Monthly Archives: July 2013

Learning to love champagne

This might sound like a cliche to some of you, but I do believe that becoming a wine taster is a learning process. Most people are not born with a fine palate, but, like other skills, tasting is learnable. I am certainly a novice: I have only been seriously tasting for two years, and although I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot even in this short span of time, I still find that I’m all too often seduced by the loud, obvious and overstated, and don’t always notice the elegant, refined and stylish. I am reminded of young children’s taste in colour. Most like reds, harsh pinks and yellows. It’s OK. I like, for now, such reds and pinks and yellows on my palate because they are so easy to notice, and easy to enjoy. Oak and vanilla are direct and striking and they overwhelm and no detective work is to be done. But I’ve always wanted to be a detective, so this will not suffice.

Still, when I took part in my first ever serious champagne tasting, I raised an eyebrow. What’s all the fuss about? Why do people pay hundreds of pounds for a bubbly that to me doesn’t seem that different from a £7 Cava from Tesco? And then, having heard myself ask that question, I begin to think. What should one be looking for in a champagne? Surely it’s not all hype and fashion and snobbery. And the detective work begins. How should I taste champagne? I bombard Tom Stevenson, arguably one of the worlds’ greatest experts of the sparkling beverage, with beginners’ questions. Where is the kind of intensity I’m used to in still wines? Where are all those fruity flavours? Why do all these wines seem so uniform? And Tom explains, and then I read up on the subject and slowly slowly a clearer, sharper picture of fine champagne begins to take shape in my head – and hopefully on my palate.

As a novice, one of the distractions I have to deal with when it comes to champagne-tasting is, of course, the bubbles. Be they as fine and silky as they may, they still keep my palate busy and turn attention away from individual flavour characteristics. But perhaps this is just as well. Perhaps this is the way towards learning to judge and enjoy a wine as a whole. Anyway, since champagne is made from very different base wines to the aged, matured still wines I’m used to drinking, I can’t expect to discover the same flavours, the same ripeness, the same intensity. The fruits tend to be more subtle, more citrusy, or light red fruit. What predominates in champagne is the flavours that come with age, partly developing during the autolytic process (this is when the wine sits for months or, ideally, years in the bottle, having received a dose of sugar/yeast/wine to start a second fermentation, having completed that fermentation and developed lots of bubbles) whereby the dead yeasts, or lees, are creating added flavours and contributing to a creamier texture in the wine. As Tom tells me, the toast and biscuit and yeastiness that are the dominant flavour characteristics of traditionally made sparkling wine do not come from the autolysis, but rather from the next stage of ageing, after disgorgement (when those dead yeasts are collected in the bottle’s neck, frozen and popped out), after dosage (a wine refill of varying sugar levels; the more serious the wine, the less the sugar content of the dosage, it seems) has been added. So, autolysis will produce floral fragrances, and post-disgorgement ageing will give us the toast and yeastiness.

So we look for these flavours, and for good acidity and of course balance and structure. But one needs to fine-tune one’s palate. Champagne is chamber music, not a symphony orchestra. There won’t be much crash boom bang (except when you drink Krug’s!), but it doesn’t mean the music is not just as great, the expressions as intense and beautiful, and the overall experience as cathartic.


Napa Valley Masterclass

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to take part in a masterclass in London, organized by Napa Valley Vintners and led by Tim Atkin MW. About a dozen representatives of Napa wineries came to introduce their wines to us and talk about the present and future of winemaking in Napa. Apart from a few bubblies, the tasting was to focus on classic reds: mainly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon single varietal wines, and a couple of blends. Wineries present were, in order of appearance, Schramsberg (sparkling Blanc de Blancs, i.e. made only from Chardonnay grapes), Luna, Twomey, Chimney Rock, Long Meadow, Pine Ridge, Robert Mondavi, Shafer, Silver Oak, Viader, and Waterstone.

Before saying anything about the individual wines, it’s probably best to start with a brief introduction to how Napa Valley came to be one of the top American winemaking regions it is today.

1861 saw the opening of the first commercial winery in Napa. By the late 1880s there were 140 wineries operating in the region. However, it wasn’t long before the region was hit by phylloxera (a root louse that also destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century), and then prohibition (1919). Neither did much good to the wine industry, and during Prohibition most vintners went and found themselves other occupations. Only a handful remained who were producing so-called ‘sacramental’ wines, or wines for home consumption, and using varieties that were not necessarily the best.

In 1933 Prohibition law was repealed and Napa began to recover. It was in 1966 that the first new winery opened, under the ownership of Robert Mondavi. Today there are about 450 wineries, and this probably has a lot to do with the huge success of California wine after the famed Judgment of Paris of 1976, where Napa wines triumphed over French wines in a blind tasting organized by the today legendary Stephen Spurrier.

So, it’s a lot of wineries for a fairly small area, which is very diverse both in its geology and its climate. The wineries themselves are typically small and produce small yields (80 per cent of wineries put out less than 10,000 cases a year, and 95 per cent of the wineries are family-owned). There are 40 grape varieties planted in Napa, of which Cabernet Sauvignon is the most successful.


The three vintages we tasted were, from warmest to coolest, those of 2002, 2005 and 2008. Even though all wines were of a consistently high quality and certainly deserve to be called premium, here I’m only going to detail those I liked the best.

So, Pine Ridge to begin with. Three Cab Sauvs from the Stag’s Leap District of Napa. The grapes were harvested at night, sat for 2 days in a cold soak, and were fermented at a high temperature of 32 C for a maximum of seven days. Wines were aged in 100% French oak.

Pine Ridge 2002 – Darkish ruby colour and an intense, delicious nose with coffee, leather, black pepper and cedar wood. The spicy palate is rich in coffee and lots of very approachable ripe red fruit. Sweet spice, intense, medium-bodied with warm alcohol. Very, very enjoyable.

Pine Ridge 2005 – There is more meat and mushroom and less fruit in this wine, both on the nose and on the palate. These tertiary flavours sit beautifully with the underlying sweet spice and ripe fruit. The wine has something almost biscuity about it. My favourite of the three.

Pine Ridge 2008 – Ruby turning purple, with a nose that offers more pure fruit, predominantly red cherries. Some wood and cinnamon also make their appearance on the palate, together with ripe red fruit. Alcohol seems lower? Not as exciting to me as the other two, but this is probably purely a matter of personal taste.

Robert Mondavi 2002 Reserve, Napa Valley – A classic Bordeaux blend with over 80% Cab Sauv, and the rest a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Striking, lively ruby-garnet colour, just beautiful. Lovely nose and palate of coffee, peppery spice and leather. Tannins feel a bit grainy but the alcohol is nice and smooth. Ripe fruit and spice nicely integrated on palate, warm, high-alcohol finish.

Viader 2005, Proprietary Blend, Napa Valley

The wine was made in 100% new French oak, with long cold fermentation, in biodynamic fermenters and with gentle extraction. The colour is deep ruby; the intriguing nose offers intense earthy, meaty aromas and pepper. Can’t wait to bite into this one! I find a savoury, peppery palate with green herbal notes. A medium-bodied wine with great acidity, high tannins and high alcohol. Beautifully crafted, serious, just great.