Thursday, November 25, 2021

My Life in Scotland's "Wine" Episode 22

Cutting the peat

When I was much younger, my adult beverage of choice was Bourbon.  Then, I discovered wine.  My wine epiphany probably happened in Germany in the early 1950s, when I accidentally found there was more to drink than beer. 

With this new discovery, my interest in Bourbon began to fade as I started to find and taste German and French wine. The unspoken rule, among my new wine friends held that if you were a wine person, you didn't drink any of the hard stuff.  

Wine was for savoring and appreciating, they said, while Bourbon whiskey and other spirits were for getting a buzz on. Of course, that may have been true in the '50s, but today, Bourbon is a more interesting and varied tipple.

At the time, I considered myself to be the luckiest man alive.  I was  stationed in Bavaria, where some of the best beer in the world was brewed.  So naturally I continued to enjoy the occasional beer, but exploring German white wine proved to be more interesting. 

Eventually, I wondered if I had graduated to wine or was I just fooling myself?  The move to wine sounded about right, so Bourbon was set aside.  

Then, I discovered single malt Scotch whisky and the whole no spirits thing was resurrected.  Back in my Bourbon days, Scotch did not have the same appeal as Bourbon whiskey, but my occasional dram was blended Scotch; single malts were just starting to make a comeback in Scottish distilling. 

Sidebar:  There is a slight difference in the spelling: The spirit distilled in Scotland and Canada is spelled "whisky," while the United States and Ireland prefer "whiskey."

Single malt whisky is different from blended Scotch, as different as a Bordeaux wine is from Burgundy.  Blended Scotch (think Dewars, Johnnie Walker) is a base spirit and a selection of various single malts, blended to create a house style.   A single malt is the product of a single distillery and may sometimes be used in a blend.  

Blended Scotch has a sameness, while each single malt shows a different personality that come through in its layered flavors.  The nuanced differences I found in a Highland single malt compared, for example, to a peaty Islay malt was a revelation.

It was this personality that I found much closer to wine than it was to any other spirit.                              

View of copper whiskey stills in a distillery Large whiskey distills in a whiskey distilery in Scotland. scotland distillery stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Swan necks on copper pot stills

I wanted to know more, like why Lowland single malts are lighter than Highland malts (it has to do with climate and terroir differences), why the source of the water used to ferment the barley is so important (distillers claim the mineral content and whether the water is soft or not, influence the flavor) and why the shape and age of the still defines the character of the whisky (that's a long explanation that is part science and part local whisky lore). 

The more I learned about single malt whisky, the more I realized there are numerous parallels between whisky and wine.  Here are a few examples:

* Legend and lore play a big role in the story of both wine and whisky.  As  mentioned above, back in the day, the shape, style and maintenance of the pot stills used to distill single malt whisky was based on lore. Today science explains why the shape of a still is important to the desired character of the spirit. If a copper panel wears thin, because of the continuous high heat in the still and must be replaced, the exact duplicate of the panel, including any dents in the old panel, is hammered into the replacement part.  

* Both are made from a single natural crop: barley into whisky; grapes into wine.

* The environment (terroir) where grapes are grown defines the character of the wine.  With whisky, the variety of barley and where it is grown, plus the source of the water used in the fermentation of the barley is the "terroir" of whisky making.  

The malting floors at the Glendronach distillery
Classic malting floor

* Malting is a process where the barley is infused with smoke from a peat fire. The length of time the barley is malted depends on the style preferred by the distillery and the style of the region (i.e., island malts versus Highland malts).  In general, Islay single malts are "peatier" than most other malts, but individual distillers may prefer more or less of the smoky character.  As a process, malting is similar to the way grapes are processed in preparation for fermentation.

* The use of oak is an integral part of single malts as well as red wine and some white wines.  The difference being that single malts are aged mainly in American oak, while red wine may be aged in a variety of oaks, including American.  (This "oak rule" is changing as some whisky distilleries are experimenting with French oak.)

* Finally, there is a symbiotic relationship between single malt Scotch and wine. In recent years, single malt distillers began maturing their whiskies in barrels used previously to age wine.  The Highland distillery Macallan has for years used ex-Sherry casks to age single malt; the Macallan 12-Year-Old, matured in Sherry wood, is a classic example of this practice.  

Other single malt distilleries opted for barrels that previously held Port, Madeira, Sauternes, Bordeaux, Marsala and other oaks.  Glenmorangie, a popular Highland malt whisky, offers a line of single malts aged in various ex-wine barrels, plus a selection of other aged single malts.

The trend to find a unique whisky and wine marriage has taken on many variations. The Dalmore Highland "Cigar Malt" starts the wood aging in American oak, then into former oloroso Sherry casks and is finished in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels.  Auchentoshan "Three Wood" Lowland malt is aged in a mixture of Bourbon, oloroso Sherry and PX Sherry woods.  

This brief essay has just scratched the surface of the pleasures of single malt  whisky, Scotland's "wine."   

Next blog: Light Reds

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Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Shiraz Comeback

Shiraz, aka Syrah, is making a comeback and it is about time!

Grape Bunches on Old Vine in Vineyard Large bunches of grapes on a gnarled old vine in French vineyard. L'Hermitage area of the Côtes du Rhône region of France. syrah grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Old vine Shiraz

Syrah, the big red with loads of personality, from the northern Rhone, never attained the popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.  But as Shiraz, the Australian name, Syrah became a favorite of consumers who preferred their red wine big and bold.  

According to the latest market trends, Australian Shiraz is making a comeback and the Aussies couldn't be happier.  Over the last two years  exports have been down, a problem exacerbated by rising prices for Aussie wine, at least in the U.S. Market.

In the American market, thanks, in large part, to a group of California winemakers that created the Rhone Rangers, the popularity of Syrah and other Rhone varieties, took off in the late 1980 and into the '90s.  

Wine drinkers were looking for red wine alternatives to Cabernet  and Syrah filled the bill and California Pinot Noir had yet to attract a lot of attention. Conveniently, Syrah was midway between Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir: Cabernet strength and structure supporting layers of ripe-berry Pinot fruit.  

 Australian Shiraz

If you were to fly across Australia, the first thing you would notice is how barren and arid it looks, mile after mile.  Unlike the interior of the United States, mostly covered with cities and towns and large green farms, Australia appears from the air to be vacant and uninhabitable. 

For that reason, most of Australia's 25 million people live along the coasts.  Few of country's wine regions are beyond the reach of coastal influence.  Australia is such an ancient worn-down continent that there is little elevation, so growers must reply on the cooling benefits of ocean air to counter the heat.  But the marine influence is not as noticeable in Australia as it is in California.

Sidebar:  In 1985, a handful of American wine writers was invited by the Australian government to come down under and see what their wineries were doing.  I had always wanted to see Australia so this was my chance, even though the trip turned into a forced march: Sydney, Hunter Valley, Perth, Margaret River, Melbourne, Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Canberra, and Sydney.

We saw a lot of wineries and vineyards, but what we saw most was wine, wine and more wine, everywhere we went.  At a Sunday luncheon at one of Sydney's famous harbor side seafood restaurants, there was at least one bottle of wine on every table in the sprawling two-story restaurant.  

Easing my lower jaw back into place, I thought, why are we not doing this in America? 

Shiraz is grown just about everywhere in Australia, save for a wide hot corridor in the north that spans the vast continent.  Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, both in South Australia, are generally considered to be the best examples of "big and bold."  

More tempered fruit focused Shiraz comes from the Hunter Valley, New South Wales; Margaret River, Western Australia; Tasmania and in various parts of Victoria, like Heathcote and Yarra Valley.

Large basket press in a traditional winery of the Barossa Valley of South Australia Large basket press used to press red wine grapes in a traditional winery of the Barossa Valley of South Australia Barossa Valley stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Basket press in Barossa winery

Australian Shiraz has a reputation for being big and full-blooded, but there are other styles of Aussie Shiraz worth looking at.  These are the main regions for Shiraz: 


Barossa Valley:  The Barossa style is full and dark with layers of cherry and raspberry, hints of dark chocolate and mint or eucalypt.  Penfolds Grange is the premier Barossa Shiraz, but there are scores of others including St. Hallett, Grant Burge, Yalumba and Peter Lehmann.

Sidebar:  People often confuse "mint" and "eucalyptus" when smelling and tasting certain red wines.  The two are not related but their aromatics bear some similarities. Tasters describe eucalyptus as "minty and faintly medicinal," while mint is a clean clearly defined component.  The mint-to-eucalpytus spectrum includes peppermint, spearmint, basil, menthol and eucalptyus. 

Eden Valley:  Near the Barossa but at a higher elevation, Eden Valley Shiraz shows more plum and black cherry, than black pepper.  Henschke's Hill of Grace ranks second only to the Grange.  There's also Heggies and Pewsey Vale.  

McLaren Vale:  The McLaren Vale style is lighter and smoother, with a rich velvety texture and a focus on fruit and good acidity.


Yarra Valley:  Not far from Melbourne, this cool verdant valley is known more for white wines than big reds.  Yarra Shiraz is deeply colored, with hints of spice and pepper and cherry.  Look for De Bortoli and Yarra Yering.


Heathcote:  This is big mint country and Shiraz shows it in spades, whether its peppermint or eucalyptus.  Heathcote Shiraz has strength and longevity.  Notable are Balgownie and Jasper Hill.


Lower Hunter Valley: Hunter Shiraz is legendary in Australia, even thought it has been eclipsed by the Barossa in recent years.  Hunter Shiraz are angular when young, but become smooth and supple with bottle age.  Look for Rothbury Estate, Brokenwood, Mount Pleasant.


Margaret River: Wild and beautiful, Margaret River is Cabernet country, but there are parts of the scenic country making distinctive Shiraz, such as great Southern (Plantagenet) and Geographe (Capel Vale).

Of course, there are other areas in Australia were Shiraz stands out.  Join the crowd and re-discover, or discover for the first time the pleasures of Australian Shiraz. 

Next blog: My Life in Scottish "Wine" Episode 22

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Thursday, November 11, 2021

South of Beaune

One of the unfortunate things, for the wine consumer, is as wine popularity grows, so too does demand and price for coveted wines.  And no where is this more noticeable than in Burgundy. 

White Burgundy, made from Chardonnay (and if you go back far enough a little Aligote), has always been a popular white wine, but that fame took on a new dimension in the 1990s, when Chardonnay surged ahead to become the most popular white wine in history. 

Upstart Chardonnays from new world regions like California were stylistically different from French Burgundy and they were less expensive. The standout feature in California Chardonnay was the use of oak. For Burgundies like Le Corton or Beaune Greves, the oak was an integrated component; there but not too noticeable.  For California Chardonnay, a list with too many brands to mention, the oak presence was often ripe and pungent; more in your face than subtle. 


Burgundians continued to use oak with an even hand, but It would be years before California dialed back the use of oak; a handful of wineries went so far as to release no-oak Chardonnays.  

What to do, then, if you wanted reasonably priced Chardonnay with a level of oak that didn't mask the bright mineral character of the wine?  Head south of Beaune to the regions of Maconnais and the Cote Chalonnais, known  primarily for producing moderately-priced Chardonnay, that has some of the same character as its more expensive neighbors to the north. 

For help in sorting through the complexities of Burgundy wine, consult the official classification.  Not as well known as the Bordeaux Classification of Medoc and Grave of 1855, the Burgundy system rates top white and red Burgundy, listed as Grand Cru (Great Growths) and Premier Cru (First Growths). 

Sidebar:  Following the evaluation of the terroir of each estate vineyard, plus wine making philosophy and how conscientious estate owners were of the operation and maintenance of their property, there was the politics, in determining what place on the hierarchy the property would rest.  

Every decade or so, a small group, usually of dissatisfied estate owners (Burgundy uses the term "estate," the equivalent of "chateau" in Bordeaux) would lobby to have the official classification changed, with hopefully the elevation of their property.  Few challenges succeeded, although Baron Rothschild's tireless efforts in 1973 resulted in the elevation of his Ch. Mouton-Rothschild from a Second Growth to a First Growth, in the 1855 Classification. 

While not a gauge of wine quality, the classification is an account of history and performance of those estates that have maintained a consistent high level of quality.

Cote Chalonnais 

A "cote," in French, is a slope or a hill and that aptly describes the lay of the land throughout the Chalonnais, although the slope is not continuous as it is to the north in the Cote d'Or.  Still, the limestone-based soils are similar and it is this sameness that lifts Chalonnais Chardonnay closer to those of the Cote de Beaune. 

There are five village appellations that usually stand on their own: Only Montagny produces solely white wine; Rully makes both white and red wine, plus small quantities of sparkling wine in the style of Champagne; Mercurey, arguably the best of the Chalonnais, and Givry are both known mainly for red wine, but also produce whites from Chardonnay; finally there is Bouzeron, a small area known for white wine made from Aligote, not often seen in the United States.

There are no Grand Cru vineyards in the Chalonnais, but a range of Premier Crus including in Mercurey, Rully and Montagny.

A small quantity of Pinot Noir is grown in the Chalonnais.  A Mercurey rouge, made from Pinot Noir is sometimes mistaken for a more famous Cote d'Or red.


There was a time when Americans went nuts for Macon Chardonnay, a wine with Burgundy character but at half the price.  Then, the cost of a decent Macon rose  to a level where consumers opted instead for California Chardonnay at half the price.

Large quantities of Chardonnay are bottled as Macon or Macon-Villages.  A few of these better known villages make white wine under their own names, like Pouilly-Fuisse and St. Veran.  

Pouilly-Fuisse, sometimes referred to as the "poor man's Cote de Beaune," is the richest and fullest Maconnais white, often commanding high prices.  

St. Veran gained its appellation in 1971 and picked up vineyards that were previously Beaujolais Blanc.  St. Veran Chardonnays are stylistically bigger and richer than Macon-Village, often representing good value. 

The output of the Maconnais is approximately three to four times that of the Cote Chalonnais.  There are no Grand Cru vineyards in the Maconnais.

Small quantities of red Macon are made from the Gamay grape, drawing comparisons with nearby Beaujolais.  Bottled as Macon or Macon-Villages, the reds are scarce in U.S. markets.  


Next blog: Rise of Shiraz 

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Correction:  In "My Life in Wine Episode 21," the date of the Loma Prieta Earthquake was incorrect.  It should have been 1989 not 1979.



Thursday, November 4, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 21

After the Wine Spectator, my life in wine alternated between free lancing, an editorial run with a small struggling Australian-owned wine magazine and then back to free lance, including a long and satisfying time as a columnist with Wine Review Online. 

                     seismograph showing earthquake activity - earthquake stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

This is not, thankfully, another story about Covid.  Rather, this is my attempt to connect this MLIW episode with one of the unforeseen side issues of the pandemic lock downs.  Namely, how thousands of people found themselves coping with the oddities of working at home and how that relates to wine writing.

There are a few dozen full time wine writers who work at a magazine or newspaper. But the majority of wine writers do their thing from an alcove or special area in their home, or if they're lucky (as am I) from a home office.

For the free lancer being able to work at home means no commute, no need to shave and you can pound your computer keyboard in your PJs or even your underwear; really, who's going to see you? 

If that sounds like an ideal work environment, it isn't, unless you're disciplined and can keep to a set routine and not be distracted.  Unfortunately, that didn't always work for me. in 1979.  

In 1979, I was just finishing writing an opus on California Chardonnay when the San Francisco earthquake struck and everything in my office began to jump and shake.  It was like a giant had our townhouse in its grip and was giving the building a good shake.  

Books fell off the shelves over my desk and wines rattled out of a wine rack.  It was temporary chaos, with bottles crashing to the floor on top of a mound of books.  Miraculously, only two bottles broke and, of course, one of them was an expensive white Burgundy.

The free lance environment can be as quiet as a monastery cell or as noisy as an earthquake environment. Some writers need the quiet, while others, like myself, think and write better with a little music in the background. Classical music  stimulates my thinking and concentration, except for those times when it's disrupted by a daily outside distraction.

My office in the townhouse faced a tiny fenced entry courtyard.  Our mail carrier, a man who was passed his time to retire, worked hard at finding ways not to exert himself, like getting you to help with his mail delivery. 

One day, while typing a wine note, I heard Don coming up our short walk.  "Hey, Jer!" he yelled until I came to the front gate and took the mail.  If I wasn't home or didn't come outside, Don would leave the mail on top of the gate, annoying to say the least since our mail box was just inside the gate.

On one occasion, the antics of Don the Mailman broke my chain of thought about a visit to Bordeaux where the winemaker demonstrated an innovative way to get wine from a barrel.  The trick involved a special hammer with a long pointed sharp prong where the claw would be on a standard hammer. 

Using the pointed end of his tool, the winemaker swung hard whacking the head of the barrel, opening a small hole.  Fortunately, the barrel was tightly bunged creating enough internal pressure, so the wine didn't leak out. 

Then, he hooked the pointed end of the hammer behind the head brace and pulled down on the handle. The light pressure against the head caused a narrow stream of bright red wine to spurt out of the barrel into a waiting wine glass.  After dispensing wine into four glasses, the winemaker inserted a small wooden plug into the hole and hammered it home.  

It was all a bit of winery theater, performed by a French winemaker and his Portuguese assistant, for the amused visiting wine writer and his wife

Of course, you don't need to travel to Bordeaux or any other world wine region to sample the wine, but you'll understand and appreciate wine a lot more if you go to where it is made.  In the next few episodes, I do a bit of traveling, starting in Scotland where a spirit is distilled that comes as close to wine, for style and variety, as anything I've tasted.  


Next blog: South of the Cote de Beaune

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