Wolf Blass Grey Label Cabernet Sauvignon 1998

IMAG2239Well, it’s been a while since I blogged about wine.  I do have excuses but the real [embarassing] truth is that I simply WENT OFF WINE for a while.  I know; I hardly believe it myself, but for some reason, my palate beat my brain to my middle-age crisis, and slipped back into 18yo status.  I wanted Lambrusco, and sparkling Moscato!  I craved sweet bubbles!  I drank sweet ciders, craft beers and … forgive me … RTD’s!

However, last night, while my ever-indulging-other-half fried up a juicy steak, I was suddenly inspired.  I went to the wine rack, and scanned over the remains of my wine collection from over a decade ago.  Unbelievably, there are still a few gems there:  wines that I accumulated during my years with the Fosters Group, some oddities acquired when I was with Vintage Cellars and we took over an independent boutique wine shop in Yarraville [Read:  Unload anything that is not mass-produced to the level required by Coles], and a couple of pressies that friends had bought over the years.

There, covered in a layer of dust on the bottom row, were a few of my remaining bottles of 1998 Wolf Blass Grey Label.

I have a special place in my heart for this wine.  When I worked with the wine division of Fosters, as part of our salary package, we were allocated a monthly case of our choice from the portfolio.  I quickly developed a taste for Wolf Blass Grey Label.  Being new to Melbourne and living alone, there wasn’t always someone to share a bottle with, so quite often it was used for cooking as well as drinking – but a year or two later I was dating a Swiss boy, and distinctly recall bottles frequently spilled into the spa.  Sacrilege.  I bet Wolf’s bow-tie would spin if he were to read this …

So you understand my surprise that, after 5 further house moves, and an 8 year relationship with a Czech [they can DRINK!], some of the bottles actually survived the debauchery, abuse and callous disregard without so much as a scratch on the label.

IMAG2240I dusted off a bottle and precariously worked on what I expected to be a crumbly cork.  To my surprise, when I peeled back the aluminium foil, the cork looked moist.  There were condensed particles from the wine around the rim of the bottle.

I was relieved, but noticed the crack in the cork.  There was a good chance that it was going to break up when I pulled it – but I was still confident, given the moistness surrounding it, that the cork could still slide out without too much damage.

Well, it did come out quite easily, and almost in one piece.  A small part of the bottom of the cork broke off, but didn’t fall into the wine.  I managed to slide out the remaining section in a few small pieces.IMAG2245

The aromas were so pungent that my chef, dishing up the steak dinner six feet away, commented on them.  He could distinctly smell the fruitiness and jamminess.

Still, the bottle was now 17 years old, and I’ve been caught out before by promising aromas that didn’t follow through on the palate!  I poured a little into a glass, and decided I would wallow in the aromas as much as I could before the taste disappointed me.

IMAG2244The colour was amazingly bright for such an old wine.  The rim was just as vibrant, with only the slightest hint of age-telling brick.  I tried to get a photo, but there wasn’t a white piece of paper around, and I’m just using my phone’s camera.

You might get the idea from my picture – using the white dinner plate as a backdrop.  [Yeah, that steak WAS as good as it looks!!]

The aromas that came out of this wine were dazzling:  intense jammy blackcurrant, black cherries, licorice and sweet blood plums connected by the smoothing influence of vanillan oak.   I swear I heard a choir of angels as these aromas permeated my sleeping olfactory system.  There was not a whiff of oxidation.  This wine had been perfectly sealed. [ALL HAIL CORK!!]

So, with a quick “Dobrou chuť!” I took my first sip.  The intensity of the blackcurrant, plums and a touch of green capsicum continued on the palate, with cedar box and Darrell-Lea-licorice spiciness.  All sign of aggressive, preserving tannin had gone – in fact, there was only the slightest amount of sediment around the punt.  There was a small stump of heat from the alcohol (14%) momentarily, but it gave way to a long, long Christmas cake finish.  The finish didn’t diminish either.  There was no fade to “old wine” taste.

It was so delicious that I wanted to savour it again.  So I vacuumed out the oxygen with my wine-saver plugs and put the bottle in the fridge for the next day (today).  It was a success – the aromas and flavours were just as dominant when I swigged out of the bottle a few minutes ago.

It’s often hard to judge when a Cabernet Sauvignon has reached its peak.  Even the back label advises maturation at 5-8 years.  Going on that, I should have drunk this bottle around 2005 – 10 years ago!  If you ask me, this amazing pedigreed wine is just at its peak now!

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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in Wine Reviews


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Baden, Germany

In the south-western corner of Germany lies a distinctive wine region, encompassing some 16,000 hectares of vineyards – making it the third largest wine region in the country – stretching over 200km north to south, east of the Rhine River.

Vineyards around the Kaiserstuhl, Baden, Germany

Vineyards around the Kaiserstuhl, Baden, Germany

The average vintage in Baden produces around a million hectolitres of wine.

At the time of writing this page, Baden is the only wine grape region included in the EU’s Zone B – which exposes higher minimum requirements for Quality Wine and Quality Wines of Distinction.

Other wine regions included in this zone include the likes of Alsace, Champagne and the Loire Valley – which places Baden in serious company!

Surprising then, that little is actually known about Baden outside its own borders, despite the fact that it is as large as Alsace – just over the river.

Baden covers over 400km, including 9 districts:

Baden vineyards

Baden vineyards

Badische Bergstrasse, Tauberfranken, Kraichgau, Ortenau, Breisgau, Kaiserstuhl, Tniberg, Markgräflerland, and Bodensee.

Around 55% of wine grapes grown here are of Pinot varieties; 36% Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), 10% Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) and the rest Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder). This makes Baden the largest producer of Pinot varieties in the whole of Germany.

The remaining 45% odd is made up of Riesling, Müller-Thurgau and the lesser-known Chasselas (Gutedel).

Interestingly, although we don’t hear a lot about its use, Chasselas has a number of pseudonyms around the world: Abelione, Abelone, Albilloidea, Alsacia Blanca, Amber Chasselas, Amber Muscadine, Bar sur Aube, Bela Glera, Bela Zlahtnina, Berezka Prostaya, Berioska Casla, Beyaz Gutedel, Biela Plemenika Praskava, Biela Plemincka Chrapka, Biela Plemincka Pruskawa, Blanchette, Blanquette, Bon Blanc, Bordo, Bournet, Bournot, Charapka, Chasselas, Chasselas Angevin, Chasselas Bianco, Chasselas Blanc Royal, Chasselas Blanchette, Chasselas Crognant, Chasselas Croquant, Chasselas de Bar-sur-Aube, Chasselas de Bordeaux, Chasselas de Florence, Chasselas de Fontainebleau, Chasselas de Jalabert, Chasselas de la Contrie, Chasselas de la Naby, Chasselas de Moissac, Chasselas de Montauban, Chasselas de Mornain, Chasselas de Pondichéry, Chasselas de Pontchartrain, Chasselas de Pouilly, Chasselas de Quercy, Chasselas de Rappelo, Chasselas de Tenerife, Chasselas de Teneriffe, Chasselas de Thomeri, Chasselas de Toulaud, Chasselas de Vaud, Chasselas di Fountanbleau, Chasselas di Thomery, Chasselas Dorada, Chasselas Dorato, Chasselas Dore, Chasselas Dore Hatif, Chasselas Dore Salomon, Chasselas du Doubs, Chasselas du Portugal, Chasselas du Roi, Chasselas du Serail, Chasselas du Thor, Chasselas Dugommier, Chasselas Dur, Chasselas Fendant, Chasselas Hatif de Tenerife, Chasselas Haute Selection, Chasselas Jalabert, Chasselas Jaune Cire, Chasselas Piros, Chasselas Plant Droit, Chasselas Queen Victoria, Chasselas Reine Victoria, Chasselas Salsa, Chasselas Tokay Angevine, Chasselas Vert de la Cote, Chasselas White, Chasselat, Chrupka, Chrupka Biela, Chrupka Bila, Common Muscadine, Danka Belaya, Dinka Belaya, Dinka Blanche, Dobrorozne, Doppelte Spanische, Dorin, Doucet, Eau Douce Blanche, Edelschoen, Edelwein, Edelweiss, Edelxeiss, Elsaesser, Elsasser Weiss, Fabian, Fabiantraube, Fábiánszőlő, Fehér Chasselas, Fehér Fábiánszőlő, Fehér gyöngyszőlő, Fehér ropogós, Fendant, Fendant Blanc, Fendant Roux, Fendant Vert, Florenci Jouana, Fondan Belyi, Franceset, Franceseta, Frauentraube, Gamet, Gelber Gutedel, Gemeiner Gutedel, Gentil Blanc, Gentil Vert, Golden Bordeaux, Golden Chasselas, Grossblaettrige Spanische, Grosse Spanische , Grosser Spaniger, Gruener Gutedel, Gutedel, Gutedel Weiss, Gutedel Weisser, Gyöngyszőlő, Junker, Koenigs Gutedel, Kracher, Krachgutedel, Krachmost, Lardot, Lourdot, Maisa, Marzemina Bianca, Marzemina Niduca, Morlenche, Mornan Blanc, Mornen, Mornen Blanc, Most, Most Rebe, Moster, Pariser Gutedel, Perlan, Pinzutella, Plamenka Belyi, Plant de Toulard, Plant de Toulaud, Plemenika Praskava, Plemenka, Plemenka Bela, Plemenka Rana, Pleminka Biela, Praskava, Pruscava Biela, Queen Victoria, Queen Victoria White, Raisin D’officier, Ranka, Rebe Herrn Fuchses, Reben Herm Fuchs, Reben Herrn, Rheinrebe, Rosmarinentraube, Rosmarintraube, Royal Muscadine, Sasla, Sasla Bela, Schoenedel, Shasla Belaya, Shasla Dore, Shasla Lechebnaya, Shasla Viktoria, Silberling, Silberweiss, Silberweissling, Silberwissling, Strapak, Suessling, Suesstraube, Sweetwater, Sweetwater White, Temprano, Temprano Blanco, Terravin, Tribi Vognoble, Tribiano Tedesco, Ugne, Uslechtile Bile, Valais Blanc, Viala, Viviser, Waelsche, Waelscher, Weisser Gutedel, Weisser Krachgutedel, White Chasselas, White Muscadine, White Sweetwater, White Van der Laan, Zlahtina, Zlahtnina, Zlahtnina Bijela, Zlatina, and Zupljanka! [Source: Wikipedia]

…but anyway, back to Baden …


Kaiserstuhl vineyards

Kaiserstuhl vineyards

By far the largest number of wines, and largest vine area in Baden is the Kaiserstuhl [King’s Seat].

This hilly outcrop in an otherwise fairly flat area is actually the core of an ancient volcano. Its soils are thus volcanic, and give rise to a mineral quality to the wines.

However there are areas of loess – a fine, light soil that erodes very easily – which retain water more readily and have given life to some fuller-bodied wines during hot years.

This area – the warmest wine grape-growing region in Germany – is able to ripen even red wine grapes to sufficient levels to produce excellent wines.

Kaiserstuhl vineyards, Baden, Germany

Kaiserstuhl vineyards, Baden, Germany

The area speciality would have to be the Spätburgunder Weissherbst. Made from the Pinot Noir grape, the mineral qualities of the soil impart a spritzy character to this light-bodied red.

Unfortunately the best wine of this region stays in the region. – and you really can’t leave without trying several bottles!


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A Tale of Two Identities – Alsace, France

Alsatian wines have often mistakenly been referred to as German, due to the tumultuous history of ownership of this track of land on the French border.

Riquewihr, Alsace, France

Riquewihr, Alsace, France

In the late 17th century, it became French territory, however during the 1871 Franco-Prussian war, it became part of Germany.

The end of WWI (1918) saw Alsace returned to France, only to be annexed once more to Germany in 1940.

It’s worth reflecting at this point how this would have affected the mood of the Alsatians. During WWII, they were drafted as German soldiers and expected to fight against their fellow frenchmen, and the very distributors who peddled their wines around France for them!

Fortunately, after the defeat of Germany in 1945, France once again opened its arms and welcomed the Alsatians back as their own. It has remained so to this day.

Produces World’s Best Rieslings …

Despite the association with Germany, and the similarities in grape varieties used (mainly Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer), Alsatian wines are drier and fuller-bodied, with less residual sugar.

Rieslings and Gewürztraminer from Alsace in particular are world reknowned for excellence.

 Appellations History

Riquewihr, Alsace, France

Riquewihr, Alsace, France

Alsace finally became part of the Apellation Contrôlée in 1962, and since 1972 only the Alsace flûte style bottle is permitted for these wines.

Contrary to other appellations, Alsace wineries are allowed to include the grape varietal on the labels of their wine – but only if it is made from 100% of the varietal.

The Alsace apellation consists of two départements: Haut-Rhin (considered the best) and Bas-Rhin.

Vineyards near Riquewihr, Alsace, France

Vineyards near Riquewihr, Alsace, France

In 1975, Alsace became eligible for the classification of Grand Cru.

For a vineyard to attain this status, it must make wines from one of four noble varietals:



Pinot Gris


Yields are maximised at 65hl/ha and minimum natural alcohol must reach 10% or 12% depending on grape. Both grape and vintage must be shown on the label.

Special Thanks!!

I must extend a big THANK YOU, to my friend Phillipe Durst, Export Manager of the wine house Dopff au Moulin, for providing the pictures on this page.

Head Office, Dopff au Moulin, Alsace, France

Head Office, Dopff au Moulin, Alsace, France


Beautiful Bordeaux

Beautiful Bordeaux!

Grand Vins de Bordeaux, a fabulous wine store to explore!

Grand Vins de Bordeaux, a fabulous wine store to explore!

Despite the explosion of New World wines out there, no one country or region has managed to snatch the title of “World’s Most Emminent Wine Region” that Bordeaux holds tightly in its grasp. It is the red wines of Bordeaux, (formerly called “Claret” by the poms for centuries), that have set the standards for quality wine the world over.

That’s not to say that all of them are exciting … there are the vin ordinaires for the princely sum of a few euros, and only the backpackers are thankful for those … But the true Bordeaux red rewards those with patience, and offers a challenge not for the feint-hearted. Opening these wines too early is a waste, as is opening them in the middle of their maturity, or too late.

Big Bordeaux are tannic and tight for the first 5 or 6 years, holding back the blackcurrant or plum flavours of the signature Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Then strangely, they seem to slump – becoming flat and lifeless for the next few years, before taking on a new depth of complexity, aromas and fruit.

Probably Bordeaux’ biggest enemy is itself. It’s out of control in terms of … err, control.

Chateaux in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

Chateaux in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

In an area of 123,000ha under vine, there are 10,200 growers, 35,000 Chateaux, 400 Distributors and 100 Brokers. One out of every six people in Bordeaux work in the wine industry.

Stats (at time of my visit – late 2006) held that 790,000 bottles are produced every year to reach a market value of €3,000,000,000. 90% of these are red – Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and 10% white – Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc, Colombard.

Harvest in Bordeaux is determined by chemical analysis. What they’re looking for from grapes is 220 g/ltr sugar, 12.5 Baume – min level as per AOC. Bordeaux reds must be fermented dry, and the use of tartaric acid addition is prohibited.

Vineyards in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

Vineyards in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

There are a whopping 57 appellations within this region, telling growers what to grow, how to grow it, how much to grow …

In 2007, a new appellation “Côtes de Bordeaux” was introduced. This encompasses an area of the right bank of the Garonne river, from Saint Maixant and Cadillac to the city of Bordeaux, and in short paves the way for lower value wines to use oak chips during production. All these sub-regions are located on the right bank, and all currently produce easy-gowing, fruit-driven, primarily Merlot-based wines, 85% of which are reportedly consumed locally.

Bordeaux wines reflect terroir

Beautiful Bordeaux city

Beautiful Bordeaux city

They’re not allowed to irrigate in Bordeaux. Underground water supplies keep them alive, but also provide sediment to feed the vines – which helps the grapes and resulting wines take on the characters of the soils, which are actually quite poor.

Bordeaux wines are named after their location. So you won’t see the names of the grapes used in a wine on the label.

They divide the Bordeaux region between the left and right banks of the Gironde Estuary, which continues divided between the Garonne and Dordogne tributaries.

On the hilly right bank the soil is primarily clay and limestone – suitable for fruit-forward, lower tannin Merlot. These cooler soils slow down the ripening stage (avoiding August heat and rain), and budburst (avoiding April frosts).

The right bank encompasses Côtes de Blaye and Bourg to the north, and St Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac, Côtes de Castillon and Francs divided from Entre-deux-Mers by the Dordogne.

Roman ruins @ Palais Gallien, Bordeaux.  Once on the outskirts of the city, now in the suburbs!

Roman ruins @ Palais Gallien, Bordeaux. Once on the outskirts of the city, now in the suburbs!

The left bank is more sandy, and has pebbles to absorb heat during the day, for distribution during the nights. It is a continuation of the sedimentary Acquitaine Basin; lowlands boundaried by Gironde Arch, the Pyrenean mountain chain, and the Bay of Biscal. This is big, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon territory, producing wines with pronounced blackcurrant and cassis flavours.

The left bank is home to five major communes of Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux and Graves. Located here are the five esteemed First Growth Chateaux: Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion. Further north we find the Médoc, and in the hinterland we find the Haut-Médoc. Alas, poor Médoc doesn’t get a mention on Grand Cru labels, however Haut-Médoc does.

I must add here that the above is not an exhaustive list of all vignobles Bordelais but quite frankly this page is getting too long, and I haven’t talked about Cellar Door visiting yet … such is the complexity of Bordeaux!


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Fortifieds – not for the feint-hearted!

Fortified Wines

Port houses, Nova Gaia, Oporto, Portugal

Port houses, Nova Gaia, Oporto, Portugal

From the Latin ‘Fortis‘, we refer to strong wines as ‘Fortified’.

Fortifieds are wines to which high strength spirit (around 95%) or brandy spirit (around 80%) has been added to increase the alcohol level. Most fortifieds come in at around 17 to 20% alcohol by the time they are bottled.

The blending secrets of winemakers who venture into fortifieds have often been passed down through generations. In fact, some of the wines they are using in today’s blend were made by their grandfathers – partcularly in the case of Solera systems.

Many of these wines undergo comprehensive production methods. There are also styles of Fortifieds which are not listed here, such as the extremely luscious tokays and muscats.

For now, though, we’ll just overview three main types.

Best Grapes for Fortified Wines

Fortifieds can be white or red, and made from either grape colour. Not just any grape will do, though … they do need to have some specific characterists:

Sweet fortified wines need grapes that tend to shrivel, and achieve high sugar concentration on ripening – like Grenach, Shiraz, Muscadelle, Frontignac, Verdehlo.

Dry fortifieds like Sherry require neutral flavoured grapes – like Pedro Ximines or Palomino.

Solera Systems

Solera System, Jerez

Solera System, Jerez, Spain

Several fortified wines – most well-known, Sherry – are made through a Solera system, which consists of layers [criadera] of barrels stacked on top of each other. Each criadera holds a single vintage’s wine. The oldest vintage is naturally at the bottom layer [the solera], and the new vintage is placed on the top row.

A Solera system works like this: Several times a year, wine is removed from the bottom barrels for bottling/drinking. This is replaced by wine drawn out of the next layer of barrels, which are in turn topped up by the next layer.

This way, the wine in the bottom barrels represents a blend of all vintages, and remains refreshed. The Solera ensures consistency in house style.

Imagine the job it must be to replace the bottom barrels as they deteriorate with age … that a whole other page one day …


Spanish vineyards, Jerez, Spain

Spanish vineyards, Jerez, Spain

Normally reserved as a tippling drink for little old ladies, it’s worth getting acquainted with Sherry. It really is a great alternative for summer afternoons.

Sherry originates in Spain – named after the city of Jerez [pronounced Hereth], and is made from Palomino or Pedro Ximenes grapes.

The minimun ripening degree for Palomino and Pedro Ximenes to make Sherry is 10.5 degrees baumé. The grapes also have low acidity, and the juice oxidises easily.

Pedro Ximenes (PX) is actually being replaced by Palomino in Spain, due to Palomino’s better tolerance of disease, and higher yields, although the high-end sherries all seem to continue to be PX.

But it’s not just grape choice that creates the unique aromas and flavours of Sherry. It’s the yeast, and the oxidation of the ethyl alcohol it produces.

Sherry under Flor, Jerez, Spain

Sherry under Flor, Jerez, Spain

Yeast used to ferment Sherry forms a surface-covering growth on the fermenting wine. This growth is called ‘flor’, and is a key production requirement of the finest Fino Sherries.

Flor isn’t like other yeasts. When it first meets the wine, it sinks to the bottom … then rises up to create a film around 3 to 6 mm thick on the surface. If this film is broken during fermentation period, the wine cannot be Fino anymore. It can go on to become Amontillado or Oloroso.

Fino is pale coloured, has a pungent almondy bouquet, smooth on the palate and dry on finish. As Fino ages in casks, it hopefully retains its delicate aromas and flavours. However, it can morph into Fino-amontillado or Amontillado if it gains body and develops a new bouquet.

If it grows coarser, it becomes reclassified as Oloroso. Oloroso is a style of Sherry that doesn’t require flor, so it’s not just a category left for failed Finos. Oloroso is darker in colour and is made from more fragrant grapes.

Cream Sherry is made in a number of ways, not necessarily having anything to do with the Solera. Sometimes it is made by sweetening and adding colouring wine to base wine.

Colouring wine is another interesting process. Termed ‘arrope-vino de color’ this is wine which has been reduced by boiling to one fifth of its original volume. It becomes caramelly and reaches around 37 degrees baumé. A seperate amount of grape juice is fermented and the reduced wine is slowly added. The end wine is around 12 degrees baumé, and is aged in casks in a Solera.


Douro vineyards, Oporto, Portugal

Douro vineyards, Oporto, Portugal

Although authentic Port comes from Portugal, other countries, particularly Australia, make some sensational ports.

In Portugal, the grapes all come from the Douro Valley. In Australia, they can come from a variety of regions, however undoubtedly the Rutherglen region in North East Victoria produces exceptional fortifieds over all.

The minimum ripeness for Port is 12-13 degrees baumé. The main grape varieties used include Touriga, Bastardo, Grenache (tawny port in Australia), Shiraz, Mataro.

Authentic Portugese Port production is controlled in a similar way to the appellation laws in France and Germany. In Portugal, vineyards are graded [A to F] every four years by Government inspectors. The grading gives the vigneron a level of yield that he is allowed to turn into Port. A grade vineyards can use 100% yield, whereas F might only make 40%.

Port stacked in Port houses, Nova Gaia, Porto

Port stacked in Port houses, Nova Gaia, Porto

The big brother activity doesn’t stop there. During maturation, the wine is sujected to quality controls by the Camara de Provadores do Instituto do Vinho do Porto [Chamber of the Port Wine Institute Tasters].

In Portugal there are 80 different [yes, 80] grapes authorised for port production – but not all are identified. Most vineyards carry 20-30 different varieties. The five majors, though, are Touriga Nacional, Tina Barocca, Touriga Francesca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Ritz [Tempranillo].

Port comes in a variety of styles, within two main categories:

Undated Ports are blended from up to 15 different wines from many vintages. They are aged in oak and experience controlled oxidation, but are ultimately designed to be drunk soon after bottling:

Samples of different Ports

Samples of different Ports

Ruby – young [1-3 years], fruity, blackcurrant

Vintage – matured in large oak barrels 3 or 4 years, complex, fruity, full-bodied

Tawny – small barrel aged, light structure, soft dry finished.

White Port – a light-bodied, amber gold colour, with rancio and toffee fruit flavours.

Dated Ports are matured in wood and continue maturation in the bottle.

Vintage – aged up to 30 years in the bottle, rich, chocolate, fruity and strong rancio aromas, dry finish. These wines throw deposits in the bottle so older ones should be decanted.

Late Bottled Vintage [LBV] – made from a single year, bottled at 4-6 years aged, unfiltered, need decanting.

Harvest – matured in oak and come from a single harvest in a single vintage. Are not bottled until 7 years old.


Grapes used to make brandy include neutral varieties like Folle Blanche, Doradillo, Colombard, Trebbiano. Trebbianno [Ugni Blanc] is the most important of these grapes.

The most famous brandies are Cognac and Armagnac from France. These are relatively cool regions of France, and in Cognac the grapes don’t quite mature – resulting in high acidity, low sugar and lack of flavour. But this is a good thing! Too much sugar makes ‘flabby’ brandy.

Armagnac on the other hand is a little warmer, and higher sugar levels are reached – actually enough to make table wine out of them.

The base wines for Cognac and Armagnac production are fermented using innoculated yeast as with normal wine. However, Cognac will then go through a pot still distillation with yeast lees still intact. Armagnac on the other hand is produced more often using continuous still.

The distilled wines in both cases are then matured in oak before blending.

Blending is particularly important for Cognac to maintain consistency. In doing so, the age of the youngest wine in the blend determines its commercial denomination:

3 years (min) -3 star

5 years (min) – VSOP

7 years (min) – Napoleon or XO

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Posted by on August 26, 2013 in Portugal, Spain, Winemaking


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Roll out the barrels!

Strangely enough, when the wine world talks about barrels, they use the term ‘oak’. They don’t tell you the wine sits in barrels for a period of time, they tell you it has spent a period of time ‘on oak’.

What does oak do?

Barrel cleaner in action.  Villa Franca, Spain

Barrel cleaner in action. Villa Franca, Spain

Oak has been used to store and transport wine for centuries. It’s resilient and non-porous, but just as importantly, it imparts flavour, tannins, colour, structure and complexity to wine.

New oak barrels allow miniscule, but continuous, oxygen penetration into the wine. This is an important factor in colour stabilisation in red wines. Young red wines often show an unstable violet colour, and the oak helps this to redden and stabilise.

Oak also assists excessive astringency in wines through polymerisation. What this means in simple terms is that the oak assists the phenolic molecules join together, forming larger and heavier chunks which then precipitate from the wine. This process actually continues in the bottle. No doubt you’ve seen the odd old bottle of red with all that sediment stuck to the sides. Now you know how it got there.

Oak is resitant to decay, fungus and insect attack, and has less shrinkage capacity than other woods.

Most wines these days are stored in stainless steel tanks, This is particularly true of the mass-produced, fruit-driven style of wines produced in many new world wine production regions. The same can be said of fermentation, unfortunately, as very often commercial winemakers suspend bags of oak chips in the wine rather than use barrels.

Barrel stack.  Siena, Italy

Barrel stack. Siena, Italy

However traditional fortified wines [port, sherry etc] are still stored in oak barrels.

The most common sized oak barrels are the Hogshead [300 litres] and the Barrique [225 litres]. Sherry producers use large barrels that hold 600 litres – although they only use 560 litres of that room [see Spanish wine regions pages for more info], and some Chianti barrels hold much more [as with the large ones pictured on this page].

The size of the barrel comes down to the desired level of oak influence in the wine. Fresh Chianti doesn’t need a lot of oak treatment – it is meant to be drunk young, with fruity characters.

Where does the oak come from?

Whilst oak trees of various species grow around the world, it is the French and American oaks that are of primary interest to the winemaker.

Russian oak has also appeared in wineries around the world – quite possibly due to the expansion of the industry in the past couple of decades, and is making a bit of a name for itself.

Small quantities are also used from other European countries, England and Canada.

Giant Chianti barrels, Siena, Italy

Giant Chianti barrels, Siena, Italy

Now let’s get technical. Oaks come in red or white species. Red oak is too porous, so only white oaks are used. There are three main species of white oak used for winemaking, two from Europe [Quercus sessilis, and Quercus penduncalata], and one from North America [Quercus alba].

If you want to go looking, you’ll find American oak mostly coming from forests east of the Mississippi River, whilst in France, the popular oak forests are found in Limousin, Nevers, Allier, Troncais, Burgundy and Vosges.

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Posted by on August 25, 2013 in Winemaking


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Méthode Champenoise – Doing it French Style

This is a complicated process, and I hope you give it some thought when you pop that next celebratory bubble of Champagne!

First, the Grapes …

Chardonnay - photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia


The most popular grape varietals used for making Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Why so? The combination works extremely well together!

Chardonnay exhibits strong flavour on the palate initially, but dies back.

Pinot Meunier offers little initial flavour, but intensity increases on the middle palate as the Chardonnay dies back.

Propping them up along the way and building intensity with time is Pinot Noir – offering length and flavour persistence on the palate.

Juice extraction

Selection criterion for grape ripeness varies between viticultural location, grape varietal and style of wine to be produced. But in general, you’d be looking for:

  • high quality grapes which show some varietal flavours, without being over-ripe,
  • sugar levels around 10-11 degrees Baumé, and
  • balanced acidity with low pH to ensure freshness of the base wine.

Grapes are preferably hand-picked, and whole bunches pressed without crushing. This minimises colour bleed and tannin pick-up from the skins. As an added benefit, this decreases the need for sulphur dioxide use, so gives the winemaker the opportunity to use controlled oxidation techniques to introduce complexity in the wine.


The juice is settled and clarified – solids are racked off. If necessary further filtration -perhaps centrifuging – occurs.

Primary Fermentation

Juice is fermented with use of selected yeast at between 11-14oC for 10 – 14 days. In France the addition of sugar is allowed to compensate for inadequate natural grape sugars. After fermentation, bentonite and diammonium phosphate are added for clarification purposes.

Assemblage & Coupage

At this point the wines are racked off and blended.  This sometimes involves different grape varietals, even from different regions, to make the desired base wine.

Reserve wines can make up to 25% of the blend, and are used to add dimension and structure to the base wine.  Reserves wines are often aged in oak barrels of different sizes to enable a variety of blending options.

The base wine is then fined using isinglass or gelatin and undergoes cold stabilisation.

Tirage Liquer

Tirage Liquer is sugar syrup, which is added to the sugar at a level depending on the alcohol content required, prior to levurage [yeast addition], and tirage [bottling]. The bottles are crown sealed [metal cap] and stored.


Moet in the making - Epernay, France

Moet in the making – Epernay, France

The bottles are stacked laying horizontal for 6 months to several years depending on the quality of wine being produced, and maintained at a temperature of 12 to 15oC.

Yeast autolysis is not fully understood, however it is believed that it takes around 12 months for the yeast to impart sensory properties into the wine.


Champagne undergoing Rémuage, Epernay

Champagne undergoing Rémuage, Epernay

After the desired period of aging has passed, the bottles are stacked on shaking tables [riddling tables or pupitres], then inverted into racks.

For several weeks the bottles are individually twisted back and forth every day by hand.

The reason for all this agitation is to bring the yeast deposit to the neck of the bottle against the crown seal.


The necks of the bottles are chilled to minus 24oC, before the bottle is held right way up and the crown seal removed. The pressure inside the bottle blows out a plug of yeast and sediment. This can be done by hand or machine – obviously depending on size of production!

The bottles are then topped up [remplissage] with a mixture of expedition liquer [sugar dissolved in base wine] and the original wine. How sweet this liquer is depends on the style of wine being made.

Sometimes there is no liquer addition at all. Usually this is where richly fruit-driven styles are being made.

Bourbage & Habillage

The bottles are then corked [bourbage]. If an agglomerate cork is used, one or two high quality cork discs come in contact with the wine. A muselet [wire frame] holds the cork down against the pressure inside the bottle. Finally the cap is dressed [habillage] with foil over the muselet, and the bottle labelled.

Champagne undergoing remuage prior to disgorgement in tunnels under the Avenue du Champagne, Epernay, France

Champagne undergoing remuage prior to disgorgement in tunnels under the Avenue du Champagne, Epernay, France

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in France, Winemaking


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