The Amoise Story; “Unadulterated” Wine Producer in Hawke’s Bay

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I always love a story in which wine finds someone who was truly meant to be in the industry, but just wouldn’t have thought to look there at first.

Amy Farnsworth is the owner and Winemaker of Amoise (pronounced am-was), a boutique and “unadulterated” wine label in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. Amy’s story is one of passion, patience, persistence, and the pull of nature. With 17 harvests under her belt, across 6 countries, Amy truly has a vast array of personal experience to bring to her label.

Grape Harvest time at Domaine Alain Graillot – Crozes Hermitage, France 2012

Amy was raised by a Canadian father and a Kiwi mother in White Rock, a small city in the Vancouver area. She remembers childhood trips to New Zealand to visit her Mom’s side of the family, on which she grew familiar with the Kiwi country and culture. After high school, Amy decided to enter a career in Criminology, with the goal of becoming a lawyer. To help with tuition fees, like many students do, she got a hospitality job. It was while working at Uli’s Restaurant in White Rock that she had two significant experiences with wine that ultimately ended up changing the course of her life.

Uli’s employed several professional male servers that had extensive wine knowledge, and were selling “huge wines like Opus One” to the customers. A self-driven hard worker, Amy knew that if she wanted to compete with their sales, she needed to educate herself on the world of wine, and she began taking WSET courses.

She also recalls one fateful night that Uli pulled a wine out of his cellar that she will never forget. When I asked Amy about the first significant wine she remembers, she didn’t pause for a second before telling me exactly what it was, a 1971 Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling Spätlese from the Wehlener Sonnenuhr (Sundial) Vineyard. “It stopped me dead in my tracks,” she says about the Riesling. She had previously loved Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cab, but the Riesling “opened up a whole new ball game” for her. “I was drinking South Australia and Napa but there’s a whole other world out there, and thank God for that. I had no idea. I’d never tried wine like that in my life.”

As Amy continued advancing in her WSET courses, she moved to Vancouver to work in fine dining. She completed her WSET Level 3, and then decided to begin her 2 year WSET Diploma; she soon realized Criminology couldn’t compete with wine, and pursued wine studies full time. She eventually lost interest in the hospitality side of the industry, and began working in fine wine stores, like Liberty Wine Merchants, and for importer Liquid Art Fine Wines in Vancouver, who had the largest biodynamic portfolio in Canada. She willingly traded in a higher income for valuable experience, and her work with Liquid Art fuelled her passion for not only wine, but specifically biodynamic and natural wine. Her WSET Diploma took a back seat when she was promoted into their office and chose to focus her energies on sales and marketing, and learning about biodynamics. She was tracking the lunar calendar, observing key differences between biodynamic and conventional winemaking and knew she was “all in” with biodynamics before she even set foot in a vineyard.

Winery work – Beaune, France 2010

In 2009, the recession hit Canada; Amy knew that her job was at risk. Her company had been importing biodynamic wine for a special New Zealand producer in Central Otago; she had actually been the author of their story and had sent it to trade customers and private clients across Canada, and had previously met the Winemaker. She contacted them on a whim to ask for employment, and thanks to her connections, was able to secure a job at their vineyard. She made the move to New Zealand to do her first Kiwi harvest at Felton Road Winery.

Working at Felton Road was “the experience of a lifetime” for Amy. She stayed on for a full year, which she highly recommends to anyone wanting to seriously enter the industry. “Anyone can do a harvest for a couple months, but the year round experience is the most important.” It was during her year at Felton Road that she explored all sides of the winemaking business, “from vineyard to Cellar Door and winery.” That year, Amy discovered in her heart that “Winemaker” was part of her identity. She remembers thinking, “this is amazing. I need to keep doing this,” and she says about Felton Road, “I feel I started at the top. The bar was set so high after working there.” Her reasons for this are because of “the Ethos, the community, and how they look after the animals and the plants.” She was already passionate about biodynamics, but after integrating into the community of Felton Road, she was captivated.

Harvest – Castiglione Falletto, Piedmont, Italy

Following Felton Road, Amy lived in Burgundy for two years where she obtained her Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology. Upon completion, she began traveling to different countries “to work the harvests and live, eat and drink through different cultures.”

Beaune, France 2010
Hand sorting Pinot Noir Grapes – Burgundy, France
Pump-over – Beaune 2010

In 2017 she returned to New Zealand for a harvest job at Paritua Winery, in Hawke’s Bay. She enjoyed the comradery with her colleagues and the Winemaker, and decided to stay on. As it so happened, a position opened up for Assistant Winemaker, and it was awarded to her. Even though she was making wine for Paritua’s two labels, Amy’s desire was to make her own.

She was ready to start Amoise, but 2017 was a difficult vintage in Hawke’s Bay. Winemakers only get one chance each year to do what they do; Amy made the painful decision to wait another year, because she knew that if she used the grapes from 2017, the wine would need intervention, and that went against everything she envisioned for her label. She was supported with advise from a wise Hawke’s Bay Winemaker and mentor, Jenny Dobson, who “truly wants the best for everyone,” and had suggested that 2017 wasn’t the strongest year to make her label’s debut. It was an extremely tough call to choose to wait, but Amy knew it was serendipity.

Cabernet Sauvignon – Hunter Valley, Australia 2017

In 2018, Amy searched tirelessly for organic fruit, and with it being so difficult to find in Hawke’s Bay, she had begun to accept the postponement of her dream for Amoise, yet again! As fate would have it, she happened to sit next to another Amy at a wine tasting, who became a great friend. Her new friend happened to be cousins with an established local winemaker, and he had some organic fruit she could purchase! It was Pinot Gris, and a small amount of Gewürztraminer. Amy recognized the opportunity in front of her and seized it.

Amoise harvest with help from friends – Hawke’s Bay 2019
Amy driving the tractor during Amoise harvest – Hawke’s Bay 2019

She had unfortunately had an accident that year involving a knife falling into her foot, so she was casted up and in a moon boot during the harvest season; Amy did not let that stop her from producing the wine she knew she needed to make. It was going to be a natural wine; it had to be hand harvested, and she was relentless. She literally dragged her moon boot through the vineyard to harvest the grapes, got the fruit into the winery, then hobbled around the winery until she physically couldn’t walk anymore. Her friend, Amy, was there to help her, and she couldn’t have done it without her. “Right from the get go we’ve been supporting each other and that is what community’s all about.”

Literally, through what must have felt like dream-crushing delays, freak knife disasters resulting in actual blood, sweat, and tears (and a moon boot), and thankfully, a supportive wine dream team . . . the 2018 Amoise Gris was born!

Amy released it in October of 2018, and made 70 cases (of 12). She didn’t want her wine to be similar to so many of the other Pinot Gris available on the market. Hers is a Pinot Gris, and she chose to add “a sprinkling of Gewürztraminer to spice it up,” and to make an orange wine. This means that for the one month fermentation, she chose to leave the skins of the grapes in with the juice; she also allowed both varietals to ferment together. The skins add complexity, tannin and body, and the Amoise Pinot Gris is definitely not boring or typical!

Everything is also hand bottled, and labelled, by her and her partner, Greg. The label showcases some of the essence of Hawke’s Bay in that it’s a friend Harry’s painting of Te Mata Peak and Cape Kidnappers, two significant landmarks of the region, with her signature captured from her chalk labeling on the barrels to spell “Amoise.”

As for the name, “Amoise” is Amy’s Canadian nickname. Her family still calls her by it, and that’s how she was known in her “hospo days,” the times she remembers with fondness when the love of wine found her, and she embraced it; it is fitting that her own label be called after a name with such endearment.

Amy has the 2019 Amoise Pinot Gris in the works, as well as a red wine this year, 2019 Amoise Cabernet Franc. Both are “unadulterated wines,” as Amy refers to them, and follow her strict winemaking philosophy: organic grapes, only certified bio-grow fruit, with no additions, and no sulphur.

Beautiful, hand picked Amoise Pinot Gris – Hawke’s Bay 2019
Working as a team for the Amoise harvest – Hawke’s Bay 2019

She avoids using the phrase “natural wine” to describe her product, because she has significant experience and research invested into the topic, and says that “natural wine has no legal definition and for almost a decade the EU can’t come to a consensus on how it should be labelled legally!” Alternatively, she chooses to label her wine with the phrase, “no additions or adulteration of any kind,” and aims to spread the word of what organic, biodynamic and natural wines actually are, and their key differences.

Amy explains that organic wine is made from organic grapes (no herbicides/pesticides/insecticide sprays). Biodynamic wine is made with organic grapes, but also by observing the lunar calendar and applying Biodynamic techniques. Natural wine is also made from organic grapes, but it uses little to no intervention, and no additions (only natural yeast, no enzymes, no sugars, no acids, no fining agents, little to no sulphur, etc.) Amy however, doesn’t even add sulphur, which is why she prefers the term “unadulterated.” Her wine is literally as pure, genuine, and naked as a wine can get.

Horse ploughing – France

Her company mandate, and number one goal, is “responsible natural winemaking.” Her mandate came from her experiences making wine in France, where she adopted the belief to never release a wine that is faulty, or that she wouldn’t drink herself. “It’s not about putting grapes in a vat and praying for good results.” She watches her wine so closely. “My intention is always to make it without intervening. Altering the temperature is the only intervention I’ll do, if needed.” She also believes that taking care of the vineyard is of utmost importance. She explains how the quality of yeast and fruit in the winery is determined in the vineyard. She embraces the French model that marries winemaking and viticulture, in which “people do everything . . . making the wine is only a snapshot of what you do.” She loves being in the vines. It really all starts there for her.

Amy and Gus – Black Estate, Waipara, North Canterbury, New Zealand
Steep slopes of Cornas, Northern Rhone, France

After listening to Amy describe the attention to detail, and the purity of her wine, it’s clear to see that it’s her baby. I was quite happy to enjoy the bottle she shared with us, knowing I wasn’t putting anything in my body that didn’t come straight from nature. Amy genuinely works with the earth and nurtures the fruit as it transforms into a wine that is a pure expression of the terroir, vintage and place. There’s a snapshot of history behind every Amoise label, and her wine takes those who enjoy it back to that vineyard, that season and those moments in time, as a wine has the incredible power to do.

As with many new businesses, Amy has had an uphill battle getting Amoise off the ground. Aside from the 2017 missed start, the unpredictability of where from or if her fruit would come in 2018, plus the moon boot harvest, she has had the huge challenge of trying to educate New Zealand wine consumers on what a natural wine actually is. Educating Kiwi consumers has become a large part of not only her company mandate, but her personal one, as she is so passionate about the biodynamic process, and making wine the natural way. She aims to raise awareness in the market that there is an alternative style of wine that’s available for those that want it. Amy does many Pop-up events with food and a selection of her own and other natural wines, that set out to educate the community and spread knowledge within the industry.

Stirring water as part of Biodynamic Preparations

Aside from the educational challenge, 2018 was another delicate year, and although Amy knew she wanted Pinot Gris and the spicy Gewürzt she loves, she didn’t have control over the timing of the harvest. The grapes came in that year with some botrytis, which was a factor of nature that was beyond her control. She made the decision to honour her beliefs, and made a natural wine, with no sulphur or additions, despite the challenges with the fruit. Working full time at Paritua has also limited the time that Amy has had to spend on Amoise. Her and her partner do “Power Hour” at 6:00am where they both work on their own businesses. She sacrifices sleep before her day job so that she can dedicate time to her label.

One of Amy’s biggest lessons is that the wine industry is hard. “Nothing’s ever easy. You have to work with nature. You have to be adaptable. You have to accept Mother Nature.” They say that if your job aligns with your passion, you never work a day in your life. The more Winemakers I meet, who are truly passionate about what they do, the more I see that this is sincerely true. It is arduous work, and can appear unrewarding, but those that possess passion know they’re where they belong. Amy is one of those people. When I asked her if it was worth it, she responded with a big, “yes. There’s something about it that keeps me coming back. This is my art. This is absolutely my passion.”

Horse ploughing
Poplar Grove Winery crew at harvest – Penticton, Okanagan Valley, Canada

If there’s something Amy would like to see more of in Hawke’s Bay, besides a greater understanding of natural wine, it would be the strengthening of the wine community, and a deeper desire to learn from each other. “There’s never a point where you can go, ‘I’m fully satisfied with that.’ There’s always new info, new things to be shared.” She gives the example of Syrah ripening in Hawke’s Bay. “We’re all struggling with it. Let’s share information. Let’s learn from each other, and share the knowledge that we have.” That is why she was pleased to see the start of the HBVine group last year, that aims to share and exchange data and vineyard techniques.

To try Amoise wine, get in touch with Amy via her Instagram account @amoisewines, or visit her at one of her Pop-up events. She’ll be participating in the Hawke’s Bay FAWC (Food and Wine Classic) with free events featuring natural wine and food by Chimera restaurant on 8 and 9 November. Follow her on Instagram to stay in the know.

I encourage you to visit her events; bring your friends to experience some of the special, unique and delicious, unadulterated Amoise wines for yourself. Arrive with an open mind, an appetite, and a willingness to learn something new, and you might just be swayed towards some exciting and alternative styles of wine.

A Day in the Life; What Working in the Wine Industry Actually Looks Like for Greg

You all know we’re “working in the wine industry,” but we’ve been getting lots of questions about what we actually DO all day, our hours, colleagues, wineries, etc., so if you’re interested in the specifics, read on, and I’ll walk you through what Greg might do during a typical day or week. (I’ll post a separate blog for my typical week as they’re quite different!)

Greg works at Linden Estate Winery as a Vineyard Hand and Cellar Hand. For right now, he’s working Monday to Friday, 8:00 to 4:30. (This will change during harvest time.) The guys take coffee breaks, which they call “smoko,” in the mid-morning and the mid-afternoon. Linden provides basic coffee and tea for them, but Greg brings his own lunch.

He works with a small team at Linden, which he loves, because he gets to actually do a little bit of everything. Trevor is the Head Winemaker, and Alex is the Assistant Winemaker. Greg works closely with Alex most of the time, but spends a great deal of time with Trevor as well. There’s another man who drives the tractor and does most of the spraying and trimming of the vines.

Linden has a small Cellar Door, with only one full time Cellar Door host, and another office manager that helps as well. Greg doesn’t see them too often as he’s not in the Cellar Door.

As Greg works with the vines, his daily tasks are constantly changing with the stage of growth of the vines and grapes; the weather has an impact too. His vineyard has recently added some new blocks of vines, so their young vines need appropriate trimming to keep them growing upwards instead of outwards; they are too young for spray, so they need to be weeded manually. The guys go by hand and break off all the extra shoots that are not the main shoot of the vine.

The grass needs mowing in between the rows every so often in all of the blocks. This is part of Greg’s job.

As the more mature vines are growing, they grow like a bush and the branches spread out, but they need to grow straight up. There are wires in the vineyard that keep all of the rows contained. The branches that grow out need to be pushed back into the wires. Greg helps when the vines get taller and the wires need to be pulled up; this process is called “tucking,” and “lifting wires.”

(Pictured above is a comparison of vines that need to be tucked, versus cleanly tucked vines. The wires I mention are shown more clearly in the second photo.)

A few times per season the vines also require what’s called “bud rubbing.” Vines grow out of everywhere, even on the stumpy looking part of the vine at the bottom. If they were left there, they would grow up and cover the fruit from the sun, which wouldn’t allow the grapes to ripen properly. Vintners also just don’t want too many shoots growing because the more fruit a vine produces, the lesser the quality of the fruit. Wine will have more concentrated flavours and complexity if the vines only produce a small amount of fruit that they can invest all of their energy into. In order to prevent these extra shoots from growing, Greg will go from vine to vine and snap off any little shoots that are appearing, and rub off any buds that are beginning to show.

When he helps in the winery, he is working with the wine that was harvested within the last few years and is currently aging. As wine is aging in oak barrels, a small portion of it is constantly evaporating. (We call this the “angel’s share.”) At least once per month, if not more, the barrels need to be topped up with more wine until they’re literally overflowing, to ensure no oxygen is in the barrel. Oak allows a small amount in, but this is controlled and good to help the wine soften and be more palatable. Too much oxygen will ruin the wine and make it taste unpleasant. Greg helps refill the barrels with wine from a different tank. He has to pay close attention to which wines go in each barrel to keep them consistent with the grapes and years that the Winemaker wants.

Greg also cleans and sterilizes hoses, pumps and tanks before filling or using them. Once the Winemaker decides on the percentage of the blends for certain wines, Greg helps him transfer those wines together. He uses a barrel washer machine to clean out barrels once they’re empty. He mixes up a special compound that is applied inside the barrels to keep them sanitary while they’re in storage.

Greg also does a process called “batonnage.” When wines are aging in the barrel, the dormant yeast and other solids sink to the bottom. Sometimes, with certain wines, these are removed throughout the aging process. Other times, they are left during the aging process, and stirred occasionally through the wine, because they add complexity of flavour and contribute to a creamy mouthfeel. Batonnage is when Greg does the stirring.

Linden has additional clients that bring their grapes into the winery for Trevor, the Winemaker, to make into wine for them. Greg helps Trevor with whatever he needs for this as well.

Once the harvest begins, in late February, Greg will be working many more hours than he is now, and will be required to help with anything necessary. Getting grapes off the vine and into the winery has to happen in a very small window of time. The grapes need to be processed in the winery as soon as they’re off the vine, whether it is day or night. Harvest goes throughout March and into April. That will be a very busy, and important time of year for anyone in the industry.

We’ve also been asked if we get discounts on wine. You bet! It’s awesome. As we get such great prices, and the wines are good, lots of the wine we buy is from Linden (and lots from Church Road too). Greg comes home with the occasional, “here, drink this with your wife and tell us what you think,” wine, which is homework we’re definitely not complaining about. (I’ve been known to bring home a few left over bottles here and there as well.)

There are, of course, many other day to day tasks Greg does that can’t all be mentioned here, but hopefully you have a greater understanding of what his roles are, and can see why he appreciates the small team he works with and the wide variety of experience he’s gaining! He is really happy at Linden so far, and I’ll keep you updated on the craziness of our life, and his new tasks once harvest, or “vintage,” starts.

Aging Wine; The Need To Knows

“You get better with age like a fine wine…” ❤️

We’ve all heard sayings like this before that leave us to believe that all fine wine gets better with age.  This is partly true – many fine wines do get better with some age – but which wines are meant for aging and how long they should be aged, is actually quite a complex topic.  Then there are multiple factors that come into play regarding storage/cellar conditions that will either age wine well, or ruin it quickly.

A huge misconception I’ve come across in speaking with friends and family about wine is that it ALL gets better with age.  This is definitely not true!  There is a saying in the wine world that only 1% of wine is actually meant to be aged in the bottle, which means that 99% of the wine on the shelves right now is meant to be consumed within a few short years from now, or today!  More on specific aging times in a moment. I’ll tell you right now, that 1% more than likely didn’t cost less than $20 either, so if you’re hanging on to those $7.99 bottles, it’s time to grab some glasses, or possibly make dinner with some type of a wine sauce!

Wine needs to have certain qualities to give it the ability to age well.  Madeline Puckette, the creator of Wine Folly, gives 4 qualities that you can look for in a wine to determine if it is age worthy:  Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol Level, and Residual Sugar.  [1]

Acidity

The higher the acid in the wine, the better it will age.  When tasting wine, acidity is the factor that makes your mouth water.  It is often described as “crispness.”  Chablis, for example, has a high amount of acidity, and can age well, even though it’s made from white grapes. (Tip your chin down with the wine in your mouth and see how much spit forms. If there’s a lot, it’s higher in acid!)

Tannins

Lots of red grapes have high tannins and can be aged for several years.  Sometimes whites have tannins, but rarely.  Tannins are chemical compounds that come from the seeds, skins and stems of grapes.  When you taste them in wine, they’re not so much a flavour as a feeling.  (That dry feeling you get along your gums, like when you drink a way over-steeped tea, is the feeling of tannins!) In the process of making red wine, the grape juice sits with these parts of the grape, allowing the tannins to enter the wine.  Some can come from oak contact as well.  Certain grapes are more tannic than others, depending on their composition, and certain wines will be more tannic if they’re left to sit with the skins, etc. for longer periods of time.  These tannins can be bitter and harsh in young wines, but they help them age well because with time, the tannins “soften,” and become more “well-rounded.”  This basically means that instead of the wine tasting sharp and pungent in your mouth, it will taste more smooth and balanced; higher tannin wines need age to taste better.

Alcohol Level and Residual Sugar

Red wines with higher alcohol content, closer to the 14% mark, will typically age better than lower alcohol reds.  Whites have lower alcohol in them, but some grapes have particular compounds and sugar levels that will allow for a decent amount of residual, that is, left-over sugar, once the fermentation process is done.  These whites, like Rieslings, for example, have a balance of sugar and acid that enables them to age well.

So now that you’ve determined you’ve got a wine you’re going to hold on to, here are some things to think about before you put it away and forget about it.

Screwcap vs. Synthetic Cork vs. Real Cork  

The method of capping wines is still a largely debated topic in the wine industry.  Real cork, vs. synthetic cork, vs. screwcap – there are a lot of opinions out there on which is best and why.  For more information on this topic, check out my article Real Cork vs. Synthetic Cork and Screwcaps. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only comment related to wine’s age-ability and storage.

Australia and New Zealand initiated the use of screw caps, and still use them on many of their wines.  Other countries have started following suit.  A screw cap does not indicate poor quality wine, it’s simply a method that some producers believe is the best way to seal their wines.  Wines with screw caps don’t need to be laying down for storage, but they can be. Screw caps haven’t been tested for super long term aging, but some can last a decade or more.

Wine professionals have recommended to me, on more than one occasion, that synthetic cork should not be left in contact with the wine for long periods of time; they say it can leave a plastic type taste in the wine, and can also leave other synthesized compounds in the wine, that they don’t want to be consuming several years down the line.  Stand those synthetic cork wines up for any length of storage.  Fair enough. These are also only guaranteed for a few years at best.

Wine with a real cork must be stored lying down.  Cork is a natural compound, and it dries out over time.  By lying the wine on its side, the wine stays touching the bottom of the cork, and the moisture helps to keep the cork damp enough that it shouldn’t dry out.  This is important, because if the cork dries out, it shrivels up and shrinks, letting too much unwanted air into the bottle.  Over the years, the overdose of oxygen will ruin the wine, leaving it “oxidized” and undesirable. Natural cork has proven the test of time and has lasted sometimes for hundreds of years.

Cellar Conditions

Have you ever been to a winery, or seen photos of their cellars?  What do you notice about them?  They’re usually cool, dark, and damp, and the wine is off to the side and out of the way so it doesn’t have to be moved.

Cellar conditions for ideal wine storage should be between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius, and shouldn’t change much.  Light shining onto the bottles for some time can alter the wine inside, whether it’s natural or artificial light.  Humidity will help keep the corks damp, so they stay plump and tightly sealed to the inside of the bottle’s neck.  The more you can leave the wine alone, without bumping it and moving it, the better its chances are of aging well.

When wine is resting well, it’s aging well, similar to you!  Just think of how well you would rest if someone kept changing the temperature on you, shining light on you, and bumping you around – exactly.  This is why I can’t sleep on an airplane. If you want your wine to be pleasant, give it a good rest!

Did you know that storing wine in a kitchen is actually one of the worst places in a home environment to keep it?  The temperature fluctuates the most in kitchens/bathrooms out of any of the rooms in your home.

How Long is Too Long?

There is a window of time that most wine professionals believe wine is at its best.  The window will vary slightly for each wine, but at a certain point, it will hit its peak, and begin to decline in quality again.  There is no exact way to know when this is, so it can feel like a risk when you’ve been aging a wine for a while, and want to make sure it’s at its best before popping that old cork ever so gently!

So many great wines become collector’s items, and people spend so much money on them, that they never want to drink them.  I once heard someone on a wine documentary say something to the effect of how many of the world’s greatest wines have essentially gone to waste, sitting in someone’s cellar for way too long, because people don’t understand how wine ages.  There’s a time and place for cellaring wine, but in the end, wine is meant to be drunk.

Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine is one of my favourite wine books.  She says, “contrary to popular opinion, only a small subgroup of wines benefit from extended bottle aging.  The great bulk of wine sold today, red as well as white and pink, is designed to be drunk within a year, or at most two, of bottling.”[2]

In her expert opinion, she goes on to list specific numbers of years that several particular types of wine should be aged for, of which I’ve only included a few popular choices.  Almost all whites retailing under the $20 range should only be bottle aged to a maximum of 2 years.  Heavier whites, like Chardonnay can sometimes last up to 6 years.  More expensive whites can age longer, like Chablis (up to 15 years), or some Rieslings (up to 20).[3]  This has to do with the structure of the particular grapes, and how they’re produced.

Surprisingly, the number doesn’t differ much for reds.  If they’re around that same $20 mark or under, the longest Jancis recommends you keep them is 3 years.  You can hang onto higher priced French wines in your cellar from 15 to 25 years, Italian Chianti or Spanish Rioja can present nicely up to 10 and 20 respectively as well.  Above the $20 price point, most Cabernet Sauvignons can be bottle aged for 7 – 17 years, Pinot Noirs, 4 – 10, Shiraz, 4 – 12, and Grenache, 3 – 8. [4]  Jancis has not lead me astray yet, and I trust these numbers; keep in mind there are always exceptions, and your cellar conditions need to be appropriate, especially if you’re considering aging your own wines in the bottles.

*Note that keeping value wines up to that 2-3 year mark is NOT going to enhance their flavour; think of that time frame like a best before date.

To determine how long the wine has been in the bottle, you’re going to have to do some math!  The year on the label is the year the grapes were harvested, not the year it was bottled necessarily, so if the label explains that it was aged in the winery for a certain number of years, you can add that time to the year on the label to get the bottling year.

If you’re looking to age a wine, remember to look for wines that are balanced in acidity, alcohol, residual sugar, or have some tannin to them.  You’ll want to spend a bit more on these ones, and watch out for synthetic cork. If you’ve got a lot of $20 to $30 wines sitting in your house, it may be time to have a party!  Let’s not let that wine go to waste.  Happy aging of the appropriate ones, and cheers to all the rest of them!

[1] Puckette, Madeline.  (2017, Feb.)  “How to Tell If A Wine Is Age-Worthy.”  Retrieved from https://winefolly.com/tutorial/how-to-tell-if-a-wine-is-age-worthy/

[2] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

[3] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

[4] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

How We Rode a Willy’s Jeep through the Vineyards of Chablis

We recently took a trip to the wine regions of Chablis, Bourgogne, the Cote Rotie, and Hermitage.  We celebrated our 10th anniversary in Paris, and as my husband and I just recently took our WSET Level 2, he planned this nice, five-day wine tasting add-on as a surprise that I must say was very, very pleasantly received.  Today, I’ll discuss one special tasting in Chablis.

First things first – the cutest little red and white Citroen!

Trains are a great way to travel around Europe; they get you easily out of and into the hearts of the cities.  If you’re going wine tasting though, you need to have some method of getting into the wineries, which are often in small towns, or out of town.  You have a few options of hiring drivers or signing up for wine tour vans and mini-buses, but we like to be independent, so we usually prefer a car of our own.  We knew from research that the French don’t appreciate it if you swallow their wine at a tasting. “You taste wine with your mouth, not your stomach,” is a common French philosophy, and we get it.  They’re pouring you some really nice wines, and if you’ve consumed the first five at their place, and who knows how many others at the place before, they know your palate isn’t exactly what it was when you woke up that morning, nor is your mental clarity.  As we were clearly planning to befriend the spittoon at every facility, driving was not going to be an issue.

We flew from our small city in the prairies to Toronto in the afternoon, then took the red eye from Toronto to Paris, arriving around 8am.  We had to drive through Chablis on our way to Dijon, the town we had our Airbnb booked in.  I’ve travelled enough now that I know myself pretty well; I said to my husband prior to the trip that no matter how tired I’d be from flying, as soon as we got there, and were driving through Chablis (me saying, “oh my gosh, we’re in Chablis right now!” over and over), I was going to want to stop at a winery, or a chateau as they call them, and stat!  I knew I wouldn’t want to wait a day, so we made a couple of bookings for Chablis before we flew out (more on bookings later).

We rented the Citroen, and once we figured out how to change the GPS from German into English, we were on our way to Chablis!  After filling up on baguettes and prosciutto from a grocery store off the highway, we arrived at Clotilde Davenne where we were in for a real treat.  They recently began offering a Willy’s Jeep tour through the vineyards of Chablis, and we were their first customers to book the experience.  We climbed up into the old Jeep, with Arnaud, the winemaker and owner’s son driving, my husband riding shot-gun, and myself in the back, hanging onto whatever I could find as to not fall over the side, and boy was it a ride!  If you’ve ever seen pictures of Chablis, it’s not flat; I had some moments of sheer terror where I was bounced off the seat, or I imagined going over the edge or us rolling, but I was so thrilled to be riding in Chablis that I got over it pretty quickly.

First of all, this jeep was used in WWII to transport soldiers, and if that wasn’t amazing enough, we were driving between rows and rows of perfect Chablis vines, setting our eyes on the very slopes of the Premier and Grand Cru grapes of arguably the most reputable Chardonnay in the world, with a second generation French winemaker as our guide.  “Here are some Premeir Cru plots, and over here are the Grand Cru plots…”  If you wonder why Grand Cru is so expensive, it’s because out of the 6000 hectares of vineyards in Chablis, only 100 hectares are Grand Cru plots, meaning that only the grapes that come from those specific 100 hectares can be labelled as Grand Cru.  The land is Grand Cru because of several reasons, some of which include the direction it faces which affects sun exposure, the slope of the hill affecting sunshine and water uptake, the soil make-up, the depth of the roots, the age of the vines, and the history that those particular vines have in producing the best quality Chablis.  Arnaud took us to a viewpoint at which we could overlook the vineyards, and see a map of Chablis on a stone plaque that labelled all of the individual plots and their level of quality in an easy to read, color coded system.

Once we finished our tour of the land, Arnaud took us back to the chateau for a tour of the grounds, a history lesson on his family and how they started in the industry, and a tasting.  He spoke fairly good English, which was great for us, as we speak little to no French.  We began with about six wines on the table, and once he saw that we were spitting them out, asking detailed questions and taking the tasting seriously, we ended up with another four.   We tried all four levels of Chablis: Petit Chablis, Chablis Villages, Premier Cru Chablis, and Grand Cru Chablis.  These are all quality, Chablis Chardonnays, but they’ve been aged differently, and for different lengths of time, and they come from the specific plots of land that coordinate with their specific level of quality.

If you’ve ever had a bad Chardonnay, or heard the saying, “ABC – Anything But Chardonnay,” you’ve probably had experience with super oaky ones, or butter bombs, but Chablis is nothing like that.  It’s crisp and refreshing at all levels, and the higher levelled ones are extremely complex, with multiple smells, and tastes that linger in your mouth and change over the course of the next 15 or so seconds after you’ve swallowed (or spat).  You’ll get lemon, crisp green apple, citrus and floral blossoms on the nose, and there is a distinct minerality to it, kind of like a wet stone, limestone taste to Chablis that comes from the limestone soil the vines call home.

We also got to try some wines from other plots in the family that were really interesting, like some Pinot Noir Roses, a sparkling Cremant (made in the same way as Champagne, but wine can’t be called Champagne if it’s not grown in Champagne), and the Bourgogne Aligote, which is the only other white grape that’s allowed to be grown in the Bourgogne region, and is used often as a table wine or a blending grape.  The most interesting wild card we tried was the Roman grape that Caesar used to drink, and was therefore named after him.  This is grown in the Irancy region, therefore the wine is called Irancy, (regions are how France labels their wines), although it’s 10% Caesar and 90% Pinot Noir.

ALL of this – for the very reasonable price of €20 each.

Needless to say, we picked up a few of our favourite bottles to take with us, and gave Arnaud and Clotilde Davenne a spectacular review on Google.  I would send anyone there, so if you’re ever in Chablis, look them up!

A note on bookings in France:

Always book ahead at the chateaus in France.  The website that we used, ruedesvignerons.com, helped immensely.  I did have a couple of glitches with their app when trying to cancel or change a reservation, so it’s not perfect, but it is a great starting point for booking.  It shows which wineries are visitor friendly, because not all are open for tastings to the public.  It also lists information such as the different times available, types of tastings, and the costs.

We found that when we showed up at most chateaus in France for our bookings, we were the only ones there.  The families live and work on the property, and they’re the ones that run lots of the tastings and tours.  They’ve got work to do; they’re not sitting around waiting for people to walk in the door.  If you don’t book, there’s a chance the door will be locked, and nobody will be around.  If you do book, they’ll be there waiting for you, having already learned your names and set up the tasting, just for you.  Be sure to let them know if you need to cancel!

If you ever have the opportunity to taste in Chablis, or to taste anywhere in this world for that matter, go for it.  You can meet some of the greatest people, and get to share in a small piece of their story, their craft, and their passion.  Especially in Europe, it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.

Happy wine-ing!

Real Cork vs. Synthetic Cork and Screwcaps

Real Cork

Cork is a natural substance that has been used for thousands of years by multiple ancient civilizations.  We now associate it mostly with wine stoppers, but I didn’t know how that usage came to be until I did some research.

“The most significant development occurred in the 1600s, when Dom Perignon, developed his methode champenoise.  The wooden stoppers used to store still wines had considerable disadvantages when applied to sparkling wine.  Dom Perignon successfully adopted cork stoppers and soon cork became essential for wine bottling.”[1]

Way to go, Dom!

Natural cork has its benefits.  We know that it has good results with long term aging.  It allows a very small amount of oxygen to slowly enter the bottle over the course of several years, helping harsher wines, with lots of tannins, to soften and become more easily palatable and interesting.  Too much oxygen will ruin a wine, and quick.  Think of it like The Three Bears scenario:  too much is bad, but too little is bad – it has to be just right.  It’s also a somewhat renewable natural resource.  “Cork continues to re-grow after the bark has been harvested.  However, it needs time, so the cork bark is only harvested once, every 9 years or so.”[2]

People also seem to love wine with real cork in it.  It feels more authentic and traditional, and hints at better quality.

I found results to a study done at Oxford University that supports this argument.  They found that wine tasted better to the participants if it had a cork, because they believed and expected it to be better, as opposed to a screwcap.  The study tested 140 people that tried two similar wines back to back, one with a cork, and one with a screwcap.  They then sampled the same wines again, without realizing it, except the tops were switched.  Each time, they were asked which one tasted better.  113 of those people chose the wine with the cork, each time, even though the wines had been switched on the second round.[3]

The Professor who performed the study explained that “our senses are intrinsically linked – what we hear, see and feel has a huge effect on what we taste.”[4]  This just goes to show that no matter the truth behind the wine closure, many people want a cork in their wine, because it enhances the experience.

I have to admit, upon first reaction, I like a real cork too, especially on an old bottle, when there’s a bit of fungus growing on top.  It reminds me that the bottle has a history, and a story, and it feels real.  I have to correct my reaction that seeing a synthetic or screwcap top on the bottle doesn’t imply the quality is less.  Real cork just plays into the fanciness, and the classy feeling that uncorking a wine gives.  It’s part of a ritual, if you will, when one wants to really enjoy a wine.

So if cork works, and people love it, why would anyone not use cork?

That’s where TCA steps in.  Dun dun dun…play the scary music.

TCA stands for Trichloroanisole, and basically, it’s a compound that forms in natural cork, and ends up getting transferred into wine, through that cork.  Terms such as “cork taint,” or a wine being “corked,” are referring to TCA.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity of smelling a wine that’s been affected with cork taint, it’s really bad!  The smell reminds me of an old church garage sale, or my grandmother’s basement storage room, that’s had a little bit of water in there over the years, hasn’t been dusted or cleaned out, and is probably growing mould.  As you can guess, it has a similar, unpleasant taste, too.

TCA’s not going to kill you, and as far as we know, it wouldn’t even make you sick – if you could still stomach the wine.  What’s likely to make you sick, however, is how your beautiful, expensive bottle of wine you’ve been anticipating is now effectively ruined.

You can find countless different statistics all over the internet on the percentages of wines that have been ruined by cork taint.  There was a big surge of it in the 1990s, that got people looking for other methods to close their wines.  On one of the wine tours we attended, the guide explained that they had switched to screw caps during that time, because they were finding that up to 10% of their wines were tainted.  Other statistics claim it was as low as 1-2%, and I’ve heard up to 20%.  There really isn’t an extremely accurate way of tracking this, and it differs from region to region.  A certain batch of cork could have been tainted, or it could have been a poor winery practice that caused the taint in the wine.

The numbers have significantly dropped now, as the cork industry got on top of the issue.  “Quality procedures have been overhauled, starting in the cork forests” with procedures to prevent the mould from getting into the cork itself.  The storage has been improved with “new factories close to the forests…the bark is stored only on concrete or stainless steel, never touching bare earth.”  The cork is also “rejected if [it shows] the slightest hint of a greenish stain,” and the bark is turned into corks by hand, “ensuring that the corks are taken from the best part of the bark.”  Nothing is wasted, and all the unused material is recycled.[5]  From the sites I referenced in this article, it seems to be that the percentages of cork taint have dropped significantly; the wine buyer at my favourite liquor store says that they hardly ever have returns anymore for this issue, and in all of the wines I’ve bought from them, and had in their tasting room, I’ve only ever seen one corked one.

Synthetic Cork

An alternative to real cork, is synthetic cork.  With this, there is no risk of TCA.  Synthetic cork can also be way more affordable for producers who are making inexpensive wines, meant for immediate consumption.  We don’t see super cheap wines in Canada very often, but if you’ve travelled Europe, you know that you can get some wines for less than $5.  Robert Joseph of Decanter makes an excellent point for why these types of producers may choose synthetic cork.  “When you are earning €3 a bottle, it makes no sense to spend a sixth of that sum on a top-quality cork.”[6]

It may be more consistent, and cheaper than real cork, but it’s also plastic, and not natural.  Jeff Leve explains that “the problems with synthetic corks is the lack of a perfect seal.  In turn that allows more unwanted air into the bottle, causing the wine to oxidize.  Worse, many of the synthetic corks have been known to impart a slight rubber or chemical smell, damaging the wine.” [7]  I’ve heard several of my wine industry friends complain of this happening; they say that if they’ve aged a wine on its side, and the synthetic cork is touching the wine, it can taste like plastic, so they always store their synthetically corked wines upright.  As for the lack of perfect seal, Jeff explains that some wine makers prefer this, if it can age their wines more quickly, to be consumed sooner.  He says there are also many companies now that are coming out with synthetic cork that lets in a more controlled amount of oxygen.[8]  There has also not been proof of how well it holds up for long term aging.

Screwcaps

The good old screwcap is another manufactured wine closure that is more cost effective, and less environmentally friendly, than real cork.  It also eliminates the risk for TCA, or plastic tasting wine; however, as you read above in the Oxford study, it’s associated with cheap wine.  Australia has put significant research into screwcap closures, as an article in the Sydney Morning Herald explains.

“The winemakers worked with the Australian Wine Research Institute, which over a 24 month period conducted trials that tested nine different closure methods (including natural cork, synthetic cork, technical cork and screwcaps.  After nine months under screwcap, each bottle of the same wine tasted the same… but the same wine under eight different cork closures all varied in taste.”[9]

I like some good research to back any fact, and I am impressed that there has been significant testing done on this issue.  Taylors Wines was the first winery to bottle every wine they make with a screwcap closure, in 2004, even though they risked what people’s opinions of the quality would be.  Now, 98% to 99% of Australian wines are bottled under screwcaps.[10]

Unfortunately, using a screwcap doesn’t guarantee a perfect seal.  There are some screwcaps that have been designed to allow slow amounts of oxygen into the wine, so that it can get some aging benefits, but it’s very possible that when the cap is getting attached to the bottle, it might not seal correctly.    I’ve had this happen to me before, (once) and had to send wine back to a winery because of it.  A wine expert taught me a good way to test this; when you’re buying a screwcap bottle, gently try and twist the closure under the lid, to see if it will rotate around the neck.  If it’s stuck to the neck and doesn’t rotate, you’re good.  If it does rotate, the bottle has not been sealed properly, and you could find that it’s been oxidized.

New Zealand launched their initiative to use screwcaps on even their top quality wines in 2001.  The initiative aims to “encourage and facilitate the use of screwcap wine seals by New Zealand wineries,”[11] and basically also to research them and make them super awesome! Excellent! You go, New Zealand! Maybe they’ll find a solution to ensure even more bottles are sealed tightly.  They do believe that screwcaps can be guaranteed to age well for considerable time, which is another plus for them; I’ve heard up to 10 years or more.  The founders of the initiative believe that cork taint is a considerable problem, and should no longer be tolerated, and seeks to find new and better ways.

It seems to me that our opinions of quality, based on a judgement we make on seeing the wine’s closure, may be preventing us from enjoying actual quality in some wines.

Didn’t anyone tell us not to judge a book by its cover?  In my opinion, those who judge all wines by their screwcap ‘cover,’ are missing out on some of the best wine ‘stories’ out there.  For example, I continue to buy Australian wine, even though it’s closed with a screwcap, because one of my favourite wines of all time is Penfolds – screwcap tops, amazing quality.

Let’s not be so hasty in our judgements anymore, wine drinkers!  Have you had a poor quality wine with a screwcap?  Yeah.  Have you had a poor quality wine with a synthetic cork?  Yes.  How about with real, natural cork in it?  Uh huh – me too.  I’ve also had great bottles with all three closures.  There’s so much more to what’s in the bottle, than what’s on top of the bottle.

There are no guarantees that every single bottle coming out of production is going to be perfect when it’s opened, no matter the type of seal.  There is always that small risk that it’s going to be corked, or oxidized.  That’s why in a restaurant, when you order a bottle, they allow you to taste it before it’s served; you’re checking that the quality is acceptable.  Luckily, most wine stores and producers understand that a percentage of damaged wine is part of the process, and I’ve never had anyone refuse to refund or replace my corked or oxidized bottles.

In the end, wine producers need to weigh their options and determine what’s going to suit them best.  As a buyer, knowledge is power.  It’s good to be aware of the pros and cons of each wine closure, and to eliminate misconceptions as much as possible.  When you’re purchasing a wine, and you’re looking at the closure, think about what that wine’s purpose is going to be for you.  Keep an open mind.  Who knows, maybe in a few decades, the sound of a screwcap seal breaking will have a friendlier association… we can hope!

Happy wine-ing!

Special thanks to Chad for asking me to write this article, which required the most research I’ve done since being in University… I guess we do learn to cite things for an applicable life reason. 😉

[1] Unknown.  “History of Cork Usage.”  http://www.corkqc.com/pages/history-of-cork-usage.

[2] Leve, Jeff.  “Wine Corks Everything You Need to Know About Wine Corks.”  https://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/wine-education-articles/wine-corks-everything-need-know-wine-corks/.

[3] Yorke, Harry.  “The Great Wine Debate; Corks really are better than screw-tops, Oxford study finds.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/27/great-wine-debate-corks-really-better-screw-tops-oxford-study/.  (September, 2017).

[4] Yorke, Harry.  “The Great Wine Debate; Corks really are better than screw-tops, Oxford study finds.”

[5] Bird, David.  “How the Cork Industry is Fighting Back.”  https://www.decanter.com/features/which-cork-is-best-246798/

[6] Joseph, Robert.  “Which Cork Is Best?”  https://www.decanter.com/features/which-cork-is-best-246798/ (January, 2009).

[7] Leve, Jeff.  “Wine Corks Everything You Need to Know About Wine Corks.” https://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/wine-education-articles/wine-corks-everything-need-know-wine-corks/.

[8] Leve, Jeff.  “Wine Corks Everything You Need to Know About Wine Corks.”

[9] Bliszczyk, Aleksandra.  “Australia’s wine screwcap revolution.” https://www.smh.com/au/business/australias-wine-screwcap-revolution-20170628-gx0e3l.html (June, 2017)

[10] Bliszczyk, Aleksandra.  “Australia’s wine screwcap revolution.”

[11] www.screwcap.co.nz