International Pinot Noir Celebration

One of the finest wine events in the world happens at the end of July every year in Willamette Valley. The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) brings together pinot noir lovers from around the world to focus on the best of the variety over four days.

On the first night, host wineries from across Willamette Valley feature their own wines as well as those of guest wineries from other regions with food made by some of the best chefs of the Pacific Northwest. Festivities take off on the second and third days with a mix of off campus vineyard visits and seminars as well as on campus classes and tastings. The main event is the Grand Seminar, a master class on whatever aspect of pinot noir takes the stage that year.

In 2016, pinot noir of Australia won the focus bringing 14 of the best examples of the country as well as many of the winemakers behind them.

Australia: Pinot Noir Master Class

IPNC Australia Master Class

from left: Tom Carson, Michael Hill Smith, James Halliday

Panel hosts James Halliday, Michael Hill Smith and Tom Carson guided the 400+ person audience each of two days through an in-depth look at 14 Australian pinot noirs grown from sub-zones of Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Additionally winemakers Michael Dhillon, Peter Dawson, Mac Forbes and Mike Symons spoke about their regions and wines standing from the audience.

Michael Hill Smith, the first person to pass the Master of Wine exam in Australia, moderated the session guiding us through a thorough-going discussion of pinot noir in Australia as well as of the 14 wines presented and their regions. Wines were poured in two flights of seven. Additionally, the IPNC team offered us an impressive booklet of information to round out the master class concept of the seminar.

History and Conditions of Australian Pinot Noir

As described by Michael Hill Smith and James Halliday, pinot noir arrived in Australia within the original collection of grapevine cuttings to reach the continent, the Busby collection of 1831. The first cuttings were taken from Clos Vougeot and has established itself throughout pinot noir regions of the country as clone MV6 (Mother Vine 6 – so bad ass).

First attempts to succeed with pinot in Australia proved difficult so the variety did not truly take hold until the last century. Much of its growth has occurred since the 1960s. By 2015, 4948 hectares of pinot noir were planted with 43,223 tonnes produced that year across the country by 950 growers and winemakers. Today the focus in Australia is to make site expressive pinot noir, rather than attempting to emulate other regions.

Much of the pinot noir planted in Australia has been established with own-root vines. However, in the last decades phylloxera has taken hold in some of the pinot noir producing regions. Strict quarantines of those regions has helped slow its progress but nevertheless, vintners of Australia are now forced to grapple with finding best rootstocks in the midst of losing old vine sites.

Australian Pinot Noir Regions and the Wines

The Australian contingent IPNC

front left Mike Symons, sitting beside Michael Dhillon; front right Peter Dawson sitting beside Mac Forbes

REGION: Yarra Valley

Our tasting for the Grand Seminar began with a focus on the province of Victoria and a first look at its sub-region the Yarra Valley. As we were informed, 135 wineries produce pinot noir in the region an hour east from Melbourne. The region hosts a predominately continental climate with moderate to steep hillsides between 50 and 1000 meters in elevation. Soils tend towards ancient sandy clay loam and younger red volcanics.

WINE: Coldstream Hills 2015 Deer Farm Vineyard Pinot Noir Yarra Valley Victoria

Coldstream Hills was founded in 1985 by James Halliday and has since become part of the Treasury Wine Estates. The primary focus for Coldstream Hills rests with pinot noir and chardonnay with also some production of merlot, sauvignon blanc and shiraz as well.

The Deer Farm Vineyard pinot from Coldstream Hills is made when vintage conditions support single vineyard quality. In 2015 it was made with 50% new puncheons. The wine features a perfumed and herbal lift from a body of zesty, mixed red and dark fruits and a long mineral-spice spine offering plenty of concentration on an otherwise lighter bodied wine.

WINE: * Mac Forbes 2014 Woori Yallock Pinot Noir Yarra Valley Victoria

Mac Forbes established his eponymous brand after having worked previously at the iconic Mount Mary in the Yarra, with Dirk Niepoort in Portugal, and in vineyards throughout Austria. His focus remains primarily with pinot noir while also being known for his chardonnay and riesling.

In the Yarra Valley the 2014 vintage brought the concentration and focus of the smaller bunches with the hens-and-chicks berries of a wet and windy spring. The 2014 Woori Yallock carries subtle and lifted aromatics with an ultra stimulating and lighter bodied palate washed through with finessed mixed fruits, tons of sapidity, nuance and length.

WINE: Mount Mary Vineyard 2013 Pinot Noir Yarra Valley Victoria 

Founded in 1971 by the late John Middleton, today Mount Mary Vineyards hosts John’s grandson, Sam Middleton, as winemaker. Mount Mary holds one of the finest reputations for Australian pinot noir, considered a leader in the early contemporary push to understand quality expressions of the variety in the country.

With broader aromatics and palate than the other two Yarra Valley pinots, the Mount Mary 2013 shows the attributes of a slightly warmer vintage. It offers an ultra long zesty palate lifted by a perfume of cultivated flowers sprinkled through with spice. Lots of sapidity and silky tannin carry through a long finish.

REGION: Mornington Peninsula

With 80 wineries in the Mornington Peninsula producing pinot noir, the region sits an hour southeast of Melbourne. Sitting alongside the Southern Ocean, the Peninsula hosts a maritime climate with gently rolling slopes and a mix of soils.

WINE: * Stonier Family Vineyard 2015 Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula Victoria

Founded in 1978, Stonier stands as one of the founding wineries of the Mornington Peninsula. The focus rests in pinot noir and chardonnay made by winemaker Mike Symons.

The Stonier 2015 presents compact and earthy with a zesty red fruit palate and a long stimulating finish. A pleasure.

WINE: Paringa Estate 2014 Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula Victoria 

Established in 1985 by winemaker Lindsay McCall, Paringa Estate established both pinot noir and shiraz in an abandoned orchard of the Mornington Peninsula. Not yet available in the United States. 

Full of zesty fruit, the 2014 Paringa Estate offers a compact and focused palate with lots of sapidity and a long spiced finish.

WINE: Yabby Lake 2013 Block 2 Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula Victoria

Founded by the Kirby Family in 1998, Tom Carson serves as the Yabby Lake winemaker with a focus on pinot noir and chardonnay. Not yet available in the United States. 

Aromatics with just a hint of funk turn to musk on the palate with a mineral sprinkled focus on zesty fruit and a long wash of acidity.

REGION: Macedon Ranges

One of the smallest and youngest areas for pinot noir in Australia, the Macedon Ranges an hour and a half north of Melbourne, host 37 wineries producing pinot noir. The area celebrates a cool to cold continental climate with elevated vineyard standing 500m above sea level in a mix of extremely old soils of mudstone, sandstone mixed through with quartz and other volcanics.

WINE: * Bindi 2014 Kaye Pinot Noir Macedon Ranges Victoria

One of the hallmark pinot noir producers of Victoria, Bindi helped bring attention to the quality wine possible from the Macedon Ranges. Established in 1988 by father and son team Bill and Michael Dhillon. Today, Michael continues the legacy he began with his late father with a focus on estate grown pinot noir and chardonnay.

The Bindi 2014 Kaye carries an earthy mix of perfumed dark fruits and a sense of delicacy through ample concentration riding all the way through a long finish. Tactile and stimulating tannin and a palate full of sapidity, this wine offers a nice balance of finesse, complexity and length.

Tasting in flights, IPNC

REGION: Gippsland

38 wineries make pinot noir in Gippsland two and a half hours east of Melbourne.

WINE: Bass Phillip 2013 Premium Pinot Noir Gippsland Victoria

Founded in 1979 by Phillip Jones to make small quantities of artisanal pinot noir, Bass Phillip relies on high density planting in an ultra cool climate.

Notes of musk and forest floor and a lengthy waft of perfume move on the palate to zesty, mineral-tumbled notes with a lengthy finish.

REGION: Geelong

50 wineries produce pinot in the Geelong region of Victoria just an hour southwest of Melbourne just opposite Port Phillip Bay from Mornington.

WINE: * By Farr 2012 Sangreal Pinot Noir Geelong Victoria

Established in 1994 by Gary Farr, By Farr quickly became one of the best known and respected producers of the country. Son Nick Farr today serves as winemaker making estate pinot noir with a focus on whole bunch fermentation.

Notes of pit fruit tested by citrus on the nose are accented by hints of cigar box and touches of forest floor with dried rose leaf in the mouth. A lovely light frame with impressive complexity.

REGION: Tasmania

124 wineries make pinot in Tasmania. The region is known primarily for two established growing zones, the Coal River Valley and the Huon Valley. The Coal River Valley in the southern part of the island is both cool and dry leading to low disease pressure and good fruit quality. The Huon Valley is the southernmost and coolest portion of the island with a wet maritime climate and a small concentration of vineyard plantings. Tasmania as a whole is both cold and relatively dry with a relatively long season.

WINE: Home Hill 2014 Estate Pinot Noir Tasmania

Terry and Rosemary Bennet established Home Hill Estate to pinot noir in 1994 with Gilli and Paul Lipscombe today serving as winemakers. Eventually chardonnay and sylvaner were also added. Not yet available in the United States. 

Notes of dried leaves and flowers move into a musky palate with plenty of length and a focus on intrigue.

WINE: * Tolpuddle Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir Tasmania

Tolpuddle Vineyard was originally established in 1988 and were purchased in 2011 by Michael Hill Smith and Martin Shaw. The site sits in the Coal River Valley with a focus on pinot noir.

Note of musk and rose potpourri with plum and cherry pits and a flash of nectarine carry nose through a long, stimulating palate.

WINE: Dawson James 2014 Pinot Noir Tasmania

Founded in 2010 by Peter Dawson and Tim James, Dawson James has already had success with pinot noir from Tasmania. Not yet available in the United States. 

Fresh cut peach and cherry with a focused presentation and zesty, mineral length, the Dawson James 2014 offers nice purity with plenty of concentration and a lithe frame.

REGION: Adelaide Hills South Australia

74 wineries produce pinot noir in the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia. The Piccadilly Valley hosts the Ashton Hills winery represented at IPNC, and offers the coolest growing conditions of the larger region sitting at around 570 meters of elevation. The area is greeted by rainfall throughout the season.

WINE: * Ashton Hills 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir Adelaide Hills South Australia

Founded in 1982 by Stephen George, who still serves too as winemaker, Ashton Hills has worked extensively with the range of pinot noir clones available in Australia to identify the best suited cuttings for the region. Today he relies on five. In 2015, George sold his estate to Wirra Wirra and still lives on the property offering insight to the practice.

Showing evergreen freshness throughout and a spiced jalapeño snap the 2014 Ashton Hills is intriguing, distinctive and savory with accents of forest floor and a long finish.

REGION: Southern Fleurieu South Australia

With only 3 wineries producing pinot noir, the Fleurieu Peninsula succeeds with the variety primarily in the highest and coolest elevations. The area is very maritime with extremely old sand stones and in the Foggy Hill Vineyard very low fruiting wines to stay close to the warmth of the stoney surface.

WINE: Tapanappa 2012 Foggy Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir Southern Fleurieu South Australia

Established in 2002 by Briane and Ann Croser, Tapanappa is one of the very few wineries of Southern Fleurieu making pinot noir. Brian serves as winemaker with a focus on pinot from the Foggy Hill Vineyard, considered a founding vineyard in the region for the variety. Tapanappa also works with other warmer sites to grow cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot, and chardonnay. Not yet available in the United States. 

With notes of candied melon and powdered berry (not sweet) on the nose flavors of spiced chili and a savory core appear on the palate with lightly tactile tannin and an ultra long finish. Distinctive.

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What Makes a Cool Climate? Keynote from Ian D’Agata, i4C+ 2016

Ian d'Agata

i4C+ 2016 Keynote Speaker Ian d’Agata

Ian D’Agata opened this year’s International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration with greetings in Italian. The venerable wine writer heralds originally from Canada and has devoted his life since to understanding Italian wine. Most recently, in 2015 his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy was awarded wine book of the year by the prestigious Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. At, D’Agata serves as Senior Editor and Head of Development for Europe & Asia. He has stands as a self-described champion of Canadian wine.

In his keynote address, D’Agata considered the notion of a cool climate, asking what the nomenclature means without formal definition. As he pointed out, regions that count as cool climates in the world of wine “get just as hot at the peak of the season” as other warm climates of the world but, importantly, cool climate temperatures drop more quickly approaching harvest. Grapes at harvest, then, are picked at a different point in the arc of ripening “insuring the wines taste differently” than those from fruit selected at higher temperatures.

He pointed out that growing degree days and mean temperature indexes offer only rudimentary insight into the growing conditions of a region. Instead, a latitude index also being integrated into degree day measurements offer additional insight. D’Agata emphasized the challenges of classifying cool climate regions as no single measurement can discern them from other climate types. He pointed out that factors such as diurnal shift, solar radiation, soil type and its drainage, the average length of a growing season and the demand to plant for heat conservation are all relevant considerations. Cool climates, as he pointed out, limit grape ripening and include the sincere threat of damage to the vines in the winter due to weather.

When considering the wines themselves, D’Agata explains that “the hallmarks of cool climate wines” include high perceived acidity, brightness, freshness, crispness, minerality and that these characteristics “tend to be achieved naturally without excessive intervention.” Flavors, D’Agata mentioned from cool climate wines tend to include notes like citrus, melon, minerality and salinity. He also pointed out that to some degree cellar interventions can adulterate otherwise cool climate wines. In his view excessively apparent oak and overall flabbiness to the wine tend to hide cool climate character.

As he continued, D’Agata questioned the degree to which these hallmarks of a cool climate can be achieved in otherwise warmer regions. The implication was that generally speaking it is harder to capture the constellation of qualities common to cooler climates simply by picking earlier (for example) in a warmer one. At the same time, he acknowledged that no growing region is homogenous. In any region there may be specific mesoclimates with unique soil, drainage, aspect, and temperature etc that when all in balance deliver cooler character in an otherwise warmer clime.

With all of this in mind, D’Agata noted that truly understanding cool climate regions depends on considering latitude, growing degree days and expression in the wines themselves.

Finally, and in recognition to our event hosts, D’Agata emphasized that in his view Chardonnays from Canada really are world class. He pointed out that he can speak to how wines of the region have improved and the industry has grown since the late 1980s and early 1990s when “it was much harder going” tasting the wines. At the time, “I was very proud to bring back Ontario wines to my wine snob friends in Italy,” he joked. He continued, “and they would laugh me out of the room.” But when he brings back wines of Canada to taste with his friends in Rome today, he says, “I tell you, they’re not laughing anymore.” The wines today are good.

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The Judgment of BC

View from the Judges Seat, Judgment of BC

This week I’ve been touring wine country of the Okanagan Valley with Jamie Goode and our trusty (and patient) tour pilot, Laura Kittmer. We’re hosted by the BC Wine Institute and welcomed by WineAlign to help judge the annual National Wine Awards of Canada looking at wines from across Canada at the close of our visit.

One of the highlights of the trip so far was participating in the 2nd Annual Judgement of BC. The tasting brought 29 top tasters from across Canada, as well as Jamie and myself, to blind taste and rank 12 wines from BC against 12 wines of the world. It was arranged in two flights, one pinot noir, the other riesling, both evenly split between BC and International wines. The event was sponsored by the BC Wine Institute and organized by Canadian wine educator DJ Kearney.

The inaugural event last year celebrated Steven Spurrier visiting British Columbia wine country for the first time and looked at Syrah and Chardonnay. As DJ Kearney explained, the goal for the Judgment of BC is not to ask who is best in the world but rather to investigate how BC wines rank against standard bearers from around the world. It’s an opportunity to investigate how well a relatively young wine region is doing on the world stage in terms of quality.

It was an honor to become part of the group present for the tasting. It’s a group that includes top writers, sommeliers, and buyers from across the country. Jamie also served as a judge last year. This year they decided to include a second international judge as well and kindly invited me.

DJ did a masterful job selecting wines. The international wines were all chosen purposefully to offer wines known as standards from their region meant to both push the local industry towards quality and give the judges insight into how local wines are actually doing currently. Wines were also selected to be in a relatively comparable price range.

As a taster one of the things I found most insightful was that when it came to quality the wines of BC were on par with the international selection. It was profoundly difficult for judges across the board to accurately select the BC contingent from their international counterparts.

Here are the final rankings. Judges were asked to taste each of the two flights and rank wines 1 to 12. Judges’ results were then added together and averaged to determine the final rank for the wines.

Pinot Noir

1. Bouchard Pere Premier Cru Beaune Clos de la Mousse Monopole 2012 Burgundy, France 13%
2. Bachelder Oregon Pinot Noir 2012 Willamette Valley AVA Oregon USA 14%
3. Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago, New Zealand 14%
4. Haywire Canyonview Pinot Noir 2014 Lenswood, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 12.5%
5. Meyer Family Reimer Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Okanagan Valley, BC 13%
6. Quail’s Gate Richard’s Block Pinot Noir 2013 Okanagan Falls, BC 12.5%
7. Blue Mountain Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 Okanagan Falls, BC 12.5%

Two wines tied for 8th place:

Thibault Liger-Belair Bourgogne Les Grands Chaillots 2012 Burgundy, France 13%
JoieFarm Reserve En Famille Pinot Noir 2012 Naramata, Okanagan Valley, BC 13.6%

10. BK Wines Skin n’ Bones Pinot Noir 2013 Lenswood, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 12.5%
11. Moraine Pinot Noir 2013 Naramata, Okanagan Valley, BC 13.1%
12. Meomi Pinot Noir 2014 California, USA 13.7%

Though I was disappointed to see Meomi in the tasting (yes, I did score it 12 as well in my personal ranking of the wines), DJ was smart in her explanation of why it was included. Meomi is the number one selling Pinot Noir in all of British Columbia by a large margin and she felt it was important for judges to be aware of what that market share looks and tastes like in the context of global wine. Not all judges ranked it in last place.


1. Max Gerd Richter Grazer Himmelreich Riesling Kabinette 2013 Mosel Valley, Germany 9%
2. Cedar Creek Platinum Block 3 Riesling 2014 Okanagan Valley BC 12.2%
3. Wild Goose Stoney Slope Riesling 2013 Okanagan Falls BC 13.3%
4. Chateau Ste Michelle & Dr Loosen Eroica Riesling 2013 Columbia Valley AVA Washington 12%
5. Leeuwin Art Series Riesling 2012 Margaret River, Australia 12%
6. Synchromesh Storm Haven Vineyard Riesling 2015 Okanagan Falls BC 8.9%
7. Culmina Decora Riesling 2015 Okanagan Valley BC 13.5%
8. Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2014 South Australia 12%
9. Robert Weil Kiedricher Riesling Trocken 2012 Rheingau, Germany 11.5%
10. Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2013 Okanagan Valley BC 13.1%
11. Orofino Hendsbee Vineyard Riesling 2013 Similkameen Valley BC 12%
12. Trimbach Riesling 2012 Alsace, France 12.5%

It was interesting to judge both flights blind partially because of the mix of styles and sugar levels for both sets of wines. Ranking them was very much an exercise in looking for harmony and quality regardless of style.

Before results were announced judges had the opportunity to judge amongst themselves and beyond the judging, just in terms of personal interest, some expressed a strong preference against the sweet styles while others notes that the RS in some cases brought the balance to the wine.

In my own case I noticed I was more willing to allow RS in the Rieslings than the Pinots and did feel that in the case of the Rieslings the high acidity levels sometimes benefited from a bit of sweetness. In other words, my views here remained consistent with how I’d viewed tasting Riesling previously.

It’s been a ton of fun to investigate BC wines and get to know the people of the region. I’m looking forward to tasting wines from across Canada when Jamie and I join the final rounds of the National Wine Awards.

If you want to read more about the event, this article offers some additional information from one of the other judges:

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The Masters of Wine Residential Seminar: Australia

Australian Wine

The Annual Masters of Wine Residential Seminar has been taking place this week in San Francisco. The residential seminar serves as the yearly in-person training and educational intensive for the first and second year MW students, as well as the opportunity to spend time with a whole bunch of MWs. People travel from all over the world to attend.

This weekend Mark Davidson led an in-depth seminar on Australian wine for the group. He serves as the Education Director for Wine Australia, the general marketing board for wine from across the Australian continent, as well as part of the MW program. Mark and the MW program were kind enough to invite me to attend the seminar and following walk-around tasting.

The initial seminar included ten wines selected to represent first the classics of Australian wine followed by still evolving newer styles. A walk-around tasting of at least fifty other excellent examples was then available.

Australian Wine: History, Evolution, Revolution

While I was familiar with most of the producers presented in the ten-wine seminar, having current vintages and the ten together was an exciting opportunity. The tasting showed how special wines from Australia can be carrying remarkable life in the glass.

Following are notes on the ten wines.

FLIGHT 1: History

Brokenwood Oakey Creek Semillon 2009, Hunter Valley, New South Wales 11% $32

A classic of Australian wine, Hunter Valley Semillon has no counterpart in the world. Even Semillon from elsewhere in Australia carries a distinctly different expression than the wines of Hunter Valley. It also offers a conundrum of expectation: though the region includes high temperatures, the wines consistently offer intense freshness, and tenacious acidity. 

Fresh, invigorating aromatics followed by a juicy and focused palate of mouthwatering acidity. Notes of Meyer lemon, honeysuckle and just a kiss of creme brûlée carry through an ultra long textural finish. Bone dry and delicious.

* Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2010, Eden Valley, South Australia 12.5% $32.99

Australian Riesling is decidedly dry in style. It is the rare exception that includes enough residual sugar to bump into the off-dry category. Unlike the classics of Germany, producers of the Australian wine are emphatically against the idea that their wines include petrol notes and have done extensive viticultural and cellar research to try and insure against the characteristic. 

Fresh, succulent, and focused aromatics. A palate of mouthwatering acidity tumbled through with chalk, quartz, stones and subtle, textural flavor. Notes of honeysuckle, chalky-white peach and a hint of lime. Pretty, delicious, and will age a very long time.

One of the stand-out wines of the tasting for me – I love the freshness and texture of The Contours. 

* Cirillo 1850 Grenache 2010, Barossa Valley, South Australia 13.8% $84.99

Growing what have been documented as the oldest Grenache vines in the world, the red grape is one of the under-regarded classics of Australian wine. From the best producers, Australia’s old vine sites yield concentration, earthy spice, and loads of mouthwatering acidity. South Australia offers a sense of completeness from this grape without blending. 

Perfumed and elegant with melting tannin, mouthwatering acidity, and a silky mouthfeel. Vibrant and energizing. Notes of bramble, savory mixed fruit, and earthy underbrush, this wine continued to evolve giving ever more delicious flavors in the glass. Delicious with a long, mouth-quencing finish.

One of the stand-out wines of the tasting for me – I kept wanting to go back to drink this wine. 

Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coonawarra, South Australia 14% $54.99

Known for its terra rossa soils, Coonawarra brings that red earth patina to the flavors of its reds alongside a tendency for supple tannins. The region is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Its maritime climate offers just enough warmth to soften its tannins and the seaside freshness to keep a wash of acidity on the palate. 

Perfumed and spiced aromatics with a zesty palate carrying an even density of fruit and just a whiff of what Mark describes as “eucalyptus honey” (a pleasant lift in the wine). Savory mixed fruit braid with firmness of tannin with a pleasing backbone of acidity.

Kaesler Old Bastard Shiraz 2010, Barossa Valley, South Australia 14.5% $190

Barossa Valley has been documented with the oldest Shiraz vines on the planet, as well as some of the oldest soils. Shiraz is a classic of the region, historically vinified with a distinctive spice of American oak, in recent decades producers have shifted to the sweetness of French. 

Sweet-spiced with light toast accents throughout, offering a long mouthwatering line and lightly drying tannin. Notes of vibrant mixed fruit and a perfume lift showcasing the smoothness of 35% new French oak.

FLIGHT 2: Evolution & Revolution

** BK Swaby Chardonnay 2013, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 12.5% $55

The Swaby Chardonnay was the stand-out wine of the tasting for me.

Impressive, nuanced, and delicious. BK strikes an impressive balance of freshness tempered by noble sulfide, of gunflint cut through giving fruit. It is somehow almost precious while also sinewed. This wine opens nicely with air carrying lots of life in the glass and a kiss of spice so well integrated you could almost miss it. Best of all, it is just truly nice to drink.

Moorooduc Estate McIntyre Pinot Noir 2012 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria 14% $60

Aromatic and fine-boned, delicate and zesty. Fresh, floral aromatics of rose petal and rose cream carry into the palate with notes of savory, zesty underbrush. Energizing and fresh with supple tannin and mouthfeel. Lots of length.

Jaume Like Raindrops Grenache 2014, McLaren Vale, South Australia 14.2% $50

Unexpected and fresh. Snappy red fruit cloak a beast of savory spice. Wildly aromatic, juicy, fresh, and quaffable. Charming and unconventional. Delicious.

Luke Lambert Syrah 2012, Yarra Valley, Victoria 13.5% $55

Fresh fruit and perfumed accents – juicy blackberries just cut from the bush and served alongside peppery bacon. Long mouthwatering finish and supple tannin.

Grosset Gaia 2013, Clare Valley, South Australia 13.9% $79

Aromatics of fresh-peeled white birch bark and crushed leaves tumble into a velvety mouthfeel and a long, lean palate. Elegant while edgy and energizing. Fresh with a lightly drying finish and just a hint of caramel.

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Institute of Masters of Wine Prestige Champagne Tasting

MW Champagne Panel

The Institute of Masters of Wine (MW) hosted their annual Champagne Tasting event this week featuring over 100 cuvées from top Champagne houses. Prior to the walk-around tasting, three Masters of Wine led a panel discussion of 24 Prestige Cuvées tasted in three flights. Prestige Cuvées are considered the tête de cuvée, or best wine produced from a particular terroir of a producer. They are often smaller production than their other bottlings, though not necessarily.

The 24 wines were selected by the MW panelists – Charles Curtis, Joel Butler, and Tim Marson – around 3 themes each presented in a single flight. The first flight selected 8 of the best examples of Blanc de blancs prestige cuvées; the second side-by-side top cuvées from a single house; and the third sought to discuss the cacophony of factors that go into flavor development looking specifically at vintage versus time en tirage. In the final flight it was difficult to come to conclusions, but part of the point was considering which houses hold wine for aging on lees versus aging after disgorgement, with emphasis on the point that really the question of time in bottle on or off lees is only one powerful though small element in the quality of the final wine alongside terroir, ripeness, vintage conditions, technique, etc.

Following are notes are each of the wines poured during the panel.

Flight 1: Blanc de blancs

Blanc de blancs Champagnes

* 2009 Non-dosé Blanc de blancs Premier Cru “Terre de Vertus” Champagne Larmandier Bernier $65 The “Terre de Vertus” presents a beautiful floral lift and freshness that balances the giving fruit of the vintage. With a more generous year, Larmandier Bernier chose not to use dosage finding the balance intrinsic to the wine already. The result is a sense of delicacy and purity. This wine carries a fine mousse, fresh blossom, a kiss of citrus, just a hint of caramel, and a long persistent mineral finish. Delicious.

2009 Brut Blanc de blancs Millésime Premier Cru “Clos de l’Abbaye” Champagne Doyard $95 Showing some of the richness of its vintage, the “Clos de l’Abbaye” offers a giving, round palate with nuance and no heaviness. Notes of light caramel, a fine mousse, and a persistent crushed sea-salt minerality carrying through to a long finish.

* 2002 Brut Blanc de blancs “Le Mesnil” Champagne Salon $433 Nuanced and giving, the 2002 Salon offers a floral and seaside-brine lift carried on a body of spiced baked apple dusted by chalk. Juicy and full flavored with ample acidity and a long finish, the 2002 is just beginning to open and will surely give a long fulfilling life.

2006 Brut Blanc de blancs “Fleur de Passion” Champagne Diebolt-Vallois $143 With a floral lift of apple and lemon blossom, cascading into baked apple and pear, the “Fleur de Passion” is both soft, elegant and at the same time finessed with a giving mid palate, silky mousse, rich flavor, and a long finish.

NV Brut Blanc de blancs Grand Cru “Les Aventures” Champagne A.R. Lenoble $97 Dynamic, structural and racy. Showcasing white blossoms, mixed citrus and herbal-oil notes of apple leaf with baking spice accents, the “Les Aventures” is finessed, nuanced and intriguing, with a fine while firm mousse, and a persistent finish.

2004 Brut Blanc de blancs Champagne Dom Ruinart $152 With an emphasis on both fruit and structure, the 2004 Dom Ruinart remains taut currently while promising both nuance and complexity – notes of lush fruit, dusty earthiness, and metallic zing wound through racy acidity, and a finessed, textural palate. Give it a bit of time in bottle.

2005 Brut Blanc de blancs “Comtes de Champagne” Champagne Tattinger $ 163 Clean. Finessed with real density. Spiced orchard fruit aromatics with metallic accents leading into a palate with notes of crisp, golden delicious apple, a kiss of peach and an accent of grapefruit pith. A creamy, round mid palate followed by a crisp ultra long finish.

1995 Blanc de blancs “Blanc des Millénaires” Champagne Charles Heidsieck $178 Showing notes of toffee and coffee grounds, with a hint of truffle and spice. Rich aromatics and a full mid palate with a soft mousse and persistent, delicate, long finish. Delicious and giving.

Flight 2: Side-by-side Prestige Cuvées

Side-by-side Champagne Prestige Cuvee

2007 Brut “Belle Epoque” Champagne Perrier-Jouët $160 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Meunier. Dusty, orchard fruit aromatics carry into a full, rich fruit mid palate and a long finish. Persistent, racy acidity wound through a full palate.

2006 Brut Rosé “Belle Epoque” Champagne Perrier-Jouet $353 Unfortunately this wine did not arrive in time for the tasting.

2005 Brut Vintage Champagne Dom Perignon $172 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Spiced, orchard fruit aromatics carry into a crisp, full-flavored mid palate followed by a long, crisp finish. Lots of concentration and a sense of density through the palate. The 2005 hosts a fuller mid palate and less drive than its accompanying 2004 rosé.

2004 Brut Rosé Champagne Dom Perignon $324 A sense of delicacy throughout. Fresh floral with berry accents lifting over baked orchard fruit and dried berry with a buttered croissant accent. Metallic zing throughout. More vinous while also less concentrated than the accompanying 2005 blanc. Elegant.

2005 Brut “La Grande Année” Champagne Bollinger $128 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. Fresh orchard fruit coupled with spiced, baked apple and pear, and orange cream accents. Ample, nuanced aromatics followed by a full palate of flavor and finessed structure. Oxidative accents throughout carrying into a long finish.

2002 Extra-Brut “R.D.” Champagne Bollinger $321 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Perfumed and nutty with notes of ground coffee, toasted almond brioche, and perfumed apple blossom. A softer mousse than its 2005 counterpart. Oxidative accents throughout leading into a persistent metallic finish. Focused while also giving. Intriguing.

NV Brut “Grande Cuvée” Champagne Krug $175 Blend unclear. Includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and 15-20% Pinot Meunier. Notes of bruised and spiced mixed fruit, and brioche with toffee and coffee grounds. Nuanced and complex palate and aromatics with a full mid palate, firm mousse, and racy long finish.

2003 Brut Vintage Champagne Krug $255 46% Pinot Noir, 29% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Meunier. Dried blossom and light spice. Pert, fresh pear and apple opening through the round mid palate followed by a crisp, focused finish. Fresher and more focused through the finish than the Grand Cuvée.

Flight 3: Vintage & en tirage

Vintage and en triage flight of Champagne

* NV Extra-Brut Grand Cru “V.P.” Champagne Egly-Ouriet $119 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. Aged 7 years on lees. Fresh and secondary notes throughout. Lively and energetic while lean palate. Notes of blossom lift over toffee and ground coffee. Rich mid palate with lean structure and long finish. Nice complexity and nuance. Beautiful.

2000 Brut “Cuvée des Enchanteleurs” Champagne Henriot $199 Aged 12 years on lees. Bold and risky. Notes of oyster liqueur, toffee and apple with toasted nut. Ripe and supple with a long, drying finish. Funky. The aromatics linger into hints of amontillado sherry with air.

2002 Brut Cuvée “Sir Winston Churchill” Champagne Pol Roger $263 Only from older vines. 10 years on lees. Subtle aromatics. Soft mousse. Persistent, firm acidity. Deliciously vinous with a nice crispness. Notes of bruised fruit, croissant and metallic zing – somehow both oxidative and fresh with a focused, long, drying finish. Powerful with nice density of flavor. Delicious.

2004 Brut Grand Cru Millésime “Bouzy” Champagne Pierre Paillard $70 50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay. 9 years on lees. Notes of ground oyster shell, cocoa, and fresh apple with light berry accents and a metallic zing. Vibrant, youthful acidity. Focused, crisp and long finish. Delicious and unique.

2004 Brut “La Grande Dame” Champagne Veuve Cliquot $146 6 years on lees. Oyster liqueur, mixed fruit – crushed berry, bruised orchard fruit, and orange cream – on brioche. A rich, lush, giving wine with a persistent finish.

2005 Brut Grand Cru Millésime “Cuvée Perle d’Ayala” Champagne Ayala $144 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir. Both fresh floral and perfumed aromatics follow through a palate of orchard fruit and cocoa with a confected apple finish. A rich palate with firm and persistent acidity.

2005 Brut “Clos des Goisses” Champagne Philipponnat $195 2/3 Pinot Noir. 1/3 Chardonnay. 8-10 years on lees. Fresh orchard fruit and perfumed aromatics. Fresh and bruised apple with toasted nut and light coffee accents through the palate. Crisp acidity cut through a rich palate and a metallic, spiced finish. Distinctive.

2005 Brut Rosé “Comtes de Champagne” Champagne Tattinger $213 70% Pinot Noir (15% red), 30% Chardonnay. 5-6 years on lees. Notes of crisp pear, metallic berry, cocoa, toasted nut and spice. Subtle aromatics need air upon opening. Full mid palate and full, giving mousse lead into an ultra long finish with firm structure.

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Billy Collins on Writing

Last week Billy Collins addressed the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium in a key note address with his thoughts on writing. Following are some ideas he shared.

What it Means to Write

In considering various forms of writing, Collins admitted to differences in his level of comfort versus insecurity. “The prose writer in me is riddled with insecurity. The poet is not.”

In explaining the practice of writing, Collins hit home with a reference to Thomas Mann. He gave the entire room a good laugh with this one. It is far too true. “As Thomas Mann said, a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

Collins used a point from W.H. Auden on how to recognize when your writing is complete. “W.H. Auden compared writing to cabinet making – the just rightness about the words.”

Considering Poetry

Later Collins continued the comparison of forms of writing. “Poetry and prose, for me, are like two different musical instruments.”

As a poet, he explored that approach further, using it to give insight to writing in general. “Poetry offers the highest level of imaginative freedom of any writing. It doesn’t have to stick to its topic.” And, “The poet seeks to get lost in the woods of his own imagination.”

He considered, finally, how the means of concluding a piece gives insight to the method of the whole. “All poems are about one thing – how do you get out of there? That can be extended to all writing, I think. The conclusion is about reaching that point where you have nothing else to say, and the reader doesn’t want to read anymore.”

Part of Collins point in exploring poetry was to encourage us as writers to pull inspiration from beyond the walls of wine writing. How? Collins suggested that the conventions of wine writing could be improved, or undone, by interjecting the conventions of other writing forms. He offered several tips, and examples, some drawing too from other styles of writing.

Wine As Discovery

“Start out writing about something other than wine so then wine comes in as a sort of discovery.”

“If you get the reader to accept something simple at the beginning of the piece, they’ll be more willing to accept something more complex later. […] Once you’ve established something human at the beginning of the piece, you’ve established absolute authority.”

“Be an interesting speaker.”

The Love of Strangers

Collins considered for a moment writers’ relation to others first by referencing American Essayist Roger Angell. “Roger Angell said, that’s what writing is all about, the love of strangers.”

Collins continued the idea by taking a look into why writers write. “We have people all around us that love us but their love is often incomplete. So, we seek out the love of others – strangers.”

He used the idea of seeking attention from others to drive home a fundamental point about what makes some writing work – we are all in a sense alienated. Writing, when it works, becomes a site to connect with others. How?

“We can always assume the indifference of readers. To get over that indifference, move off into other topics. Have some drift in your writing.” The drift becomes what Collins called our “something human” that gives us authority in the piece. Not in the sense of dominating the reader, but in the sense of pulling them in.

Building a Scene

Collins considered other ways to pull the reader in by again turning to other forms of writing. “Writers of novels do not proceed by explanation. They proceed by scene-by-scene construction. It is certainly good to begin with a scene. All sorts of things can happen in a scene. Is it raining? Put some rain in there.”

Collins considered advice from Nelson Algren. “Make them laugh. Make them cry. But most of all make them wait.”

Collins then riffed on Algren’s point by considering again conventions from other forms of writing. “Plant a suspense scene or clue in the beginning, then go to describing the weather, or the scenery outside the window.”

The Writer’s Ego and Interest

As he continued, he referenced Joan Didion and her technique of borrowing stylistically from fiction to deliver her non-fiction prose. He also pointed to a more extreme example, Hunter S. Thompson, in which “the reporter replaces the subject of the story. They inject their ego into the story.”

In describing that generation’s styles of reporting where the journalist suddenly became (overtly) integral to the reporting, he joked, “Everyone wrote like an only child.”

Finally, Collins turned the attention back to the state of the writer while writing. “Keep yourself interested. If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep anyone else up at night. You have to make yourself a stranger to your own writing. Step back from each paragraph, and ask, would a stranger be interested in this?”


For Amy and Meg.

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Writing as Writers

selfishly stolen from Michael Alberty who no doubt selfishly thieved it from someone elseLast week wine writers and editors from around the world flew to Napa Valley for the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium to learn together how to better our work as writers.

We were urged by Dave McIntrye, wine writer of the The Washington Post, to remember that wine is the adjective that modifies the noun writer. Our job first is to write well.

Will Lyons of the Wall Street Journal urged, “If you want to keep your writing fresh, you need to read widely.” Then, continuing, he chided lightly, “keep your writing fresh, enthusiastic, and bright, but that will only get you so far. You also have to research.”

Writing About Wine

Turning specifically to our work as writers of wine, S. Irene Virbila, food critic and wine reviewer of The Los Angeles Times, pushed into the personal, advising us, “find a way to go back to that emotional core when you first discovered wine. Give people that experience somehow.”

For Virbila, one way to accomplish that is to consider that we “have a relationship with wine. It is not the same with every sip.” (Cathy Huyghe explores this idea in her review of a fictitious good wine below.)

As lovers of wine, that relationship is no small piece. Our love of wine pulls us back again and again, elongating those moments of our nose in the glass. We can deliver that intimacy to our readers but go too far and our work becomes too precious.

Considering her work writing for a general audience in a daily newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, Virbila reminded us to “never forget how many people never think about wine.” In a position like that of a newspaper wine writer, she explained that we are asked to “convince a wider audience why they should even be interested in wine.”

Remembering Relevance

Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, reminded us at the end of his keynote speech that for writing about wine to be accessible to that broader audience we must remove it from its privileged lifestyle.

Wine becomes relevant when we take it out of the wealth and comfort of the finest wine country, and return it to the tables of any home.

To explicate, Collins (half joking) pointed to the most relevant of writing, the obituary. “I know obituaries very well,” he said, “better than wine.” His point, ultimately, “break that circle. Reach a non specialist audience.”

The Billy Collins Writing Challenge

Finally, Collins presented the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium with a writing challenge. The point was to generate quality writing while also making fun of our own conventions.

The assignment? He invited every attendee (there were 50 of us, along with 20 or so speakers and coaches) to write an over-the-top wine review for an imaginary wine in one or both of two categories.

(1) A good review for a wine that gives “spiritual transcendence,” is “orgasmic,” and “life transforming.”

(2) A bad review for “an absolutely damning” wine “demeaning to your spirit”

At the end of the week he selected both a 1st and 2nd place winner for each category. Here they are.

Over the Top Wine Reviews

Billy Collins Writing Challenge Bad Asseswinners of the Billy Collins Writing Challenge
from left: me, Fred Swan, Billy Collins, Kort van Bronkhorst, Cathy Huyghe

Second Place: the Good Wine, Cathy Huyghe

In the glass, there is a nuance of color. On the nose, it evolves as time passes. It’s meant to. It’s meant to breathe, and expand and contract, and stretch its legs. There is something on the nose that rings a bell in my memory. In the mouth, it has something to say. It takes a stand. It has an opinion, and it is not afraid to say it. Sometimes it wants the spotlight — it earns it, and deserves it. But, over time, it takes a step back too, to self-deprecate, to tease, to hide, to beguile, to make me want to come back for more. And every time I do come back, every sip, is different. That too is how it’s meant to be. It leaves me with a taste in my mouth of, “Oh.” And “Oh. Yes, I get it.”

Second Place: the Bad Wine, Elaine Chukan Brown

Reeper Vineyards 2013 “Chariot” Sauvignon Blanc – pungent presentation of sea cucumber, grandma’s feet, and the dust from Shakespeare’s first edition. 14.5% $120

First Place: the Bad Wine, Fred Swan

It starts with a cringe-inducing, sphincter-puckering screech of rusty iron on rusty iron. Then comes impact: a sudden, heavy blow to the mouth. There’s the taste of blood and gravel, the feel of shattered glass on the tongue. Burning diesel, overturned soil and the pungent earthiness of one hundred pairs of pants filled by panic assault the nose. One’s throat burns and, eye’s watering, victims drag themselves along the floor looking for safety and water. The 2009 Chateau de Plonk is a a Bordelaise train wreck. 65 points.

First Place: the Good Wine, Kort van Bronkhorst

Toasted Head Cannabis Sauvignon

Oh Em Gee. This is a mind-blowing wine! Wooooooo! In the glass, it’s like a magenta kaleidoscope of shimmering, uh, wineness. On the nose, it reeks (and I mean that in a good way) of stoned fruits and wet earth. And if ever a wine was herbaceous, it’s this one. In the mouth, it turned my tongue into Playland at the Beach. Especially the Fun House. Yeah. Wow. Look at my head in that mirror! And Dudes, you really must pair this wine with food. Lots and lots of food. Like especially Taquitos, and Cheese Puffs, and that Munchie Pack that Jack in the Box serves after 11pm. Awright awright awright! Best of all, it’s only $4.20 a bottle, but I highly recommend getting a magnum so you can pass it around at your next party.


Thank you to Cathy, Fred, and Kort for letting me share their pieces here.

Funny thing. It occurs to me only now that Kort and I both wrote about Sauvignon though with entirely opposite reactions. Cheers!

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Exploring Wine Perception with Jordi Ballester

Black Wine Glasses for Sensory Deprivation Tastingimage found:

Jordi Ballester, professor at Université de Bourgogne, Dijon, led a special add-on seminar at International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) that happened this weekend in Willamette Valley, Oregon. Ballester has devoted his career to studying the perception of wine, and the cognitive processes behind it. The session highlighted the intimate influence of visual cues on our experience of aroma and flavor.

To open the session, attendees were presented with the following task. We were to smell the liquids in each of three black wine glasses (thus removing any visual cues for the liquid themselves) and then vote on whether or not each of the three liquids was a white wine, a red wine, or a rosé using only the aroma of the liquids (no tasting).

The black glass tasting we participated in was purposefully designed to remove the advantages or influences of our other senses, and make us focus only on our sense of smell. In previous studies, Ballester explained, it was found that both wine experts and novices judgments of wine are influenced by the appearance of the wine they are tasting.

It has been shown in studies that adding scentless red food coloring to a white wine will radically change the descriptors used by a panel of wine tasters (“The Color of Odor” Morrot et al 2001). In 2001, a study was done with a panel of 54 enology students tasting wine that they then had to describe. The first flight gave them all the same white wine. The panel members’ descriptors tended to hover around notes like lime, pineapple, and pear. The exact same white wine, except with the odorless red color added, was then served to them for the second flight. In that case, the exact same panel described the wine with descriptors like strawberry, or blackberry. In other words, when the wine looked like a white wine, hallmark white wine descriptors were used. When the wine looked like a red wine, classic red wine descriptors were given.

With such a study in mind, Ballester asked us to identify the color-type of the three wines just based on aroma. In our group of 49 participants the wines were largely identified correctly. Wine 1: 6 voted white, 35 voted red, 8 voted rosé. The wine was a Crowley 2012 Pinot Noir. Wine 2: 28 voted white, 13 voted red, 8 voted rosé. It was a Wooing Tree 2012 Chardonnay. Wine 3: 15 voted white, 5 red, 32 rosé. It was a R. Stuart & Co 2013 Big Five Dry Rosé. In formal studies, it has been shown that wine experts tend to succeed at such a task, predominately guessing the correct wine color-type based on aroma alone.

Ballester used this exercise to explain two types of cognitive processing that relate to wine tasting — Top-Down Processing, and Bottom-Up Processing. In Top-Down Processing, previous knowledge leads our expectations. So, in the case of the Morrot “The Color of Odor” study, it is as if seeing what appeared to be a red wine in the glass activated the participants’ knowledge of red wines, thus bringing to attention the range of descriptors for a red wine category. The range of fruits they could use to identify the wine, for example, went from hallmark white wine fruits like pear and pineapple to classic red wine fruits like raspberry and blackberry. In Top-Down Processing already established knowledge guides our interpretation of an experience.

Top-Down Processing appears in other ways through wine tasting as well. Ballester also gave the example of a tasting of chardonnay. The first flight the panel members were asked to taste and describe a young pale chardonnay. In the second the exact same wine had scentless golden color added to it. In that case, the taster panel went from giving the descriptors of a young chardonnay — fresh fruits — to giving classic descriptors for an aged white wine — secondary and/or tertiary aromas.

The second cognitive process mentioned is Bottom-Up Processing. In that case, knowledge is lacking, and thus cannot get in the way of how one describes a wine. One simply has the experience to describe, without expectations being informed by already established knowledge. As Ballester explained, there is no pure Bottom-Up Processing because any of us are always informed by previous experience. Still, the black glasses tasting experience removed layers of sensory information to lessen the ways in which such information can activate and direct our expectations.

To push the experience even further, Ballester then had us score a flight of five red wines in a simple way. We were to smell and taste each one and vote on whether or not the wine was from Oregon. The experience proved interesting for me for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the group vote was predominately wrong for the first wine, split for the second, and then predominately correct for the final three wines. Wine 1: 31 voted as from Oregon. 19 not. It was actually an Akurua 2012 from New Zealand. Wine 2: 29 voted Oregon. 21 not. It was Adelsheim 2008 from Willamette (Oregon). Wine 3: 8 voted from Oregon. 42 not. It was a Domaine de l’Arlot Nuits St George 2007 Clos des Forrets St Georges (France). Wine 4: 16 voted Oregon. 34 not. It was Kosta Brown 2006 Amber Ridge Vineyard (California). Wine 5: 13 voted Oregon. 37 not. It was a Domaine Michel 2005 Laferge Volnay Les Mitans (France).

The fifth wine at first look stood out as strange while fascinating. Once the wines were revealed, however, and thus the fifth wine had a context behind it, it moved from merely strange and fascinating, to also pleasurable. The wine being given its appropriate context of information helped shift expectations for it to more pleasurable. Two of the wine experts sitting beside me described a similar sort of experience.

As Ballester explained, for this sort of tasting test, experts tend to identify wines correctly to broad location categories, where as novices are less likely to do so. This makes sense as experts have more experience to draw from in order to identify such wines.


Thank you to Jordi Ballester.

Thank you to Amy Wesselman, and all the people that make IPNC happen.

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Comparing Sherry and Champagne

Just prior to the opening of Sherryfest West, Martine’s Wines and Valkyrie Selections hosted a Sherry and Champagne event at The Battery in San Francisco. The event included several flights of grower champagnes, followed by flights of grower sherry, all accompanied by a panel of experts.

The panel included Baron Ziegler of Valkyrie Selections, and Gregory Castells of Martine’s Wines to introduce champagne, and Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias of Bodegas Tradicion, and Jan Pettersen of Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla to discuss sherry. Peter Liem opened the event with a discussion of the ways in which champagne and sherry unwittingly resemble each other.

The Houses Poured

The wine flights included Champagne Gonet-Médeville, Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, Champagne Saint-Chamant, then Fernando de Castilla, and Bodegas Tradición.

Champagne Gonet-Medeville offers a focus on refined freshness, rather than opulence. The wines carry delicacy, purity, and beautiful subtlety throughout.

Champagne Larmandier-Bernier gives a center line of salinity and freshness through a body of texture and fruit presence. The wines are all made with only native yeast ferment, a condition quite unusual in Champagne, and sparkling wine more generally. With the exception of their rosé, their wines are all 100% Chardonnay. The house is also one of the biggest proponents of bio-dynamic farming in the region, a recommendation that proves challenging as Champagne suffers high mildew pressure. Biodynamic farming, then, requires far more hands on viticulture in the region.

Saint-Chamant Champagne delivers a wine of opulence, with incredible complexity, while at the same time maintaining freshness. The wines open with age offering an easy balance of opulence and mineral freshness. Current release vintages from the last decade are still quite young and would do well with time in the bottle before opening.

Fernando de Castilla could be considered a boutique bodegas, or grower sherry house. It developed through a focus on only the highest quality sherry, wines made for the best of the local market. More recently Fernando de Castilla has begun to export these unique styles of sherry outside the Spanish market. As an example, Fernando de Castilla offers one of the only remaining examples of Antique Fino, a wine made through the older approach to sherry rarely possible today. To read more on the heritage of Antique Fino:

Bodegas Tradición, another boutique level bodegas, seeks to create the finest quality sherry by avoiding or reducing filtering, and additives, and hand selecting the best lots for bottling. The result are wonderfully pure expressions of the wine. They also succeed in delivering beautiful older examples at small production levels.

The Discussion

The coupling of champagne and sherry appears at first an unusual choice. The two wines are thought of rather separately with bubbles from the cool Northern reaches of France seeming unlike fortified wine from the warmer areas of Spain. As Liem explored, however, in terms of methodology and production there are actually numerous insightful comparisons to be made between the two wines.

Following are thoughts from Peter Liem, during his introduction to the event.

Peter Liem introducing Sherry + ChampagnePeter Liem (right) discussing the commonalities between Sherry and Champagne
Sherryfest West, San Francisco, June 2014

“Champagne and sherry are two wines very dear to me for personal, and professional reasons. On the face of it, sherry and champagne look like disparate things.

“Champagne is the epitome of cool climate, from Northern France, delicate, and low in alcohol. Sherry is fortified to be above 15% in alcohol, from one of the Southern most growing regions in Europe, and is low in acidity.

“There is a spiritual element common between the two, as well as commonality in the production processes. Both are very much about where each is made. They come from calcareous soils. We often say “calcium” for short.

“In Champagne, we have chalk. The rock, you can break it off. It is very old from the Cretaceous period. In Sherry, we have albariza. It is a younger soil, around 35-million years old, and is much more crumbly in structure than chalk. It is more akin to sand, than the rock found in Champagne.

“In Champagne, you find actual physical rocks. In albariza, when dry, which is 5 months of the year, the soil can be compact, dry, and very hard. When it rains, it turns to mud. Albariza is like a light, calcareous sand.

“The affect of both soils is to create a distinctive minerality in both of these wines. When we think about the minerality of these wines it becomes interesting to compare them. When we compare them, we can compare their processes.

“In the past we would say both come from rather neutral grapes. No one would say that anymore. Producers as recently as 10-years ago, champagne producers would say they were looking for neutral base wines because the character of champagne comes from aging.

“In general, the base wines of sherry and champagne are not wines we want to drink. Both of these wines rely heavily on yeast. In champagne, the secondary ferment, and lees aging contribute greatly to the wines’ character. In fino and manzanilla, the layer of flor affects wine in important ways. Both are aged for a long time.

“For champagne, 10-years is nothing for aging. Many of the best need 15 years to show their best. Sherry is very long lived. It undergoes very long aging processes.

“In terms of perception, there is also a lot in common. Both wines are largely misunderstood. Many people don’t even think of sherry as wine. People often think of champagne as apertif only. In actuality, sherry is a very complex wine. It is also the most food friendly wine on the planet, bar none. In terms of perception, there is a lot of work for us to do.

“Both wines are a product of blending. In some cases, these wines are the result of extremely vast blends. Non-vintage champagnes can be comprised of hundreds of base wines. A sherry solera can be 200-years old and encompass, for all intensive purposes, hundreds of base wines.

“Finally, both champagne and sherry have been sold, or marketed as brands. In both, the brand of sherry, or the brand of champagne is the defining element for the beverage. Sherry bodegas are known for giving a consistent product. A champagne house develops their blend early in the process, and is often known for it.”


For more from Peter Liem on Champagne, check out his site:

For more from Peter Liem on Sherry, check out his site, also carrying his book on Sherry, co-authored with Jesús Barquín:

Peter Liem discusses his work on in an I’ll Drink to That podcast with Levi Dalton, episode 11:

and his book, Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, written with Jesús Barquín in I’ll Drink to That podcast episode 38:


Thank you to Noah Dorrance.

Thank you to Baron Ziegler, and Gregory Castells, Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias, Jan Pettersen, and Peter Liem.

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Five Decades of Mayacamas, PBFW

Mayacamas Panel, PBFW

from left: Kim Beto, Andy Erickson, Antonio Galloni, D’Lynn Proctor, Brian McClintic

At Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Antonio Galloni moderated a panel celebration of Bob Travers’s tenure at Mayacamas presenting a five decade vertical of the famed Cabernet beginning with Travers first vintage on the estate, 1968, and closing with his last, 2012.

New Mayacamas winemaker, Andy Erickson, included Travers’s own notes on the vintages tasted, and discussed the history of the property along with the recent shift in ownership. To comment on the individual wines presented through the panel were also Kim Beto, D’Lynn Proctor, and Brian McClintic. From the audience, Joel Peterson, winemaker of Ravenswood, also offered valuable insight to the discussion.

At the end of April 2013, it was announced that Charles and Ali Banks had purchased the property through their investment group, Terroir Capital. The purchase arrived after years of discussion over the possibility between Banks and Travers. Banks’s long term respect for the property, and Travers’s work there drew Banks’s interest in the purchase.

Since the change in ownership, Erickson has spent extensive time speaking with Travers, reading his notes, and studying previous vintages to smooth the change in winemaking.

In fielding questions from the audience, Erickson was pushed to consider the contrast in style between the winemaking he’s shown through other labels, such as his own Favia, and that historically housed at Mayacamas. It was clear from the tenor in the audience that there is trepidation over whether the new team can maintain Travers’s style of site expression. Most revealing of Erickson’s responses, he closed the panel by admitting his work with Mayacamas in 2013 has pushed him to rethink his previous understandings of ripeness. Mayacamas Cabernet picks at lower brix levels than other sites, and ages beautifully.

Attending the Mayacamas tasting and panel discussion was a genuine honor. Receiving a vertical that carved the complete arc of Travers’s tenure from first to final vintage at the site gave an extra sense of elegance and respectfulness to the experience. To say the wines are special is an understatement.

The Cabernet of Mayacamas, 1968 to 2012

Mayacamas Cabernet Vertical 1968-2012click on image to enlarge

Travers’s iterations of Mayacamas Cabernet give a beautifully organic sense of seamlessness. The vintages I’ve been lucky enough to taste celebrate sophisticated rusticity — the dustiness of mountain fruit with tobacco and earth components carried through sometimes rugged, while well-executed, tannin balanced by juicy length. Even the riper vintages aren’t afraid of earth components, refreshing green pepper accents, or tannin born of a view. They’re wines that come with a real sense of life in the bottle.

Joel Peterson commented on the Cabernets of Mayacamas pointing out that with their greater acidity, structural tannin, and rose/floral aromatic line they can readily be compared to Barolo, and perhaps even more appropriately than the stereotypical Napa Cabernet. He continued by noting that Mt Veeder, with its unique environment and expression, really needs to be considered on its own, rather than encapsulated simply as part of the Napa Valley.

In describing the winemaking, Erickson laughed, describing it as “wilderness winemaking.” Travers accomplished his purity of expression with decades old wooden vessels housed in an even older rock building, a road that was sometimes impassable, and very little electrical technology.

Tasting through the Vertical

The vertical began with 1968, Travers first vintage, and a wine made of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Though Traver’s notes expected that the wine “should age until the late 1980s” the wine was still drinking beautifully with energetic structural integrity, and beautiful mineral length. The wine had aged into a delicate flavor presentation with lovely floral aromatics and lift, well integrated with leather and earth components. Erickson shared with us that Travers’s notes stated “suggestion retail $4.50.” The 1968 vintage was primarily Mt Veeder Cabernet from the Mayacamas site, but included some fruit from the Alexander Valley.

The 1973 offered impressive structural integrity, and youthful strength. In a single word, this was a wine of purity. Aromatics of lavender and tobacco flower are joined by light cigar and rose petal, freshly opened green pepper and hints of jalapeno. The palate carries elegant juiciness with a focus on smooth tannic brawn.

The 1981 vintage offered the only wine that showed a sleeping phase, wanting time in bottle to show itself. Still, it carried recognizable kinship to its brethren giving lavender, cherry blossom, and light jalapeno aromatics rolling into an especially tannic focus on an earthy (though not fully showing) palate with a light menthol edge.

By the late 1980s, Travers was incorporating Cabernet Franc and Merlot into his Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromatics of the 1989 offered leather and light cigar accents coupled with creamy, delicate earthiness and light rose. Through the palate, the wine brought a vibrant, lifting red with silky, strong tannin, and a juicy crunch. This is a wine with lots of power that fills the palate giving a pert and vibrant lift.

With 1992, the wines began to shift from the fully integrated, while lively earth and leaf, flower and mineral elements of the first half of the tasting, into more apparent youthfulness of fruit still coupled with earth and flower accents. The red fruit focus of the 1992 married itself to the grounding elements of white truffle and oregano oil accented by evergreen carried through silken tannin, and a pleasing plush mouthfeel.

Beginning with light aromatics, the 1999 gave incredible juiciness on still such a young wine. The wine carried beautiful balance, long long lines, red fruit and redwood forest with less apparent flavor differentiation. The wine showed as less varied in that sense than earlier vintages but with the structural verve that will keep it developing well beyond Bob’s typical predictions.

With 2007 youthful red cherry perfume, red plum, and rose potpourri began to carry too the darker berry elements of young Cabernet. The vintage showed a beautiful purity of fruit expression on a body of fresh, juicy elegance and silken tannin. It’s a yummy, luscious wine with a bit riper fruit and a lot of structural focus.

The Mayacamas vertical was completed with a barrel sample of Travers’s last vintage, 2012. The dark berry focus of young Cabernet swirled through aromatics and palate here alongside fresh smashed cherries married to the lift of licorice blossom, redwood forest, and wet gravel on a body of plush tannin focus.


To read more on Mayacamas in the last year:

From Eric Asimov:

From Jon Bonné:


With enormous thanks to Bob Travers for his dedication to Mayacamas.

Thank you to Antonio Galloni, Andy Erickson, D’Lynn Proctor, Kim Beto, and Brian McClintic.

Thank you to Charles and Ali Banks.

Thank you to Sarah Logan.


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