you stop will you appreciate it does it really reveal itself.

Cantina del Pino Barbaresco DOCG 2006

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Cantina del Pino Barbaresco DOCG 2006

Cantina del Pino Barbaresco DOCG 2006

Yesterday was the familiar, but today is somewhat less so.  We’re back in Italy, in Piedmont, but instead heading southwest from Alba, we’re going in the opposite direction where we can find this Cantina del Pino Barbaresco DOCG 2006.

I wrote a little about Piedmont when I covered the Dolcetto d’Alba not so long ago, but only really to say that’s where Alba is located.  It’s a hugely important wine region in the northwest of Italy, best known for three grapes:  Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto.  Nebbiolo is the cornerstone grape of a dozen DOC/DOCGs, and is perhaps most famous when produced on Barolo or Barbaresco.  Barbera is somewhat more rustic, and while widely produced, is very much the second grape of the region.  Dolcetto is third in the rankings, and usually made into a drink now style of wine.  Piedmont is also home to two styles of sparkling wine, Asti and Mostaco d’Asti, as well as some white varieties which represent a small but growing percentage of production.

Barbaresco itself is a DOCG (since 1980), situated to the east of Alba in the Langhe area. A hilly region, the soils are calcareous marl.  The climate is similar to the rest of Piedmont, with hot summers, cold winters and fog, though it is moderated by the river Tanaro.

As the wines of Barbaresco are nearly always viewed as a counterpart to neighbouring Barolo, it’s worth noting how the wines differ.  Both are made from Nebbiolo, but the conditions in Barbaresco ripen the grapes sooner and give lighter wines.  As a result, Barbaresco is a lighter style, and the ageing requirements are a year in oak and two years total, a year less than Barolo.  The lighter body does not take away from the tannins and acidity for which Nebbiolo is known, though Barbaresco matures rapidly and is not meant for the extented ageing commonly associated with Barolo.

I’ve written briefly about Nebbiolo in the context of Jasper Hill, but here again are the basics:  early budding, late ripening, susceptible to poor fruit set with thin but tough skins, it produces lightly coloured wines of high acidity and high tannin levels.  In Piedmont, in addition to Barbaresco and Barolo, it produces several other DOC/G wines, as well as many other less regulated local wines as varietals and blends.  Outside of Piedmont, it is also grown in Valtellina where it is known as Chiavennasca, but otherwise it is little grown in the rest of Italy.  In the New World it has many fans but it is a challenging grape to grow.  There are plantings in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, Argentina, and in cooler areas of Australia, but only a few stand out examples.

Cantina del Pino is one of the oldest producers in Barbaresco.  The vineyards were established nearly a hundred years ago by the former director of the Royal Enological School in Alba, Domizio Cavazza, who first called wine produced in that area from Nebbiolo grapes Barbaresco.  The company is named after a pine tree he planted to mark the birth of his first son, and while his family did not take up the business after he died, the Vacca family who took over after him have maintained it ever since, now on their fourth generation.  They produce three Barbarescos, a Langhe Nebbiolo, a Barbera d’Alba, and a Dolcetto d’Alba, as well as a Langhe Freisa.

While they don’t make any claims as to organic certification, they use no chemical fertilizers, and the average age of their vines is 40 years old.  They use 20-30 day macerations and fermentation in stainless steel, both under controlled temperatures.  They age their wines for two years in oak and at least another year in bottle.  They neither fine nor filter their wines.

In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with a medium minus garnet colour, and very slow, thick legs.  On the nose it is clean with medium intensity and a developing character.  There are notes of sour cherry, sweet spice, and potpourri.  The palate is dry, with medium plus mouth coating tannins, medium plus acidity, medium minus body, medium flavour intensity, medium plus alcohol.  There is a bit of tar, some perfume, and lovely pomegranate notes. It has a medium plus length.

I rate this a very good wine – I really enjoyed it.  It had a complex mix of flavours and good intensity on the palate.  In addition, it has a really nice colour, as in pretty shade, though not especially deep.

Grosset Piccadilly 2001

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Grosset Piccadilly 2001

Grosset Piccadilly 2001

There’s something to be said for using good examples, but for whatever reason I often do just the opposite.  For instance, a good first wine to cover from Barossa would perhaps be the variety for which it is best known – Shiraz.  The first Barossa in this blog was the Domain Day Garganega.  I’ve done the same sort of thing by writing about wines made in Australia by Frenchmen, wines made in France by Australians, and numerous other reversals of expectations.  It’s in that spirits I give you the Grosset Piccadilly 2001.

Another Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills, you may ask?  Made by an iconic winemaker known better from another region?  With a fair amount of bottle age?  If this sounds familiar, it is, as the Wolf Blass White Label Chardonnay ticks all the same boxes.  Am I just being lazy going for the same type of wine?  Having just written up a Picpoul de Pinet, I hope that’s not a serious question.  But I do have favourites, and while everything I drink, I drink for you, my readers, I think this producer is worth highlighting.

This producer is Grosset, in particular Jeffrey Grosset, the founder, owner and winemaker.  He established his winery in 1981 in the Clare Valley and has been focused on producing top quality wines ever since.

He led a campaign in the 1980s for the use of the word Riesling to be reserved exclusively to wines actually made from the Riesling grape.  Yes, these days that seems a bit of a weird thing, but as I mentioned when I opened some old Rieslings, Australia has long played fast and loose with place and varietal names, and at the time Riesling was treated both as a generic name for white wine (and therefore used on cheap, cask wines) and as a local name for whatever white grapes were being grown.   Clare Riesling was actually Crouchen, Hunter Riesling was actually Semillon, and you needed to find a bottle of Rhine Riesling if you were after the real thing.

He also was influential in pushing Clare winemakers to switch from cork to screw cap closures.  While screw caps had been launched by Pewsey Vale and then withdrawn after a lack of uptake by consumers, Grosset organized Riesling producers in Clare to switch to  screw cap as a unified front.  This Chardonnay, funnily enough, is under cork, though more recent bottlings seem to be under screwcap.

As you might have guessed, Grosset is best known for Riesling.  His Polish Hill is arguably the most famous Rieslings of Australia, and quite possibly the best.  It features in the second highest category, Outstanding, of the Langton’s Classification, with his Watervale not far behind in the next category down, Excellent.  While he does make other wines, including red and white Bordeaux blends and a Pinot Noir, it would be perfectly reasonable to think that I’d be writing about one of his Rieslings.  However, I happened to pick up this nicely cellared bottle of Chardonnay, and being a fan of Adelaide Hills wines, I would be remiss in not writing about it.

Quick disclaimer – the winemaker with whom I’ve worked the last few vintages has an ongoing business interest with Jeffrey Grosset, and therefore some of the grapes in this wine may have come from one of my boss’ vineyards, but given that I had never been to Australia in 2001 I had nothing to do with the grapes or this wine.

As I mentioned, this wine was bottled under cork and the cork itself was in good condition coming out of the bottle.  The wine is clear and bright, with a medium plus gold colour, and quick legs when swirled.  On the nose, it’s clean, has medium plus intensity and a fully developed character.  There are notes of old oak, porridge, honeycomb, butterscotch, and a savoury note I can’t quite place.  On the palate it’s dry, with strong medium plus acidity, a medium body, medium plus intensity, and medium plus alcohol.  It has flavours of lemon, sandalwood, sunflower, key lime pie, and some nuttiness.  It has a medium length and some honey on the finish.

This is a very good wine that has aged gracefully.  It’s very rich, with a softened texture, but still good acidity.  On the Grosset site there are tasting notes for this wine that are likely a decade old and it’s interesting to see what’s changed.  The cedary oak and lemony citrus flavours are still there, but the melon and tropical fruit are gone, replaced by nut and honey flavours.  The acidity has certainly allowed it to last a bit more than the medium term that the notes advise in terms of cellaring, and while I don’t think letting it sit another decade would be the best idea, it certainly has developed nicely over the last ten years.

Back from an interesting week

My WSET Diploma Pin

My WSET Diploma Pin

Apologies to anyone who was expecting wine writing last week.  As I mentioned, I was off in Sydney for the WSET Diploma Graduation dinner and then three days of courses.  I had every intention of posting about the dinner, and then doing a write up of each day of the course, but the evening of the dinner was far to celebratory for me to undertake any writing immediately thereafter, and after the days of instruction I was busy preparing for the next day or catching a plane home.  However, that’s all done, so I actually have a few spare moments to recap the week before I return to writing about wine.

First off, Graduation.  We started the Diploma course with the Sydney Wine Academy just over two years ago, and the class had roughly 25 students.  Over the two years that followed, some students dropped out, but we also had two join – one who had started the course in London and another who had been working independently.  When the time came for the last exam, Unit 3, we were closer to 20.  We were also joined by another outside student who had completed the course elsewhere except for the exam.  In the end, we had 10 students pass the exam, and all were able to attend the dinner, though some who either didn’t take the exam in January or didn’t pass will do so over the next month.

[With regards to pass rates, having 50% of those taking the test is pretty good for the January exam, when the previous month is often very busy for those sitting it.  Pass rates for the theory section of January exams were 34%, 49%, 53%, 50%, 42%, and 42% for 2011 through 2006 respectively.  June pass rates for the theory exam were higher each of those years, in one case by as much as 20%.]

The event was held at Fix St. James in Sydney, which is known not just for excellent food, but particularly for their innovative approach to wine, their eclectic wine list, and the man behind all of it, Stuart Knox.  The event was officiated by Clive Hartley, who administers the course through the Sydney Wine Academy, and Jude Mullins, who manages many of the international aspects of the WSET courses.  Due to a schedule crunch, it was on the same night as a talk by Andrew Jefford, organized by the Wine Communicators of Australia.  Many of those attending the talk came to the dinner as well, which meant the attendance was larger and more distinguished than it might have been otherwise, but that there were people who were there for the graduation and others who were really just there for the dinner.  Still, I think everyone had a nice time, and most of the graduates snuck out at the end for a more intimate drink at a nearby wine bar.  Oh, and then were was whisky.  And then it got blurry.  And then, all too quickly, it was time for class.

Yes, because the first thing you want to do after a big night is sit in a classroom so you can learn how to be an instructor, and that’s what I did not just the next day, but for the rest of the week.  The timing of the dinner was in part motivated by Jude Mullins being in town, and part of the reason she was in Sydney was to teach the WSET Educator Training Programme.  The number of WSET course providers in Australia has taken off over the last decade, and the value of the education provided is being increasingly appreciated within the industry which further increases demand.

The instructor course had very little to do with wines and spirits – you need to already have that knowledge to take the course.  Instead, the emphasis was on what to teach and how to teach.  Everyone taking the course knew more than they would be expected to teach, and it was more a matter of deciding what was most appropriate at each level of instruction offered.  Fortunately, the WSET has very clear specifications for each course in terms of what students are expected to know at the start and what they need to know at the end.  In addition to learning what to teach, we had a bit of time on the topic of how to teach.  We finished the week by each student having to give a presentation on a tiny section of the course at Level 2, and then conducting a tasting at Level 3.

It was an interesting group of students, a dozen in total.  Many were from large drinks companies and were planning on offering or upgrading their in-house education programmes.  Others were involved in wine education or looking to soon be.  Funnily enough, we had not only one Master of Wine as an instructor, but a second who was taking the class as a student.

I managed to survive not just getting to class after the big graduation celebration, but also put together and successfully delivered a halfway decent presentation, so I passed.  Therefore, I am able to use the title “WSET Certified Educator”, though I’m not sure how well it squares with a blog called drunk.com.

Speaking of which, the witty and insightful wine writing you’ve come to expect from this blog will be returning with my next post.  With the last wine post I hit the 50th varietal wine in my quest for a century, and I’m also closing in on my hundredth wine post, so there’s good stuff on the way.  I have three empty bottles here on my desk to remind me that there are a great many notes waiting to be polished into posts.  I’m not sure if anyone else is learning anything from this blog, but I certainly am, and now that I’m a Certified Educator, I’m sure my continuing self-education will be conducted at a much higher level.

A bit of an unusual week

While in my heart, and by looking at the logs, I know I’m the only person who ever looks at this site.  However, just in case I forget, this note is a reminder to myself that I won’t be updating as usual this week because on Tuesday I’ll be flying to Sydney to attend a dinner celebrating the graduating class of the Australia based WSET program run out of the Sydney Wine Academy.  And since I was in the class and I passed my Unit 3 Exam (not sure if I’ve mentioned that) I’ll be receiving my Diploma.  So, no proper post on Tuesday.

Then, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I’ll be taking a course which, should I pass, will allow me to teach WSET courses.  Between being in class all day and undoubtedly doing some homework, I won’t be able to put together proper posts for those days either.

However, I have every good intention of posting about the graduation dinner and the days on the course, so in a break from talking about specific wines, regions, grapes and producers, I’ll talk a bit more broadly about the Diploma and the instructor course.

Domaine de la Majone Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet 2010

Domaine de la Majone Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet 2010

Domaine de la Majone Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet 2010

I swung by a favourite wine bar recently and had an opportunity to try something rare, and even though I just wrote about a similarly lesser known white grape from the south of France, I couldn’t resist.  Obscure grapes are really a matter of perspective, in that if I lived in Pinet this would be considered absolutely common.  But since I don’t, I give you Domaine de la Majone Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet 2010.

Before I get into that, you may have noticed a change on the website, in that each post starts with some data about the wine in question, and those terms click through to all the wines that share that origin or variety.  While I still have a fair amount of work ahead of me, all the posts that relate to a single wine (approaching 100) now have those details.  It’s handy as I will be making more templates to make use of those, but even just now as I was putting those details in I had to enter both the location and the grape into the database, so I know that I haven’t covered either before.  And that means I should get to it.

So Languedoc.  It, along with Roussillon, made up the compulsory question on the WSET Diploma Exam in January (I passed – not sure if I’ve mentioned that enough) and so I should be well equipped to say something meaningful about it.  However, the question was about the strengths and weaknesses of the two collectively as a wine area, and I think I got points for showing thoughtfulness instead of actually knowing many facts.  I’ll start with what I know, and then, as always, consult the pile of books I have here (as well as the OCW at jancisrobinson.com).

Languedoc-Roussillon is an area in the south of France from the Spanish border to the Rhône river, extending inland from the Mediterranean between roughly 30km at it’s most shallow and roughly 100km at its deepest.  Roussillon is the area closest to the border and is culturally Catalan, but best kept on its own until I can talk about a wine specifically from there.  Languedoc is the more northern and eastern section of the broader region, and is culturally an area where Occitan was spoken.  If you add spaces and punctuation, Languedoc becomes Langue d’òc, or language of òc, hence the name of the region.  The climate is Mediterranean, with short, rainy winters, long springs and autumns, and hot dry summers.  Drought is a constant threat.  In addition to the sea, the Mistral can have an impact, keeping the region from becoming unbearably hot.  The soils vary across the rather large region, though limestone is a common theme.  Otherwise, it’s rich soil in river valleys, sandy in the area around the Rhône, but more clay and gravel on the plains.

In terms of wine, Languedoc is a big place, both geographically and in terms of production.    Along with Roussillon, the two make up roughly a quarter of total French area under vine, though that is down from a third in the 1990s.  While the areas produce a vast quantity of wine, they represents only 10% of AC wines.  Instead most wine produced is either in the lowest quality designation, Vin de Table, or increasingly in the intermediate category of Vin de Pays.

In parts of the New World, there are areas that are best known for bulk production of wine but likewise not generally known for high quality wines, such as California’s Central Valley, or Australia’s Murray Darling.  It’s tempting to think that Languedoc must be the same, and at one point that might have been true.  Carignan, little loved, is the main grape of the region.  Traditional winemaking is still very common, with little availability of modern conveniences such as destemming machinery, and new oak is usually beyond the budgets afforded by the selling price of the wines produced.  Fermentation is typically done in concrete, though stainless steel has made some inroads.  Carbonic maceration is commonly used to moderate the harsh nature of Carignan, and much of the wine is sold in bulk to consumers without ever seeing the inside of a bottle.

However, while Languedoc does produce more than its share of mediocre bulk wines, it is also an engine of innovation in the Old World.  In the absence of strict appellation rules, some winemakers have taken advantage of the freedom by experimenting with different varieties, blends, and winemaking techniques.  Vine pull schemes sponsored by the European Union have cut back on the dominance of Carignan, opening up the region to Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay are also finding a home there, though not for AC wines.  Wines are sold with the variety written on the label – something unusual in France outside of Alsace.  Modern wines of Languedoc can be fresh, interesting, and able to compete with their New World counterparts on price and accessibility.  The thrust of my essay answer on the exam was that as a region it was a small piece of the New World in an Old World country.  So freedom, modernity, and some of the cachet of being French, but none of the recognition or prestige of the fine wine regions.

To narrow the focus somewhat, much of that does not apply to this wine or its region.  This wine is from Coteaux du Languedoc AC, which immediately puts it a step up on the quality classification ladder from most wines of Languedoc, and in particular it is from the named Cru of Picpoul de Pinet.

Picpoul Blanc is the grape, and it is neither of the new crop of varieties being planted, but rather a re-emerging regional grape of the area that fell out of fashion when phylloxera destroyed much of the wine industry.  Literally “lip stinger” in Occitan, it’s an oval shaped white grape found in loose bunches.  It buds early but ripens late.  Unfortunately, it has low yields and is susceptible to fungus, and as such was not a popular candidate for replanting after the blight of the 19th century.  While it is not the next Sauvignon Blanc, it has come back from complete obscurity.  It tolerates sand, which has been used to good effect in coastal vineyards, and modern winemaking has allowed its crisp character to be more widely appreciated.  It, along with Picpoul Rouge, are permitted varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, though are only ever seen there in tiny amounts.  It is at home in Languedoc, and Picpoul de Pinet may be made in both the namesake commune and a number of its immediate neighbours.  There area also plantings in California and Texas, but I can’t find anyone growing it in Australia.

I can find very little information about this producer as I’m unable to locate their website, but I did drop a line to the importer and have one detail.  They’re apparently part of a co-operative in Côtes de Thau with their own winery.  The bottle shape is also required of the AOC, and while the photo doesn’t do it justice, it is somewhere between an Alsace and Burgundy shape, with an embossed detail most of the way up the bottle.

As to this wine itself, in the glass it’s clear and bright, with medium minus lemon green colour and slow thick legs.  The nose is of medium plus intensity, with scents of green apple, honey, mineral, and pear.  It’s youthful without really any development.  On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium alcohol, medium plus intensity and notes of grapefruit, some pear, mineral, and a little paint thinner on the finish. It has a medium plus length.

This is a good quality wine.  It’s fairly intense and has good complexity of tart and mineral flavours.  The acidity is certainly living up to the variety’s name, and it makes me wish the weather was warmer and I was having something salty like fish and chip to eat by the seaside.  I’d recommend this if you can find it, or really any Picpoul de Pinet, as they’re refreshing and certainly undervalued.  I’m not positive, but this could be the least expensive wine I’ve covered, but certainly one of the best in terms of value.

Pin location is approximate.

Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006

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Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006

Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006

Another shockingly bad bottle photo can mean only one thing, another wine from the Enomatic.  A great way to taste wine, but a horrible way to photograph bottles.  The next time I do such a tasting, I’ll really need to hunt down a bottle that isn’t already in the machine so as to take a slightly better photo.  But as always, this isn’t about the pictures, it’s about the wines, and sometimes the words.  With that I give you the Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006.

Having written about Pinot Noirs from Australia, France, South Africa and New Zealand, it’s time to turn our attention to the U.S.A. and California in particular.  Los Carneros AVA, or Carneros as it is also known, is a region within northern California that is something of a curiosity within the legal geography of American Viticultural Areas.  I wrote a bit about AVAs when I covered the Bogle Petite Sirah, and again when I wrote about Stags’ Leap.  AVAs typically fall within a single county, in the way that a county is a part of a single state. Carneros is somewhat odd in that it covers an area that is largely within Sonoma county, but partially within Napa county.  Strictly speaking, it is not a sub-appellation of either, but producers are also entitled to use the Sonoma Valley AVA or Napa Valley AVA depending on which part of Carneros they are in.  Just as the Stags Leap AVA is defined by the unique geography within Napa, the Carneros AVA is defined by its unique climate, the first California AVA to be so defined in 1983.

That climate is moderately cool and windy, but cooler and windier than any of the surrounding area.  It is on the lowest hills of the Mayacamas range as they descend toward the San Pablo Bay, the body of water just to the north of the San Francisco Bay.  Unlike much of the rest of Napa and Sonoma, there is little to shield it from the influences of the bays, and fog is a near certainty each morning.  The soils are shallow clay with poor fertility and drainage, though the wind does prevent vineyards from becoming swamps.  Vines struggle under such conditions, which limits yields.  It also demands long ripening times, though that can increase flavour concentration within the grapes.

The region has been something of a rising star with regard to cool climate grapes over the last 30 years, but grapes were initially planted in the 1870s.  Phylloxera essentially shut down grape production in the area a decade or two later until a regeneration effort got underway in 1942 with some success.  However, this was eclipsed by the most recent increase in plantings which began in the 1970s.  Production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay suited to the cool climate put Carneros on the map with both varietal still and blended sparkling wine.  Today, many other varieties are grown, most notably Syrah and Merlot.

It’s probably worth a paragraph to write about Pinot Noir in California.  It is a relative newcomer, as Oregon to the north staked its claim to be the Burgundy of America early on, and it wasn’t until Cabernet Sauvignon had been firmly established in northern California that some producers sought to make use of the cooler regions.  While California is geographically closer to the equator and generally warmer, it does not lack for regions with significant maritime influences.  The cooler areas of Napa and Sonoma counties, as well as areas of Mendocino county to the north and the Central Coast to the south all proved able to produce good examples, for use both as sparkling and still wine.

Etude is a modern producer, established in the 1980s by Tony Soter.  He works with winemaker Jon Priest and viticulturalist Franci Ashton to produce wines of both the Carneros and Napa Valley AVAs.  In the vineyard, blocks are based on the underlying soil rather than on efficient grids.  (That said, looking at the satellite pictures, I see lots of straight lines dividing blocks.)  Unlike most of the surrounding area, the soils themselves are of volcanic origin, and well drained.  Their vineyards are mainly Pinot Noir plantings, which encompass almost twenty different clones, including ten less popular and lower yielding heirloom varieties.  They source Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties from local growers.  In addition to a range of Pinot Noirs (including a rosé) and Cabernet Sauvignons, they have a Pinot Gris, a Pinot Blanc, a Chardonnay and a Malbec.  Their winemaking practices are non-interventionist, so as to highlight their terroir and vineyard practices.

I had not tried a wine from or even heard of Etude before this wine, but from looking through their website they strike me as quirky.  To support such a claim, I put forth two pieces of evidence.  First, they make a brandy from Pinot Noir.  Of course, you may ask,  brandy is made from wine, and what better to use to make a fine brandy than a fine wine?  Except it doesn’t work like that.  Fine brandy, such as Cognac and Armagnac, are made from grapes such as Ugni Blanc and Colombard.  While those grapes can be made into table wine, they are easy to grow, they give generous yields, and are not typically thought of as noble.  Pinot Noir is the opposite on all counts.  You get more value from an Ugni Blanc wine that has been distilled into a brandy than you do from the wine required.  With Pinot Noir, the opposite is true.  So really, making brandy from Pinot Noir is just quirky.  I want to say it’s just wrong, but I’m sure they justify it by saying that they only use the grapes not fit for their wines to make brandy.

Second, they employ a falconer.  A quick tangent to South Africa is required.  I had the pleasure of visiting Constantia, the home of Vin de Constance, one of the most famous sweet wines in the world.  On a tour of the vineyards, our host pointed out what looked to be telephone poles planted amongst the vines.  He then told us that they put them up to attract Steppe Buzzards, a raptor that winters in South Africa and is useful in eating pests that might otherwise eat grapes or vines.  Etude does not leave such things to the whims of migratory flying predators.  Instead they employ a falconer and his/her trained falcons to attack starlings that might want to eat their grapes as they ripen.  Being a carnivore myself, I have no problem with animals eating other animals, but it’s a quirkly middle ground between using bird scarers and a shotgun.

So that’s the region, the grape and the producer, leaving only what’s in the glass.  It’s clear and bright with a medium minus ruby colour and quick legs.  On the nose it’s savoury, green funk and pizza spice – oregano and other dried herbs.  There are also some fresh strawberries.  It show development but isn’t fully developed, and has medium plus intensity.  On the palate I get the berries first – strawberries and sweet red cherries, but also some ash and a bit of pencil lead.  It’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus intensity, medium body, medium fine tannins, and medium plus alcohol.  It’s slightly short with a medium minus length.

While I don’t have a great breadth of Californian Pinot Noir experience against which to compare it, I am confident in classifying this a very good wine.  It has a good balance between fresh fruit and more savoury developed characters.  The acidity is holding up nicely while the tannins are fine and undoubtedly have softed over the years this has spend in bottle.

Corte Normanna Falanghina Sannio DOC 2007

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Corte Normanna Falanghina Sannio DOC 2007

Corte Normanna Falanghina Sannio DOC 2007

With a pair of Australian reds back to back, it’s time to go a bit further afield.  While you can expect tastings of whited to lessen in frequency as the chill sets in, and rosé wines may not be seen for months, it would be unreasonable to exclusively drink reds until spring arrives.  (Yes, I’m in the Southern Hemisphere.)  So today it’s a wine from somewhere that’s fairly warm already, the south of Italy, with this Corte Normanna Falanghina Sannio DOC 2007.

As I’ve said before, I find Italy both fascinating and confounding for the sheer variety of regions and varieties.  I will never more than scratch the surface of its vast complexity, but with each wine and region I know a little more than I did, so it keeps me coming back.

Speaking of which, we’re back in Campania, which is in the southern half of the country, and we’re about midway between Rome and the instep of the boot.  We were last here with a Greco di Tufo, but this time we’re in Sannio DOC which is a geographically much bigger area just to the north of Greco di Tufo.  This masterful level of geographic information is straight off the De Long’s Wine Map of Italy, available from Vinodiversity.

The climate of Sannio is similar, if not identical, to Tufo, classic Mediterranean with plenty of sunshine.  (I have seen central parts of the region described as more continental, but in this part of Italy it’s difficult to be more than 70km from the Mediterranean or the Adriatic so I’m not convinced.)  The geography is hilly, and the DOC specification gives some particularly detailed descriptions of the geology, with dolomite and limestone rock sediments on the surface in some areas and clay and sandstone sediments in others, with soft rock underneath.

Falanghina is a local white grape, believed to be the grape of the Falerian wine which was all the rage in ancient Rome.  It’s name is thought to be taken from falangae, the Latin term for stakes in the vineyard for holding up vines.  It is little known outside of Italy, and even as an exported wine it is typically overshadowed by the two big Campanian white grapes, Greco Blanc and Fiano.  However, with modern winemaking enabling better preservation of its fresh aromas, there has been increased interest in it.  That said, I can’t find anyone who has planted it outside of Italy, so it hasn’t quite hit the big time.

As a grape, it is found in compact clusters of round berries which are typically covered in bloom.  The skins are thick, and of a yellow-gray colour.  It ripens from September through October.  The vines are vigourous with average yields.  It makes wines with a light body and moderate to high acidity.

Corte Normanna is a family owned producer based just south of the town of Guardia Sanframondi in the Sannio region and run by the brothers Gaetano and Alfredo Falluto.  Founded in 1927 by a previous Gaetano Falluto, the company left the local cooperative winery in 1984 to set up their own production, with their first exports in 1997.  The name is a nod to normal lords, the Sanframondos, who ruled the area from 1138 until 1460.  They produce a range of products from locally grown grapes and olives.  Their red wines are primarily Aglianico, with two varietal bottlings and two blends.  They produce dry Fiano, Greco Blanc, and three styles of Falanghinas –  a sweet passito dessert wine, and a charmant method sparkler in addition to this dry, still wine.  They also distill grappas and press olive oils.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a medium straw colour, and a thin, quick film (as opposed to legs).  On the nose, it’s clean, with a medium intensity (very closed initially) and aromas of yellow flower, honeycomb, lemon, and initially a slight nuttiness, though less later.  It shows some development, but not fully developed.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus intensity, medium minus acidity, medium plus alcohol, medium plus body, and medium length.  It has nutty notes, lemon preserves, and a bit of zest and minerality.  It had a clean finish.

I’ve said before it’s difficult to judge quality with a wine variety and region that are unfamiliar, so it’s best to fall back to the formula of balance, concentration, complexity, length.  (Typicity is part of the formula, but alas, not useful in this case.)  It’s reasonably well balanced, though lacking acidity relative to its other qualities.  It isn’t short on concentration with good intensity and alcohol.  It has good complexity with both fruit and developed characters coming through, and the length was fine.  I’m going to put this in the good category, though I would have liked more freshness either from a younger vintage or more acidity.

In terms of personal enjoyment, I really did like this wine.  It’s a new variety for me, from an unfamiliar region, and as something of an unknown it did not disappoint.  Well matched with fish or chicken, it carried the meal with which I paired it, and I’d be happy to have another bottle.