Top 10 wine grapes

Mature Tempranillo grape cluster with characte...

Mature Tempranillo grape cluster with characteristic blue-black color (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are your top ten grape varieties? It’s an academic question but one that throws into focus why it is we like the wines we like.

My consideration of the question is split into whites and reds available on the Rambling Epicure site. I’ve tried to consider grapes in terms of the wines they are capable of producing when managed in the right hands, as well as their commercial importance and how widespread they are.

There are many of the usual suspects – Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling – but also a few less well-known varieties. With over 1300 grape varieties used to make wine around the world, perhaps a more interesting question for the future is: What are your top ten ‘unusual’ grape varieties? 


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The universe in a glass of wine

Richard Feynman was one of the twentieth century’s greatest physicists and free-thinkers. Here’s his take on wine, illustrated by the folks at Zen Pencils, from whom you can buy prints.2012-07-26-feynman2

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Champagne: Method of Production

by Neel Burton and James Flewellen

Following previous posts on the history of champagne and the geography of the Champagne region, in this article we cover the method of champagne production.


Like many sparkling wines, champagne is produced by the traditional or classic method, which is characterized by a second fermentation in the very same bottle in which the wine eventually comes to be sold. Although the traditional method is usually thought of as the best method for producing sparkling wine, it is the only method that does not require expensive, bulky equipment, and hence the only method that is available to the small producer.

The grapes that go into making champagne require both high acidity and phenolic ripeness, a combination that is much easier to achieve in the cool Champagne region than in warmer climates. So as to preserve acidity, grapes are harvested early at a low must weight. This comes at the expense of sugar content, which is made up for by the subsequent addition of sugar in the form of liqueur de tirage and liqueur de dosage and also, in some cases, by initial chaptalization (see later). In black grapes it also comes at the expense of colour, which for champagne is in fact a benefit.

A bottle of undisgorged Champagne resting on t...

A bottle of undisgorged Champagne resting on the lees. The yeast used in the second fermentation is still in the bottle, which is closed with a crown cap. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Champagne: The lie of the land

by Neel Burton and James Flewellen

Last week’s post gave a historical overview of champagne. In this article we cover the geographical nature of the Champagne region including grape varieties grown. Next week we will focus on the method of champagne production.


Pinot Meunier grapes in Champagne

Pinot Meunier grapes in Champagne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The three grape varieties used in making champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. All three grape varieties are planted across the Champagne AOC, which is the only major single-appellation region in France. This region is located about 85km northeast of Paris at latitude 49-50° North, that is, at the northerly extreme of wine making. The climate is marginal with a mean annual temperature of 10°C and all the problems that this entails, such as severe winters, spring frosts, coulure, millerandage, and hail. Nonetheless, the chalk subsoil is good at retaining the sun’s heat. It is also good at retaining water, which is relatively scarce, and accommodates the cool and damp cellars in which the wines are made and aged. The vineyards themselves predominantly face south, east, and southeast on gently undulating to moderately steep terrain that combines high sun exposure with good drainage.

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A brief history of champagne

by Neel Burton and James Flewellen

Champagne served in the now-traditional flutes. (Photo credit: chrischapman)

Early sparkling wines were produced by the méthode ancestrale, with the carbon dioxide gas arising from fermentation in the bottle. The méthode ancestrale is still used in certain parts of France such as in Gaillac and Limoux in the Languedoc. But as the lees (accumulations of dead or residual yeast) are not removed from the bottle, the end product can be quite cloudy.

Historically in the Champagne, cold weather halted fermentation, which then restarted in the spring. If the wine had been bottled, the carbon dioxide gas produced by this second fermentation of sorts often shattered the bottle. And if the bottle survived intact, the result was a sparkling wine more or less similar to modern champagne. However, the Champenois considered this sparkling wine to be faulty, and even called it vin du diable (devil’s wine).

In contrast to the Champenois, the British acquired a certain taste for this accidentally sparkling wine and eventually introduced the fashion into the court of Versailles, then under the regency (1715-23) of Philippe II, duc d’Orléans. The Champenois rose to meet the increasing demand for the sparkling wine, but they found it difficult to control the process and could not source bottles strong enough to reliably withstand the pressure.

The solutions to these problems came not from Champagne but from across the Channel. In 1662 Christopher Merret FRS presented a paper in which he correctly maintained that any wine could be made sparkling by the addition of sugar prior to bottling, and it is very likely that the English were making the wine of Champagne sparkle long before the Champenois. English glassmakers of the 17thcentury used coal- rather than wood-fired ovens that resulted in a stronger glass and stronger bottles. The English also rediscovered the use of cork stoppers (lost after the fall of the Roman Empire), which provided an airtight closure with which to cap their stronger bottles and seal in the sparkle.

Dom Pérignon

Dom Pérignon

Six years after Merret presented his paper, Dom Pérignon (pictured) was appointed cellar master at the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers. Dom Pérignon thought of sparkling wine as faulty wine, and recommended using the pinot noir grape to minimize the tendency to sparkle. At the same time, he greatly improved practices of viticulture, harvesting, and vinification, and thereby modernized the production of the wines that became modern champagne. For example, he advocated aggressive pruning and smaller yields, early-morning harvesting, the rejection of bruised or broken grapes, rapid pressing to minimize skin contact, and the discarding of the fourth and fifth presses (the so-called vin de taille and vin de pressoir).

Until the early 19th century, champagne producers did not remove the lees from the bottle. This spared any sparkle from being lost, but could make for quite a cloudy and unpleasant wine. The veuve (widow) Cliquot and her cellar master addressed this problem by developing the process of riddling to remove the lees with minimal loss of sparkle. This process, which is still in use, involves progressively moving the lees into the neck of the bottle and then ejecting it under the pressure of the wine.

The small amount of wine that is lost through riddling came to be replaced by a varying mixture of sugar and wine called the dosage, which then as today very much determined the final style of the wine. Throughout most of the 19th century, champagne was very sweet, and champagne destined for the Russian market was sweetest of all with as much as 250-330 grams of sugar. At the other end of the scale, champagne destined for the English market contained ‘only’ 22-66 grams of sugar. Today, brut with only 6-15 grams of sugar is by far the most popular style of champagne, and doux, the sweetest style of champagne, can contain as little as 50 grams of sugar.

Vineyards in the French wine region of Champag...

Vineyards in Champagne.

Following the ravages inflicted by the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century and a seemingly endless series of poor vintages, riots erupted in January 1911. Some producers had been making faux champagne with grapes from other French regions, and the Champenois grape growers intercepted the trucks carrying these grapes and dumped the grapes into the River Marne. To pacify them, the French government attempted to delimit the Champagne region, but the exclusion and then inclusion of the Aube provoked further riots which might have degenerated into civil war had they not been cut short by the outbreak of World War I. The Great War brought severe destruction to many buildings and vineyards, and some Champenois took refuge in the famous chalk cellars or crayères which are used to store and age champagne.

The Champenois had barely begun to recover from the wounds of war when the lucrative Russian market was lost to the Bolshevik Revolution, and then the US market to the declaration of prohibition. The Great Depression also hit sales, as did the advent of World War II. Since the end of World War II champagne has been in ever increasing demand. This has led not only to a quadrupling of production to over 200 million bottles per year, but also to a great number of imitators throughout France, Europe, and the New World and, back at home, to a controversial expansion of the Champagne vineyards…


Dr Neel Burton is a writer and wine-lover who lives and teaches in Oxford. He runs the Oxford Wine Academy with James Flewellen. Through the Oxford Wine Academy, they are available for wine consultancy and for animating tastings in the UK and abroad.
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Pewsey Vale Riesling 2011 and Thai Green Curry

Every fortnight or so, time permitting, I challenge myself to make a new dish and find a wine to pair it with. This week was a Thai Green Curry paired with Pewsey Vale Riesling 2011 from the Eden Valley, South Australia. The Pewsey Vale vineyard is a stunning site – actually perched high above the Eden Valley floor in a craggy, windy and exposed location. Although blessed with abundant sunshine, the vines need to work very hard to produce fruit in the lean soil and against the wind. This results in fruit of exceptional quality and concentration, which comes through in the wine.

The Pewsey Vale Vineyard in Eden Valley. © James Flewellen

The Pewsey Vale Vineyard in Eden Valley. © James Flewellen

The wine was intensely aromatic, but with a more restrained fruit profile than what I’ve come to expect from many South Australian Rieslings. There was a fresh lime character, green apple and floral notes, and a hint of cream: overall blended into an intense profile of many subtle aromas. The wine showed a classic dry Riesling structure on the palate – bone dry with high acidity, medium alcohol (12.5% and very well integrated), no oak, a moderate-weight body and a long finish. In terms of flavours, the mid-palate comes across with great intensity, although it’s hard to describe exactly what you’re tasting. Yes, there are notes of lime and green apple riding along a creamy texture, but also enigmatic ‘minerally’ flavours – a bit like sucking on a stone, in the nicest possible way! The longer you leave the wine in your mouth, the more this complex mineral character is drawn out.

I like this wine because it’s not a typical Aussie ‘blockbuster’. It doesn’t immediately announce its flavour or aroma profile to you – it’s far more elusive than that. I had to work hard to eke out all the flavours here, although it certainly didn’t take me long to enjoy the wine!

And as for the food… I ended the curry with a squeeze of fresh lime juice (in part to make up for the absence of kaffir lime leaves: I’m still struggling to find where to buy these in Oxford!). This, I thought, complemented the lime/green apple fruit profile of the wine rather nicely. The body of the wine held its own against the spice and the acidity cut through the creamy coconut milk base of the dish.

Pewsey Vale Riesling 2011 with Thai Green Curry

Pewsey Vale Riesling 2011 with Thai Green Curry

Thai Green Curry

Here’s my recipe for the Thai Green Curry (it’s a ‘demitarian’ version, with only a little bit of meat and lots of veges):
Curry paste
Lightly toast 1 teaspoon each of coriander and cumin seeds until fragrant. Crush with mortar and pestle (or flat of broad knife) then place in a blender with: 2 roughly chopped shallots, 4 roughly chopped cloves garlic, big chunk (at least as big as your thumb) of ginger (peeled and grated), 6 green chillies (mine weren’t especially hot, so adjust to taste), 1 stick of lemongrass with hard exterior removed, crushed lightly with a rolling pin then chopped finely, zest and juice of one lime, 1 tablespoon fish sauce, roughly ground black pepper and a big handful of coriander leaves and stalks. I added a few tablespoons peanut oil and then a little bit of coconut milk to provide a liquid base to aid the blending. Blend until smooth.


Add a splash of peanut (or other vege) oil to a large saucepan over a reasonably high heat. Add 3 large tablespoons of the curry paste, 1 tablespoon brown sugar and another stick of lemongrass that’s been lightly crushed and chopped. Stir for a minute or so.
Add one diced chicken breast, stir for a minute or so until chicken is cooked on the outside. Turn down the heat to medium and add any ‘hard’ vegetables you’re using. I added chopped button mushrooms, snow peas and baby corn to begin with. Then add 400ml of coconut milk, 200ml chicken stock (more if you have lots of vegetables) and a splash of fish sauce and allow to simmer for around 20 minutes. At some stage add any more vegetables depending on how long they take to cook through. For instance, I added sliced capsicum about 10 minutes after the liquid.
The curry should thicken slightly with simmering. Taste the curry and add more paste and fish sauce if you wish. Add the juice of another lime and stir through a handful of chopped coriander and basil leaves
Serve with jasmine rice and your favourite Riesling!
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Oxford win 60th Varsity Blind Tasting Match

Last week an Oxford team of blind wine tasters successfully defended their title against Cambridge University in the annual Varsity Blind Tasting match. To add to the magnitude of the occasion, this year was the 60th anniversary of the competition, which is one of the oldest blind tasting matches in the world.

Unfortunately, I was not involved in the competition this year, having reached the limit of my opportunities to compete. (Although you can read my reports on previous competitions here and here.) I did manage to make the reception hosted by sponsors Pol Roger Champagne held a few days later in Bonhams Auctioneers in London in honour of the 60th anniversary. Hundreds of former blind tasters were in attendance, including a few who competed in the very first match in 1953!

The event has duly received a lot of media attention. In particular, there is an amusing article by Scott Sayare in the New York Times and an online video courtesy of the Wall Street Journal. The Drinks Business also has an article, and Jancis Robinson usually posts something on the Financial Times so stay tuned for that.

The Oxford team will now begin preparations for the international round of the Pol Roger Cup, held in Epernay over the summer, as well as other international tasting competitions in France, which will feature university teams from the UK, the Continent, China and the USA. Many congratulations and best wishes for the competitions ahead!

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