E. Guigal Lieu Dit Saint-Joseph 2005

Origin: , , ,

Colour and type: ,
Varietal:

E. Guigal Lieu Dit Saint-Joseph 2005

E. Guigal Lieu Dit Saint-Joseph 2005

While I’ve been to Paris more times than I can remember, I’ve only been a wine tourist in France once.  It was a little over a year ago that my wife and I toured the country spending roughly a week each in Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire and the Rhône Valley.  It involved a huge amount of driving, not just between regions but within each, but it was crucial in terms of converting names in a book or on a map to memorize into experiences to recollect.  We had the pleasure of joining a group tour of the E. Guigal facilities, and while it was certainly one of the largest producers we encountered on our trip, this bottle of E. Guigal Lieu Dit Saint-Joseph 2005 reminds me of their charming hospitality.

Geographically if Burgundy is a north-south line in the northeast of France, the Rhône Valley is a contiuation of that line, just further south, headed toward the Mediterranean, and it’s broken into two distinct parts, north and south, with the area and appellations of Die often forgotten but marking roughly the middle.  The northern Rhône is characterized by steep hillsides, often cut into narrow terraces, overlooking the eponymous river, with plantings largely on the western side of the river (with the exception of Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage).  The hills largely consist of decomposed granite which needs to be replenished as erosion pushes soil down the slopes.  Vines are individually staked, though not so much as protection from erosion as defence against the Mistral, a strong wind that runs through the valley.  The stakes and steepness of the slopes preclude most mechanization, so viticulture is manual labour intensive.

The climate of the northern Rhône is sometimes misunderstood, partly due to having an appellation called Côte Rôtie, which can be translated as roasted slope in English and conjures images of vines in sweltering heat.  In truth, Côte Rôtie is named for the abundance of sunlight hours it gets due to its favourable aspect, but the region as a whole has a continental climate and is heavily influenced by both the chilling Mistral and fog rising from the river, such that ripening can be a challenge.  As a result, natural amphitheatre sun traps are highly prized, and throughout the region vines are planted at aspects to soak up as much sunlight as possible.

The northern Rhône as a whole is responsible for only 5% of total Rhône wine production, but it tends to command higher prices than its southerly neighbour.  It also has more of a focus on varietal wines, with Syrah being the only permitted red grape in AOC wines, though some appellations allow Marsanne, Roussanne and/or Viognier as minor components.  White wines of the northern Rhône, which make up only 10% of production, are either varietal wines of those three grapes, or blends of Marsanne and Rousanne, which can also be made into sparkling wine in the appellation of Saint-Péray.  (If anyone knows where I can get a bottle of sparkling Saint-Péray in Australia, please let me know.)

Saint-Joseph is roughly in the middle of the northern Rhône, stretching from the south of Condrieu to the north of Cornas, with Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage to the east.  The climate is largely continental, though there is some Mediterranean influence in the southern part of the region.  Vineyards are planted on terraces on the slopes down to the river, though has been some expansion into the plateau areas to the west.

Syrah is the main grape, and most red wine produced is varietal.  As this is the third varietal Syrah in this blog, so I won’t go into the grape itself, but I did discuss it somewhat when I wrote about the Pangea Syrah.  Up to 10% Roussanne and Marsanne are permitted in the red blend, though in practice most of those grapes are used in still white wines.  It is the second largest northern Rhône appellation in terms of plantings and production, and is known for relatively easy drinking wines that can be appreciated young.  Much of this is down to the aspect of most of the region, which gets less overall sunlight than other areas of the northern Rhône as the shadow falls earlier on the eastern slopes.

E. Guigal is a producer so famous it has its own entry in the OCW.  Established in 1946, it is a staple of fans of the Rhône, and to a large extent it was Marcel Guigal, son of founder Étienne, who pushed renewed international appreciation for wines of the Rhône in the 1980s.  The family run company produces wines from the vast majority of Rhône appellations, across a range of price points, but it was their single vineyard flagship Côte-Rôtie wines of La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque (known as the “La La’s”) that drew the attention of Robert Parker and his audience.

Tasting room at the end of the tour

Tasting room at the end of the tour

There are volumes written about E. Guigal if you wish to have a read, but I’d rather tell you about my experience in Ampuis.  My wife phoned up to arrange a tour and we were given the time for an English language group.  Our host was a very knowledgeable young man who led a dozen of us throughout their whole operation, from the ultra-modern warehouse full of huge stainless steel tanks and fermenters, down through the barrel cellars which looked as though they hadn’t changed in decades.  Finally at the end of the tour there were a selection of wines to taste, including La Turque, which was amazing.

One thing that was unique in my experience was that at no point were wines available to purchase.  I can totally understand why.  Visitors in our group were all foreign, and it’s a bit of a pain to transport wine internationally while on holiday, and believe me I write that from experience.  Also E. Guigal has among the best international distribution in the industry, so every person on the tour could buy their wines at their local wine merchant.  It was nice – it made the experience all about the wines and not at all about commerce.  Obviously not something I would recommend other wineries emulate, but perfect for E. Guigal.

Finally, this wine.  As I mentioned, it’s a varietal Syrah, grown on sloped vineyards of granitic gneiss, and matured in 50% new oak and 50% second use barrels.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with medium plus garnet colour and quick legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium plus intensity and notes of sweet spice, luscious, ripe, red berries, a little liquorice, and some red meat.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium acidity, medium plus fine delicious tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium body, and medium plus length.  The palate matches the nose closely, with notes of chocolate, red berries, liquorice, red meat and blood, with a chocolate finish.

This is an excellent wine.  It has a seriously ripe nose followed by a rich palate.  I know I said that wines of Saint-Joseph are often best consumed young, but while this wine is very fresh at seven years, it has a great deal of room to grow.  The developed flavours are just starting to show themselves, and I’m glad I have another bottle ticking over in the cellar.  I’ll have to set a reminder to give it another look in five years.

Viña Casa Silva Microterroir de los Lingues Carmenère 2005

Origin: , , ,

Colour and type: ,
Varietal:

Viña Casa Silva Microterroir de los Lingues Carmenère 2005

Viña Casa Silva Microterroir de los Lingues Carmenère 2005

I try to spread the love a little with my coverage of wine, and I mean that geographically.  Given my location and abundance of good wine here, I’m happy if roughly half of the wines I cover are from Australia.  However, I do like some diversity in the other half, and the last time I wrote about a wine from South America was over a month ago.  So without further delay, and finishing the A-B-C theme of the week with a varietal Carmenère, our wine today is the Viña Casa Silva Microterroir de los Lingues Carmenère 2005.

First, the basics.  Carmenère is a grape originally of French origin and at one point part of the red Bordeaux blend.  In the early 1700s, it and Cabernet Franc were both well regarded and widely cultivated in the Médoc.  However, it is susceptible to poor fruit set, and when so afflicted produces greatly reduced yields.  It is also doesn’t respond well to grafting onto rootstock (or at least not as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), so when the vineyards of Bordeaux were replanted post the phylloxera outbreak, Carmenère was very much marginalized.  Today the grape is nearly extinct within France.  However, it somehow managed to escape the disaster under an assumed name and was living quietly in Chile until unmasked in 1994 by DNA profiling.  That probably deserves an explanation.

Carmenère is a red grape that does well with a long, warm growing season, produces wine of deep colour, and can have some of the same juicy, fruit characters found in Merlot.  It buds and flowers somewhat late, though usually within a week of Merlot.  In fact, the similarities with Merlot are such that if you were only familiar with one of them, it would be easy to confuse the two.  Something along those lines happened when clippings from Bordeaux were sent to Chile in the 19th century, pre-phylloxera.  Plantings of Merlot and Carmenère were intermingled but it was mistakenly assumed that they were exclusively Merlot.  As the wine industry grew, plantings of Carmenère expanded, such that Chilean “Merlot” was known for having a somewhat unique flavour profile, though as Carmenère had largely disappeared from the rest of the planet, is was widely thought that it was the influence of a particular clone or the Chilean terroir.  Few suspected it was because it wasn’t in fact Merlot.

While it is easy to confuse Carmenère for Merlot in the vineyard, there are some clues to tell them apart if you look carefully, from differences in leaf colour and leaf lobe shape through to Carmenère bunches being more compact and ripening two weeks after Merlot.  In 1994 Professor Jean-Michel Boursiquot of Montpellier put the pieces of the puzzle together and confirmed that much of what was thought to be Merlot was in fact Carmenère.  (He’s since done similar work with Viognier clones that had been thought to be Roussanne.)

Chile, to their credit, turned on a dime (or perhaps a 10 peso coin) and turned what could have been embarrassment into a point of pride, having been the guardians of a largely vanished variety for 150 years.  Since then, Carmenère has become the hero grape of Chile, as have Malbec in Argentina and Tannat in Uruguay, like prophets without honour in their own country.  While it is not the country’s most widely planted grape, fifth actually behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, it’s uniquely identified with and championed by Chile.

This is not the first wine in this blog from the Colchagua Valley, but the Viña Ventisquero Pangea Syrah was from Apalta at the far end of the valley from Viña Casa Silva, and when I wrote about the Pangea I was more concerned with that somewhat rarified terroir than the Valley as a whole.  Just to review, the Colchagua Valley is in the Rapel subregion which in turn is part of the Central Valley region, and the east end of the valley is roughly 120km south along the Panamerican Highway from Santiago.  The climate is generally warm and at the east end tends toward continental, though this is mitigated by maritime influenced breezes the further west you go toward the Pacific Ocean.  Soil types vary, with clay, sand and decomposed granite being typical.  Plantings in the Valley are largely red, with Cabernet Sauvignon making up more than half of the total area under vine, while Carmenère and Merlot round out the top three varieties.

The origins of Viña Casa Silva can be traced to Emile Bouchon who emigrated to Chile from Bordeaux in 1892 and started a family business growing grapes and making wine which was then sold on to other wineries.  This continued over several generations, with the fortune and lands being divided and then reunited over the time, until in 1997 Mario Pablo Silva (with the Silva family name being picked up through marriage of a Bouchon daughter), proposed the wine be bottled and branded for export instead of being sold in bulk.  With his father, Mario Silva Cifuentes, they built the brand, and now Mario Pablo runs operations in conjunction with brothers Francisco and Gonzalo.

The company has vineyards in three distinct areas in the Valley, with this being from Los Lingues in the northern edge.  They produce a very broad range of bottlings, from entry level to the very high end, largely varietal from at least ten different varieties.  Like many Chilean producers, they are focused on the export market, with distribution to over 50 countries.

This wine is not in any of the ranges they advertise on their website, and I’m not certain if it is still being produced as it was part of a three year experimental project that has now concluded.  Viña Casa Silva worked with Professor Yerko Moreno from the University of Talca to analyse various aspects of their terroir, in fact small plots within their holdings, hence the microterroir, to determine which varieties were best suited to each.  While it’s not a popular position, I’m very sceptical of the notion of terroir, largely because there’s been so little conclusive scientific research on the topic, with many producers preferring the romantic notion of capturing the essence of a place in a bottle.  (Unlike beer, where the connection with geology is well understood.)  However, I’m the type of sceptic who becomes less sceptical the more scientific finding are published, therefore I applaud Viña Casa Silva and Professor Moreno for their work.

As is often the case, when I was researching for this post, I came across an article at wineanorak.com that provided far more detail than I would have been able to pull together from any number of other sources, so for more information have a look at his page on the project.  I’ve recently put his blog on my sidebar, not because anyone ever clicks on those links, but because it is an excellent site and I find my research takes me there frequently.  If I work hard for 15 years and get a PhD in chemistry or biology, I might hope to be as good as that site is now.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a dark garnet colour and quick, thick, coloured legs.  On the nose it is clean and developing with medium plus intensity, sweet spice, red berries, and a bit of funk.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium acidity, medium plus body, medium alcohol, medium minus tannins, and a medium plus length.  There are notes of black pepper, strawberry, a little charcoal/ash, and raspberries.

I rate this wine as very good.  It’s certainly interesting, with the peppery, developed flavours contrasting the still sweet fruit and spice.  I think it’s developing nicely, though I was a bit surprised that Carmenère is generally meant to be consumed young.  I have another bottle from the Microterroir line that I think I’ll give another year or two in the cellar.

Some Tips for the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam – Part 3

Pass

Pass

So if you read my first post of tips, you now have a study plan and you’ve read through all of the past examiners’ reports, and if you read my second post of tips you have a handle on what you need to know for each wine region in the study guide.  What else could there possibly be to learn?

For a start, there’s grapes, and like regions, there’s essentially a big list of specifics that you should know for an even longer list of grapes.  First, there are the things that should be obvious, like colour, acidity, skin thickness or skin to pulp ratio, when it ripens, if it is prone to particularly high or low yields, and if it prefers cool or warm climates.

Unfortunately, that information is sometimes more difficult to come by than you would think.  The OCW entry for Merlot contains details for each one of those, however the entries for Malbec and Barbera make no mention at all of skin.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to know if a detail isn’t mentioned because what you would expect it to be (i.e. neither especially thin nor thick), or if it’s just because less important grapes merit less detail.  So if you’re going to make a big spreadsheet for this information for each grape, expect some cells to be more difficult to populate than others.  Further details that are typically only mentioned for either important grapes or if they are far from the norm include susceptibility to pests, diseases or certain climatic conditions, and preference for a particular soil type.

Again, as with regions, it isn’t that the OCW is just being a bit slack.  To really do grapes justice, you would need a full book just on that topic.  Fortunately, by the end of October, 2012 that gap will be filled, as I have every confidence that the upcoming book, Wine Grapes, from Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz will address everything you could possibly want to know about grapes familiar and otherwise.  As a wine geek, I am very much looking forward to this book being released, though I can’t decide if I want the UK or US edition.

Moving from the vineyard to the winery, you need to know what is noteworthy with respect that that variety.  Is there anything unique about how it’s typically or traditionally handled?  Does it go through malolactic fermentation?  Carbonic maceration?  Co-fermentation with another variety?  Is it typically fermented in tank, barrel, amphora, or even a kvevri?  (If you manage to mention kvevri fermentation in a WSET Diploma Exam, my hat is off to you.)  Is it matured in oak before bottling, or in bottle before being sold?  Is it blended, and if so, what are its blending partners and what does it bring to the blend.  Then wrap it up with what is it like in appearance, on the nose and on the palate – a virtual tasting note.

After you have a handle on all of that, you’ll need to know about where it’s grown, and of course the wines made from it, though fortunately that should all be at your fingertips if you have a handle on all the regions and subregions.  However, at this point it’s worth reviewing, but with an eye towards how the factors of both the grape and the region impact the respective wines.

Finally, many WSET Diploma questions have a business aspect to them.  How grapes are regarded, be they noble or a scourge, is important to know, as is if plantings of a variety are increasing or decreasing.  Recent spike or dips in popularity, as well as overall trends, are likewise important details.  Being able to list specific producers, across different regions, can also help to add examples to an answer.

I’m going to end this post with three other general categories of things you need to know, but which are fortunately more straightforward.  First, there are producers/people, which I clump together because it’s pretty much the same information – dates, notable achievements, geographical ties, and labels/wines produced.  Unlike the exams on Fortified Wines, Sparkling Wines or Spirits, you’re unlikely to be given a question that is exclusively about a single person/producer, though you could well have one or more of them as parts of multi-part questions.  So for producers/people listed in the study guide, have a paragraph worth of information in your head if you get one of those questions, and remember to pull them out as an example if appropriate for other questions.  Five or so facts will do it, and really there just aren’t that many of them.

Second, there’s quality levels and classifications.  As they’re by country or region, you should cover them within the appropriate section, but really they’re worth breaking out for study on their own.  For places like Germany and Austria, they’re fairly straightforward once you get past the fact that the German terms can be quite daunting.  Within France, there are some things at the national level and others that vary widely region to region, or even depending on which bank you’re on in Bordeaux.  They’re worth knowing specifically, including the twists and turns that have led up to whatever the current situation.  And a rule of thumb, if a classification took place in France within the last hundred years, there’s a good chance it’s still being contested.  Also, this information has a way of being useful in more types of questions than you might think, particularly ones that involve a wine label or comparing two wine labels.

Finally, the last thing worth reviewing is the viticulture and winemaking information from Unit 2.  With the exception of the Unit 1 Course Work Analysis, the Unit 2 exam has the highest pass rate, partly because it’s multiple choice.  However, it can be a year and a half between studying for Unit 2 and taking the Unit 3 exam, and the material is an essential foundation.

Right, so that’s what I can tell you about the work leading up to the exam.  To some extent I fear I gave my best advice in the first post, and that was to get a plan, read the examiners’ reports and start studying early.  However, I have one more post in me and that’s about physically taking the exam, which I’ll save for some point in the future.  Next up, another wine or two.

Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006

Origin: , ,

Colour and type: ,
Varietal:

Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006

Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006

I started this week with A for Arneis, and now midway through it’s B for Barbera.  We also get a chance to look at region we haven’t seen before, Mudgee in New South Wales.  Our wine for today is the Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006.

Barbera is a red grape of northwest Italy.  It’s often found in areas with plantings of Nebbiolo and Dolcetto, sitting comfortably between the two in terms of the esteem with which it is generally regarded.  It is the primary grape (at least 85%) of Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Barbera del Monferrato DOC, and Barbera d’Alba DOC, and has been historically been a blending partner for Nebbiolo, but has also been turned into some very cheap wines as well.  In addition to Italy, there has been some migration of the grape east into Slovenia, Greece and Romania, but it has been more widely planted in California and Argentina.  Within Australia, where the vine arrived in the 1960s, Vinodiversity.com lists almost 100 producers working with the grape.  While in many of those cases it is still regarded as experimental, that number is likely to increase.

One reason is that Barbera does well in dry climates and low fertility soils, both of which are in great supply within Australia.  Also, it is highly productive and capable of very large yields, though strict pruning to prevent overcropping is generally required for quality wines. The vines are susceptible to a number of vineyard diseases, though modern clonal selection has mitigated that to some extent, and plantings in warm, dry areas suffer less from disease pressure.  The grape is prone to high acidity and good colour, but low tannins.

Traditionally the grapes were picked after Dolcetto but before Nebbiolo, to produce a drink-now style without maturation.  However, there has been a recent, but not universal, trend toward lower yields, later harvesting for higher sugar and more fruit, and time in oak barriques.  This push in the direction of higher quality Barbera wines has met with some success, but there is some difficulty in overcoming consumer associations of the grape with cheaper wines.

Mudgee is an area of New South Wales, northwest of Sydney and roughly 200km from the coast.  While the Hunter Valley is a neighbouring region on a map, Mudgee is on the opposite side of the Great Dividing Range, and has a different climate.  The altitude of 450m combines with a great deal of sunshine for warm to hot days during the growing season but cool nights.  Rain is generally confined to spring and summer, with little during ripening or harvest.  While generally thought of as a warm region, the Nullo Mountain vineyard recorded the coldest ripening period in Australia this past vintage between December 2011 and February 2012, based on degree days.  There is “ice wine” made in Mudgee, but by “non-traditional methods”.  I’m fairly certain that means they stick the grapes in a freezer before pressing them, which seems like a bit of a cheat to me.  The region is described as a nest in the hills, and there are mild slopes throughout.  The soils vary, though sandy loam over clay is common.  Water retention is an issue, and irrigation is the rule rather than the exception.

Vines were first planted in the region in 1858 at Craigmoor (which is now part of Robert Oatley Vineyards) and the region has one of, if not the, longest uninterrupted histories of viticulture in Australia.  It is best known for its red wines, though it has also historically been a home to Chardonnay, including a well regarded clone that was unknown to the rest of the country for at least 40 years, and is thought by some to go back to the original set of cuttings brought to Australia in 1832.

Robert Oatley Vineyards is run by the eponymous founder, who built the business in conjunction with interests as diverse as cattle stations and luxury tourism.  His first vintages were with Rosemount Estate in the Hunter Valley in the 1970s, and now his company produces wine from vineyards in both New South Wales and Western Australia.  The company now offers a collection of ranges, largely varietal, of Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc (also in a Semillon blend), Pinot Grigio, Traminer, Cabernet Sauvignon (also in a Merlot blend), Shiraz (also in a Viognier blend), Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and this Barbera.  They also release a Shiraz from South Australia and Pinot Noirs from Victoria.  The wines are widely available on the export market, particularly within the USA.

Montrose Vineyard itself was planted in 1972 on red clay-loam at an altitude of 500-550 metres, largely with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, though also with some Sangiovese and this Barbera.  Grapes for this wine were picked at 14.0 degrees baumé which is at higher end of the ripeness spectrum for Barbera.  It saw a year in older French hogshead before bottling.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a very deep garnet colour – opaque to the rim, and even then just deep brick – with thick legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean and fragrant, with a developing character and spicy black fruit – blackberries and black cherries – with some sweet spice and liquorice.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus alcohol, medium plus tannins, and medium plus intensity.  There’s more black fruit, a hint of blueberry, liquorice, sour plum, and a bit of jam, along with some cedar wood notes.  It has a medium length, with a chocolate finish.

I tasted this wine consecutively over two days (the note is an amalgamation) and I liked it much better on the second day after some air.  I’m happy to call this wine good, but I would suggests decanting and some time for it to breathe.  It had a fair amount of complexity of fruit, but the secondary characters have yet to fully present themselves so perhaps some further improvement is in store.

Some Tips for the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam – Part 2

Pass

Pass

So having given the two broad tips last time of setting yourself a study plan and reading through the examiners’ reports, it’s time to give a bit more detail as to what students should be studying as they look forward to their WSET Diploma Unit 3 exam.  Unfortunately, the answer is everything, though we’ll start today with the everywhere component of that.

Through your studies, you will cover vast tracks of wine producing regions and be expected to have at your disposal information about each of them.  For instance, you could be asked to compare and contrast the region of Sancerre with Marlborough.  So where would you start?  For each region you study, there are specific things you will need to know, and organizing some sort of check list is a good way of knowing if you have a region covered.

First, the physical area itself.  You’ll need to know where it is, both in terms of country, state/province/department/county, but also how far it is from the equator (not in KM but generally) and where it sits relative to its neighbours.  Is it part of a larger region?  Does it have subregions, and if so what are they?  While maps are not common on Diploma exams, they’re not unknown, so be able to pick it out.  Then you’ll need to know the climate and factors that come into play in that regard, such as altitude, bodies of water, influential winds, mountains and their rain shadows.  Also any specific weather that is of interest such as seasonal flooding, late or early frosts or hail would be good to know.

Then you’ll need to know soil types, with as much detail as possible, particularly if there is a soil that is uniquely named in that region, and how it relates to fertility and water retention/drainage.  Also, if there are certain soil types on hills, others in flats and others still near a body of water, be specific.  You’ll need to know if there is an especially desirable aspect for vineyards in the region, and if there are particularly sough-after sites.

Then come the vines – what types are planted/permitted, how densely are they planted, how are the vines trained, how are the canopies managed, is mechanization utilized, is irrigation permitted, is the growing season especially long or short, how extreme can vintage variation be, do grapes reliably ripen, and are there pests, diseases or other hazards common in the area.

So we haven’t even made it out of the vineyard and you can see that there are a ton of things you’re expected to know just about the region itself and grapes grown there.  Again, it should motivate you to start your studies early, and also to organize some sort of system to track this information for each region.  Some people use spreadsheets, others format their notebooks with a section for each and others still use index cards.  However you do it, you need to have organized this information so you can rattle it off without having to think too much about it.

Next, winemaking in the region.  You’ll be required to know what wines are produced, from which grapes.  You’ll need to know the winemaking methods, from how it’s fermented and in what, if there is skin contact, if chaptalisation or adding acid is permitted, any use of oak and what kind, if there is lees contact, filtering, fining, and any ageing requirements.

Finally, you’ll need to know about the region in the bigger picture.  How are the wines perceived broadly, in what quantities are they produced, is the production dominated by big or small producers, do co-ops play a role, are the wines exported and if so to where, are their any quality levels, classifications or rankings within the region, any changes in styles or techniques recently, any major shifts within the industry or investment from outside the region.

These lists aren’t complete, but I hope they cover much of what you’ll need to know about the regions in the course.  The next problem though is actually getting a handle on those facts.  While the study guide has a list of regional entries for which students are responsible, it’s not enough to just use the OCW entries for those.

For instance, the regional entry for Tavel is a case in point.  It covers where it is, that it’s an appellation, that its wine can command a decent price relative to other similar wines, one example of an AC restriction on maximum alcohol strength, the mix of grapes that go into the wine and that it is a rosé, both historical background and more modern history regarding expansion, the importance of a certain co-op and a high quality producer, and comparison with another neighbouring appellation.  It’s a fine entry, and has some good details.

However, it doesn’t say anything at all about the climate, soil, aspect, viticulture, or winemaking (other than grape mix and that it’s rosé).  So in order to have a comprehensive picture of Tavel, you need to supplement the Tavel entry with information from the Rhône entry which does cover many of those thing, and then have a look through the rosé wine-making and rosé wine entries to round it out.  The OCW would be many times larger (and it’s fairly large as is) if the details of every region were cut and pasted into each subregion, but you need to keep in mind that if you can’t find many details about a particular subregion, then information about its parent region likely applies.

You might think it’s then enough if you know all of those details about a particular region, but that’s really just the baseline.  If we get back to the original question, compare and contrast the region of Sancerre with Marlborough, having that information is required in order to answer the question, but dumping everything you know may not be sufficient to get a good score.  First, if a question says “compare and contrast” the examiners demand that you do both.  Then you need to have a quick think about why the two regions would be paired together in such a question?  Both produce popular, varietal Sauvignon Blanc but differ greatly in the context from which it comes.  From there you would build up your list of how they are comparable and how they differ from your compilation of ready facts, and put together a cohesive set of paragraphs demonstrating both familiarity with the regions and the critical thinking required to give an analysis of the two side by side.

I personally would start with the obvious similarities in terms of varietal Sauvignon Blanc but then move through how the differences in climate, soils, viticultural techniques, and winemaking, produce very different wines in the glass.  You could make a list of every detail you knew about both and organize them into columns of “same” and “different” but the Diploma is more about analysis than wrote memorization, and so demonstrating how the differences in conditions between the two regions are expressed in the glass is much more worthwhile.  If I had more recent, topical details, I might even try to talk about the rise in popularity of not only Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc wine, but also of that style and what influence it has had on producers in Sancerre.  So having the facts is an essential part of your preparation but applying them appropriately in answering the question is the real key.  There could be any number of similarities or differences you might choose to highlight, but in the exam there is limited time, and therefore only so many words you can write, so picking what’s most important is critical.

Finally, as with all things where I’m giving advice, I’m not a Diploma level instructor nor an examiner, just someone who has recently studied for and passed the Unit 3 exam.  And it was a Pass, not a Merit or Distinction, so I’m not trying to portray myself as anything more than the graduate that I am.  But all the same, I hope this is in some way useful, and of course wish everyone luck as they prepare for their exam.

Next up (after another wine or two), what to know beyond regions and subregions.

Port Phillip Estate Quartier Mornington Peninsula Arneis 2006

Origin: , ,

Colour and type: ,
Varietal:

Port Phillip Estate Quartier Mornington Peninsula Arneis 2006

Port Phillip Estate Quartier Mornington Peninsula Arneis 2006

After somewhat getting back on track last week, I hope to be firing on all cylinders this week.  I have three new varietal wines lined up for the century, some more tips for those headed into the Unit 3 exam in January, and I’m hoping to be adding a few more bits and bobs to the site beyond just the wine reviews.  But I’m going to start with our A, B, C varietals, this being the A for Arneis, in the form of Port Phillip Estate Quartier Mornington Peninsula Arneis 2006.

Arneis is a white grape from the northwest of Italy, specifically Roero in the north of Alba.  There is not only the sole grape for the DOC white and sparkling wines Roero Arneis and Roere Arneis Spumante, but it also is a small component (2%-5%) in the red wine, which is predominantly Nebbiolo.  It had been used in a similar method to soften the wines of Barolo until that region shifted to varietal Nebbiolo in the 20th century, when plantings of the grape in Italy went into a steep decline.  The grape was near extinction when it saw a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s, and now plantings may be found in California, New Zealand, and of course Australia with nearly 50 producers.

The fall in popularity may have been due to the difficult nature of the grape, evidenced by it’s name which means little rascal in the regional language of Piedmont.  (I do love how grape names can be so evocative.)  In the vineyard it produces low yields of grapes with low acidity, is susceptible to powdery mildew, and can over ripen.  Modern viticulture has been able to address some of those issues, with some success in clonal selection for resistance to powdery mildew and the mapping of clay soil types of clay or chalk to heighten perfume or acidity respectively.  Common descriptors of varietal Arneis include citrus, floral, pear and apricots.

Port Phillip Estate was established in 1987 and covers roughly 10HA on the Mornington Peninsula, but the most recent chapter started in 1999 when it was purchased by Giorgio Gjergja.  An successful businessman in electrical engineering, he set about constructing an impressive rammed-earth building to house the winery, cellar door and a restaurant, half of which is concealed within the hill overlooking vines and the bay.  Then in 2004 he acquired both Kooyong Estate and its winemaker, Sandro Mosele, who now oversees both operations.  Both are known for their boutique single vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, and the operations are intermingled, with fermentation and maceration taking place at Kooyong and the bottling and further maturation at Port Phillip Estate.

Port Phillip Estate has several ranges of wines, including the aforementioned single vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, and estate grown Sauvignon Blanc and a Shiraz rosé, through to a Quartier range, which is made from grapes produced in surrounding vineyard and includes Pinot Gris, Barbera, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and this Arneis.

While I’ve written about the Mornington Peninsula a couple of times, most recently with the Willow Creek Vineyard, the short of it is that it’s a cool (for Australia) climate region with maritime influences from the Port Phillip Bay to the north and west and the Bass Straight to the south.  There are a number of distinct soil types in the region, with those of Port Phillip Estate being red, crumbly, volcanic soil.

I don’t have access to their technical sheet for this vintage, but it appears it is generally made from whole bunch pressings, wild yeast fermentation mostly in stainless steel with some small percentage in French barriques, and then further maturation on lees of four months before bottling.  Also, it’s apparently meant to be drunk within two years, which obviously I failed to do.  However,

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a pale lemon green colour, and thin quick legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean with medium plus intensity, a developing character and notes of lemon, honeydew melon, some sandalwood, and vanilla custard.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus body, medium plus acidity, medium plus flavour intensity, medium plus alcohol, with notes of lime, melon, pear, green pea, and custard.  It has long length and a bitter lemon finish.

This is an interesting wine.  It does not lack for complexity on the nose or palate, and while there is some overlap, the two are not mirror images of one another.  It’s a very full wine with medium plus ticks across the board on the palate.  I’ll call it very good, but I’m going out on a limb to some extent as I can’t vouch for its typicity – I have only had a few Arneis varietals before, none since I started this blog, and so while I like how it tastes, I can’t say if it’s how it’s meant to taste.  Still, at six years of age it’s still very bright, and the fruit is holding up well, now supplemented by some secondary characters.

Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2007

I buy far too much wine, and lacking a decent place in my house to keep it properly cellared, I have a climate controlled storage unit where most of it ends up.  That’s a good thing for at least two reasons, in that first the wine is kept in good condition and second when I visit to dig out a bottle, it’s often a pleasant surprise when I come across something long forgotten.  The downside is that since I don’t have a proper inventory (yet), some things can sit too long and I don’t find them until they’re past their prime.  I was pleasantly surprised both to find this bottle hiding away, and that it was not the case that it had sat for too long.  And so the wine for today is a five year old bottle of Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2007.

It took me a while in this blog to get to a Sauvignon Blanc, and when I did, I went with a Saint-Bris which was a bit of a rarity.  Since then I’ve written about a few others, including the recent Bannockburn creation.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy the grape, but rather that it’s been so ubiquitous since I started studying wine that I largely ignored it, instead preferring the more obscure grapes.  I’ve helped make two styles of Sauvignon Blanc in the Adelaide Hills, one in the classic modern style of fresh fruit fermented in stainless steel and bottled almost immediately, and another fermented in oak and matured somewhat before bottling.  The former is for drinking immediately, the latter improves with time.  Between expanding my horizons by tasting Sauvignon Blanc from around the world, and being involved in its production, I’ve deepened my appreciation of the grape, and look forward to having some more when the weather warms up a bit.  (It’s the middle of a cold, wet winter here.)  For details about the grape itself, have a look at the Astrolabe write-up from last month.

As regular readers will know, I often lament the availability of other New World wines here in Australia.  The reason I had this five year old bottle of wine from South Africa in my cellar  is that I had it shipped here after a trip to the Cape, when I had the pleasure of visiting the Graham Beck facilities in Franschhoek (now relocated to Robertson).  It was an impressive set-up, from the very fancy cellar door through to the ultra-modern bottling line, visible through a large window from the bar.

The company was founded eponymously by self-made billionaire Graham Beck in 1983, much of it funded through his success as a businessman in the mining industry.  The first vintage was in 1991, and though Beck passed away in 2010, his company continues from strength to strength.  It is a leader in the production of Cap Classique (a uniquely South African sparkling wine), with the Brut NV having been the drink of choice for the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela in 1994.  In addition to over a half dozen different sparklers, the company produces two dozen still wines, reds, whites and rosés, varietals and blends, table and sweet.  They have plantings (or access to fruit) of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Ruby Cabernet, Mourvedre, Malbec, and Muscat de Frontignan.

Since I’ve had a few Sauvignon Blancs recently, just a quick note about how this was made (or at least how more recent vintages have been made – I can’t find a 2007 technical note).  Pheasants’ Run is made with skin contact, though it only 18 hours worth.  It is fermented slowly at low temperatures, which suggest refrigerated steel instead of barrels, though no specific mention of the vessel is given.  Post fermentation there is some amount of time on lees, on the order of five to six months, with stirring shortly before bottling.  So it’s somewhere between the non-interventionist style of Astrolabe and the every trick in the book approach of Bannockburn.

As I mentioned, when I visited their cellar door was in Franschhoek, which I described at least briefly when I wrote about Haute Cabrière.  Strictly speaking, this is a wine of Coastal Region, which includes not only Franschhoek (strictly speaking, the Paarl region) but also Constantia, Durbanville, Cape Point, Swartland, and Tulbagh.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a pale lemon green colour and some legs.  On the nose it’s clean and still developing, with medium plus intensity and notes of green bell pepper, peas, asparagus, and lemon.  It started with a bit of that yoghurt culture/mushroom note that I sometimes get, but as I’ve not been able to convince anyone else that I can actually smell such an aroma, I should either find a more commonly accepted descriptor or just stop mentioning it altogether.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus intensity, and medium plus alcohol.  It has notes of lemon, green pea, bell pepper, and a bit of cream.  It is fairly rich, and opened up extremely well with a hint of bacon.  It has medium length with a bell pepper and white pepper finish.

I’m happy giving this wine a very good rating.  It has a complex range of flavours, strong intensity and concentration on the nose and palate, and it’s developed very nicely.  Unless it’s a very special bottle that you know will mature with time, I do not generally recommend cellaring Sauvignon Blanc for five years, but this bottle managed the task handily.  The next bottle I encounter I hope to have a bit younger to compare and contrast.

Bannockburn Geelong Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Origin: , ,

Colour and type: ,
Main Variety:
Contributing varieties:

Bannockburn Geelong Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Bannockburn Geelong Sauvignon Blanc 2011

I attended an interesting wine dinner the other night where each person attending brought a bottle of wine they considered to be weird (in a good way) – be it the grape(s), the region, or winemaking.  I brought a Tannat blend from Uruguay that I picked up the last time I was there, others brought unusual wines from Greece, France, and a large collection of alternative varietals from Australia.  This wine would have fit right in, because it’s certainly not ordinary.  Our wine for this post is the Bannockburn Geelong Sauvignon Blanc 2011.

Geelong is an Australian wine region I have not yet visited, but it’s fairly familiar.  If you’re in Melbourne and head southeast you can end up on the Mornington Peninsula.  However, if you head southwest you’re on your way to Geelong.  Vines were first planted in the area in the early 19th century by Swiss settlers, and at one point it was the largest wine region in Victoria.  However, viticulture largely vanished for decades after the arrival of phylloxera.  It wasn’t until 1966 that vines returned, and today the region has more than 60 producers, most operating on small scale, benefiting from their proximity to Melbourne.

The climate is cool and dry, with maritime climates being the norm in coastal areas moderated by proximity to Port Phillip Bay, the large natural harbour south of Melbourne, but shifting to continental more inland.  Elevations also rise from the coast to heights of 400m. Sea breezes keep disease pressure low, and what rain falls is typically in winter and spring.  The soil is largely clay, with red-brown loam over a hard base being the norm, though supplemented with areas of black clay with a cracked surface.  There are also patches of limestone, sand, shale and gravel.  A wide range of varieties are planted, with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling being the most common whites while Pinot Noir and Shiraz are the most common reds.

Bannockburn Vineyards was set up in 1974 by Stuart Hooper with the intention of producing quality wine to rival Burgundy.  All their wines are produced from fruit they grow across 27HA.  They describe their soils as “black brown volcanic loam to dense clay sitting on a limestone base” which again reinforces my belief that I will never find a general description of soils of a region that matches the soils as described by an specific producer.  It’s almost enough to make we want to give up reporting region soils.  Vines are dry grown, which when combined with low fertility in the soil and high winds, means small yields.

While Burgundy was the original inspiration, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are at the heart of their range, they also have plantings of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and the Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling that went into this wine.  They produce a range of ten or so wines, including four single vineyard varietals at the top of their range, a red blend and a Saignée style rosé.

Sauvignon Blanc is not a new variety to this blog, and in fact I had a couple of them last month from Sancerre and Marlborough.  However, while the front label proclaims Sauvignon Blanc in big letters, the back label notes that there is a 10% contribution from Riesling in the bottle, which starts to put us in somewhat uncharted territory.  From there, it decreases in familiarity.

Some wines are all about the vineyard, and indeed it’s a commonly expressed sentiment among winemakers that the wine is made there instead of the winery.  I say commonly expressed because that’s what consumers like to hear, but much more happens in the winery than most consumers want (or really need) to know.  Of course it varies from producer to producer, but everything from the skin contact, the duration and temperature of fermentation, oak treatment, malolactic fermentation, and many, many other options at the disposal of the winemaker have an impact on the final wine.  Some winemakers prefer to do as little of the above as possible, and “non-interventionist” winemaking is something of a buzzword, but for some wines it’s appropriate to employ any range of techniques to produce the wine you want to make.

So as I mentioned, the first thing that makes this a bit different is the portion of Riesling.  It’s less than 15% so I don’t think it even needs to be declared on the label.  While Sauvignon Blanc is often part of a blend, it’s typically paired with Semillon and possibly Muscadelle in the manner of white Bordeaux blends.  There are actually another six white grapes permitted in the dry white wines of Bordeaux, but Riesling is not among them, and in fact Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are not even commonly planted in the same regions within Europe.

The fermentation is interesting as well, in that it’s done in barrel using wild yeasts.  That in itself isn’t particularly unusual – barrel fermentation for Chardonnay is quite common, and some of the Sauvignon Blancs of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume have levels of oak treatment.  However, in addition to the 1/4 new French oak, some of the fermentation is done in Italian Acacia puncheons.  I had to double check what a puncheon is, and I’m not sure if the term is being used generically for a barrel, or if they mean specifically the traditional English measure of 318.2 litres versus the 475 litres advertised by a cooperage in Australia .  In either case, Italian Acacia isn’t something I’d come across before.  Also, a fraction (1/3 for this vintage) of the ferments are done with skin contact, something more typical of red wine making.  Finally, after the fermentation is complete, the wine is kept on lees for ten months, which is a technique we’ve encountered before both with Champagne and Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie.

So while all of the things I’ve described are commonly employed techniques in winemaking (with the possible exception of Italian Acacia puncheons), the fact that they’re all being used on a Sauvignon Blanc is what I find intriguing.  When I wrote about the Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc last month, it was a good example of the most popular expression of the variety.  This wine heads in a completely different, and largely unique direction, which is great if you have a sense of adventure when it comes to trying wine.  However, if you want a Kiwi style Sauvignon Blanc you are best off looking elsewhere.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with pale lemon colour and slow thick legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean and developing, with low flavour intensity.  There really wasn’t much on the nose to start, but I did eventually pick up some citrus, spice, and a hint of cloves.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium acidity, medium plus body, medium alcohol, and medium plus intensity, with notes of asparagus, bell pepper, and grapefruit.  It had a medium plus length and a peppery finish.

I thought this was a good wine, and would have put it in the very good category except for the nose being a bit restrained.  In terms of notes on the palate, it was certainly a varietally typical Sauvignon Blanc, but it was so much more in terms of mouth feel.  The body and intensity on the palate were lovely and the resulting wine was at least as big as a moderately oaked Chardonnay.  I don’t often look to Sauvignon Blanc when I’m after a robust white, but this one certainly fits the bill.

Some Tips for the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam – Part 1

Pass

Pass

I had a comment recently regarding the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam, which was the reasons I started this blog in the first place.  While I wrote a bit about the exam throughout the lead up to it, I didn’t give any sort of summary in terms of what turned up to be effective in actually passing the test.  So over a few posts, intermingled with wine reviews, I’m going to try to organize some thoughts here in hindsight, and in particular for someone who is looking at sitting their exam in January, six months from now.

First off, set yourself a study plan.  It doesn’t have to be hugely detailed, but when you have six months to go before your exam, it’s a good idea to know how that time will be divided.  I’m speaking largely with regards to the theory part of the exam, but it’s also a good idea to have tasting sessions laid out in advance as well.  I heard a Master of Wine explain how it should be impossible to fail the tasting section (though many, many people do so every exam), which was convincing enough that I didn’t sweat the tasting.  More on that in another post.

Now when I say a study plan, essentially it’s something along the lines looking at the syllabus and assigning a certain amount of time per area.  The red study guide breaks Unit 3 down into 4 elements, and though they’re not exactly of equal size, you could start by giving each element three weeks.  Depending on how much time you have to study, you should be able to read through the red book for each element and all the corresponding entries in the Oxford Companion to Wine.  At that pace, you would be spending three months going through it, leaving you with another three months in which to prioritize the sections that need further work.  But however you do it, right now the important thing it to have a plan and a schedule to go along with it.

Second, read through past examination papers and most importantly the examiners’ reports.  Do this before you do any actual studying.  The questions change from exam to exam, but the format largely doesn’t.  The reports give insight into what the examiners wanted for each question, and generally give an example of a really good student answer.  This will let you know the level of detail you will need to provide on your answers, so as to better focus your studies.

Also it will give you a sense of the areas of study that get the most attention.  For instance, I have yet to see an exam without a question relating to some part of France – my exam had two questions that were exclusively about France, and another on Merlot where knowledge of the grape in the context of Bordeaux, that is France, would have been useful.    My exam had no questions where knowledge of the wines of Austria would have been remotely useful.  Other exams have had such questions.  The moral of the story is that if you don’t study the big topics, you will absolutely regret it.  If you don’t study all the smaller topics, you may or may not regret it, but you’re taking a chance.  So if you want to be smart/safe, know everything.  If you can’t, be sure you know the major topics.

On a related note that I will address further with regards tips when you’re actually sitting the exam, there will typically be a question you can skip, in that you’ll be required to answer one mandatory question and then four out of five of the remaining questions.  So you can plan your studies with the expectation that if you get a question on one area you haven’t covered, you can most likely skip it.  However, it’s a much better idea to be prepared all around as much as you can than to chance it.  From past examiners reports I made some predictions as to what the questions on my exam would be and was more wrong than right.

So that should get you started – come up with a study plan to take you up to the exam and read through the examiners’ reports.  Oh, and finally one note on the January exams – they have a lower pass rate.  In 2009 it was only a 6% difference, but in 2011 there was a 20% difference.  I put it down to holidays just a few weeks before the exam, in that for most people taking the exam, it’s a very busy time of the year.  That means if you are reading this and looking at a January exam, know that the odds are stacked against you to some extent and use that knowledge to motivate yourself to study now instead of leaving it for a few months.  Six months may seem like a long time, but there’s a huge amount of material to cover.  If you can go through everything once in three months, you’ll have a much better idea as to how you need to spend the following three months.

And I hope I don’t need to say this but I will anyway – even though I passed my Diploma and am now a WSET Certified Instructor, I am not certified to instruct at the Diploma level and I have no special insight into the exam or the examiners other than personal experience and what I’ve read in their reports.  I hope what I share over the following posts is useful, but this is obviously just supplemental to what you should be getting from your instructors.

Next up, knowing about everywhere – what specifically?

Domaine Lafage Tessellae Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2009

Domaine Lafage Tessellae Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2009

Domaine Lafage Tessellae Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2009

First off, I’m not dead.  I’m sure many of you were concerned when I went without posting for almost two weeks.  More importantly, I have given up neither drinking nor writing.  There have been a few concerns, not related to drinking or writing, which have been more pressing over the last fortnight, but with this post I hope to return to form and look forward to bringing you further wine most weekdays.  And to get this week on track, I give you Domaine Lafage Tessellae Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2009.

First off, where was this wine on Carignan Day when I mistakenly ended up with an admittedly very good blend when what I really wanted was a varietal?    At long last I can add Carignan as a varietal to my list.  As far as Carignan goes, I did write a fair bit about it when I reviewed the De Martino, but just for a quick review, it’s a grape that is not universally loved, and in fact was considered something of a pest within the trade due to its use in cheap wine made from highly cropped vines (up to 200HL/HA in some cases).  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s no longer the case entirely, but there are certainly some producers making quality wine from the grape, with much more tightly controlled yields.  The grape is found throughout the warmer areas surrounding the Mediterranean, including North Africa, and can produce wines high in colour, acidity and tannins, though sometimes with a fair whack of bitterness as well.

So in addition to being a varietal Carignan, this wine is interesting to me because it’s a vin de pays, or country wine, though within France that term is being phased out and replaced with Indication Géographique Protégée, which I’ve seen abbreviated as both IGP and PGI.  This category of wine is not new to this blog, though perhaps in this form it is.  I touched on the topic a bit with the IGT wines from the Sicily tasting, in particular the Duca Enrico, which are essentially the Italian version via the overarching EU regulations.  In quality levels, at the high end you have appellations with their strict regulations and rankings, and at the lower end you have table wine which has very little regulation at all.  However, in between there are many wines which are not strictly restricted by appellation rules but which are from a particular region with the right to designate themselves as such.  So vin de pays are from an area, rather than table wine which can be a blend of wine from anywhere, but without so many of the appellation rules to do with permitted varieties, yields, winemaking styles, what have you.

So why do I find them interesting?  Three main reasons:  value, room for innovation, and local scarcity.  First, they can represent very good value.  There’s a great deal of vin de pays produced, and while much of it is very mediocre, there are some excellent wines to be found.  However, since they’re grouped with a large range of competitors, even the very good ones can’t charge a huge premium, and as such you can find very good vin de pays for decent prices.  Second, without established appellation rules, winemakers are free to experiment and innovate in terms of what they plant and how they make their wine.  Vin de pays can be as unconventional as any New World wine, and while not all of them are, I like that experimentation is permitted.  Finally, because these are often value wines that compete on price within Europe, they have a hard time competing against local wines in Australia because of the taxes levied against them before they even get to a shelf.  A five pound sterling bottle of vin de pays might do well competing against a similarly priced Australian bottle in London, but on a shelf here it would cost much more than a local wine of similar quality.  As a result, not a huge amount of vin de pays is available in Australia – it often just isn’t competitive.

Right, so that’s the grape and vin de pays out of the way, but I haven’t said a word about the pays in vin de pays, and in this case it’s Côtes Catalanes.  I’ve only previously written about a single wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the Picpoul de Pinet, and this wine is from another subregion within the greater area, the Catalan coast.  Vin de pays can be named at three levels – regional, such as Vin de Pays d’Oc which covers all of Languedoc and Roussillon, departmental (which is roughly equivalent to a county), and local.  This is a local designation, having to do with the Catalan ethnic group of what is now Catalonia of northern Spain and southwestern France.

Côtes Catalanes is based in the Pyrenees-Orientales department in the Roussillon region.    The climate is warm Mediterranean, and the soils vary from a combination of decomposed shale and clay with poor drainage through to schist marble and limestone hills, and gravel as you near the sea.  While there are certainly plantings of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah are the dominant red varieties, with a mix of traditional and international whites.

Domaine Lafage is the estate of a family which has been cultivating vines in the region for six generations, going back as far as the late 1800s.  The label itself is a relatively recent invention of Jean-Marc Lafage, who with his wife Elaine, established it in 1996 after years of wine studies and work throughout the New World.  Their holdings are 138 HA of vines across 200 HA total, with plantings of Muscat, Chardonnay, and Grenache, in addition to Carignan (among others) that go into AOC Côtes du Roussillon wines, various vins de pays, vins doux naturels, and a line of bag in box wines.

This wine is made from grapes grown in the Agly Valley, with soils of black shale and schist.  In terms of yields, this wine is made from grapes that yielded roughly 20HL/HA, whereas at the extreme some vineyards can bring in ten times as much.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, medium plus ruby colour, with slow thin legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean and developing, with notes of raspberry, perfume and dark chocolate.  The palate is dry with medium acidity, medium minus body, medium plus tannins, medium plus alcohol, and medium flavour intensity.  There are notes of plum, raspberry, blueberry, some blood and meat, and a little chocolate.  It has a medium length and a chocolate finish.

This is a good quality wine – interesting and worth a try.  It’s certainly not the Carignan that is the source of so many complaints.  The tannins are supple, the fruit sweet but with rich chocolate.  There’s a fair amount of complexity for a very unpretentious wine.  It’s not a wine that’s going to change your life, but certainly one worth drinking.