Tuesday, October 4, 2016

WSET Diploma Earned - Onto a Brave New World

WSET Diploma certificate and pin arrived!
In December 2013 I earned my Advanced Certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Two years, six exams, and 2 papers later, I have officially earned my Diploma in Wines and Spirits!

Most important is all that I have learned in the process, which has been both humbling and inspiring. I never wish to stop challenging myself, and I want to keep learning. That said, it is a wonderful feeling to have officially achieved such a milestone as earning the WSET Diploma.

The Diploma program represents the highest level (4) that the WSET offers. As I neared the end of my journey - my last exam having been Fortified Wines - I was continually asked, "So, what's next?"

Well, most (sane) people are justifiably content with their Diploma, as earning it is quite an ordeal. For those who truly wish to go farther in their studies, there is the Master of Wine, arguably one of the highest qualifications of professional knowledge of wine - the other being the Master Sommelier qualification, which is focused on the service industry and equally mind-blowing in its own way.   

But ... pursuing the Master of Wine? That's just crazy. It would be insanity to embark on this path, the equivalent of working towards a Ph.D. of wine. Years of struggle to pass multiple stages of exams and a dissertation - if one even makes it that far.

Then again, isn't it the journey, the promise and joy of discovery and learning, that started me down the path to wine studies in the first place? I knew already, deep within me, that no matter what happened, I would always find ways to expand my world through academic study and lived experience.

The Diploma or equivalent is the base prerequisite for qualification for application to the Master of Wine Study Program. The day after I took my Fortified Wines exam, I finally looked up the application information on the Institute of Masters of Wine site. My pulse raced as I saw that the deadline was only 1 month away, at the end of July. I had to decide very quickly if I wanted a year to consider it, or to go for it now.

I knew the answer in my heart at once.

So, while cramming for the French Wine Scholar Exam (see that story) I raced against time to apply for the Master of Wine Study Program. The application process was akin to applying for university or to graduate school, requiring a recommendation letter, essays, and multiple entrance exams covering theory and practical (tasting) knowledge.

After a very fraught and stressful month of work around the clock, my application was complete, the exams taken. I had only to wait. I knew that regardless of the outcome, I would be content that I had tried and done my best under the circumstances. If I wasn't deemed ready, at least I would know, and I could work towards better preparation.

Last month on a gray weekday, I woke up to the best email I could imagine starting my day off with: I'd been accepted as a student of the Institute of Masters of Wine!

I learned that the acceptance rate was less than 50%. I was deemed worthy of the challenge. 

When my Diploma study partners, who have become dear friends, learned of my acceptance and saw how incredulous I was, they laughed. "They'd be mad not to accept you!" I really appreciate their support and vote of confidence, because I certainly hadn't felt the same about myself.

For some time (days!) I was in a shell-shocked state, until the real terror of what I was getting into began to set in. But, those moments were sweet, indeed.

A few of the exam wines, after the fact

I now look forward to a new adventure, a very difficult one, that will challenge and frustrate me in ways I cannot imagine in this moment. Despite the trepidation, I feel an amazing sense of commitment. I confess unabashedly that I am thrilled and ready to work harder than I ever have. It is time for me to embark on the MW journey.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

French Wine Scholar

Sporting the French Wine Scholar pin
Right after taking my last exam for the WSET Diploma - Fortified Wines - I crammed for and sat the French Wine Scholar (FWS) exam, offered by the Wine Scholar Guild. I always seek to delve deeper into France, as Burgundy is my first (wine) love. I'd signed up for the exam nearly a year ago and hadn't thought about it as I continued to prepare for my Sparkling and Fortified wine exams for Diploma. Somehow I had the wherewithal to realize, in late June, that I'd have to take the exam asap or pay the fee all over again. Of course, I discovered this about 10 days before the one possible exam date before my 1 year deadline. In a typical fit of motivation driven by a challenge, I decided to take the exam.

Technically, I'd been preparing for this exam indirectly through my WSET Diploma studies and through my work in the industry. That said, the FWS exam definitely requires one to know more in breadth and depth. The ensuing week witnessed nonstop cramming, so much that I even studied in my sleep! Unfortunately this meant I wasn't very well rested, but at least I was productive. This happens to me every so often before exams, but this time I literally tested myself systematically through Southwest France (FYI, Iroulegay is the only Basque appellation!). However, I knew I was really going nuts when I found myself randomly reciting the red grape name Fer Servadou in a jingle-like manner: "Fer Servadou, don't mind if I do!" 

Possibly the most memorable part about studying for the FWS exam was discovering a passage in the text that likened the creation of the trench-like geography of Alsace to the rising and falling of a soufflé, but caused by pressure instead of by heat. Only the French would find a perfect connection between a prehistoric geographical phenomenon and the creation of a culinary treat! I call it "The Alsace Soufflé." C'est merveilleux! 

I am happy to report that I passed the French Wine Scholar Exam, with highest honors. I am relieved! The Wine Scholar Guild asked me to answer some interview questions, and posted my informal essay on their site as a feature about recent top scorers. I am humbled to be honored thusly. Writing this essay was a wonderful way for me to think about why I pursue my wine studies, and about what I have gained in the journey thus far. I invite you to catch a glimpse of the motivation below, or on the Wine Scholar Guild site.

Congratulations to Susan R Lin, FWS for passing the French Wine Scholar exam with the highest honors! 
About Susan:
I previously worked in high tech, much of it at Google, managing international search and maps quality programs. I'd been fascinated with wines and their study ever since I saw the beautiful labels on bottles of Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet on my grandfather’s shelf as a child, and took my research further on my own since then. I eventually decided to enroll in formal study through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), to give myself an academic framework through which I could focus my efforts. After I achieved WSET Advanced certification, I was recruited by an esteemed study partner. I am thrilled to be in the wine industry!
My joy is to bring people the wines that they love, and even more so, to get people to try wines that I believe will delight them, but which they hadn’t previously heard of or thought to try. It’s about creating a wonderful experience for people through wine, and I believe that is best accomplished through deep academic learning and lived experience. By taking what I’ve learned via my studies with FWS and WSET to my own explorations and sharing and learning from others, I hope to build upon my base of knowledge to bring more delight to my customers, partners, and friends.

I recently earned my WSET Level 4 Diploma after a two year journey since obtaining the WSET Level 3 Advanced certification. My studies in WSET provided me a very strong academic base of knowledge in viticulture, the vinification process, and of all the different wines around the world. What led me to the FWS program is that while I enjoy exploring all wines, my heart lies with wines in France ­ Burgundy being my first and greatest love! I knew that the more I learned, the more I would be able to appreciate the important and subtle nuances that make French wines unique in each their own way.

I personally am most happy about the breadth and depth of the materials in the FWS program. As the program is focused specifically on France, I was able to concentrate on information not necessarily covered in other programs, for example the geological events that led to the land formations of each wine region that influence the terroir, and aspects of socio­economic and cultural history that contribute to the style of the wines today. The focus on every wine region and on the specific appellation requirements have given me an enormously deeper knowledge and appreciation of France’s wine heritage and modern wine industry.
The more I learn, the more questions I have and the more I want to continue learning! The FWS program has added more fuel to my desire to further my wine studies. I look forward to the possibilities, including those afforded by the Wine Scholar Guild. For example, I could benefit from the Italy and Spain programs, or I could delve even deeper into the French wine regions through the Master­ Level programs. I will always seek to learn, whether through self study or through institutional programs.

What I have gained through the FWS program complements my WSET studies extremely well. Focusing more deeply on France has built upon and expanded the knowledge I have accumulated through my WSET Diploma studies as well as my experiences in the industry.

I have recently been accepted into the Master of Wine Study Programme and am excited to embark on this journey. The FWS program has undoubtedly helped to prepare me for this new level of study.
The FWS program has already allowed me to further my passion for wine tremendously, just through studying for the exam. Even though it was stressful at times to remember all the important pieces of information such as different grape varieties (and synonyms!), soils, and regulations for each appellation, I was thrilled every day because of what I was learning. Wines that used to merely be names to me have come alive. What I enjoy in the glass is enhanced remarkably by the knowledge of its heritage, place, and history. In preparing for the FWS exam, I have learned much about the character of French wines. This, to me, is invaluable. This is what I seek to share with everyone who has any interest in wine: The story and the experience, brought to life in beautiful liquid.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Bordeaux 2015 En Primeur - Summary

I've often been asked: How would you summarize the 2015 Bordeaux vintage?

2015 Bordeaux Vintage Overall

Beautiful depth and color of Pontet Canet 2015
Drinkable and Structured: These wines are, on the whole, very approachable and yet possessing of great depth. I was surprised by how many of wines are drinkable even now, and we're talking pretty substantial wines here! This makes it all the more challenging to hold onto them to witness their evolution as they mature and develop more smoothness and complexity in the bottle. That said, some wines, like Lafite Rothschild (Pauillac), Palmer (Margaux) and Suduiraut (Sauternes), are beautifully made and will only truly blossom in years to come - they will be worth the wait!

Full and Generous: There was a lot of heat during the growing season, and many of the wines are full-bodied, with significant tannins. Don't let this put you off! The well-made wines (see my previous reports in the Blog Archive for April and May for recommended selections) are wonderfully balanced by generous fruit and the right amount of acidity to lend them a dazzling fresh quality. We're not talking big, sappy fruit bombs; rather, we have wines with heft, lifted fragrance and concentration. 

At the gate of Château Margaux
Alcohol levels are higher than usual for Bordeaux, but again, the excellent wines are so well balanced (fruit concentration, acidity, tannins) that they don't feel "hot" at all. And believe me, I've tasted 11% alcohol wines that set my face on fire, because they lacked the other elements in balance. 

For those who know their vintages: 2015 has the structure of 2005 and the fruit concentration of 2009. This makes for an approachable wine like 2012, but with even longer potential for aging and development of complexity in the bottle. This also makes for a distinctively sunny, yet poised character for 2015. 

Not All Are Created Equal: That said, take care: Wines that didn't show as well exhibited imbalances. What I noticed most in these wines were what I call the "whale tannins" - outsized tannins that surged up like a whale beneath a ship and nearly knocked me over (and left me with numb, fuzzy lips). I realize that this is a strange analogy, but that is exactly the imagery that came to mind during tastings!

Great for Fans of California Reds: As I tasted during En Primeur week in Bordeaux, I realized increasingly that 2015 is possibly the perfect vintage to share Bordeaux wines with folks who love California red wines! Their generosity and approachability are surprising and delightful for such baby wines, and the best will mature with plenty more rewards to come. 

The Top 10

Naturally, the other question I'm being asked is: What are your Top 10 wines for Bordeaux 2015? This is difficult, not only because there are many wonderfully well-made wines, but also because the châteaux have different styles. 

My criterion: Does the wine embody the château's signature style, while expressing the very best of their land, their grapes, and the vintage conditions? 

When a wine demonstrates this simple and challenging ask, and one is left with that distinct, ineffable imprint that indicates a superbly made wine - regardless whether the wine is to one's own personal taste - it is starred for "Outstanding" on my list. 

The incredibly smooth, fragrant La Violette 2015
Without further ado, in no particular order:

  • Pontet Canet (Pauillac)
  • Ducru-Beaucaillou (Pauillac)
  • Lynch-Bages (St-Julien)
  • Pichon Lalande (St-Julien)
  • Léoville-Poyferré (St-Julien)
  • Margaux (Margaux)
  • Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan)
  • Pavie (St-Emilion)
  • L'Evangile (Pomerol)
  • La Violette (Pomerol)

That was tough! There are so many excellent wines for Bordeaux 2015. Again, please see my previous reports (April and May in the Blog Archive to the right) for all my selections for Standouts and Excellent wines, along with tasting notes. 

At work (Belmont Wine Exchange), I'm working hard to get allocations for my selections of wines. Their futures are being released by the châteaux, one by one, day by day. (I have an elaborate spreadsheet that is gaining more columns every day as I track the campaign.) It is incredibly exciting to be able to secure some of the best wines of the vintage. I look forward to sharing and enjoying these wines with you, in the future! 

Thank you again, as always, for joining me in my journeys. There will be more adventures!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Bordeaux 2015 En Primeur - Sauternes & Barsac

2015 Château d'Yquem in the glass
What better way to cap off the Bordeaux En Primeur tour than with the famed sweet white wines (vins liquoreux) of Sauternes and Barsac? For the most part, the wines showed extremely well with each château having drawn out various tantalizing aromatic flavors from grapes affected by noble rot.

Yes, fungus does play a role in the creation of these beautiful, unique wines, and it is only under the most specific conditions that this strain - Botrytis cinerea - can cause the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes to shrivel, leading the sugars to concentrate and the flavor compounds to intensify. The result: lusciously flavorful juice! When out of hand, however, the strain causes grey rot and the crop is no good for wine at all. How lucky for us that the villages of Sauternes and Barsac sit at the intersection of rivers that allow for just the right conditions for these sweet wines to be made!

The best wines I tasted possess an exquisite balance of complex fruit concentration and fresh acidity, so there is never a sense of syrupy heaviness. One is left utterly refreshed, with the lingering perfume of tantalizing fruits.

Standout Wines
2015 Château d'Yquem bottles on ice

d'Yquem: This goes without saying, but there is a reason that Chateau d'Yquem is the one wine with the classification "Premier Cru Superieur" ("First Great Growth") in the 1855 Classification of Sauternes and Barsac, commanding prices to match. 2015 boasts aromas of toasted almonds, hazelnuts, brioche, and an assortment of tropical and stone fruits: mango, kiwi, stewed peaches, apricots. Let's not leave out the floral notes of honeysuckle and jasmine. The unctuous initial palate bursts with pineapple, mango, fresh white apricot and resolves beautifully into an absolutely clean, smooth finish. Mango and apricot linger, with a hint of exciting mineral. This wine is at once extremely vibrant and concentrated, while incredibly poised and elegant.

Rieussec: Lush and rich with mango, honeycomb, and toasted almond with bracing acidity that at once makes you sit upright even as you luxuriate in all the luscious flavors. A finish redolent of mangoes stayed with me for so long that I had to walk around for awhile before I could try another wine.

With David Ornon of Château Guiraud
Guiraud: Beautifully rich butterscotch, marmalade, toasted almonds and hazelnuts, with apricots and peaches floating atop it all. There is a bit of almond skin on the end for a bit of a kick, which resolves into a satisfying smoothness. The acidity is just right to make Guiraud incredibly fresh. The flavors are generous and concentrated; it will last years, if you can wait that long before enjoying it!

Suduiraut: This beauty will take some time to bloom, but it's all in there: a subtle nuttiness, delicate citrus, apricots and pineapple, with showers of white and orange blossoms. 2015 Suduiraut has a strong, powerful body and structure that speaks to its longevity and potential for an outstanding wine. We only have to wait for it ...

La Tour Blanche: This is unabashedly full and rich, offering concentrated mango and pineapple with a peppery finish. For those who want a big, generous, yet complex and incredibly smooth Sauternes, this is the one!
2015 La Tour Blanche

Excellent Wines

de Fargues: Subtle white blossom, white apricot, stewed pears on the nose leads to a fresh palate that finishes with the fragrance of jasmine.

Clos Haut-Peyraguey: Demure, with light tropical fruits of mango, pineapple, and guava, and a hint of fresh apricot. Very smooth finish.

Doisy-Védrines: Very flirtatious yet poised with lifted citron, subtle orange peel, orange blossom, and apricot. This is perfect for a dainty, delightful sweet pick-me-up at any time.

Many of the 2015 Sauternes wines were well made, and the selections I've shared went well above and beyond. Each of these châteaux expresses itself in its own unique style, making the tasting journey all the more dynamic and rewarding. It is incredible how many different ways it is possible to create a quality Sauternes wine - never did one taste like the other.

After such a palatable tour, I have come to appreciate even more the value of these sweet wines. Some are perfect for drinking in the near term, and others can be kept for quite awhile. Luckily, they come in a range of price points, too, so you don't necessarily have to break your bank to enjoy them! We can be sure that whatever the occasion, every single sip is to be savored.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Bordeaux 2015 En Primeur - Left Bank Wrap

At Smith Haut Lafitte with
Ludovic Fradin, Director,
and Fabien Teitgen, Winemaker
I quickly learned the amount of driving it takes to get around Bordeaux, and especially the Left Bank.  My black Peugeot sedan, so sleek and shiny from the rental lot, was thoroughly mud streaked by the end of 1.5 weeks! (Yes, I was fortuitously upgraded; Peugeot is a fine car.) Despite rushing around and apologizing for being late, every château visit was absolutely and deliciously worth it! 2015 is showing well for many wines, each in their own unique way.

I'm excited to share with you a selection of wines that are excellently made and that particularly stand out to me, to wrap up my Left Bank tour. (For more Left Bank wines, please see previous reports Day 1More Left Bank, and First Growths.)

Standout Wines

Palmer (Margaux): Deeply concentrated with strikingly delicate fragrance of raspberry, black cherries, black currant, and vanilla. It is still very tight and closed, with a little tomato leaf green quality that will integrate as the wine matures. In a hot vintage where many of the wines are already showing very expansive fruit, Palmer stands out in that it is more a 'crouching tiger, hidden dragon'. While it is dense with bold tannins, its structure and freshness is unmistakable. Its fruit and full bloom will come with time, and it will be worth the wait.

Branaire-Ducru 2015
Branaire-Ducru (St-Julien): Incredibly fresh and smooth with fine tannins, and an elegant bouquet of plums, cherries, blackberries, cassis, and vanilla. The château's signature style of poise and smoothness is clearly evident. It is drinking beautifully now, and it will evolve and last.

Grand Puy-Lacoste (Pauillac): A bumper crop of cherries and plums is waiting to emerge to full shine in the coming years ... all the potential is there! Already fragrant with red fruit and baking spices, there is a striking mineral frisson that makes this a very memorable wine.

Montrose (St-Estèphe): Bright raspberry, cherries, vanilla, cedar and plenty of acidity to keep this wine fresh. The beautiful initial to mid-palate swells with fruit, and continues to open with cherries and a bit of white pepper on the finish. What a delight to feel all these waves of fruit layers!

Pape Clément (Pessac-Léognan): This wine showed even more beautifully on subsequent tasting. Wood spices give a tantalizing kick to fragrant red and black fruits. Taut acidity balances the ripe tannins; these will mellow to round out the wine and lend it freshness for years to come. The 2015 has the Pape Clément signature elegant frame and complexity in the nose and palate. Most memorably, after the tannins crest in the mid-palate, the perfume of red and black berries lingers on.
Beautiful room at Château Pape Clément. 

Smith Haut Lafitte (Pessac-Léognan): High toned dense black fruits (brambles, cherries), vanilla. Very fresh, fine integrated tannins resolve smoothly in an incredibly satisfying way. Still a bit chewy yet extremely elegant, this is an aromatic, lifted wine that has much to present in the coming years. Its full beauty of fruit and body will continue to reveal itself.

Les Carmes Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan): This is showing even better on repeated tasting: Ripe and sunny with bright red cherries, plums, a bit of toast on the end. Very fine tannins. This is a stately wine: not a fruit bomb, not a plush wine, but very focused, linear, and incredibly fragrant.

Haut Bailly (Pessac-Léognan): Dark bramble, cassis, mineral and spices. Very structured and smooth with fine tannins. It has the Haut Bailly signature silkiness and the bright fruit of the vintage, without any hint of jam. The château has achieved an incredible balance with their 2015 vintage.

Excellent Wines

Les Carmes Haut-Brion 2015
Beychevelle (St-Julien): Beautifully balanced, a dark and elegant wine. Dense yet sweetly lifted with cassis, blackcurrants, and vanilla. It has strong and integrated tannins, with a delightfully smooth quality that lends this wine great poise.

Pichon Baron (Pauillac): Very subtle and demure, yet redolent of raspberries, cherries, blackberry, and cassis. There is a lovely light, toasty quality to the finish. Fine tannins and a smooth texture make for a very refined wine.

Magrez Fombrauge (St-Emilion): This is Right Bank, but it was part of the Château Pape Clément tasting and in the venerable Bernard Magrez portfolio. This is a bold wine, dense and muscular with concentrated ripe dark red fruits. It may be big, but it's not brooding; rather, it has a very warm feeling to it. It will last decades and pair deliciously with red meats and duck!

Le Clarence de Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan): This is the second label of famous first growth Haut-Brion, originally known as Bahans de Haut-Brion (the name changed in 2007). It's still made from grapes from the same sites as Haut-Brion, and by the same great team. To call it "Haut-Brion Light" doesn't do La Clarence justice: It has its own character. 2015 is rounded and subtle on the nose and bright with red berries on the palate, underscored by earth and mineral. The robust tannins will integrate nicely with time. Very elegant.  

Haut-Brion Lineup, with Le Clarence 2015
Quintus (St. Emilion): Want to enjoy a delicious wine from the makers of Haut-Brion at a great price point? Quintus (and its second label, Dragon de Quintus) is a wonderful opportunity. Very bright and sunny, bursting with stewed cherries and plums, with vibrant vanilla. Full, structured, and fresh, this is drinking perfectly now. 

Le Pape (Pessac-Léognan): From the Haut Bailly team comes a generous, big bodied, ripe and approachable wine to enjoy now! Ripe red cherries and plums with toast and coffee on the finish. The tannins are bold but well integrated, a very giving wine to enjoy with duck, pot roast, or a nice portobello mushroom dish.

That's a wrap for the Left Bank 2015 red wines! Thank you for allowing me to share with you the wines I am excited about. When they are ready for the world, we will look forward to enjoying them together.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Bordeaux 2015 En Primeur - First Growths

Tasting Haut-Brion
I dove into Bordeaux En Primeur without having read any predictions, nor read any comments or scores throughout in order to maintain a clean slate. My goal is to share with you my own thoughts on all wines I've tasted. Without further ado, here is my take on the First Growths (sans Latour, which does not participate in En Primeur).

Margaux: Dark, concentrated cassis, black cherries with earth and a peppery lift on the finish. Assertive tannins will integrate with time, and are already being balanced by focused acidity and very ripe, fine fruit. There's a hint of vegetal green leaf and tobacco, which will also integrate and evolve. This is a regal, stately wine that is serious yet will be very generous with time. The mid palate is already beautifully expansive, opening with a bumper crop of cherries. An overall freshness and silkiness embodies the signature style of the château.

Haut-Brion: Elegant, concentrated perfume of candied cherry, violet, plum, bramble, with oak toast and slight green hints that will integrate. Very smooth texture with ripe tannins that swell greatly on the mid palate but will harmonize with the generous fruit, given time. Plums, cherries, raspberries, and toasted almonds delight on a very long finish. Beautiful potential.
Margaux 2015 in the cellar

Mouton Rothschild: Dense red and black cherries with vanilla and nutmeg; very fragrant and elegant on the nose. In the mouth, this is a powerful, muscular wine; it has dramatic acidity and ripe, assertive tannins with an earthy finish. Yet, one can feel the care of the winemaking in its balanced composition. It possesses a smooth quality and there is a delicacy of the fruit that lingers after the earthiness subsides. It will be fascinating to see how this evolves over time.

Lafite Rothschild: I shared my thoughts on Lafite earlier, but will include it here again. After tasting many big, unabashedly fruit-driven (and delicious) wines in the area, Lafite Rothschild was a refreshing departure. It is subtly fragrant, redolent of crushed violets. There is a delicacy and restraint that hints to a future blossoming. I found it very balanced and carefully made. It may well bloom with a poise and elegance uniquely its own, in a vintage with burgeoning ripe fruits.

In Summary:
At Mouton Rothschild's tasting room
As with the other wines I've had the pleasure to taste, these First Growths reflect the vintage conditions and embody their signature house styles. The ability to express one's own character while bringing the best aspects of the vintage is one of the most important factors I seek in a wine. It speaks to a judicious care in all aspects of grape growing and winemaking, and a striving to find that certain special quality that makes a wine lasting and unique. These First Growth wines have an incredible legacy, yet their houses have the same challenge that all quality-minded châteaux in Bordeaux have each year: to create wines to their high standards of excellence. The fruits of their labor for 2015 give us much to look forward to.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

Bordeaux 2015 En Primeur - Right Bank

Holding 'the baby' with
Frédéric Faye, winemaker at Figeac!
Like the Left Bank, the 2015 vintage conditions for the Right Bank were wonderfully ideal. After a hot, dry spell, there was just enough rain in July to start veraison (the point at which grapes change color as they ripen) and again in mid-August and September to prevent vines from shutting down. This also allowed for further development of flavors within the grapes. For the predominantly Merlot and Cabernet Franc based wines made on the Right Bank, the results were bursting with ripe red fruit!

I attended the two Union des Grands Crus (UGC) tastings on the Right Bank (St-Émilion and Pomerol) and also visited quite a few châteaux. It’s so important to see where it all happens!

St-Émilion and Pomerol UGC Tastings:
The St-Émilion UGC tasting event presented many wines that were reminiscent of raspberry and blackberry jams - I felt I was tasting Bonne Maman jams in wine form! While I wished that a number of wines possessed the body and acidity to balance out the heavier fruit, there were two at the tasting that particularly stood out: Pavie Macqin, and Troplong Mondot. See the “Standout Wines” section below for more on these.

Pomerol is a small but mighty appellation on the Right Bank. Only a few châteaux participated in the UGC tasting but they showed very consistently, even more so than at the St-Emilion tasting. Excellent wines included La Cabane, Beauregard, Clinet, and La Croix de Gay.

The UGC events are great for tasting many wines in one location; with the amount of driving required to get around in the region, that is not to be taken for granted. That said, there’s nothing like actually being at each châteaux to experience the character of the estate, to meet the people behind the philosophy of the wine, and to taste the wines with more focus.

I was initially worried that differences in experience between the large events and more individualized visits at the châteaux would influence my assessment of the wines, but I realized quickly this wasn’t an issue. Wines speak for themselves. 

Standout Wines:

Tasting at Château L'Evangile
  • L’Evangile (Pomerol): Round and dense in the mouth yet very precise, this very drinkable wine offers shockingly delightful concentration of cherries, plums, boysenberry with slightly earthy undertones. Fine, elegant tannins complement the sweetly rounded and very fresh character. It has the weight and acidity to last, if you can keep it that long without drinking it! I always remember a wine at a tasting when I realize I don’t want to spit it out.
  • La Violette (Pomerol): This is one of the most beautifully balanced and elegant wines I’ve tasted during the 2015 primeurs. Delicately perfumed with high notes of cherries, kirsch, and cassis, it has a wonderfully smooth texture. It finishes sunnily with the fragrance of cherries and toasted nuts.
  • Angelus (Saint-Émilion): Fresh with cherries, plums, and vanilla but emerging meaty, savory undertones with mineral brightness and a darker touch of tea leaves. The tannins rise mid-palate, leaving no doubt that this is not only an elegant wine, but a powerful one. Its beguiling attractiveness is sealed by the satisfyingly smooth, long finish of ripe cherries and vanilla. 
  • Vieux Chateau Certan (Pomerol): Fresh, beautiful bouquet of red plums, cherries, vanilla and nutmeg. Round and supple with fine, integrated tannins. This is a very classic wine, and the fruit will continue to emerge and shine as it matures. The lingering flavors of light cherry pie are a true delight.
  • Figeac (Saint-Émilion): Powerful and focused, with a serious but approachable style. Deeply colored with concentrated blackberry, black currant, black plum and cherry with a hint of tomato leaf. Plump and round but incredibly fresh with unmistakable structure. Tannins are very ripe and well integrated. The lovely touch of tea leaves from the Cabernet Franc will continue to meld with the black fruits with years in the bottle. 
  • Pavie (Saint-Émilion): A bit brooding at the moment, but the intensity of the blackberry, boysenberry, tea leaves and savoriness will evolve into an even more powerfully concentrated and vibrant wine. The initial palate is delightfully bright and fruity, turning into a warm, toasty cocoa towards the end. There is a feeling of slight dampness, and then the fragrance of berries lifts for a long finish. This wine will continue to grow!
  • Pavie Decesse (Saint-Émilion): A serious wine as well, very dense and concentrated ripe red plums, cherry, vanilla, and kirsch with a mineral, peppery lift resolving into creamy red fruits. Incredibly smooth, silky, and focused. Very drinkable already, and it will last!
  • Pavie Macquin (Saint-Émilion): Subtle, warm red cherries, plums and vanilla; fresh and expansive. Tart cranberry juxtaposed with an underlying creaminess on the finish point to enduring structure and evolution to come. 
  • Troplong Mondot (Saint-Émilion): Dark, dense with coffee, cola, cassis and bramble. Serious and concentrated, incredibly smooth. It is quietly powerful and confident. It will endure, and it will be even more arresting as it matures.  
  • Ausone (Saint-Émilion): This is a truly elegant wine, and extremely poised. It doesn’t show itself all at once, but gradually yet surely. With a beautiful bouquet of ripe red fruits, savory undertones and a mineral frisson, it is sweetly lifted, smooth, and wonderfully fresh. 

Excellent Wines:

Spring at Château Cheval Blanc
  • Cheval Blanc (Saint-Émilion): A rich nose of toasted coconut, onion blossoms, licorice, and cola promises even more on the palate in roundness and flavors as the wine matures. Give this one some time; it will blossom! 
  • Carillon d’Angelus (Saint-Émilion): Smooth and flirtatious, a real debutante! Ripe red cherries and licorice, very fresh. 
  • Esprit de Pavie (Saint-Émilion): This is “only” a Bordeaux AC wine, from Pavie, but it is delicious and beautifully lifted with lavender, violets, cherries, verbena, and honeysuckle. It is meant to be earlier drinking but will keep 3-5 years. The honeyed finish is a real treat!
  • Lussau (Saint-Émilion): Fragrant, bursting with ripe plums, with coffee on the finish. Very smooth and approachable.
  • Monbousquet (Saint-Émilion): Smoky on the nose with sweet black cherries on the initial palate giving way to some big tannins. It is not shy but not overly muscular. Wait several years and see how this one evolves; it has wonderful potential.
  • Bellevue Mondotte (Saint-Émilion): Soft and velvety with ripe plums, violets, cherries, but focused with a clear structure. Great balance and drinking well already.
  • Haut-Simard (Saint-Émilion): Delicate luxardo cherries with a slight earthy funkiness made for a striking, yet creamily integrated contrast. 

There is still more to come! Join me next time for First Growths, and more exciting wines from Pessac-Léognan.

Postscript: I stopped by the venerable Château Pétrus to take a photo, for posterity!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bordeaux En Primeur 2015 Vintage - More Left Bank!

Tasting at Château Lafite Rothschild
The 2015 vintage for Bordeaux is a very exciting one! After tasting at more châteaux on the Left Bank and participating in the Union des Grands Crus event for Pessac-Léognan, I would characterize the vintage for the Left Bank as follows: Ripe and fruit-driven, with structure and weight to last.

These are very approachable wines! If you like Napa Cabernets, 2015 will be a wonderful vintage to venture out and try Bordeaux. These wines are soft and generous, with unmistakable backbone and muscle.

With very few exceptions, Bordeaux 2015 wines are are eminently drinkable even now. In comparison to 2012, another fruit-driven vintage, the 2015 wines have much more heft to them. Many of the wines I tasted can lay down for years and evolve in the bottle for more character and complexity.

Pessac-Léognan on the Left Bank is an important appellation for Bordeaux, and the wines at the Union des Grands Crus tastings were very promising. Harvest is usually earlier for this appellation since the climate is milder and 2015 was no exception, starting at the end of August. It was very hot and dry until mid-September with unusually heavy rain, but by then most of Pessac's Cabernet Sauvignon had been collected. With lighter frames than wines from Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, or Pauillac, these beauties from Pessac-Léognan will delight. The 2015 wines may take some more time to open up and present their fragrant aromas on the palate, and I look forward very much to tasting them in the years to come.

Standout Wines:
At Château Pontet-Canet
  • Pontet-Canet (Pauillac): Pontet-Canet delivers yet again! Ripe bing cherries, blackcurrants, cassis, hints of green notes (bell pepper), vanilla and nutmeg, an undertone of tobacco juice. Very silky on the palate: The initial to mid-palate is delightfully lifted with cherries and perfumed violets; the finish is toasted with oak spices. It's silky without being plush. Elegant yet giving. I was really happy about this one! 
  • Ducru-Beaucaillou (Saint-Julien): Deep, ripe black cherries and boysenberries, vanilla, and cedar smoke. The chewy and slightly grippy tannins will integrate beautifully with the perfumed fruit with years, but it is already drinking smoothly with a velvety texture.   
  • Léoville Barton: (Saint-Julien): This showed beautifully on second tasting - very smooth and juicy sweet, chock full of cherries and vanilla that last through the finish. 
  • Lynch-Bages: (Pauillac): Even better on second tasting as well. Black cherries and currants, coffee and cola with violets and a bit of leather beneath. This one has unabashedly bigger tannins that will continue to integrate with the concentrated fruit over time, but it's already soft and silky, with a steel backbone. 
Excellent Wines:
  • Pape Clément (Pessac-Léognan): Enticing nose full of ripe red plums and cherries with vanilla and an earthy undertone. It is extremely elegant, as one would expect Pape Clément to be. Full promise on the fruit has yet to show on the palate, and I can't wait to see how it evolves. 
  • Latour-Martillac (Pessac-Léognan): Very balanced; bold with ripe red plums and cherries and vanilla. It's generous but not dense, and has the acidity to last. 
  • Malartic-Lagravière (Pessac-Léognan): Beautiful nose with high notes of plums and black cherries, vanilla, a light cedar toast. Palate is more earthy with really chewy tannins - its excellent structure will show well in the coming years.
  • Les Carmes Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan): Juicy yet linear, with raspberries, red currants with vanilla and a hint of the vegetal. Big, grippy tannins will integrate with the fruit very nicely. Demure but emerging with intent. 
  • Le Petit Caillou (Pauillac): This is the entry level wine of Ducru-Beaucaillou. This "Little Pebbles" ("Caillou" means "pebbles") knocked my socks off, and it's ~$15 a bottle. It's expansive, rich and generous, full-bodied and well structured. If it had even more acidity, it could last quite awhile. This is superb for its price point. Buy a couple of 6-packs for your next dinner party, or keep them for yourself! 
Trio of tastings at Château Lafite Rothschild
Lafite Rothschild: This deserves a section for itself. Lafite is often very closed in youth, so historically it hasn't tended to "show well" during En primeur. The 2015 sample I tasted at Château Lafite Rothschild, in an airy room overlooking the beautiful grounds, was truly drinkable. Imagine! A First Growth Bordeaux, drinkable, this young! It is fine-boned but sinewy, demure and elegant. Very composed and serene. The tannins are slightly chewy, and the wine is not tight but rather a bit coy. It definitely is more floral than fruit-driven right now, with beautiful crushed violets. I look forward very much to seeing how this 2015 Lafite will show in the coming years as the fruit evolves.

Note: Almost everyone I spoke with has indicated disappointment with Lafite Rothschild. Perhaps the high expectations for the 2015 vintage combined with the stratospheric expectations for a First Growth wine are converging. Nonetheless, I found it extremely well made and a lovely contrast to many of the (excellent) much bigger wines I'd been tasting.

Next Up: Right Bank, and Sauternes & Barsac!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Bordeaux En Primeur 2015 Vintage - Day 1

Tasting at Châteaux Lascombes!
Greetings from Bordeaux! After tasting ~100 wines and driving all over the Left Bank châteaux and vineyards on a blessedly sunny day, I'd like to share with you my first day of the Bordeaux En Primeur 2015 vintage preview. These are wines not yet released, so it is incredibly exciting to not only taste them to assess quality and potential, but also to visit these historic and beautiful châteaux.

Updates: Please find my more frequent updates on Twitter @SusanRLin (also @BelmontWine). I'll post my blog reports as often as I can, if I'm not completely exhausted!

About Offerings from Belmont Wine Exchange: (Obligatory note, as I am here on behalf of Belmont Wine Exchange to scope out the best!) Because these wines aren't yet released, I won't know exactly what wines and quantities we at Belmont Wine will be able to offer our customers, but that's also why I'm here - to visit the great people at the châteaux and to collaborate with our trusted negotiants to work on hopefully obtaining some allocations for these wonderful wines. The release campaign will likely run through June, and we'll have a much better idea of what we'll be able to procure for the 2015 vintage in the coming weeks.

Appellations Tasted and Visited So Far:

  • Preview of All Appellations (Right & Left Bank) - Warehouse tasting
  • Saint-Estèphe 
  • Pauillac
  • Saint-Julien
  • Margaux

Bordeaux 2015: "Two Vintages In One"
This is what Etienne de Nantes from Cos d'Estournel said to me when I visited, as a preamble to our tasting. 2015 is shaping up to be very interesting, as it was not only hot and dry during the the growing season, it was very wet and rainy just when there were fears that the vines might suffer too much stress from the drought. This was a godsend, although the weather fluctuations affected the appellations and vineyards differently. And of course, each wine has been created in its own way that shapes the character of the final wine. This might explain some of the wines that were slightly on the unbalanced side - outsized, muscular behemoths with huge tannins and taut acidity, but strangely thin on the fruit. So far I've found this incongruence in only a few wines from Saint-Estèphe and Saint-Julien. But when growers and winemakers got it right, the results are spectacular.

Bordeaux 2015 => Ripe Cherries?
Thus far from my tastings, these 2015 Bordeaux wines are largely characterized by all kinds of cherries: Red to black, and very ripe - kirsch, in many cases. Plums, also. This is unusual for Left Bank Bordeaux given most are Cabernet Sauvignon dominant and the classic profile is dark fruits (blackberry, blackcurrant), with some vegetal (bell pepper, tomato leaf) and earthy elements (tobacco). That said, there was one surprise standout for The Classic Bordeaux Left Bank blend - Saint-Pierre from Saint-Julien - more on that below!

Best Appellation So Far: Margaux
So far, the most consistent appellation showing most beautifully is Margaux. There were no "stinkers" in any of the appellations I tasted the first day, but a few wines definitely lacked the fruit concentration to fill out the big, weighty bodies and enormous tannins (my teeth and lips were getting stuck together) to improve over the years.

The outstanding wines showed, already in their youth, a remarkable approachability and yet possessed the structure to improve and gain complexity in years to come. In other words, they are drinking beautifully in youth - expansive, generous, silky, perfumed - yet have the acidity, tannins, and alcohol in balance to allow the wine to last a long time and gain even more character.

Standout Wines: Here's what I'm really excited about! These are drinking beautifully and will last.

  • Cos d'Estournel (Saint-Estèphe): Lightly leathery but elegantly so. Very smooth, with white pepper on the mid-palate and staying on the finish with ripe red cherries. Fine-boned but assertive. 
  • Lascombes (Margaux): Bursting with ripe cherries, kirsch, vanilla with an astonishing depth. There is a freshness and silkiness that makes it attractive now, but it will gain even more poise and smoothness in the future as the massive fruit and body integrate.  
  • Rauzan-Ségla (Margaux): Very soft and fruit-driven on the palate, very expressive with finessed perfume tinged with vanilla. Ripe cherries and kirsch, boysenberry and a long, beautiful finish. Soft but structured, lifted and perfumed. 
  • Léoville Poyferré (Saint-Julien): Plush yet focused, cherries and kirsch with a frisson of something excitingly metallic. Big tannins are still young and grippy but integrate well; there is plenty of fruit to improve and to last. 
  • Saint-Pierre (Saint-Julien): Surprise! The only Cabernet I tasted with fragrant blackcurrants, coffee, and vanilla. Rich, juicy, dense, yet lifted with refreshing green vegetal aromas. White pepper on the finish. 
  • Pichon Lalande (Pauillac): Ripe bing cherries, kirsch, vanilla, nutmeg. Smooth and elegant; regal yet approachable. Silky and soft without being plush. 
  • Angludet (Margaux): Concentrated ripe cherries with vanilla with an undertone of savoriness. Ripe, plush but focused and structured. Very long and smooth finis with cherry and vanilla notes. 

There were many others that were wonderful, believe me. Here are wines that made it on my list for "Excellent":
  • Calon-Ségur
  • Giscours
  • Gruaud Larose
  • Lagrange
  • Léoville-Barton
  • Talbot
  • Grand-Puy Ducasse
  • Grand-Puy-Lacoste
  • Lynch-Bages
Up Next: Union des Grands Crus (UGC) Tastings for Graves & Pessac-Léognan, as well as more Left Bank châteaux. 

Thanks for joining me, and stay tuned for more about the wines of this fascinating vintage!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Highlights of the Year Past

It has been very exciting this past year (and a half), and I've been utterly remiss in updating here. My apologies! I am happy to report that:
  • I earned my WSET Advanced Certification and embarked on the journey towards the WSET Diploma, which I hope to earn by the end of the year.
  • I am helping online retailer Belmont Wine Exchange expand the business and tailor product offerings.
  • I passed WSET teaching certification and now teach WSET courses - teaching keeps me sharp! 
  • I help people, restaurants, and organizations create wine programs, pairings, and curate collections.
I have never been more thrilled to continue learning and sharing about one of the things I enjoy and love most - wine (and spirits ... and food)! 

Most excitingly, I and Belmont Wine are participating in the Bordeaux En primeur for the first time this year, meaning we will be scoping out the 2015 vintage of Bordeaux wines before they're officially released. I am traveling to Bordeaux the first two weeks of April to see, meet, taste, and learn! I'll report regularly to share with you what I'm excited about. I can't wait! Be sure to check back.

In the meantime, I'd like to share with you some ...

Highlights of the Year Past

Visiting Burgundy - this was way more than a year ago and is the reason I began this blog

Bottling Chardonnay at Marta's Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Meeting winemaker Aaron Pott

Holding a 6 liter bottle for the first time

Managing Belmont Wine's first tradeshow, in Shanghai

Meeting winemaker Paul Hobbs

Successfully removing a very squishy 1959 Lafite Rothschild cork

Throwing a party featuring Bordeaux from Bernard Magrez (Pape Clément, etc.) at Belmont Wine, with Lionel Labat and Ludovic Bristeau

Meeting David and Carla Ramey of Ramey Wines

Sabering a bottle of bubbly (with a wushu sword) after passing the Diploma Unit 3 exam

Attending the Wine Spectator Grand Award party at The Plumed Horse restaurant in Saratoga, California - congratulations to Josh, Jeffrey, and Everyone on their achievement!

It's wonderful to be back! I'll update soon about En primeurs in Bordeaux. Thank you for being here - it will be a great journey.