WineWriting.com & French Mediterranean Wine
Richard Mark James' wine and travel blog

01 September 2007

Waitrose wine magazine (allegedly)

Last year, I was commissioned to do a few introductory pieces for a possible new wine magazine to be published by Waitrose (for those of you outside the UK, it's a superior supermarket chain owned by the John Lewis Group with a more enlightened wine range than some). Whatever happened between then and now behind the corporate scenes, my purple prose never saw the light of day and Waitrose did launch a funky little drinks mag called Thirst (I only ever saw the first couple of issues so don't know if it's still running...). Anyway, I'm not so surprised they changed their plans as they already produce the glossy monthly Food Illustrated with wine articles by writers such as Andrew Jefford and Tim Atkin; as well as a free mouth-watering little food mag plus features, interviews and recipe matching tips on their website. My four snippets below and opposite were written to a specific brief and are a little déjà-vu / back-to-basics / textbook in style, but I thought somebody out there still might find them an informative read.
Richard James, September 2007.

Winemaking 'master class'

Part 1: How wine is made – the vineyard
Standing among the vines in a dramatic wine region setting can give simple pleasure and peace of mind, yet a vineyard’s location and environment also greatly influence how vines grow and the quality of grapes they produce. French winemakers in particular attribute this to the all-encompassing, slightly mysterious terroir. The word is basically untranslatable into English but has geographical and cultural overtones.
The concept combines specific site – its soil and structure, topography (slope, altitude etc.), water holding or drainage, local climate, suitability to variety planted and how it ripens – with the way the grower thinks, works and thus interacts with the land (nuances of English words terrain and territory) to maximise grape quality. All of this should be enhanced, rather than dominated by the winemaker to convey a unique ‘sense of place’ or typicité to the wine’s actual flavour and consistent character. Terroir is often used confusingly meaning just local soil type: although it’s scientifically dubious you can actually taste soil qualities, e.g. chalky, it does have an important effect on ripening and hence quality.
Taking Château Pech-Latt in the stunning Corbières region of southern France as an example, their 100 hectares (250 acres) are made up of a variety of vineyard parcels, soils and aspects, circled by high hills on the foothills of Mount Alaric. The land contains chalk – good for drainage and limiting vine vigour – and red marl – a mix of clay and silt conferring minerals and moisture retention. The different grape varieties are planted according to site and their needs – red: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan; white: Marsanne, Vermentino and Muscat. So you choose the cooler plots for Muscat to preserve freshness and the sunniest for Mourvèdre, a late ripening variety.
Pech-Latt farms organically, which doesn’t necessarily mean guaranteed quality, but organic growers rightly claim it’s also a whole way of life. This philosophy, accompanied by fussy attention in the vineyard, can produce superb grapes. No synthetic pesticides or fertilisers are used, although substances such as copper sulphate (against mildew) are permitted. Sulphur dioxide (a preservative among other uses) levels in winemaking are sometimes (but not always) half that for non-organic. The idea is to foster biodiversity in soil and vineyard and hence naturally healthy vines. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about terroir yet destroy it with potent chemicals!
There are several ways of controlling a vine’s growth, the amount of leaves it has and ultimately how many grapes it yields. Winter pruning is crucial for cutting a vine back to its raw state and how it develops the following spring. You could then remove a few buds and trim it further in early summer to get a balanced canopy – sufficient for photosynthesis and perfect ripening without it becoming a leaf monster. In Corbières, old Grenache is often pruned on handsome bush vines, which need less attention with age and offer protection from sun and wind. Syrah can perform better by trellising it upwards to increase leaf and bunch exposure. Fruit thinning or green harvesting is also practised to reduce the crop.

Part 2: Winemaking – the process from grape to wine
All grapes are hand picked at Château Pech-Latt, which is time-consuming and costly but enables finicky and gentle selection. If the vineyard is set up for machine harvesting, this allows you to make quick decisions and speedily harvest a large area. Nowadays the technology is precise and doesn’t necessarily harm the fruit, particularly for white grapes. Domaine Bégude near Limoux (west of Corbières) picks Chardonnay by machine for Vins de Pays but the best block of Chardonnay by hand for their top wine. Quality producers sort through the grapes again on arrival at the winery.
Processing and winemaking depend on the colour and character of each variety and style and quality of the ultimate wine. Coming back to the kind of Chardonnays made by Bégude, for the drink-young style the emphasis will be on retaining aromatic fruit and fresh acidity. So the whole grapes could be kept chilled before pressing then cold stabilisation (to rack off the thickest solids) and fermentation at relatively low temperature in stainless steel vats. For richer age-worthy Chardonnay, the juice is fermented in barrels and stirred on the yeast lees deposit adding fatness and character. The wine would complete its malolactic fermentation, which softens the acidity, and perhaps aged further in cask to round it out more, without picking up overtly oaky flavours.
Similarly to many estates, Château Pech-Latt handles the red grapes separately, particularly Carignan part of which is whole-berry fermented to bring out its lively earthy liquorice fruit. This batch will then be held in large vats before blending. The other varieties are vinified ‘traditionally’ with extended skin contact before pressing. Methods of colour and tannin extraction range from simple hand or foot plunging, pumping over the juice from bottom to top of vat, to ‘rack and return’ where the entire tank is emptied into another then back again. The winemaker judges the best approach and temperature depending on grape variety, ripeness and quality.
There’s always heated (and slightly geeky) debate on oak barrels, or oak chips even, and their effect on maturation, colour and flavour in red wines. Crudely, oak can add attractive spicy chocolate texture; fundamentally, it’s about oxygen and influence on a wine’s tannin structure and ageing ability. The main elements are age, toast (low or high), size of container and how long. A small new barrel allows more air into the wine, thanks to its surface area/volume ratio and porous grain, giving rounder tannins, sweeter flavours and stable colour. A huge old cask promotes slower maturation yet ironically the wine loses colour sooner.
The term blending is sometimes taken negatively (the French word assemblage sounds sexier somehow), but it’s difficult to think of a wine that isn’t a blend. Even if from a single variety and vineyard, the winemaker skilfully puts together different lots to recreate the desired style. Pech-Latt’s three reds contain Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, but the proportions vary according to vine age, site or vintage characteristics. The best rosés are drained off from red grapes after a few hours skin contact, giving colour, fruit and flesh, then made like an aromatic white wine.

How winemaking styles differ – New World and Old World


Part 1: From a New World perspective
Pushing aside any condescending colonial overtones, the term New World is just as much about attitude as it is geography when applied to winemaking styles. Certainly, in general New World wines can be perceived as delivering big ripe fruit and high alcohol while emphasising ‘technological’ winemaking or easy oak flavours. But it’s too simplistic to generalise about hot climates and iconoclastic thinking, when comparing countries and people as diverse as Australia, South Africa, USA, Argentina or Chile. And nowadays there are plenty of European wines that fit the above description. Four ‘classic’ varietals from the Southern and Northern Hemispheres have been chosen to illustrate the point.
The d’Arenberg winery makes model high-powered Shiraz in McLaren Vale, South Australia (they’ve been around for 100 years by the way); yet their reds aren’t one-dimensional fruit bombs, often expressing something wilder and more exciting as you’d expect from a relatively ‘traditional’ approach. The Dead Arm Shiraz is made from very old vines, whose concentrated fruit is fermented in open vats with foot-treading, pressed in basket-presses and aged in American and French barriques. The result is distinctively Old New World: rich and full with oak undertones yet herbal, peppery and firmly textured.
Jackson Estate’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is consistently one of the leaders in New Zealand for this benchmark grape variety and wine style. It could be argued that New World winemakers reinforced the importance of producing zingy aromatic dry whites using technology to control fermentation temperature and exclude oxygen etc. The same techniques are used for Sauvignon in the European regions of Sancerre or Styria (southeast Austria), yet the wines rarely taste the same, which says a lot about New Zealand’s unique climate and terrain (cool and southerly). It’s that pure just-ripe green fruit intensity mixed with more tropical flavours, crisp mineral like finish yet showing nice weight too, as the Jackson exemplifies.
Zinfandel and California are synonymous (even if the grape variety did originate in Italy or Croatia), although this powerful red wine comes in many guises: soft, raisiny and gluggable; super ripe, oaky and alcoholic; to finely structured and balanced. Ravenswood Vintners Blend is a good example of the advantages of blending fruit from different growers and areas to produce a well-priced typical style every year. New World in its California-ness – yet evoking something equally Mediterranean – it’s up-front with attractive liquorice, pine and earth notes; good fruit in the mouth countered by a touch of tannin and oak then a punchy yet poised finish.
Chenin Blanc particularly excels in two countries: the Loire Valley in France and South Africa, both very different environments and winemaking traditions yet somehow possessing the right elements for this star white grape. Ken Forrester’s FMC from Stellenbosch really is a Cape classic communicating African sun tempered by a maritime mountain climate. The very ripe grapes are barrel fermented and aged giving voluptuous fruit layered with coconut, late harvest sweetness characters set against toasty oak then tight mineral acidity and length, so in the end it doesn’t really taste sweet. Click on the pic. above for more SA CB.


Part 2: From an Old World perspective
Does Old World mean old-fashioned wine style (read no longer appreciated in today’s busy cosmos); or 'traditional' in the sense of classic, inimitable quality, gaining complexity with age and matching the local food? It’s clear that some winemakers in certain areas of Europe, such as the south of France, Sicily or Mediterranean Spain, have adopted ‘New World’ attitude and practices to produce more accessible wines (and rightly so). However, there are still plenty of seminal styles that speak volumes about where and how they are created. As above, here are a few examples of Old World greats and a brief account of why.
There are now many very good sparkling wines made in the same way as Champagne in other regions of Europe and the world. But at the top end, there’s something sublime and so distinctive about delicious Champagnes such as Bollinger. Most of the grapes they use come from ‘Premier Cru’ and ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards, i.e. the best sites. The Special Cuvée is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier; the Grande Année vintage is often at least 65% Pinot Noir (one third from the top village of Aÿ) plus Chardonnay.
Control of acidity is the cornerstone of balance in their Champagnes and ability to mature. In a good year, the first pressing (Bolly only uses this part) has a pH of around 3, i.e. pretty acidic. This isn’t so difficult to achieve, coupled with ripe grapes from vineyard selection, in Champagne’s marginal climate. All of the ‘reserve’ wines – held back from certain years, they play a very important role in the house style and quality of non-vintage Champagne – and Grande Année are barrel-fermented. Special Cuvée is a blend of two vintages with 5-10% reserve wines and three years yeast lees ageing, which add biscuity richness and intricate aromas. Click on JB above for more on Bolly.
You can’t get much more Old World in winemaking styles than Sherry, especially Fino or Manzanilla (even if certain ‘New World’ countries are replicating it). These charming bone-dry fortified wines owe much of their idiosyncratic character to what happens in the cellar, rather than the baking Andalusian sun. By maintaining humidity levels, a yeast called flor develops over the maturing wines protecting them from air and transmitting tangy nutty flavours. A chilled glass of the Solera Jerezana Manzanilla or Hidalgo’s La Gitana is ideal with fresh gazpacho soup, grilled sardines or potato omelette.
Piemonte in northwest Italy has a beautiful mountain backdrop and climate with cold winters and hot summers, which suits the Nebbiolo grape variety well. These elements come together, steered by 'traditional' winemaking, to fashion the unique style of Barolo or Barbaresco. It’s that elusive cocktail of the grape’s quintessential sweet yet savoury/sour delicacy, light colour yet gripping mouth-feel and sometimes high acidity. Winemakers are thinking carefully about barrels, namely their effect on ageing and character for Barolo – new barriques versus old large casks – and especially colour and taming tannins. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether the wine drinker really needs another richly purple wine from a variety that naturally isn’t? Click here for the answer!

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