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The view from Paris: natural wine and the vegetable whisperer

This is my view. We are staying with a young sommelier friend. He moved to Paris from Copenhagen and now works at one of the grand dames of the natural wine bistro scene, Chateaubriand. 

On the wall of his apartment in Oberkampf is an old chalkboard he was given by the guys at Verre Volé (67 Rue de Lancry, 75010 Paris) – one of the places where many wine people hung out a few years ago.

Verre Volé also made an impact on me back in the early part of this decade: I remember turning up after they were closed so they gave me a few glasses and a bottle of Métras to sit by the Canal Saint-Martin while we waited for them to open again.

An old Verre Volé chalkboard at a sommelier friends apartment

An old Verre Volé chalkboard at a sommelier friend’s apartment.

“Natural wine only” lists are not a new phenomena. But what is happening in the new bistro scene in Paris (described as “bistronomie”) is not just about natural wine, but also about “natural food” and maybe, in the longer term, we may look back and see that it was even more than that – a coming together of a greater philosophy about the environment and what Paris is about today.

One clue to this innovation in the new bistro scene is a man called Alain Passard. Enthusiastic staff from each restaurant we visited referred to him as the “Vegetable Whisperer”.

The Vegetable Whisperer

Alain Passard caused a sensation when he stopped cooking meat in his restaurant, L’Arpege, in 2001. Now he is all about farming his own vegetables and how it is grown, how it fits with other vegetables, and to show how beautiful they can be. He grows the vegetables for his restaurant outside of Paris on his dedicated farm using permaculture farming. This is a type of farming which makes biodynamic and organic viticulture look like child’s play. There are no shortcuts: the vegetables arrive fresh before lunch and are never refrigerated.

Move over Heston Blumenthal. And not before time, too. I’m sure I am not the only person who was depressed by foam on a piece of rectangular slate. Sadly endemic in regional France; strangely, as they are even closer to the source of food and wine than Paris. The Alain Passard philosophy is in direct contrast to the science lab glasses and white coat fashion.

If you ever have a chance to visit Septime (80 Rue de Charonne, 75011 Paris), then you will be in for a shock at how far this style of restaurant is from the clinical style that has been lingering on for far too long. The difference could not be more stark. There is nothing bling and, dare I say it with Blumenthal et al, of the media slut.

In contrast, Alain Passard, and his acolytes with their own restaurants, are elevating the humble vegetable to Grand Cru status. Much like a precious grape from one of the great vineyards in Burgundy, passed from vineyard to winery with the light touch of kid gloves, vegetables are given first-class treatment from the moment they arrive from the farm before lunch service, and to the gentle light touch on the plate.

Sometimes, there is a nod to the Nordic – from the foraging idea (marigold leaves, below) to the natural boards, white-washed feel of the decor and plates, such as at Septime and, their oyster bar next door, Clamato. It is also what is growing together in season, which provides some unusual combinations such as fig and red tuna with bone marrow at Clamato.

This dish had me hearing reindeers crunching on the snow…

Clamato

At Clamato, I can hear reindeers. Grey Dorade, marigold leaf, raspberries … Fresh bracing cool fish with mad resinous pine and wild raspberries came together like a windy Siberian tundra. And clearly the wine was good! (La Deuse, Mondeuse).

At Le Servan (32 Rue Saint-Maur, 75011 Paris) two women in their 20s have transformed an old neighbourhood café into something so simply good that it is near genius. Not surprisingly Tatiana’s mentors have been Alain Passard and Pascal Barbot (L’Astrance). The flavours, presentation and natural wine list are superb and such good value that I feel the same way as one reviewer when he said, “I feel like I am ripping them off.”

Pét Nat Gaz de Schistes, Les Roches

At Le Servan – Veal ravioli (fried wonton) with fennel and a glass of Pét Nat Gaz de Schistes, Les Roches

When we arrived at Vivant (43, rue des Petites Ecuries, 75010 Paris), a little early to slip in without a reservation, we found chef Atsumi Sota (ex-Troisgros, Robuchon, Stella Maris & Toyo) outside on the pavement seats scribbling down the day’s menu. With the emphasis on vegetables, fine cutting, lightness and a gentle touch, it is not surprising to often find a Japanese chef when you peer into the tiny kitchens. This is not fusion French-Japanese but classic French bistro seen in a fresh way.

The Régnié from Guy Bréton, one of natural wine’s “Gang of Four” in Beaujolais, with veal cheeks and clams will be seared into the memory of all time great meals. The delicacy of the wine, along with the oyster shell notes, meant the acidity cut through the fatty veal cheeks and chimed with the sea-salty clams.

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Vivant

It makes sense to have only natural wines at restaurants that are working with the “naturalness” of the ingredients. Whether it is because the wines are closer to the source – much like Alain Passard’s vegetables for his restaurant – natural wines taste better, and are often in better condition, than what we find in London. Travelling and shipping can have an impact on these delicate wines.

All the restaurants were similar in having lighter styles of wine on the menu. Although Loire and Beaujolais have always dominated bistro menus in Paris, the lists heavily feature wines from the regions that lead the natural wine movement. There is a predominance of Loire, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Languedoc but also, Italy and Greece.

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At Clown Bar (114, Rue Amelot, 75011 Paris)

Unsurprisingly, this is no place for Bordeaux. Not once, on any list. I think this is for a number of reasons, and as a young person, why would you? In the same way as most young people are locked out of buying real estate to live, for many Bordeaux is now more about money than drinking. This is where natural wine becomes political.

The sommeliers were interested in “working with their small producers,” as one person told me in a fascinating conversation, rather than “ideas of what is the best, the most fashionable”or judging the wines as if they are sacks of potatoes.

What is most exciting about the Paris neo-bistro scene is how it reflects what Paris is all about at this moment. It’s more than just “fusion”, but the direct experience of living in a diverse city where the smells from Vietnamese, Lebanese, Japanese and French bakeries, to name but a few, curl together and express something new but distinctly French. It is for the raw ingredients rather than the abstract molecule. It is about the energy of the people in the restaurant. Where quality natural wine from small producers takes a starring role.

And the next day feels good, too.

On Berry Bros & Rudd blog: Marco de Bartoli’s Vecchio Samperi Ventenniale

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Marco de Bartoli winery in Marsala, Western Sicily. This is where I tasted one of Italy’s great wines: Vecchio Samperi Ventennale.

When Berry Bros & Rudd asked if I could write about one of their Italian wines, I could not go past Marco de Bartoli’s famous Marsala. This is a story of one man (and wine) against the odds.

Read the full story on Berry Bros & Rudd blog, “One man’s perpetual drive for quality” here > 

Marco de Bartoli cantina in Marsala

Marco de Bartoli cantina in Marsala

The late Marco de Bartoli's son, Renato, and the next generation.

The late Marco de Bartoli’s son, Renato, and the next generation

Renato de Bartoli

Renato de Bartoli in the cellar

 

How does classic white Bordeaux fit with my not-so-classic life? A week in photos

The case of Bordeaux blanc from the Bordeaux Council sat in the corner of my tiny London flat like an elaborate piece of 17th century furniture. The idea of drinking Bordeaux blanc everyday is very grand, but how does this classic style of wine fit in with my not-so-classic, real life?

Instead of opening all the bottles at once, we opened up a bottle or two every night with dinner to see how it worked with food. Which it does. Spectacularly. But not with everything.

Don’t believe the label if it ever says aperitif – you will be wasting half the experience. Most Bordeaux blanc is better with food. There are better aperitif wines out there but there are not as many complex food wines out there as Bordeaux blanc.

I photographed my week of meals at home (and one special occasion meal on the weekend) pairing white Bordeaux with food. Here are the results. But first, some tips on buying white Bordeaux under £20.

 

What to look for in Bordeaux Blanc under £20

The last bottle of Bordeaux blanc I had was a bottle of 2011 Smith Haut-Lafitte – not an everyday wine at £60-£70 per bottle (it was from my time working in fine wine). There is a lot more to Bordeaux than the cru classé wines. But while there are some good wines under £20 per bottle, there are also quite a few variations of style at this price, too.

The confusion begins when:

  • What comes under the umbrella of Bordeaux blanc is Entre-Deux-Mers, Pessac-Leognan, or Graves.
  • The percentage of grape varieties vary and can be a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and, in this case, Muscadelle (or Sauvignon Gris, which is worth seeking out)
  • Some labels are old school and don’t give much of an indication of the taste of Bordeaux blanc. Not everyone will understand that a wine with Muscadelle will be aromatic and fruity, for example.

 

What you need to know is that Bordeaux Blanc sits on a spectrum between bright and fruity (gooseberries, pineapple, tropical fruit, etc) to creamy and rich (cold white french butter, waxy candles) and everything in between.

The blend of white grapes found in Bordeaux makes it a versatile choice with food. Some bottles evolve over the night between the two extremes of fruity and fresh and creamy and rich. My advice is to go for bottles around £25. Under £20 per bottle, unless you get good advice, it is difficult to tell what the style will be like from the label alone. Behind the generic Chateau on the label, there can be a wine that is anything but generic.

There were a few surprise food and wine matches over the week. Let’s start with Friday night.

 

The Wines 

FRIDAY

Chateau Lestrille 2014 Entre-Deux-Mers

with Friday night rotisserie chicken with tabbouleh and za’atar on pita

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It’s the end of the week. Not feeling very glamorous. Thank god, it’s Friday night take out.

This fruity style of Bordeaux blanc goes well with fresh green herbs such as parsley in tabbouleh (Lebanese parsley salad), broad beans and it loved the garlic sauce (toum).

Fresh and clean aromas of cut grass, elderflower, asparagus. The palate is plumped with melon and has the warmth of Bordeaux – there is more weight on the palate than expected from the first fresh characters found on the nose. You don’t get more aromatic than Sauvignon Blanc but the even more intense aromas of Muscadelle is a good balance.

Verdict: Roast chicken is a classic match with Bordeaux blanc, but the fresh green herbs in the tabbouleh is the revelation here. As parsley is in so many sauces and salads, this makes it a surprisingly versatile wine. Just because it is fruity and fun at first, don’t write it off too quickly. Seriously good fun.

Chateau Lestrille
Region: Entre-Deux-Mers
Year: 2014
Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc 86%, Muscadelle 14%
Price: £10.99
Retailer: Thames Food & Wine

 

SATURDAY

Chateau Baret 2011 Pessac-Leognan

with white fish (plaice) in beurre noisette with capers and samphire

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On the first taste, it is a simple, fresh Sauvignon Blanc. Enter the food: with the fish and butter sauce, the wine becomes big, buttery and opulent. The palate is classic full and rich, almost a Chardonnay in weight. The aromas are exotic: tinned lychee, rose petal, melon, even mango. The samphire is particularly good – perhaps because they are both from an estuary, we joked (but maybe!).  Talented winemaking consultant and professor, Denis Durboudieu, advises the Ballande family small vineyard of 4 hectares of white in Pessac-Leognan. A lot of wine here for £20 – it is a shapeshifter.

Verdict: White fish and butter is another classic pairing with Bordeaux blanc. The green samphire (in season) brings out the full character of the wine.

Chateau Baret
Region: Pessac Leognan
Year: 2011
Grapes: 75 % Sauvignon Blanc, 25 % Semillon
Price: £19.99
Retailer: Averys

 

TUESDAY

Chateau du Druc 2012 Graves and Clos Floridene Graves

with veal chop in creamy sauce (Pedro Ximenez, cream, mustard) and sautéed potatoes with thyme

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Chateau du Druc 2012

This is my favourite wine. Hand in glove, as Morrissey would sing, with the veal chop and creamy sauce. It tastes as refined as cold white French butter. Incredible smoothness and elegant fruit. Again, the BB picked up the herbs in the sauce. Very fair price.

Chateau du Druc is situated on classic gravel soils overlooking the vineyards of Sauternes and facing the Garonne; one of the best positions in the region. This shows why 2012 is hailed as a great vintage for white Bordeaux.

Verdict: A real find – but I would never have chosen it at a shop on the label alone. It was also good with the fish curry later on in the week.

Chateau du Druc
Region: Graves
Year: 2012
Grapes: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle
Price: £13.99
Retailer: Averys

 

Clos Floridene 2012 Graves

Grassy nose, fresh herbs, so fresh! Mouthwatering, long fruity finish. White peach orchard fruit, grapefruit notes. Very fruity, zingy – maybe better with a fish dish rather than veal. A little bit young and vigorous. It would benefit from a bit more time but huge kinetic energy.

Wine nerds may know Clos Floridene is Denis and Florence Dubourdieu’s wine. They also own the more famous Sauternes Château Doisy-Daene (and he is a wine consultant for other wines, such as Chateau Baret, above, and Chateau Tour Leognan, below).

Verdict: On the fruitier side of the spectrum at the moment, it is one to watch over the next few years, especially in the excellent 2012 vintage.

Clos Floridene
Region: Graves
Year: 2012
Grapes: 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 47% Semillon and 3% Muscadelle
Price: £19
Retailer: Wine Society/The Co-Op

 

WEDNESDAY

Ch Tour Leognan 2012 Pessac-Leognan and Chateau des Perligues 2014 Graves 

with tomato fish curry (tomato, garlic, ginger, kashmiri chilli, a couple of fresh green chilli, onion, tomato, tamarind water, ground coriander and turmeric) and wild rice with clove, cardomon and cumin.

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To be fair, this would be a challenge for many wines. Sometimes it is not as simple as “white meat with white wine”. Again, it is all about the sauce.

Chateau Tour Leognan

The poor thing had trouble dealing with the complex spices in the curry*. The sourness of the tamarind made the wine more like a basic Sauvignon Blanc, giving the wine a simple lime flavour.

This is a wine from the supermarket Waitrose that is trying to please everyone but not really pleasing anyone, especially in context of the other Bordeaux blanc wines. It is good but not as good value as some of the other wines tasted that may take a little more effort to find. It was even more disappointing as Chateau Tour Leognan vines are from Chateau Carbonnieux where the wine consultant is the superb Denis Durboudieu.

Verdict: Don’t have Bordeaux blanc with curry! Otherwise, a good introduction to the style, especially if there is a price reduction at Waitrose.

Chateau Tour Leognan
Region: Pessac Leognan
Year: 2011
Grapes: 50% Sauvignon, 50% Semillon
Price: £14.99
Retailer: Waitrose

 

Chateau des Perligues Graves 2014

Very bitter with the curry.* Stopped drinking it with the curry and left it for another time. Without food it was grassy and fresh, with a hollow middle, and a slightly bitter note on the finish (but not unpleasant). A bit young and nippy – it is the youngest of all the wines tasted.

Verdict: Too young. Try it again next year (and definitely not with a curry).

Chateau des Perligues Graves
Region: Graves
Year: 2014
Grapes: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc
Price: £12.99
Retailer: Averys

 

* we also tasted the leftover Chateau du Druc and the Clos Floridene with the curry, and they both stood up well to the complex spices.

 

Overall verdict

This is the most classic of French wines but it is also surprisingly easy to match with food if you remember the parsley, butter and garlic trinity (and French wine loves a bit of sauce). 

 

Image: Marie Antoinette film (2006)

Thanks to Bordeaux Wine Council CIVB for sending the wines. These were my choices to taste from a group of 20 or so samples. And thanks to my boyfriend for the meals, I’m blessed he is such a great cook! x

3 terroirs in Saumur-Champigny you need to know

As the boat drifted away from the town of Saumur on a summer night, and I was drifting away in my thoughts at the end of the day (and, perhaps, from one too many glasses of red), I thought about the knotty notion of terroir. When does wine become more than just about thirst?

The Loire is a vast collection of different terroirs following the Loire River from the centre of France to the Atlantic. We were in Saumur-Champigny AOC, in the centre of the Loire region. South-east of Angers, on the left bank of the river, and east of Coteaux du Layon and Anjou.

The boat drifted to the point in the river where the Saumur region ended and where Touraine began. A winemaker pointed to the old stone stairs on the river bank.

The stairs were divided down the middle. Although they joked about it, saying one side was for the people in Saumur and one was for Touraine – there were clearly still some healthy rivalries between the neighbours. The line where one region started and another ended was clear in the minds of the winemakers.

The concept of terroir is an old and contentious topic. To the Ancient Romans, to understand the origin and typicity of a wine could help against fraud. Perhaps a deceptively simple question to help define terroir is to ask, would a wine with exactly the same characteristics be produced in a different locality?

This is not as straight-forward as it seems. I was told by winemakers on the boat, the impact of climate change is making the wines riper and changing the style – will the boundaries shift as climate changes? And, for a different reason, there has been a re-drawing and re-negotiation of appellation boundaries over the years (I’m thinking here of the short-lived Chaume AOC in the 2000s). Terroir can be malleable, even political, and the local notions of terroir/terrority is always highly contested.

 

The History of an Idea

A recently published book throws more light on the terroir subject, and refers to the Loire often. Tasting French Terroir – The History of an Idea by Thomas Parker explains how culture became part of the notion of terroir. How the French eat and drink today is derived from how a specifically French brand of culinary aesthetics and regional identity developed during the Renaissance.

The book shows how French school children, during the Renaissance, when learning about a region such as the Loire, were encouraged to taste the “personality” of the region through the food and wine. This helped to create a national identity as the quality was associated with the place.

The cultural, or social, definition of terroir can be traced back to the writer of bawdy songs and Renaisannce scholar, Rabelais. He divided wine into two categories: 

  1. “vins de soif, or “wines for thirst” (The wine producers Catherine and Pierre Breton offer a wine called “Cuvée Trinch,” a direct reference, the label explains, to Rabelais, where “the focus for the Trinch wine is on social communion rather than connoisseurship”); or
  2. “terroir wines” deserving contemplation and made by independent winemakers

These are also the two characters in Saumur-Champigny wine. There is the good-time, light, glugging style – the vins de soif – that seems to endlessly supply the bistros of Paris. Or even the Cuvée des 100 Vignerons made especially for Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny. 

Then there are the serious, independent wineries that make wines made to be held onto longer – they are able to demonstrate depth and often elegant expressions of the rich and deep soils of tuffeau, limestone clay and sand clay in the Saumur-Champigny area. We were here to explore the second style.

 

Three Terroirs in Saumur-Champigny

The Romans identified Saumur-Champigny and the name derives from its original Latin name: Campus Ignis (‘Field of Fire’). Standing out in the vineyards to taste the wines, the sun was almost blinding. The early afternoon was meltingly hot.

The AOC appellation of Saumur Champigny permits only Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and the Pineau d’Aunis grapes to be used in its red-only wines, although the serious contender of the region is Cabernet Franc.

Nine communes make up the appellation of Saumur Champigny. We visited three specific terroirs, each with their own unique character: St Cyr en Bourg, Les Poyeux and Sauzay-Parnay. The wines were tasted blind, in situ, and we were given the names of the producers at the end of the day.

 

1. St Cyr en Bourg

The first stop was the Butte de St Cyr opposite the cooperative cave, Robert and Marcel (changing its name in 2013 from Caves des Vignerons de Saumur). At an altitude of 65 metres, the vineyards are south/south-west facing vines, maximising sun exposure.  The soil is shallow sand and chalky tuffeau, which moderates the temperature and supply of water to the vine.

I’m glad we were tasting the red wines under the shade of the tree. There was a slight breeze from the river (about ten minutes drive away).

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Standouts:

The wines from here are light and lively with lots of fresh raspberries and fantastic mineral characters. These wines had an extra depth of fruit and mouth-watering minerality. The 2014 vintage was significantly better balanced than the 2013 vintage.

 

2. Les Poyeaux

Arguably one of the best wines from this region is Clos Rouegeard’s Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeaux. It is their oldest parcel of land – cultivated here since 1664 – so I was pleased to see the infamous vineyard first hand. The Wine Opus describes their Les Poyeaux as a “Ferrari” of wines. Tasting other wines from here, clearly shows why this area has been singled out over the centuries.

Even though it is a little higher in altitude than St Cyr en Bourg, there is little breeze here in the afternoon. The chalky soils trap the heat and keep the vines warm during the night.

Saumur Champigny Les Poyeux - bottles

Les Poyeaux Butte des Moulins at 78 metres altitude

Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeaux

pointing to Les Poyeaux on the map

The dominant characters here from around the Les Poyeaux vineyards: depth of fruit and silkiness. There is a lovely roundness on the palate.

Standouts:

  • 2011 Domaine La Bonneliere “Cuvée Les Poyeaux”
  • 2014 Domaine de la Cune “Les 3 Jean” Cabernet Franc
  • 2010 Legrand Clotilde et René-Noël “La Chaintrée” 
  • 2014 Les Clos Maurice “Le Clos de Midi”

The fruit can only be described as exuberant in the 2014 vintage. But the earlier vintages showed how wine from this area becomes silkier and finer with even just a few years age.

 

3. Sauzay-Parnay 

For the final stop, we found ourselves next to a very unusual vineyard called Clos d’Entre Les Murs. I have never seen anything quite like it – a unique walled vineyard on the Chateau de Parnay estate. The vines are planted on the north side of the wall to keep the roots in the shade. The vine is put through the wall and the rest of the plant are on the south side benefit from the sun.

Clos d'Entre Les Murs

Clos d’Entre Les Murs – Chenin Blanc

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Overlooking the village of Parnay

The best Cabernet Franc wines from here here had greater body, richness and a velvety texture.

Standouts:

2014 Domaine de Rocheville "Page" on the river Loire

2014 Domaine de Rocheville “Page” on the river Loire

Conclusion 

Drifting along the Loire river on a boat with a glass of Saumur-Champigny and seafood, Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny is the taste of summer. The wines have a pretty red raspberry fruit character in St Cyr en Bourg, a beautiful silkiness in Les Poyeaux and real depth and richness from near Parnay. It also provides incredible value, especially the 2014 vintage, which is one of the best since 2009.

 

 

Thank you to the winemakers and Interloire for the visit. It was great to be there for the local festival,  Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny.

Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny 2015

Right now I am in Saumur for a two-day festival called Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny.

Last time I was in Saumur, the constant rain kiboshed our plans to ride bicycles through the vineyards. That was the dream, anyway: a little exercise to go with the wine drinking. We did try. But the rain put a stop it – worst luck – and we ended up staying inside the local restaurants instead, drinking the 2014 vintage and tasting the local cheeses.

Now I developed a serious taste for this refreshing red that is – pound for pound – one of the most versatile red wines out there, I am happy to be back in Saumur again to finally meet the winemakers and see the vineyards. The 2014 vintage is an exciting moment for Cabernet Franc in Saumur-Champigny. It’s worth celebrating, especially if it is pouring all night long.

Les Grands Tablées Saumur Champigny 2015

This year the event had a British theme (there were a lot of “British” bowler hats, which only made me look like droog A Clockwork Orange. Or maybe Mel and Kim). Was it just a gimmick? There is a deep connection with Britain in the area – this is where Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and France in the 12th Century was buried, next to King Henri II, in Fontevraud Abbey.

On a less serious note, after having talked to the locals and hearing the fun they had with other cuisines in previous years – last year’s theme was Belgian – it seems to me, more important for them to have fun with the local ingredients.

The event is run by local volunteers: this year, they made an impressive 6000 fruit crumbles and 6000 mushroom pies for 10,000 ticket holders.

Les Grands Tablées de Saumur Champigny

Perhaps because it is a small town, the whole event was incredibly well organised but also relaxed. We had lunch with the volunteers beforehand. This is where each volunteer is assigned their role for the two days:

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Then the local volunteers have lunch before the main event begins:

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Fifteen years ago, Les Grands Tablées started as a simple party after the winemakers put on a tasting for the town. Today it is not only a showcase for the local food and wine, but also for the town to have a big party before the August holidays.

Having spent the last couple of days with the volunteers and the winemakers, it is the sense of community in Saumur that shines through. Whatever the cuisine is next year, it’s worth a visit to this local festival – the wines of the Loire are made for summer drinking.

The wine for the event, the Cuvée des 100 Vignerons, is made by 100 local growers contributing 15 kilograms of Saumur-Champigny each. Happily, the 2014 vintage is very good.

This morning, I found Jim Budd, Christine Austin from The Yorkshire Post and myself on the front page of the local newspaper toasting a glass of the Cuvée des 100 Vignerons to Saumur.

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It was a great summer night. Many thanks to the winemakers of Saumur-Champigny for the hospitality, InterLoire and Sopexa. For more details:  Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny. And for more excellent photography of the Les Grands Tablées festival, see Jim’s Loire blog.

The next post: 3 terroirs from Saumur-Champigny you need to know.

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5 Best Wine Tastings in London in August

Stuck in the city in August? Here are the best wine tastings in London you can’t miss this month. This is a pick of only five. And if you want to get out of town, I’ve added a couple of wine and wine-ish festivals at the end of the post.

For the hardcore wine lover, it may feel like a stay-cation to switch to beer – maybe time to check out the craft beer festival? And of course the month ends with the Notting Hill Carnival and a few Red Stripes…

Please check beforehand with the venue as spaces are limited and bookings are essential.

 

1. If you want some Italian glamour but can’t get away to the islands

“EnoClub Rebooted – The Islands” @ Polpo (Ape & Bird) – 5 August

Cruise through Sicily and Sardinia without leaving Soho. The unique wines from the Italian islands are almost born just to refresh you, especially good on a muggy night in August. You won’t go hungry either with food matched by Polpo at the Ape & Bird.

Where: Upstairs at Polpo Ape & Bird, 142 Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, London WC2H 8HJ

Date: 5th Aug 2015, 6:45pm-9:00pm – £50

 

2. If you want to kick back at a party with some pet nat

Tutto Wines and Behind the Wall present – A Summer Party – 6 August

Let’s break down the goodness. There’s going to be a barbecue, large format wines from Tutto Wines’ eclectic portfolio, Italian inspired cocktails, a DJ spinning tunes. The clincher? Watching the sun go down over Regent’s Canal and Hackney’s iconic gas towers.

Where: Ovalspace, 29-35 The Oval, E2 9DT

Date: Thursday 6th of August, 5pm til late. No booking required.

 

3. If you want to delve into Grower Champagne 

Champagne and Cheese Tasting @ Champagne + Fromage Convent Garden – 6 & 20 August

Grower champagnes only feel risky when you don’t know them. Once you do, you may never go back to the big brands again. Let these guys walk you through little known names – with perfectly matched cheeses along the way.

Where: 22 Wellington, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 7DD

Date: Thursday 6 August 2015 and 20 August 2015, 7.30-9pm – £55

 

4. If you want to pick the top new recruits to the Academy

Cadet Branch: Classic Grapes in Unusual Places @ Theatre of Wine – 13 August

Explore the new wave of wines, based on classic grapes such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Consider this the graduation speech for young wineries emulating the best in the world – will the student surpass the teacher?

Where: Theatre of Wine, Tufnell Park and Greenwich

Date: Thursday, 13 August (Tufnell Park and Greenwich), 7.30pm – £28

 

5. If you want to hack the Burgundy code

Bluffer’s Guide to Burgundy @ Vagabond Fulham – 26 August

This is a smart idea – Burgundy is a complex region to understand yet is also an expensive regions to make a mistake. Learn the passwords that get you inside this most fascinating (and for wine lovers, often heartbreaking) region.

Where: Vagabond Wine 18-22 Vanston Place, Fulham SW6 1AX

Date: August 26, 7pm – 9pm – £40

 

Plus… a summer bonus! 

FestivalsLondon Craft Beer Festival (13 August, £38.50), Oxford Wine Festival (August 21-22) and Wilderness (August 6-9)

 

The events have been chosen simply because I think they are worth taking a trek across town (or, in case of the festivals, across country). I do not receive any kickbacks for sharing these events. Do you think your customer tasting should be mentioned? Feel free to leave details in the comment below or get in touch on twitter.

 

Rosso di Montalcino 2013: Don’t call me baby!

brunello

 

I’ve never liked the term “baby Brunello” when describing Rosso di Montalcino. It has its own DOC, and the better ones are considered separate wines from the more expensive Brunello. A few of them have every right to say as they do in Dirty Dancing, Nobody puts baby in the corner!

Recently I went to Tuscany. When I got to Montalcino, I stocked up on as much Rosso di Montalcino 2013 as I could carry to the car. The Brunello Consorzio consider it a 4-star vintage for the Brunello di Montalcino. That’s not yet on the market. But what about the Rosso – and can the Rosso di Montalcino give us an idea of what it will taste like? Four bottles, in particular, stood out.

Read full article here > 

 

7 Best Things About Fine Beaujolais Now 

One of my favourite Raymond Chandler stories is called, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It is largely dialogue between couples talking about love around a bottle of gin as the sun goes down. Every one is sure of their own idea of what they mean when they talk about love, but the more they talk, the more confused they become.

The title of the short story comes to mind when we talk about Beaujolais. What are we talking about when we talk about Beaujolais?

Funnily enough, if you see Beaujolais featured on the front label, then this is not what I am talking about here. These are either Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages. Nor is it the wines you see during Beaujolais Nouveau on the third week of November. What I am talking about is Cru Beaujolais – labelled with the name of the cru rather than the word “Beaujolais”. The ten cru are: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, Regnié or St-Amour.

Last month I tasted the 2014 vintage of Cru Beaujolais in London and met Jean Bourjade, Managing Director of Inter-Beaujolais, where he talked about some of the upcoming changes and current challenges for Beaujolais. Here is what I think are the 7 best things about fine Beaujolais today:

 

1. The 2014 Vintage

You can throw a dart at the 2009 and 2011 vintage and find great wines. But the 2014 vintage is not one of those vintages. As a very general rule, it does not have masses of juicy fruit, but instead, is highly aromatic with silky tannins and a fine structure.

The difference in the 2014 vintage comes down to the cooler weather in Summer and the slow ripening in September. Jean Bourjade, managing director of Inter-Beaujolais, explained the 2014 vintage started hot and sunny in Spring with flowering taking place at perfect temperatures in June. In August, the ripening slowed down again because of rain and lower than normal temperatures but ended with an Indian Summer. The long sunny days and cool nights allowed a steady and slow maturation of the grapes with vintage starting on the 8th of September and lasting three weeks.

One way of putting it: if you prefer your Cru Beaujolais closer to Burgundy than Rhône in style, then the 2014 vintage is for you.

 

2. Return to Elegance

Less emphasis on the juicy fruit in the 2014 vintage is not such a bad thing for appellations such as Brouilly, Morgon and Moulin à Vent. In 2014, the bigger styles of Cru Beaujolais show remarkable finesse and will age well.

 

3. Focus on Quality Vineyards

There is a move by the producers towards “single plot wines” as Jean Bourjade says. This is a step towards quality for Cru Beaujolais that is also echoed in other fine wine regions, such as Barolo and Champagne. The distinguished ambassador of the single vineyard style of wine in the Cru Beaujolais is the Cote du Py in Morgon.

 

4. Slightly More Availability 

A couple of years ago, I would take the Eurostar to Paris to get my Cru Beaujolais fix. Most of the natural wine bars in Paris featured the top Beaujolais winemakers as if they were rock stars. They are now more well known here but it is still hard to find much quantity. Now I think most of it is snapped in France – the top winemakers, including the Gang of Four (or five if you include Métras – in the photo above), only produce in tiny quantities. Some of the independent shops have started stocking them but never in huge quantities.

Related post: Story of the Stolen Glass

 

5. Burgundy Calling

The two regions are very close, especially for the young winemakers in the Macon who often hang out together at the same natural wine fetes. But it is not only in the Macon where the impact of Beaujolais is felt. The young generation coming through are experimenting with carbonic maceration and whole bunch fermentation, including traditional producers such as Arnoux-Lachaux. Can the original distrust be traced back to the Duke of Burgundy in 1395 banishing the “disobedient” gamay to south of the border? The next generation, who have worked outside Burgundy and educated around the world, are breaking down the walls between the two regions.

Related post: Burgundy Young Guns

 

6. Sparkling White Beaujolais

While Cru Beaujolais in the North is gaining more recognition, the Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages growers are stuck with the tag of Beaujolais Nouveau, a cheap and cheerful wine for a booze up (but also a huge part of their revenues). There are some moves by the Beaujolais body to apply for sparkling wine recognition in the South. Hopefully the new income from sparkling wine will reduce the reliance on cheap bubblegum wine and help the whole region focus on their tremendous qualities.

 

7. Real Prices

While it is exciting to see some of the younger Burgundy winemakers experimenting with the Beaujolais style of winemaking, I hope that we don’t see another influence the other way: the inexorable rise in prices for Cru Beaujolais. Right now, the best ones are one-third less than their comparable Burgundy counterparts. But they share a similar problem: it is hard to find much of the great stuff. In the 2014 vintage, the total volumes increased 10% across the whole region, although this will not mean much for the great producers. It is still small scale.

I think what saves the region, even for the best producers in the Cru Beaujolais, is that they make wines to be enjoyed and opened (even though it is possible to cellar for up to 40 years). They have not become part of the wanky fine wine worship system yet. Drink up. Enjoy. It is wine at its best. That’s what we are talking about when we are talking about Beaujolais. Love.

 

Essential Beaujolais Facts (2014)

Surface of the Beaujolais wine growing region: 160,000 hectares

Surface planted with vines: the 12 AOC of Beaujolais, in 96 communes, cover 16, 572 hectares

Proportions of grape varieties: 
Gamay Beaujolais: 16 322 hectares (30 000 hectares planted in total in the world), representing 98% production. Chardonnay Beaujolais: 250 hectares, around 2 % of the production.

Average annual Production: 800,000 hectolitres

Split between caves cooperatives and independents: 3 000 producers, 12 cooperatives, 169 negociants (Beaujolais, Mâconnais, Bourgogne).

Average Vineyard Size: 9,8 hectares.

Number of appellations: 12 (10 Crus: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à- Vent, Régnié, Saint-Amour; Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages : these last two are produced in three colours and as a primeur).

Export figures and principal countries in 2013

• Export represents over 40% of sales overall.
• Japan : 63 827 hectolitres / approx. 8 500 000 bottles
• United States : 48 676 hectolitres / approx. 6 490 000 bottles.
• United Kingdom : 36 507 hectolitres / approx. 6 500 000 bottles.
•Canada : 28 428 hectolitres / approx. 3 781 000 bottles.
•Belgium : 12 978 hectolitres / approx. 1 730 000 bottles.

Beaujolais Sales in the UK

Regional AOP’s remain strong the UK with 46% share:

  • Beaujolais Villages AOP: 22% share
  • Beaujolais AOP: 24% share
  • Sales of Cru Beaujolais account for 42% of exported volumes
  • Sales of Nouveaux went up by 62% in 2014 and account for 11% of exported volume
  • Rosé remains niche and represents 1% of the sales

4 bottles of Rosso di Montalcino 2013 (and where to eat in Montalcino)

Even though it had been raining when we left Siena only thirty minutes ago, the strong heat in Montalcino burned away all the water until very quickly there was steam rising from the road. The grapes had a good drenching and now had a moment to ripen under the intense sun. I took my coat off and walked over to the other side of town, which was mostly in shadow. Like most of this renaissance landscape, for the vineyards on the hillside it is about light and shade. The vineyards follow down from the top of the hill from all sides, each face the sun from sunrise to sunset in their own way.

Just from the change in weather from drenched to heat, it is easy to see how the grapes love this weather.

When there is an exceptional vintage pronounced by the Consorzio it is worth taking notice. The recent release of the 2010 vintage is one of these exceptional vintages where perfect conditions were met across most of the vineyards – north, south, east and west. But how was the 2013 vintage? The Consorzio awards stars for each vintage and considers 2013 as a 4-star vintage for Brunello di Montalcino.

2013 Rosso di Montalcino

The 2013 Brunello di Montalcino has yet to be released, but to get an idea of the vintage it is possible to taste the 2013 Rosso di Montalcino that were released last year. The basic rationale behind the Rosso di Montalcino is to have something to drink while the Brunello is still in the barrel. Some may even be described as a small taste of the vintage of the upcoming Brunello.

It was not always this way (and sometimes it still isn’t). Over the past seven years, there has been a marked improvement in the Rosso made with the same requirement of the 100% Sangiovese as Brunello di Montalcino. The Rosso seems to have been given more attention in its own right rather than as an after-thought to the Brunello.

There are lots of discussions in town (and drama) behind this regarding appellation laws but it can be said that the rise of quality in Rosso di Montalcino has happened to coincide with the post-2008 global recession and the drop-off in bling buyers for expensive Brunello. Some winemaker’s have wizened up to the demand for this “baby Brunello”. Not that I like this term. With its own DOC, it can be seen as its own wine.

We stocked up at the local wine shop on as many 2013 Rosso di Montalcino as we could carry. These four wines, below, are some of the better ones from what we tried (if you would like to see more of the wines we tasted in Tuscany, go to my Delectable page).

In particular, the 2013 Sesti Rosso di Montalcino:

Rosso di Montalcino 2013T

Tasting Notes

Sesti (Castello di Argiano) Rosso di Montalcino 2013

This is a journey, don’t rush it. Transparent dusty rose colour, delicate flavours, fine structure, perfect balance of luxury and quiet Tuscan simplicity – excellent length of a few minutes. Doesn’t get much better for a 2013 Rosso di Montalcino (9.4/10)

Poggio San Polo Rosso di Montalcino 2013

Edgy wine, a punk at the church. Orange skin studded with cloves. For those who live peeling plums then eat the skin. It settles down after an hour and integrates to become a pleasant drink – not too much acidity, not too much rich fruit. (8.8/10)

Azienda Agraria Lisini Rosso di Montalcino 2013

Loads of approachable sweet red berry fruit, stewed summer strawberries and a hint of dried spice (and later, almonds and blood orange). Great example of Rosso di Montalcino. Good fun. (8.8/10)

Agostina Pieri Rosso di Montalcino 2013

This is about as decadent as an easy-drinking can get – think modern smooth edges. This could be the result of the vintage. Ripe sweet and rich fruit with very fine tannins. Not hugely complex but satisfying, nevertheless. (8.9/10)

 

Where to eat in Montalcino

If you are visiting Montalcino to taste Brunello di Montalcino and try local dishes, go to Osteria Porta Al Cassero on the edge of town. Park in the car park, pass the fort and it is in front of a small park. Whenever I am in Montalcino I have at least one dinner here at this small place, and on the weekends is reassuringly filled with Italian families taking out their grandmothers (and an Italian grandmother is not easy to please when it comes to food). They have typical hearty Tuscan dishes that feature beans, wild boar or ragu but they also have the local pasta called pinci (or pici in Siena) – hand-rolled, uneven-shaped pasta made without eggs. The wine list featuring wines from Montalcino is always interesting and well priced – we had the Pieri Agostina Brunello di Montalcino 2010 at a lower price in the restaurant than the retail price in the UK. They also have a good selection of wines by the glass featuring some of the more well-known names such as Banfi Brunello di Montalcino as well as smaller wineries not seen as much.

 

 

Continued from: Part 1: After the Rain: Time out in Tuscany

photos @winewomansong 

After the rain: time out in Tuscany, part 1

Where next?  That’s the big question when you are on the road. Before I could answer, I had to go back to where I feel truly nourished on all levels.

Earlier this year I left my job. Then I had a severe flu. Time for a change of scenery. We booked the cheapest ticket – to Bologna – and hired a silver Fiat Panda at the airport.

This was not just some Under the Tuscan Sun schtick. All my life and work has been about taste and smell. When I don’t feel good, everything tastes bland – I seem to need flavour like a photographer needs light. On the road to Tuscany, avoiding the main roads, we stopped off at a worker’s bar for lunch and a carafe of wine. On the first day, the taste of the simple pasta with tomato sauce had tears well up in my eyes. It was then I realised how much I needed to be here.

Driving along the autostrade with the windows down after an oversized lunch – pasta and ragu, a meat dish and then one course too many – the question doesn’t rattle around the brain so much. Just drive onwards and you can never be lost in Tuscany. Eventually there will be a sign back to the main autostrade.

We arrived at sunset to the stone shack in the mountains of Mugello. Thirty minutes’ drive north from Florence, it is a wild and natural place with rushing streams and unpaved roads. And the roads do twist through the countryside: driving upwards at a tilt where you can’t see around the bend of the road one metre ahead of you because of the tall grass.

Mugello

When we arrived, the family who owned the place gave us a bottle of fizzy white local wine and a slab of pecorino.

Driving south from the Mugello, past Florence, past the hills of Chianti, down to the area where you find the textbook Tuscany row of black-green cypress against the pale velvet green hills.  Even through the windscreen wipers swiping away the big drops of rain, it is drier here in the southern parts of Tuscany. We were on our way to Montalcino.

What next?

After eating my weight in pasta in Tuscany, I am starting to feel myself again for the first time in years. I have some cool projects I am working on but it is still under wraps – you can’t imagine how much I want to tell you! – so stay tuned on my twitter page for more.

 

Next in Part 2: Four great bottles of Rosso di Montalicino (and where to eat in Montalcino)

 

photos @winewomansong 

Anything but Assyrtiko: Greek wine reviews

I do not drink enough Greek wine to say Anything but Assyrtiko just quite yet – there is still so much to love about Santorini – but after this selection from the Daily Drinker for my Greek wine reviews I can see past the horizon beyond Santorini.

Under the blaring midday sun on the beach, imagine a very cold white wine called Roditis by Tetramythos as the high thrilling squeal of children chased by waves, with the Malagousia, Domaine Gerovassiliou creating a general hubbub of civilised conversation of adults on the towel nearby. As the sun goes down, these voices become more distinct and clear – the Kidonitsa, Monemvasia Winery draws near and whispers idle romantic thoughts with rich fruit that lingers beyond midday, yet as fresh and essential, as a cool shower at the hotel before dinner in the local restaurant.

The Robola, Gentilini is a complex, balanced wine that continues the holiday as the true souvenir of the summer in Kefalonia. A timeless Greek wine, it could be the best white wine from anywhere, yet as specific to its time and place, this summer in fact, with notes of spicy pears but with an ionic column of acidity and a true memory of the summer holidays as the sound of boats against the jetty.

A full holiday in four bottles, the Daily Drinker Wine Club is a brilliant idea of two bottles a month from places that you would not normally find. It’s a wine club for those who want an adventure to accompany their wines.

Daily Drinker

 

Related post: Greek Assyrtiko: between thyme and the deep blue sea

 

Reposted and updated from September 30 2013 – my thoughts are with the Greek people.

Image: Godard’s Le Mepris

 

My top wines for summer

Like most things in Summer, less is more. I have been living on lighter wines that can get me through the bursts of heat that make London so fun in the summer. But if I am buying a case of wine to get me through this time of year, I want consistency. Something for a session on a long summer day. Not too much pondering over the glass.

I’m having a little pale rosé backlash these days. It kind of snuck up on me: at this stage, and with drunk crowds spilling out onto the pavement, I could do without the rosé rage. Can flavour be stupid? Banal, perhaps. It is the flavour of spun sugar and the soft texture of marshmallow. But it can end up being as bland as if you followed Kate Moss’ attitude to eating: “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” If you are not really tasting, the pink slips down way too easily. You can see it in the tears of girls staggering after a day of drinking at about 11.30 pm like clockwork.

The aim of all the rosé – whether they are from South Africa, China, or Provence – is to look as pale and as pink as a white tourist on his first day visiting Saint Tropez. The universal pale pink colour is more important than the flavour, which has been rinsed out and cleaned up to the inch of its soulless life. It reminds me of that other famous pink drink – the Cosmopolitan – and where is that now? No bartender will touch it. The only place you will find it is on late night cable re-runs of S&TC.

Unless you actually have been in Provence and are just trying to recreate your holiday at any cost (with a few Domaine Ott amphorae before heading back to the City?) carrying around a half-finished bottle of rosé is as naff as a broken heel stuck in the wet grass at the racecourse car park. Even if it is a magnum. 

I’ve been drawn to sleeker, lighter alcohol wines with a bit of spritzy bubble. The slight tingle around the edges can be shivery and not as heavy as sparkling wine. Wines such as Vinho Verde or Txacoli. They can have a slightly sweet and sour taste like a grapefruit sorbet and just as refreshing. They are also the right price and what the majority of pale rosé should be priced today. At £6-8 per bottle, you won’t feel bad if you add a few ice cubes to a Vinho Verde when the temperature is nudging 40 celsius. (Yes, you can). 

Grecanico from Caruso & Minini in Western Sicily is another excellent summer session wine. When I found out that Grecanico is related to the same grape as Garganega grape of Soave, it did not surprise me. And I am very grateful. Of course I would like to drink more Soave, much as I wold like to drink more Champagne with every meal. Pieropan, Anselmi or Suavia are brilliant but their premium prices make you pause to consider opening a bottle. But more importantly, there is too much going on in the glass. Summer is not the time to think so much. 

What about reds? Some people might feel that is too hot to drink red wine in the summer. But red wines can keep their structure more than white wines when it gets hot. (I always put my red wines in the fridge once it hits a certain temperature.) 

Last month I was in Bologna – it gets seriously hot there away from the coast – and had a glass of frothy purple Lambrusco with some Parma ham at a bar near the university. It’s strange to think of sparkling red as refreshing, but that’s exactly what it was – especially cold. 

I am so happy to see Lambrusco more on menus in London, because it works well with the small plates menus around town. I wish more people would eat with their wine, even if it is a few slivers on ham or even crisps, just as they give spontaneously in Italy or Spain when you order a drink. It doesn’t have to be a whole meal, especially when its hot, but at least something. Just as Lambrusco once had a bad reputation, it may even attract me back to the pale pink stuff. 

Greek Assyrtiko: between thyme and the deep blue sea

What is the Greek wine Assyrtiko? Grown on the volcanic soil of Santorini, it is a white wine that when good, is a summer wind by the sea made into taste and smell.

Last night I had the Hatzidakis Assyrtiko with hot salmon, fresh herbs and dijon mustard on ciabatta and, although it is not a traditional Greek dish, it is an excellent match for this wine: as clear as white houses against blue sky.

For those who had too much cheap retsina on a package holiday once: this wine will rock your preconceptions about Greek wine. Let in the fresh air. There is no reason why Santorini AOC should not be more well-known: minerally, fresh and from a major Greek Island. The technology is there to create fresh white wines, hopefully Hatzidakis will pave the way for more wines from this region.

Tasting with a handful of vine-ripened tomatoes before dinner lifted the wine to another level, and my friend suggested it was the methoxypyrazines that are working together in tomato and the Assyrtiko (the green tastes in wine, in this case: dried herbs). Whatever the science behind it, it was a fabulous tasting moment and overall, the clean taste with a light breath of thyme, is as complete as a walk home on a quiet track after an afternoon at the beach.

 

Hatzidakis Assyrtiko

Waitrose

 

Related post: Anything but Assyrtiko

 

Repost with updates October 17, 2010 – my thoughts are with Greece today. And Assyrtiko is a perfect white wine for heatwave weather.

 

Image: Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt 1963

5 Best Wine Tastings in London in July

London is another country in summer. The sun is out. Everyone’s in a good mood. The parks are full of half-naked people having picnics. There’s also Independence Day and Bastille Day – a good enough excuse as any to open a few bottles from California and France. This month, it’s not all about the tennis – here are the five best wine tastings in London this July.

Please check beforehand with the venue as spaces are limited and bookings are essential.

 

 

1. If you know all the words from Pulp Fiction 

Terroirs presents Wine & Music 

On Wednesday 1 July, Wine + Vinyl launches the first night of its monthly Wine and Music series at Terroirs. Playing soundtracks from cult films with wine moments in film projected on the walls. Hosted by comedian James Dowdeswell, the wine list will showcase five reds and whites from their 200-strong list. Only £3 entry.

Where: Terroirs 5 William IV Street, London WC2N 4DW

Date: Wednesday 1 July, 7pm – £3 entry 

 

 

2. If you dream about Californian wine

California Dreaming: American Wine Masterclass, 4th July 

As 2Pac may have been saying about California wines, “California know how to party. In the citaaaay…”  Vinopolis will open wines from wineries in the infamous ‘Judgement of Paris’ wine tasting in 1976 – when American wines toppled Bordeaux in a blind tasting, giving credence to California’s fine wine reputation.

Where: Vinopolis, 1 Bank End, London SE1 9BU

Date: Saturday 4 July 2015, 1pm – £35 per person

 

 

3. If you want to taste wine for a good cause

Blind Tasting Evening (in association with the Royal London Society for Blind People)

“A relaxed and informal evening of drinking great wines and challenging your preconceptions. None of the stuffy, old-school ideas or scary challenges, just a brilliant way to taste wine and really use your senses to the full.” 

Where: Upstairs at Vinoteca Soho,  53-55 Beak St, Soho, London W1F

Date: Tuesday 7th July, 7pm

“Tickets are £27.50 per person, which includes blind tasting of eight wines, some mixed meze, and a £2.50 donation to the Royal London Society for the Blind.”

 

 

4. If you love Cheese (mais, oui!)

Bastille Day Wine and Cheese Tasting

A simple wine can become a moulin rouge dancer with the right cheese. But with nearly 1000 cheeses in France alone, it’s worth putting yourself in the hands of the cheese experts, La Cave Fromage. Joyeux Quatorze Juillet!

Where: La Cave Fromage, 24-25 Cromwell Place, South Kensington SW7 2LD

Date: Thursday 16 July, 7.15pm sharp – £35

 

 

5. If you want to cool down with the coolest wine on the planet

Deutschland, Deutschland: Riesling Triumphs

The more you know about German Riesling, the more your summer will improve. Fact. The class will delve into the different regions in Germany, showing all the different styles of Riesling possible. And I don’t need to tell you, the wines are not all sweet. Not even close.

Where: Theatre of Wine, Tufnell Park and Greenwich

Date: Thursday, 23 July (Tufnell Park and Greenwich), 7.30pm – £32

 

 

Do you think your customer tasting should be mentioned? Feel free to leave details in the comment below or get in touch. 

5 favourites from Armit Wines Annual Tasting 2015

Armit Wines is fortunate to have some big agencies on their books – Ornellaia, Gaja, Rioja Alta, Giacosa, Huet, the list goes on – but here are the 5 wines which stood out for me at the Armit Wines Annual Tasting 2015 for no other reason than pure crazy fabulousness:

 

1. Domaine Huet

Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu Demi Sec 2009 (Loire)

Masterful. As you would expect from one of the last vintages by Noël Pinguet – legendary winemaker and son-in-law of Gaston Huet. This is a wine where taste moves faster than the speed of thought. Pure and light, sweet and savoury, weightless and gravity. And it all just comes together so effortlessly. I saw a friend who is an expert on the Loire do a beeline for it when he entered the room. It’s pretty much like that. Everything else disappears.

RRP £17.oo duty paid ex vat

2. Domaine Gourt de Mautens

Rosé 2010 (Rhone)

On a buzz feed listicle, 24 Bizarre Japanese Ice-Cream Flavours, you’ll find ice-cream comes in whitebait, shark fin and cactus flavours. This Rosé is not exactly your classic strawberry pink, either. Think pomegranate, seaweed and fermented ginger. I wouldn’t be surprised to find the animators from Adventure Time had it while drawing Jake’s Perfect Sandwich. Much more exciting than the usual rinsed-out, filtered-to-inch-of-its-life pale pink everywhere. Then again, you won’t find this everywhere.

RRP £15.00 duty paid ex vat

3. Domaine de Montbourgeau

L’Etoile Savagnin 2009 (Jura)

If you don’t know Jura very well, Armit carry a safer version called Domaine du Pélican – a new wine from Marquis d’Angerville in Volnay. This one is as grumpy as Bukowski and probably smells the same – medicinal, super-oxidative, orange peel liquer, extreme french cheeses. Yet it speaks the truth. It’s what haunts me.

RRP £24.40 duty paid ex vat

4. Pietradolce

Etna Rosso 2014 (Sicily)

On a completely different note than the old-school Jura above, this is pure summer holiday. I liked Pietradolce’s whole range, all the way up to the £35 Barbagalli. But it is the £9 pale red – almost shivering for lack of colour after growing in the high altitudes of a volcano – that is so perfect for now. Why drink Rosé when you can have this all the way through from apero to dessert? It’s got more tannic structure than Rosé. Save yourself the energy in summer and stick to this.

RRP £9.25 duty paid ex vat

5. Giacosa

Giacosa Barbaresco Asili, Bruno Giacosa 2009 (Piedmont)

The flavours are always so precise: it’s never just “rose” with Giacosa, it has to be “rose hip”. And so it goes, I won’t list out the flavour ingredients. Not only is the list long, but that would be too prosaic for such an incredible wine. The layers are as diaphanous as a tulle skirt on a prima ballerina. Hold on to it for another 20 years or more.

RRP £72.05 duty paid ex vat

 

Wines tasted at Armit Wines 2015 Annual Tasting at Music Rooms, Mayfair on Tuesday 23rd June 2015.

Image: label from Pietradolce Barbagalli 2011

David Hockney A Bigger Splash

The Perfect Splash: Champagne Nathalie Falmet Le Val Cornet NV

Once in a while I taste a Grower Champagne* that could break through the noise of big brand Champagne marketing. Brilliant examples of grower Champagnes that have done this are Jacquesson and Pierre Gimmonet, producers who are not affected by anxieties about the done thing in the tightly-regulated region, producers who have singularity of vision and style.

Focus for a Grower Champagne is like concentration in diving and what allows them to constantly change, somersault and twist so the end result of all this experimenting with names, blends and single vineyards – for those in the high seats cheering them on – is one perfect, delicate splash.

Onto Nathalie Falmet Le Val Cornet NV. My first impression of this single vineyard Champagne is delicacy but this was quickly overcome by the bright flavours of summer: layers of freshly-cut nectarines, red apples and strawberries. All of this feels gentle and joyous, like a walk to the park for a picnic on a sunny day, until you realise the deeper notes of honey, caramel and liquorice suddenly have you in the path of a parade complete with brass band and a million waving flags.

The reason why this interesting depth happens is, as always, because of the winemaker and the terroir. Nathalie Falmet works in the Aube, the deep south of Champagne, but on the far eastern edge. Yet the delicacy shown in her Champagnes is not what you would expect this far south.

It shows the skill of the winemaker: Nathalie Fermet is a highly qualified oenologist (with her own laboratory consultancy business) as well as vigneronne who works on her family’s 3.2 hectares. She runs everything from label creation to vine cultivation. The concentration and focus of Nathalie Falmet is found here in this single vineyard Champagne, Le Val Cornet NV.

The whole domaine only produces an average of 33,000 bottle. For a breakthrough Champagne, it’s never going to be huge, but for Grower Champagne, that is the whole point.

 

Champagne Nathalie Falmet Le Val Cornet NV

Rouvres-les-Vignes, Côtes-des-Bar

Champagne

£41.00 per bottle RRP

50% Pinot Noir, 50% Pinot Meunier, Blanc de Noirs. Base 2010 vintage. Disgorgement date: May 2014. Extra Brut – dosage: 6g per L.

Available in USA and in Paris at Peirre Gagnaire, Jean-Francois Piège and Trianon Palace.

Available in UK with Scala Wine (also, other Nathalie Falmet wines).

 

Thank you to Tim Hall at Scala Wine for the excellent and comprehensive Single Estate Champagne Tasting.

* Growers Champagne used in this post means RM (recoltant-manipulant) much like domaine wines in Burgundy where the person making the wine also owns the grapes.

Ayala Champagne Brut Majeur NV at Hook Camden

Whenever I hear of the Champagne Ayala, I instinctively move the Y-sound and think of the French fashion designer, Azzedine Alaïa. This is the designer loved by 1990s supermodels: all black, super tight, super sexy clothes. To my mind, this Champagne is not dissimilar in style: elegant, sensual yet precise.

Ayala is not just a miserable step-child of Bollinger. When Bollinger acquired Ayala in 2005 it put money where it was needed and then left it alone.  It’s remained a Grand Marque in its own right. One of the original “drier styles” of Champagnes developed in the 1860s. Both Bollinger and Ayala are neighbours situated in Aÿ, an area known for its Pinot Noir, but this is where the similarities between Bollinger and Ayala style end.

What is the difference between Bollinger and Ayala? To keep the 1990s fashion theme going, Bollinger is to Ayala as Georgio Armani is to Azzedine Alaïa. And Ayala (and Alaia) is less mainstream and well-known. For me, I love Bollinger but sometimes it has to be Ayala Champagne Brut Majeur NV for its slightly drier and lighter style.

Ayala Champagne Brut Majeur NV with lemon and fennel panko-crumbed sea bass and an oyster and sorrel sauce

Ayala Champagne Brut Majeur NV with lemon and fennel panko-crumbed sea bass and an oyster and sorrel sauce

At Hook Camden, the lovely Dublin lads created special fish dishes to match Champagne as chosen by Wine Trust. For the Ayala Brut Majeur NV it was lemon and fennel panko-crumbed sea bass with an oyster and sorrel sauce.

The crunchy and light breadcrumb of dehydrated lemon and fennel seeds ground to a powder was deliciously spicy on this sea bass – move over KFC for the crunch -and the 40% Pinot Noir component of the Ayala Brut Majeur NV could handle the big flavours easily.

When you have rich flavours, that’s the moment to reach for this style of Champagne. Don’t forget the flavours in the sauce, too. Ayala Brut Majeur NV danced all night like Naomi with the saline buzz of the Oyster and Sorrel sauce.

Hook Restaurant Camden

About  Hook Camden:

This is a place I’ve been wanting to try since it opened on busy Parkway in Camden – I’d heard about their first pop up in Dublin pushing mackerel and then their following huge success in Belgium. This is what Camden needs, especially after a few post-gig drinks, a place where you can have excellent fish and Scottish potato chips with sherry vinegar (applied with precision atomisers). Although I suggest not to go window shopping for Azzedine Alaïa afterwards.

Warning: If you plan to go – and I highly recommend you do – don’t be deceived by the beach-shack-look, this is not your average fish and chip joint. If you go to Hook Camden looking for classic cod and chips, you won’t find it. Not that you would be disappointed with what you’d find.

About Wine Trust:

Sitting next to Nick Adams MW from Wine Trust, previously Armit Wines, I learned how this online wine company chose the wine for the night. All of the wines were chosen blind and then correlated back to the price. They want to present wines that showed typicity of style but also good value for the quality. This is advice is gold when we live in a murky world of Champagne pricing with its false discounting and powerful brands. .

Conclusion:

Unless you have fish that is very simply and naturally done – such as at this seafood restaurant in Sydney – then don’t forget to think about the batter and sauce. If you want classic fish and chips with a Champagne? To be brutally honest, the best match is a cup of strong Yorkshire tea. But if you genuinely want to taste exciting flavour combinations, go to Hook Camden for an amazing array of fish, batters, and sauces. This will definitely go with a glass or two of Champagne (preferably Pinot Noir based).

Details:

Hook Camden –  63-65 Parkway, Camden Town, London NW1 7PP

 

Ayala Champagne Brut Majeur NV 

Champagne

£29 per bottle 

Wine Trust

 

It's good for you! Inside Hook Camden

It’s good for you! Inside Hook Camden

Champagne tempura of mackerel with Avruga caviar matched with Charles Heidseick Brut Réserve NV and 2010 Nyetimber Classic Cuvée

Champagne tempura of mackerel with Avruga caviar matched with Charles Heidseick Brut Réserve NV and 2010 Nyetimber Classic Cuvée at Hook Camden

File 17-06-2015 16 16 03

Ink and tarragon tempura of plaice with pickled beetroot with Chales Heidseick Brut Rosé Reserve NV (right) and 2009 Nyetimber Rosé Brut (left) with those brilliant scottish potato chips

Pride and Prejudice: Hyde de Villaine Belle Cousine Napa Valley

When my friend Will Hargrove from Corney & Barrow said to try this, I said YES OF COURSE THANK YOU. But really I had been around the whole room and purposely skipped Hyde de Villaine Belle Cousine because it was from Napa. Why so perverse? (I get asked this a lot). It’s a £50 bottle of wine!

I don’t know. There’s just too much talk about Californian wines, sorry. I’ve tuned out. It’s like at school when it was popular to see Dirty Dancing, and everyone pretended to do the sexy dance with Patrick Swayze, and I would not see it on principle. Then I saw it about twenty years later, and I really liked it. Up there with some of the best 80s films: Dirty Dancing, Ferris Bueller and Ghostbusters.

My teenage self says, I don’t want to pay for a heavy bottle or a brand name and I don’t understand their system of allocation based on being on a mailing list that hikes up prices. If I want a drink to have with a cigar then I’ll have a dark rum. Too much, already. Whatevs.

Recently Californian wines are becoming more balanced. Sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr calls it “In Pursuit of Balance” and it is all over the wine chat on the internet. And I agree, focus on the vineyard you have in front of you rather than chase points (obviously? maybe not by the sound of it). But apart from a few exceptions, and there are a few, if I want a big fat Chardonnay then I will go to California. It’s not very often, and I am sure it will change: fashion is a constant cycle of love and disgust.

Now I know better not to wait 20 years before seeing a film or tasting a wine.

You don’t get into wine, and travel a lot, because you want to be a closed-minded idiot. So, what was the wine like? Before Will could say anything, or I had a chance to look at the label, I gave it a taste.

It’s a good wine when you start feeling poetic from the get-go.

Polished plums with bloody butcher’s block and an acidity that is like perfectly executed guitar distortion. You know how Sonic Youth tuned each guitar in it’s own way to get the right edgy sound? It’s a wall of distortion that makes this wine edgy and dark under the Californian sun.

The song that came into my head was “Soon” by My Bloody Valentine. For once, the comments underneath the video on youtube actually make a lot of sense, the sound is

“a mermaid falling into a black hole” 

Amazing. Who made this wine?

We are at Corney & Barrow, the exclusive importers into the UK of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti so there’s the connection. It is a joint effort where Burgundy meets Carneros: Hydes of Hyde Vineyard (Carneros, Napa), their cousin Pamela (née Fairbanks), and her husband, Aubert de Villaine, co-director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (Burgundy).

They also showed the A et P de Villaine Bouzeron, one of my favourite wines when I am in Burgundy after a day tasting – the acidity is very refreshing and I feel human again. Now the pieces of the puzzle started to fall in place. This is the same exciting zig-zag acidity but with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Reader, it was good. I took it home, drank it all and listened to the whole album.

It pays to have an open mind.

Special mention to the excellent arancini at Mission E2 in Bethnal Green London

Special mention to the excellent arancini at Mission E2 in Bethnal Green London

Hyde de Villaine Belle Cousine Hyde Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Napa Valley

£49.95 per bottle

Corney & Barrow

A video posted by Juel (@winewomansong) on

Last of the True Romantics: Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio DOC

Often my friend from Rome, perhaps while we are walking down the street to the supermarket on a grey Saturday morning, will abruptly stop, hold his hand over his heart, grab my elbow to jolt me back and say with eyes wide open in shock, “Did you see THAT? That’s IT! I AM IN LOVE!”

 

Meanwhile, of course, the “love of his life” walks by completely unaware of the near cardiac arrest just caused. To be honest, I often never see what all the fuss is about, but for a moment, at least, the day seems just a little brighter for it.

 

I have to be careful when we are tasting wine together. He is often in raptures. That’s why, to tone down his enthusiasm about the good wine we tried from the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio DOC in Campania, I started to talk about rocks and soil types in vineyards.

 

In particular, the soil type of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio – near the volcano Mount Vesuvius – which can often be found in most houses on the shelf next to the bathtub: pumice.

 

As much as I love wines from volcanic regions, the pumice in the bathroom is the closest everyday experience of a volcano. To understand the pumice soil of Lacryma Christi is to understand the taste of the wine. Like pumice, the wine has a porous, light quality to it. Whereas some non-volcanic wines from hotter climates can have slightly syrupy or baked characters (with the sun creating ripe fruit with high alcohol) which becomes too much after one glass, especially with a heavy pasta. It could be said it’s the difference in weight between an Aero bar and a plain bar of milk chocolate.

 

The ornate name, Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ) del Vesuvio leads you to expect tears of hot, lava flowing with an opening blast of heat, followed by slow and heavy molten lava fruit. And that’s what you don’t get. To be fair, the lightness is not worse for it. Not at all. It is light as the feeling of joy is light.

 

This is a wine that would be more than perfect in a little Italian restaurant with red and white checked tablecloths. It is highly romantic and yet modest, and it does what most good Italian wines do – it leaves space for food and a good story. It doesn’t quite pass by unnoticed and it is not quite as simple as a – ciao bello! SMACK! – but certainly makes the evening a little brighter for it.

 

 

Image:Sofia Loren, Life Magazine

 

 

1975 vintage Bordeaux: Claret Guide, Decanter 1976

If you are having a 40th birthday this year (& happy birthday, Angelina Jolie!), here is a vintage assessment of the 1975 Bordeaux vintage from Decanter in September 1976. Finally, it was a vintage to write home about:

It is certainly cheering and reassuring for all who love Bordeaux to know that at long last there is a really good vintage safely in the cellars once more. At the same time this does not mean, unfortunately, that all Bordeaux’s problems have disappeared and indeed many of the economic problems seem to be as persistent and deep-seated as ever.

This was a difficult economy for many industries including wine. The 1973 oil crisis could still be felt. Then there were a series of bad vintages in Bordeaux in the early 1970s and, without the technology we have today, there were consecutive years that could not be sold because they were simply undrinkable.

The 1975 vintage was initially quite tannic but it has mellowed out over the past ten years, and the fruit has petered out in the lesser wines.

Decanter 1976

1970s wine and spirits photography – a knife, a rose, a kilt

Glad to see there was no hype around the vintage back in the day… oh wait:

Firstly, one can say unequivocally that this is the best vintage since 1970 and that while there is a certain amount of unevenness, particularly in the lower quality level, it would be quite wrong to give any impression other than that this is a really good year.

At least “a really good year” is not as bombastic as “vintage of the century”. But could it be a vintage of the decade?

The general characteristics of the year are a really excellent colour, certainly comparable with 1970 and 1966, and a good deal of tannin in the wines, more than has been seen at this stage for some years. Certainly more tannic than the 1970s ever were. The very individuality of the wines and the difficulty in pinpointing a useful comparison within the last decade at least indicates in general terms the quality of the vintage.

What was brilliant about this era was the casual drinking of first growths. Much like property bought in the 1970s, these wines will set you back if you bought them today, even if “buying from the cask”. This was pre-Robert Parker’s inaugural 1982 vintage. Latour is worth a punt, and “surprisingly” Ausone was outstanding:

At this stage it is always difficult to single out individual growths but I was particularly impressed by the Latour which stood right out in a blind tasting of Médoc first growths and surprisingly in St. Emilion the Ausone was absolutely outstanding and must certainly be one of the very best wines  made in this Château since the war, a very definite rival this year to Cheval Blanc, while in Graves both Haut Brion and La Mission promise to be excellent.

When you don’t want to drink Latour during the week, how about some cheeky second growths:

Amongst second growths of the Médoc, the ones which impressed most favourable at this stage were Leoville Lascases, Leoville Barton, Lynch Bages, La Lagune and Brane Cantenac, from which it can be seen that very successful wines were made right through the region.

Overall, the 1975 vintage wine was a huge relief for everyone in the wine industry – except for a large number of firms. There was too much 1974 stock in the cellar. And 1975 was a good  time to buy a Chateaux by the number of “for sale” signs:

The undisguised and justified joy in the birth of such a robust and promising infant as the 1975 vintage unfortunately cannot dispel or conceal the basically unhealthy state of the Bordeaux market. A large number of firms have been, or are, in trouble.

The vintage assessment does not have the same swagger as writing today. For better or worse. Then again, this really was the golden era for copywriting:

wine advertising 1976

Mad men

The more things change, the more things stay the same. What to drink if you are born in 1975 (other than Bordeaux)?

  • Tuscany (especially Brunello di Montalcino)
  • German Riesling
  • Champagne (perfect for a birthday party!)

Have you tasted any wines from 1975 recently? Please leave a comment, to let us know how they are faring.

Article by David Peppercorn MW, Decanter magazine September 1976

Chablis food pairing at The Chancery London

Mineral is a loaded word in wine circles. Someone will always ask reproachfully, “Have you actually tasted a mineral, or are you really talking about acidity; if you are talking about stones, how do you even know what a stone tastes like??” Well, yes – yes I have. I know the taste of pulverised oyster shells fossilised in rock. Last Wednesday at The Chancery for a Chablis dinner, I gave this Kimmeridgien stone a good lick while nearly mistaking it for the bread.

kimmeridgien

We are at The Chancery for a three-course dinner devised by chef Graham Long, and where I had a very nice chap sitting next to me.

“WHY O WHY do you want pain in your wine?” the nice chap asked as we sat down at our places. I think he was talking about acidity. Apart from my jaded palate needing a good jolt now and again, the good vintages of Chablis have excellent acidity, which means it can deftly handle any food thrown at it and then throw some interesting flavour shapes back. Combined with texture and weight, it is why good Chablis is, as our host Douglas Blyde says, the supreme food collaborator. 

Reservations

Well, let’s see – I had my reservations. A whole night drinking Chardonnay is not my idea of fun. And Chablis can be a little bit hit and miss.

Either the vintage is wrong, and instead of a finely-etched poem on the back of hard precious metal that you will treasure forever, it is flabby and forgettable. Or the producer is lazy. It’s one of those names that sells itself and so, rather than bowing down and kissing the unique gift of geology that Chablis producers are blessed to have inherited, it can be abused and over-produced.

From the very first crab beignet and wine thrust into my hand, I knew this evening was not going to be about the latter. Although the Chablis region has been shaken recently: very few white Burgundy producers have had enough volume over the past few vintages even if they wanted to produce a cynical excuse for booze.

2012 Vintage

The best recent vintage in Chablis is the 2010 vintage. There is very little of this around now. The 2011 vintage is an early drinking style. Moving on: the 2012 vintage has the power, perhaps not the same finesse, and is fuller bodied. The richness is even apparent in the Grand Cru wines that are surprisingly drinking well now.

Most of the Chablis pain in 2012 was for the growers. Most of the vines were wiped out by Mother Nature in this vintage, along with the rest of Burgundy (knowing the vintages in Burgundy does not always help with understanding Chablis: this may be a Burgundy but it sits detached from the Côte d’Or – about an hour and half drive north from Dijon. It seems more reasonable to look at vintage conditions in Champagne to get an idea of the style). Volumes are small. In wine speak, that’s your cue to stock up where you can.

For the wine lover, the best Chablis is a delicious type of pain, as a Chablis fanatic will say to you with a twinkle in the eye. Not to get too 50 Shades of Grey, but the fondness for acidity in some circles can get a little masochistic. The best have a taste that is austere, there’s a lack of fruit, and you will experience a whiplash of mineral.

Terroir is Everything?

Let’s go back to the first wine of the evening. The Petit Chablis Dauvissat-Camus 2012 is a premier cru killer.

Dauvissat-Camus Petit Chablis 2012

Normally Petit Chablis can be a shallow little thing, an after-thought in a vintage, and too often its role is filling the gap in sales from a small vintage. Petit Chablis comes from outside town, away from the famous Kimmeridgien soils, but in the hands of Dauvissat this one was a triumph. For a winemaker that insists on “terroir is everything,” he is surely underselling himself with this Petit Chablis. His winemaking may have a little to do with its depth and song.

The Dauvissat was a tough gig to follow. The wines ascended in appellation as the evening progressed from humble Chablis AOC to Premier Cru to Grand Cru status. Then a pair of wines from each Cru-level was matched with a course.

This was not the classic Chablis food pairing of oysters or rabbit in mustard sauce. The flavours presented by the Chef, Graham Long, were modern, complex and intricate. But will we taste the purity of the wines over the myriad of flavours?

Salmon Tartare at The Chancery

Tartare of trout, poached apple, nettle puree, macadamia nuts and trout eggs

The Jean Marc Brocard, Montee de Tonnerre 1er Cru 2011 didn’t quite have enough breath (or breadth) to reach the heights of the 2012 vintages showing on the night – this is an early-drinking style of vintage without the strong acidity that is needed for a dish like this. Whereas the cool and mineral Val de Mercy, Beauregards 1er Cru 2012 navigated the competing flavours easily.

For the Grand Cru Chablis flight we had two famous vineyards – William Fevre, Les Clos Grand Cru 2012 and Samuel Billaud, Les Preuses Grand Cru 2013.

Roasted quail, cannelloni of the leg and foie gras, sweetcorn, hazelnuts, pickled mushrooms and garlic

Roasted quail, cannelloni of the leg and foie gras, sweetcorn, hazelnuts, pickled mushrooms and garlic

If elegance is refusal, as Coco Chanel once said, then the best Chablis shows it can knock back most. No unnecessary flavours in this wine, no flouncy fruits or masking oak, this is drinking in the minimalist fashion.

Grand Cru Chablis can get to the state of purity where there is almost no fruit flavour other than stone, oyster shell, pure mineral spring with an added long and creamy finish. As you would expect, the Grand Cru wines had no problem handling this complex dish.

Lesser wines could have buckled under the pressure of so many competing flavours, but these wines even managed to show off their own personality, as if to say, “thank god I have a proper challenge instead of being seen as just another aperitif wine.”

Yes, Chablis is the classic aperitif wine. Something to drink after work or with friends. But it can also be so much more. What food pairs well with Chablis? There is no one answer for such a versatile style of wine. This dinner shows it depends on the vintage, the age of the wine, and the producer.

 

Menu

Aperitif

2012 Dauvissat-Camus Petit Chablis

Truffle arancini and crab beignet

Chablis Course

2012 Garnier & fils, Grains Dorés

2014 Louis Moreau

Marinated raw hand dived scallops, cucumber jelly, avocado cream, sesame fill and shiso dressing

Chablis 1er Cru

2011 Jean-Marc Brocard, Montée de Tonnere

2012 Val de Mercy, Beauregards

Tartare of trout, poached apple, nettle puree, macadamia nuts and trout eggs

Chablis Grand Cru

2012 William Fevre, Les Clos

2013 Samuel Billaud, Les Preuses

Roasted quail, cannelloni of the leg and foie gras, sweetcorn, hazelnuts, pickled mushrooms and wild garlic

Mature Chablis

2003 Domaine Pinson, Chablis Premier Cru Fôrets

Selection of British cheese, Neal’s Yard Dairy

Thank you to Douglas Blyde for hosting a great evening at The Chancery Restaurant.

5 Best Wine Tastings in London – June 2015

Make the most of what London wine shops have to offer in June – taste with visiting winemakers, cruise to new regions and experience aged-wine flights of fantasy.

Do check beforehand, spaces are limited and bookings are essential.

 

1. For a holiday in the Med without leaving town

Theatre of Wine – Adriatic Cruise: Croatia

Croatia is a diverse and complex wine country, but you would be missing out if you did not try some of the powerful whites and smoky, umami flavours in the reds. This is an expert tour from a shop that knows their wines from this region.

Date: Thursday, 4 June (Tufnell Park and Greenwich), 7.30pm – £32

 

2. If you want to be in on the next big thing in wine

Kensington Wine Rooms – An Introduction to Austria

Recently I have noticed my friends in New York banging on about Austrian wines on their instagram and twitter accounts. Discover what all the fuss is about at this relaxed event.

Date: Saturday, 6 June, Kensington, 5pm – £25

 

3. If you are obsessed with Nebbiolo 

Vagabond Wines – Single Grape Focus: Nebbiolo

Some may say that Nebbiolo is a lifetime project. This grape can provide some of the world’s most exciting (and expensive) wines that are worth the patience. Smart then, to find out as much as you can. This tasting is a good place to start.

Date: Wednesday, 10 June, Fulham, 7-9pm – £40

 

4. If you want to meet one of Australia’s loveliest winemakers

Bottle Apostle – Mac Forbes visits Bottle Apostle

All the way from the Yarra Valley in Victoria, Mac Forbes is one of Australia’s most exciting new winemakers with influences from his many travels. Definitely worth popping in and tasting the excellent Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.

Date: Friday, 12 June, Victoria Park Village shop, 5pm – free

 

5. If aged Rioja makes you happy (and hungry)

The Sampler – Mature Legends of Rioja with Rose Veal Hot Dogs

The Sampler has a series of tastings with hot dogs. The tasting will “include La Rioja Alta 890 1955, La Rioja Alta 904 1964, CVNE Vina Real 1959, Paternina 1959, Monte Real 1952, Monte Real 1964, Glorioso 1978, Tondonia 1980, Solar de Samaniego 1970 plus more”. These guys know their aged wines, it should be a fun night.

Date: Wednesday, 17 June, South Kensington shop, 7pm – £110

How to spot a fake wine

“Of all the old wine bottles that show up on my social media feed, how many of these are fake wine?” asked a wine buyer friend at a long Saturday lunch, “someone should have Maureen Downey take a look.”

Call Maureen Downey, the Sherlock Holmes of wine, with her tool box of magnifying glasses, blue lights, razor blades. In this fascinating video for Bloomberg, the top wine fraud investigator explains how she judges whether a wine is a fake wine or an authentic bottle. And how she breaks the bad news to her clients.

What’s not to love about 2014 Loire wines


Wines from the Loire are not for everybody. Except for the super-refreshing sparkling wine, made in the same way as Champagne, that starts every meal we had on the long weekend staying in Saumur. Or the bright pink Pinot d’Aunis rosé everybody in town seemed to be drinking, from flat-capped pensioner to gangly teenagers, in the local pub off the busy Saturday morning market. Not everyone would think of a Saumur-Champigny red with a sirloin steak like they did at the local Argentine restaurant – it’s an elegant crisp red rather than the usual full-blown Malbec. That’s a shame because the wines are packed full of fruit, especially the reds. Loire wines seem to be polarised between the natural wine crowd who love to fetishise grapes (fair enough) and the rest who have to wade through a lot of bottles, but when finding the bottle, re-confirms its classic status. There is a lot to love about the 2014 vintage.

The constant rain over the long weekend meant our original plan to cycle along the Loire river had to be cancelled. Instead, we visited an excellent local shop in Saumur and bought some under 20 euro bottles to get a feel for the latest vintage. The 2014 red vintage reminds me of 2009, a bit of flesh on the bones and as an aside, the 2009 Saumur-Champigny is delicious if you can still find it.

Le Dilettante Vouvray and Cheese

 

The unfinished symphony: On reviews from en primeur tastings

Listening to an interview with Philip Glass while driving home from the Loire got me thinking about recent discussions on completion in wine, in particular, assessing unfinished en primeur samples.

 

There was a story of one of Glass’ early performances. An audience member walked up to the stage where he was playing his new piece on the piano and banged down Glass’ piano lid in disgust.

 

When Glass retold the story on a BBC radio3 programme on the weekend, he admitted he did not like it, but he accepted the audience had their own reaction to the new style of music (and that it never really happened anymore). He was reminded of his mentor, John Cage, and his idea – it is the audience that completes the music.

 

After every en primeur tasting season in Bordeaux or Burgundy, the question comes up: how worthy are assessments of wine from a tank sample? It is a fair question if you pay for a wine reviewer’s report based on wines that are unfinished.

 

Neal Martin (The Wine Advocate) and Chris Kissack (Wine Doctor) seem to be in agreement on Kissack’s Wine Doctor blog post that Bordeaux en primeur should not be tasted blind because it is “about understanding the wines and understanding the vintage.”

 

It is good to know where they see the limits of their judgement on tank samples. But when the same wines will be reviewed again in the bottle a few years later, isn’t it better to simply wait to judge a wine in the bottle? At least the impact on the prices would be less speculative.

 

Customers In Real Time

 

Of course, that is not how en primeur works – someone along the chain takes the risk on the unfinished wines in one way or another. It’s a neat system where payment is made upfront to the producers and the wine drinker pays for the privilege to access the wines.

 

Once upon time, customers took the risk and the value increased. The old idea: great risk brought great reward. That has not been the case recently when the prices have been what you would expect to find in a retail shop. Then the customer is told that the wine reviewed is based on a wine that is not the same as the final product? That’s more than just risk, that’s changing the rules of the game.

 

Some wine reviewers, quite rightly, believe this process should be less opaque. Consumers would like to know if it is a tank sample (and what that means) when they are researching to buy a wine (and paying for a subscription to read the review). The wine reviewer can only do so much but it should, at the very least, be remembered the role the reviewer plays in the en primeur process – it is advice for the wine consumer.

 

What is a finished wine?

 

The simple answer is when it’s finished. All wines are only ever really completed – in the Philip Glass sense – when it is opened and the bottle is empty.

 

When looking at scores and reviews, remember all en primeur wines are in a fragile state. Even more so than when the wine is finally bottled. It is more of a problem with Bordeaux en primeur; Bordeaux is tasted at only 6 months old, while Burgundy is closer to 15 months – a little longer, but Pinot Noir can still be quite fragile at this age. Caveat emptor, of course, but it is also a good opportunity to meet the people behind the wines.

 

(It does not rate wines still en primeur, but, as an aside, that is why the reviews by the crowd on Cellartracker are so fascinating. It is watching the lifetime of a bottle through the eyes of its owners. Once there are a few comments on the same wine, it shows (in real time) how wine is truly completed by its audience. But, unfortunately, this is not a luxury for the en primeur buyer who must depend on a wine reviewer or wine merchant rather than the wisdom of the crowd).

 

 

photo credit: C Scale notation via photopin (license)

5 Best Wine Tastings in London – May 2015

Are you ready for May, London? It’s a busy month for wine lovers. Whether you want to learn about the basics of wine, find something a little more quirky or experience some of the most vibrant minds in the wine world, there’s a tasting here that will put a spring in your step. Here are my choices for the five best wine tasting events in London in May.

All are open to the public – but with limited spaces, booking ahead is essential.

 

 

1. If you want to start a cellar 

 

Decanter Bordeaux Fine Wine Encounter – St-Julien Masterclass

Decanter magazine’s Grand Tasting is now sold out but tickets are still available for the masterclasses. If you want to start a cellar then this masterclass will have you up to speed with the wines of St-Julien – the favourite appellation for traditional English “claret’ drinkers. Hunters and tweed optional.

Date: Saturday 9th May, 11am

Address: Landmark Hotel, 222 Marylebone Road, London NW1 6JQ, UK

Price: £85

 

 

2. If you want to go with the flow this summer

 

Vagabond Wines – Rivers, Vines and Wines

“The influence of rivers on vineyards is well documented. We only need to mention such fluvial names as Loire, Rhone or Mosel and our thoughts turn to grapes, glasses and good times.Taking inspiration from some of these rivers we’ll present you with an incredibly wide-ranging array of wines. If eclectic drinking is what you like then there’s a definite need to attend this session.”

Date: Wednesday, May 13, 7pm

Address: 18-22 Vanston Place, London SW6 1AX

Price: £35

 

 

3. If voting in the upcoming election is not enough

“We pit the two against each other, tasting Greece’s liatiko against Italy’s nebbiolo, fruity agiorgitiko alongside tangy sangiovese, while zippy xinomavro goes up against herby Bardolino. A winner will be announced!”

Date: Tufnell Park – Thursday 14 May; Greenwich – Thursday 14 May, 7.30pm

Address: Tufnell Park shop: 124 Junction Road, N19 5LB; Greenwich shop: 75 Trafalgar Road SE10 9TS

Price: £28

 

 

4. If you want to know what the cool kids will be drinking this summer

 

Tutto Wines Spring Tasting 2015

“Features dozens of tiny growers from across Europe, some of whom you will rarely see outside of their own vineyards. We are bringing along Antonio and Daniela from Cantina Giardino, Nadia from Cascina Tavijn, Cristiano Guttarolo, Filippo from Lamoresca, Gianmarco from Le Coste, Marco Buratti of Farnea and Manuel from Vinyer de la Ruca. Gergovie have folks like Bouju, Babass, Calek, Klinec, Petit Gimios, La Sorga, Aurelien Lefort and plenty more coming along. There will be food from the guys at 40 Maltby Street, cold beer and good times for all.”

Date: Saturday 16th May

Address: “The tasting will take place in an old business park in Bermondsey.” Visit Tutto Wines website for more details: Spring Tasting

Price: £10

 

 

5. If you want to know everything about natural wine but without the headache

 

RAW Fair 

“More than 1000 different (natural) wines from 195 producers… With new wines launching and unrepresented producers attending, RAW will be the only place in the UK to taste a number of the wines at the fair… As well as wines, you’ll find like-minded artisan producers of spirits, beers and cider.”

Date: Sunday 17th May, 10am-6pm

Address: F Block, The Old Truman Brewery, 83 Brick Ln, London E1 6QL

Price: In advance – £30 (1-day access)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Wine with Seafood

Thank god for social media because that’s how I recognised the Thomas “Braemore” Semillon on the menu at North Bondi FishThis is the best wine with seafood I’ve had for a while. For people who know the usual drum beat of Australian wine, this particular Hunter Valley Semillon may be unrecognisable. The delicate and clean flavours can seem barely perceptible; but, this is what makes it work so well with the silky flesh of wood-fired Yamba prawns, creamy Moreton Bay bugs, fresh scallops or lobster linguine. The texture is a like for like. It’s as essential as a lemon cheek for seafood, and as decadent as stolen lunch hour at the beach. Taste it once and you want it again. In fact, we returned to the restaurant the next day to do just that. Brilliant.

*

Clever marketing can make you buy the first time but not the second time. Australian wine marketing has worked very well at the cheaper end of the wine market for a long time. Perhaps because it’s a land of long distances where messages have to be clear and succinct as a smoke signal to get from one side of the planet to the other. It delivers what is says; it’s not a complex message at the lower prices and there’s not much too lose for the customer (which can’t be said about all fine wines). Marketing is not how I knew about this wine, however – it was through twitter, word of mouth, and the trusted recommendations from wine friends: I agree with my old boss Nick Ryan, this is a “cut above”.

 

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Sydney Rock Oysters and Thomas “Braemore” Semillon 2014

 

Practical Details

Thomas “Braemore Semillon 2014 winery notes

Review by Nick Ryan

Price RRP $AU30

 Stockists 

Related Post: The Mysterious Lady: Hunter Valley Semillon 

What is your best wine with seafood? Leave a comment below – I’d be really interested to hear your recommendations 

 

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Moreton Bay Bugs at North Bondi Fish

 

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Wood-fired Yamba Prawns

 

 

How Bordeaux 2014 is like Kate Moss

Despite owning the world’s media focus for over 20 years, how much did we really know about Kate Moss at the height of her fame?

Yes, we saw photos of leaving parties in Primrose Hill, the hazy wedding photos and the terrible boyfriends. But unlike other celebrities, she never talked about her personal life even when her image was everywhere. No interviews, no salacious tell-alls after the scandals, and only until very recently, no celebrity television shows. All we had was her turning away from us in the Rimmel TV ad with a four-word parting shot in her Croydon accent, “Get the London Look!”

In the last couple of years, Kate Moss has lifted the “Kate Moss media embargo” on herself. And it’s…. (and I’m talking as a big fan over the years) it’s just not the same. No more guessing – we now know what she thinks or doesn’t think. That’s not what we want from our supermodels! We want the old cool Kate even if that is an impossible expectation for any human being to live up to for so many years. But we don’t want her to be any old human being. Just as people who buy expensive Bordeaux don’t want any old wine.

Until recently, the spin from Bordeaux has been relatively quiet for this time of year. That’s good, I thought to myself, tone it down a bit. Keep the mystery. Let people fall in love with it again instead of making them feel they are kissing a fool. Then in today’s Drinks Business Magazine:

“Bordeaux 2014 declared ‘Miracle Vintage'”.

And what is the “miracle”, according to Nicholas Glumineau of Roederer’s Bordeaux Estates? “The unusually fine weather from late August until mid-November.” Allegedly, the 2014 vintage is close in style to the 2010 vintage.

Begging the question, will it also have the high prices of the 2010 vintage?

The hyperbole from Bordeaux before an en primeur campaign just doesn’t help anyone. A mature fine wine market like in the UK has seen this all before. The vintage of the century, anyone?

Without the hyperbole, Bordeaux 2014 campaign could have cooled down to “Kate Moss” levels. And I don’t mean lean and glamourous. Just give us a little more space for seduction. As Kate would say, “Get the London look!”

Then again, after the recent open letter from the UK wine merchants, maybe Bordeaux Chateaux are not looking at London at all.

 Update: For a more balanced view of the Bordeaux 2014 vintage one month after this blog post – see Bordeaux 2014: Chateau hail strong vintage but market pressure buildsGlumineau in Decanter Magazine adds “I’m not saying that 2014 is another vintage of the Century”.

Burgundy Young Guns

The generation shift happening in Burgundy is one of the great trends in wine with a new set of Burgundy young guns coming through.  

One explanation is the way Burgundy is distributed through the en primeur system. 

Allocations in Burgundy are based on loyalty and loyalty takes time. If there is one thing about the winemakers from Burgundy, they are extremely loyal – to the land and their long-term customers. 

Often we see when the generation changes hands, the younger generation is dissatisfied with the old ways and changes their negociant.

Or the producer is bought by a bigger fish, for example, Faiveley buying Dupont-Tisserandot when Didier Chevillon retired. As Burgundy adopted the Napoleonic system of inheritance, vineyards are either inherited or, with increasing prices, bought by larger companies (although we have yet to see this on the same scale as Bordeaux. With a string of low yielding vintages, time will only tell).

When both generations are working at the same time in the winery you have a rare dynamic: experience coupled with a fresh perspective. Since 2007, Celine Fontaine at Fontaine-Gagnard has been taking more control of the winemaking from her father and the wines have been surging ahead over the past few years.

There are many examples of the baton passing over to the younger generation in Burgundy over the past few years: Gregory Gouges at Domaine Henri Gouges; Charles von Canneyt at Domaine Hudelot-Noellat; and, Maxime Cheurlin at Domaine Georges Noellat have all taken over the vineyards and domaine from their family. 

Surprisingly, it is the way their grandfather made wine that is their ideal – low interference, minimal chemicals and working with nature.

Bucking the trend of keeping it all in the family, Benjamin Leroux is considered the heir apparent to Henri Jayer – yet, unlike many in Burgundy who have inherited vines, he works very closely with growers and makes wine as a negociant. A son of the florist, rather than the recipient of a Grand Cru vineyard trust fund, he took over winemaking at Domaine Comte Armand from his old mentor, Pascal Marchand. Big shoes to fill for any young winemaker – let alone one that is only 24 years old. His first wines in 1999 were hailed as stars of the vintage.

Another common denominator to the new generation is their experience of the wine world outside of Burgundy.

Not only have this young generation more likely been trained in wine business at university, but they also have considerable experience working vintages across the world. At Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux, the son of Pascal Lachaux, Charles, has completed his oenology studies as well as work experience in Oregon, New Zealand and South Africa.

The latest Burgundy young guns bring technical knowledge and an enthusiasm for their traditions. This is good news for Burgundy lovers who can have the best of old and new.

 

See more thoughts on Burgundy

Where the Wine Tastes Better

Some thoughts on wine marketing.

When I first started in wine, it was a few weeks after September 11. I worked on the weekend shifts while answering calls from customers and selling a few extra cases at the end with a commission for $2 each per case. It was a creative place, full of actors and musicians working on the phone, many people did not know much about wine. What they did know was people. What I learned then is something that has stayed with me all this time.

And it is why I am not interested in being good. I am interested in great.

There are three types of companies out there at the moment with respect to wine marketing – (1) people who are doing it well; (2) people who are not doing it well; (3) some who don’t believe they need it at all.

Let me tell you what I think wine marketing is, it is very simple, and it is a verb:

To make wine taste better.

It is the affect of good marketing but we’ve all experienced this idea. Most often on holidays when we are relaxed. Take the same bottle home you enjoyed while away on holidays and, in the clear light of grey, the wine tastes as dreadful as it really was. You have made the wine taste better through a good experience. Does that make the wine, or the experience, wrong if you have enjoyed it?

The truth is taste is subjective – even for those that give objective-looking scores. Yet tests show that  recommendations have an affect on the sales of wine and it can go some way in helping the bewildered wine customer feel good about their choices. It is not so much about the wine critic itself but the psychology of advertising, too – since the beginning of Madison Avenue, celebrities have put their name to products. Even before that, it is the power of anecdote and recommendation.

Top sommeliers instinctively know wine can taste better with their recommendation, too. If they are doing a good job then the experience of them being there adds to the taste of the wine. They make the wine taste better.

Sales people know this when they have their loyal customers who keep coming back to them. How many times I have heard, “So and so sold me this wine and he’s a good chap.” Someone once told me that they almost hoped for the first sale to go wrong. Then they could take a bottle of champagne over to their house as a sorry gift. With such a high level of customer service is it little wonder why they become a customer for life.

Every piece of marketing needs to be about making the wine taste better for the customer –  and that is also the experience of wine. The grand old dames of the wine trade in the saintly street in Piccadilly arguably do more marketing, and better, than anyone else. Their heritage makes the wine taste better for their customers – it gives them reassurance even if they use sophisticated digital marketing and apps. Give their customers the same wine from another company and they may very well spit it out in disgust.

What makes wine taste better? It is a good experience in all dealings with the company. But it is not a standard formula. You must think! About your customer and what makes a good experience for them.

What about fine wine marketing companies that sell wine like stocks and bonds? Many of their customers have been left with less valuable Bordeaux and a bad taste in their mouth. It is also why when we suddenly see some of their offers on wines from “other regions” it does not ring true. This is changing by sheer persistence, although very gradually.

The wine world, now so transparent on the internet, makes wine companies boiled down to one thing: the price. This is a hard place to work from. Ask the supermarkets.

There are many ways of applying this test but this is my basic rule*: what makes the wine taste better.

Everyone is an expert (much like wine) and strangely and sadly, even less think of the customer. But if you are not bringing customers and wine together for a good experience, then what exactly are you doing?

* Apart from my blog, which is always about breaking my own rules!

 

Chinese Year of the Mouton

What lies in store for Mouton Rothschild in the Chinese Year of the Ram? With the recent record-breaking ex-cellar auction in Hong Kong, it certainly has been an auspicious start. Let’s looks at the steady rise in price of the 2000 Mouton Rothschild vintage for clues. 

During Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, the menu is not just about the food. Each food also symbolises good luck. Favourites include sticky rice cake, which sounds phonetically similar to “higher year”, or raising oneself higher, and dried oysters – or haoshi – sounds similar to the term, “good business”.

This year, the good fortune extended to the recent Sotheby’s auction of Mouton Rothschild cellar in Hong Kong, to coincide with the new year celebrations of the Year of the Ram, where it doubled its pre-sale estimate to fetch HK$32 million (£2.7 million).

Just a few years ago, it was Lafite Rothschild that turned heads to Asia. But the price of Lafite has fallen dramatically. It is more than two years since Lafite Rothschild has been on an upward trajectory. Where every other first growth from the 2000 vintage have fallen in price over five years, Mouton Rothschild 2000 is edging upwards – and is now beating the pack at around £14,000 per case.

Other than the 2000 vintage, the other top vintages for Mouton Rothschild have not fared quite so spectacularly. The 2005 Mouton Rothschild, with exactly the same Robert Parker score as the 2000 vintage, is valued at around £4500 per case. The 2009 and 2010, have fallen in value, yet have higher scores. Why has this particular vintage done so well?

Mouton Rothschild 2000

That it is solely because of the black and gold label of the 2000 Mouton is unlikely. It certainly helps the Mouton Rothschild auction in Hong Kong was held in the run up to the Chinese New Year of the Ram. But the Sotheby’s Cheval Blanc ex-cellar sale in the Year of the Horse in June last year did not have as much luck.

This is a steady rise rather than sharp jump as in 2011 when demand from Asia was at its greatest (followed by the wane of interest starting in February 2013 when the Chinese government introduced ban on giving “gifts’ to officials).

As the astrologers would say, the sheep is a steady and gentle creature and 2000 Mouton Rothschild has played to form. The first growth has bucked short-term external market pressures or critic’s points. The auction was a result of work done by Baroness Philippine de Rothschild over 25 years, the proceeds to fund the Foundation for the Arts named after the matriarch who passed away last year in August. Presented by her son, Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, the estate’s new chairman, along with his brother and sister, the united and long-term approach is more indicative of what the Chateau is doing right.

And taking a longer term view of the market will avoid some of the pitfalls experienced over the last few years by buyers and sellers alike.

As the 2000 vintage is drinking well now, we hope many bottles of Mouton 2000 are enjoyed this year.

Gong Xi Fat Chai 恭禧發財

 

Prices from Wine Searcher at time of post. First published for Cru 18 February 2015.

Riesling Trocken 2013 by Rebholz

There is something wry and world-weary about dry Pflaz Riesling. The mineral quality is so self-effacing that it would not surprise me if it preferred to keep company with the young and effervescent sparkling mineral waters at the dinner table rather than the serious conversation of the old cellared reds and the over-caked whites.

I want to use the word “refreshing” for 2013 Trocken Riesling from Rebholz – the master of the Pfalz – but that term would feel far too energetic and youthful. It reminds me of a very strange party I went to for a 90 year old customer who had never done anything more than polo in Argentina – this wine makes a party out of random people as it stays fascinated in everybody. Sliding up to fancy chicken wings or pretty little nori rolls so it can provide the erudite chat. Not everyone can be devoted to the inconsequential so seriously, so sincerely and for so long. This wine outlasts them all.

mineral and cool 

Reto by Ponce

 

Fashion photography, much like most wine writing, can focus too much on the facts for my taste – shoes, hats, dress, size, price, perfunctory smile and twirl – and then, there is the photography that makes everything “rich and strange“.

This is the photographer, Guy Bourdin: his exhibition is currently on at Somerset House in London. His posters stare back at me every night on the tube on the way home from work. The effect of his photography on the senses during peak hour is like seeing an elaborate window display of pastries when on a sugar-low.

Although Ponce (pronounced Pon-the) is the winemaker on everyone’s lips at the moment, from his cool spot in Manchuela in Spain, I was blissfully unaware of the wine facts when I tasted Reto. It is big, wintry white wine that some may dismiss as easily as puff shoulders and flouncy gowns. It is big but this Albilla (the grape variety) is certainly more precise than a Chardonnay from the 1980s.

Not everyone wants lean and mean and I believe there is a secret group of people who want a bit of richness, a bit of strangeness, a bit of drama. Reto, means “challenge” in Spanish, and this certainly puts up a good argument against certain French wines found on restaurant wine lists at the same price (about £30). If you can find this wine (it’s a small production, but it certainly is in restaurants in London, and I hear, in Australia) and you are thoroughly tired of white wines made by scientists filtered through the spin of copywriters, then this is for you.

 rich and strange

A little Dolcetto at lunch

dolcetto

The Dolcetto d’Alba  Vignevillej from Brovia at Trullo restaurant in Islington.

Dolcetto is a fantastic lunch wine, and a good one should be able to step in when the (Barolo) boss is away and do a decent job. This Dolcetto d’Alba Vignevillej from Brovia does this and more – it has all the easy satisfaction of a lunch wine and a pretty violet colour, but can cut through a beef shin ragu, particularly the one at Trullo restaurant in Islington that has been cooked so long the meat has an incredible creamy texture.

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Lebanon Diary – From Beirut to Paris

Overlooking the electrical storm over Beirut from my hotel room*, the city is peaceful. The rain has forced me back to the hotel. It is peaceful on the streets and for a Saturday afternoon it looks too quiet. Most of the people on the streets are either army or kids playing soccer on the empty roads. Especially around the park where families of 24 army who have been kidnapped by IS last month are occupying to demand action.

In the farmer’s market there was a stall for the excellent Domaine de Bargylus from Syria being served with oysters. It was scene that could have easily been from one of my weekends in London. Although I am not sure how the wine crossed over the mountains into Lebanon. The market is between the new “Souk” shopping centre area controversially built on the destroyed ancient souks of Beirut. And a striking old building that was once a Press that is now just a facade pock-marked with bullet holes.

It is almost impossible to not talk about the politics when talking about the wine. It is all around you. This week has been an education in the modern history of Lebanon as well as the religious sects. This is terroir in widest definition possible – where land includes the geopolitical landscape.

Beirut knows how to party. Last night we walked along Gemmayze where people are spilling out of bars onto the street. One tiny bar after another crammed on one road. We found a seat at a small place called the Dragonfly where it feels like a throwback to another time. The art deco panelling and the fan on the roof lazily on, the place is full of people drinking cocktails.

One of the vintages that keeps standing out amongst our tastings is the 2006 vintage. “Ah, that was the war vintage,” a few people have said wistfully. Most of what I know about the war has come from the people here, and some snippets on the news that invariably blur into one big “Middle East” so I don’t feel too qualified to talk about the regional politics in depth. (Andrew Neather visited the Syrian refugee camp for the Evening Standard). If I put myself in their shoes, I can’t help but wonder how it would be to try to sustain a business when there is so much instability. To be a winery in the Bekaa Valley is to believe in wine against the odds.

Over the summer in 2006, the Israeli army bombed sites across Lebanon in response to Hezbollah. Bridges and structures, the dairy factory and the Bekaa Valley. There were not exports and imports in that year. It is a testament to the wines and the people that a vintage was even made. Many were unsure that there would be a vintage. The wines show tension in more ways than one…

People refer to the war but there have been many wars in Lebanon. Akram at Chateau Ka refers to the Lebanese Civil War (from 1975 to 1990) when he speaks of the winery razed to the ground and starting again. This is also the war we are referring to at Domaine des Tourelles when we tasted their red from 1976. It was still standing, defiantly as a testament to wine over war.

To get a glimpse of the flavours of Lebanon, look at the entry level wines. While winemakers have been busy with making the top wines iconic, the entry level wines often show what happens when the grapes speak for themselves about the land and are unhindered by too much oak. If oak was a traveller it would be the colonial English with the linen suit and Panama hat. It transports itself to new lands and makes the local fit in around it. It makes the wine dress as other wines, and perhaps this is what the winemaker wants.

When asked about indigenous grapes, it is worth noting that French grapes have been used so long in Lebanon that they have become part of its history. The grape with the most history is Cinsault, a difficult grape to tame with oak and needs to be treated delicately in the winery. The Jesuits brought Cinsault, along with Carignan, into the country from Algeria and then distributed to the locals. A lot has been ripped up in the 1990s, but I would argue to bring it back if the ageing potential of the Domaine des Tourelles is anything to go by.

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Flavours of Lebanon – warm, brown spices

Some instances of where the land spoke and they also showed the capacity to age:

Chateau Kefraya Les Bretèches 2008

The land speaks in this earthy wine with warm earthy spices that may be in the same family of other warm spices in Lebanese cuisines, such as Cumin and All Spice in lamb kibbeh. Tasting this in a vertical, it shows how the good acidity from the high altitude in this region develops over time into freshness and lift.

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Chateau Kefraya

Domaine des Tourelles Red 2011, 2010, 2006

Syrah, Cabernet and Cinsault. The 2011 is the most young and upfront, sweet and savoury characters on the nose, lead to full dark cherry characters on the palate with fine tannins. The 2010 is a typical vintage – stronger, richer, powerful the fruit is pure and mineral. Silky and easy to drink – it is a balanced wine. The 2006 showed complex butchers block, mineral, dark olive characters, it reminded of a Rhone at the same age.

Chateau Ksara Le Souverain 2006  

A slight smokiness gives an edge to the soft and pretty fruits. Everything is well balanced and integrated with a long aftertaste of dark cherry on the finish.

Ixsir Altitudes White 2014

A blend of Muscat (60%), Viognier and Chardonnay this is a modern, clean style of white apero wine that has exotic aromas similar to the food flavours found in Lebanon – orange blossom, rose water, Matiche. This can handle complex and full bodied foods and spices but also had as an aperitif. Another white, but with less polish and more depth is the Domaine des Tourelles blanc.

*

On the last night at the bar at The Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut we tried a selection of wines that we did not get on the trip. Other wines that I had on the trip worth mentioning is the Wardy, a white Obediah, which is one of Lebanon’s only indigenous varieties. It had excellent texture and body and a brilliant wine with complex sweet and sour flavours. We also had a small winery called Atibaia 2009, from up near Bhatroun this has all the freshness and warm earthiness of the Bekaa Valley but with excellent finesse in the tannins. The night finished at the excellent Chez Liza (which also has a branch in Paris) with 2013 Domaine des Tourelles, 2009 Bargeylus from Syria, and a martini with orange blossom.

* I started this post in Beirut, but with a jam-packed itinerary and few minutes with wi-fi I am finishing this post on the Eurostar to Paris for Burgundy En Primeur tastings. I am now enamoured with the people, food and wines of Lebanon and hope to be back again soon. I sincerely wish them peace.

The winemakers may agree with me, that we all want to Make Wine not War. Thank you to Wines of Lebanon for taking me on this journey across a wine region that has so much to offer the wine lover.

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“Make food not war”

 

See other posts:

Lebanon Diary – Day 1

Lebanon Diary – Day 2 

Lebanon Diary – Day 2

TourellesWhat is Lebanese wine, especially from the Bekaa Valley? What is Lebanon? Everyone is still out drinking Arak at Domaine des Tourelles, but I wanted to come home and write it all down before I lose it in an aniseed haze.

It is amazing what happens when you don’t have a phone. Your eyes become the camera. Today was the first day I saw the Bekaa Valley in the light. The two mountains that cradle the valley are Mount Lebanon (towards Beirut) and the Anti-Lebanon mountains which form a natural barrier with Syria. Breathe it in – the bright white and bare soils on the hill behind the wineries that look almost biblical. So barren in parts after 1000s of years of civilisation, it is hard to imagine them ever having the luxury of trees.

We stopped at Chateau Ka first for breakfast. We had Knefe (sweet cheese with rose water and orange blossom syrup in a bread roll) and Mankouché (za’atar and sesame seeds on warm pitta bread) which we stuffed with cucumber, tomato and mint – perhaps a little slather of labne. In an industrial park, this winery means business. These are wines that you can find at Waitrose and Virgin Wines. They also have a new beer and state-of-the-art brewery where they make Beirut Beer. Only two months since launch, you can find this at Maroush cafés in London.

You can imagine this family sitting around the dinner table discussing the company. The sisters look after the winery and the father and brother is working on the new brewery. They also have an alco-pop business, capturing the Saudi market for young boys who want to stand around bars but can not drink. A smart business strategy as anyone who runs a winery knows how much money needs to be ploughed into it.

My favourite wine of their range is not the “prestige wine” but a wine that can be found at Waitrose, Source de Rouge 2012. The oak is dialled down, unlike the rather intense Fleur de Ka. Fleur de Ka is in the classical old style French oak that is matured in 18-24 months French and American oak. You can find this wine at Abu Dhabi duty free. Strong and intense.

Already I was picking up a trend about the Bekaa Valley.

When we left, the owner Akram Kassatly wanted to say, “I sincerely hope we have peace.” In the middle of a new winery it is hard to conceive that over the mountains there is a bloody and unpredictable war going on. For a business person like Akram, and most people I spoke to today, the war stopped their plans in their tracks.

Even a winery like Chateau Ksara. Here is a place with 2 kilometres of caves (a natural wonder, much like Champagne) underneath the winery that was once owned by Jesuit priests in 1857. They have survived so much over 158 years, including the Ottoman Empire. Looking out over the front of this impressive winery onto the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the owner Zafi says, “No one knows what their plans are….”

Chateau Ksara

Chateau Ksara

The winemaker at Chateau Ksara is James Palge who previously worked for Prieure Lichine (Sasha Lichine of Whispering Angel Rosé fame). He was only meant to say for a week but ended up staying over 20 years. Is it any surprise that Lebanon do excellent Rosé? The weather and cuisine are made for it. Especially the salads with bright pink pomegranate seeds.

It is always impressive walking through a cave of stored, back vintages piled up and covered in a black cotton wool fungus. There have been a few Italian wineries that have all their best vintages depleted. You can only understand a wine through tasting through the back vintages – especially fine wines. It is also losing some of your heritage.

This was not a problem as Chateau Ksara go back to 1918 in the reds and 1937 for the sweet wines. We were fortunate to open a bottle of the sweet wine for the cellar – a 1937 Macabeo Grenache Blanc. It tasted like the a liquified creme brûlée. I took the precious glass to lunch where we were generously had a four course meal in a very peaceful dining area with skylights. I like to stick to one wine at dinner, and this was the Le Sourverain. Only 10,000 bottles made, it is blend of  Cabernet Franc and Annarnoa (Petit Verdot cross with Merlot), it is slightly smokey and dark cherry with a good tannic structure and freshness.

Another few points for Bekaa Valley: freshness and ageability.

They can be big “Southern French” blends but they have a lift and freshness all their own from the high altitude in the Bekaa Valley (about 1000 metres). It has 1 metre of clay and then calcareous soils – this maintains the water against the bright light and reflection of the area.

The last stop on our trip was Domaine des Tourelles. An atmospheric Chateau which has retained all its original features (and native yeasts). Everything, as much as possible is kept in a traditional way.

Domaine des Tourelles

Domaine des Tourelles

One of the best (and funniest) tastings I have been to in a while, we sat in young Faouzi Issa’s office to taste back vintages of Domaine des Tourelles. He had spent time at Chateau Margaux – we joked about the fading yellow walls being very similar. And a few other jokes that are bit more… better ask me in person.

There are three main wines: Domaine des Tourelles (Cabernet Syrah Cinsault, unoaked), Marquis de Bey (polished, se.xy) and Syrah du Liban (full blast 100% Syrah). The question was: how much of this is the expression of the region and how much is oak? And does it really matter, if oak is needed for ageing…

For me, the unoaked Domaine des Tourelles red was a glimpse of the land. This is powerful fruit but not masked with oak. It would seem natural to have oak on big wines but after tasting the 1976 Domaine des Tourelles it shows that it can age (an historic year for Lebanon during the war). The 2006 was further developing its minerality into a butcher block and meaty way.

Domaine des Tourelles

1976 Domaine des Tourelles red

And then we finished with Arak with aniseed that is mostly grown in Syria. And that is where I ended the night. I don’t want a headache when we visit Byblos, the oldest continuously lived city in the world.

Domaine des Tourelles

Old door and future new caves at Domaine des Tourelles

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Domaine des Tourelles

Even the phone remains the same at Domaine des Tourelles

Dinner at Domaine des Tourelles

Dinner at Domaine des Tourelles

Lebanon Diary – Day 1

I am writing this in a hotel on the Road to Damascus. The actual road, which is called – wait for it, I am not joking – Damascus Road. I am on the “Frontiere Syrienne” and the town of Damascus is only ten minutes drive away. I feel though I will have a Damascene moment… any moment. I am here to taste some Lebanese wine.

Je suis arrivé au Liban. لقد وصلت في لبنان

Don’t the customs people give a good indication to a new country? If I ran a country I would put the customs staff on PR training. And taxi drivers, particularly those who hang out at the airport. Luckily we have a very nice chap called Tony who will drive us around and will be able to help me with my very (very) basic Arabic. The customs officials have been amusing, if not flirtatious.

I was asked twice if I also had a Lebanese passport, which is the nicest welcome I have had in a while. Apart from holding up the group who were waiting patiently at the baggage claim, I was delighted.

When we entered the hotel in the Bekaa Valley, they had a Christmas tree up and decorated. We are in the land of the cedars. The flag is a Christmas tree, why would you not want to decorate it in beautiful baubles. Apart from the cypress in Italy, the Lebanese cedar is one of my all-time favourite trees so I am happy to see it dressed up.

The country is 3.8 million people – not including the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the south who take it up a notch. The lights have gone out a few times tonight in the hotel. On the plane, there was a section on the in-flight magazine called “Business Opportunities” – about the lack of free water and water systems. This is something I would like to talk to the wineries about… I have not even set foot in a vineyard and there is plenty of talk about how the environment here is under stress. Talking to Michael Karim, an expat who returns to Lebanon as unofficial ambassador for wine – the landscape has changed.

The beauty remains in the people. Lebanon must have one of the biggest and most brilliant expatriate communities for such a small country (recently in the spotlight, the woman who married the actor George Clooney, human rights lawyer – Amal Alamuddin). And then there are the flavours, which is what I am here for.

Tonight we had a simple mezze in the hotel instead of going out for dinner. Andrew Neather wanted to try wines that we were not going to see on this trip tonight, so we found Hochar 2007 Chateau Musar, Chateau Khoury 2006 hidden in the bar (not on the menu). Platters of tabbouleh with mint, beef kebabs, brilliant hoummous and baba ganoush with mint and pomegranate. Growing up in Australia, I did not realise tabbouleh or labne were particularly Lebanese it was so much part of my life. Now I am at the source and it is somehow like finding a long lost relative.

The dinner revolved around the get-to-know-you gossip. Have you met so and so new girlfriend? Did you go the Gigondas masterclass the other day and hear the argument? (I didn’t but went to the brilliant dinner afterwards of 20 year retrospective of the region, which I will write up – stay tuned, it was rather incredible).

There are four more days of wineries in the Bekaa Valley ahead. This is a interesting group of people with plenty of their own stories to tell – and, of course the wines, of which only 8 million are made per year, each with their own story to tell, too. If you want to know more, stay with me. As long as there is a wi-fi I will be there. And now the lights have gone out again in the hotel…

bon soirée!

 

 

The Sauce on France

Surely that is not Tottenham Court Road but the Champs-Élysées? Douglas Blyde almost had me believing we could see Paris when we arrived for his L’Hexagone (France) tasting on the 33rd floor of the Paramount building.

“If I didn’t have wine in France I would be gasping of a bottle of Tobasco. The wine is the sauce,” he says. This is one of my favourite ways to think about wine. It doesn’t have to be more complex than that – although we had some brilliant wine and food matches all evening. In particular, Ceviche with Cave de Turkheim Gewurtztraminer from Alsace. Did you know that the Vosges mountains in Alsace has the biggest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants in the world?

I digress. We started off with a racy (my notes say, risky for some reason – let’s go with that) Domaine du Haut Bourg Muscadet. There is a growing sentiment amongst wine friends that Muscadet is most underrated and its time has come. Although we all like to feel that we can beat the system (so good! so cheap!) and you do get a lot of wine value for your money. It’s like the first breath of fresh air when arriving at the coast after too many months in London.

My favourite wine of the evening was not the Angelina-Brad Miraval Rosé (although it was onion-skin perfect – maybe too perfect) but from outside of the L’Hexagone: the Corsican red, Faustine. With a rather pale colour that defied its complexity, and smoothness that is nothing like the Corsican coast if this really was a sauce it would be light and spicy Tobasco (minus the heat, of course).

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Faustine

The rest of the evening became a bit of a blur as we all went to Quo Vadis for some cocktails – one called Mi Casa Su Casa… oh dear. It was two days before the event I had been organising with the Union de Grands Crus des Bordeaux for 105 Chateaux so I was a bit exhausted – but I am always happy to hear the sauce on our French neighbour, especially from the most saucy and stylish of storytellers, Douglas Blyde. (Can I say it, can I say it? Oh go on then) Ooh la la. 

What drives a Wine Collector?

Recently I read an article in the New York Times about a Brazilian bus magnate who’s buying up all the world’s vinyl records.

This mysterious collector has record shops sending him semi-trailers worth of vinyl then hires interns to “bring logic” to his collection. He has even gone through therapy to try to understand his obsession.

Beyond the money and the status, beyond the need to taste everything and “lick the dust, that is to say, love earthly pleasures” as Pascal wrote, beyond even love for wine – 

Why do some people collect huge cellars of wine and then sell it all?

I am not talking about buying a few cases of en primeur every year. Or those who who sell for financial or space reasons. What I am talking about are collections that include every wine from one vintage, or every vintage of one wine. And more.

The question often crosses my mind as I watch the lots come through Christie’s. Today there is a bottle of Dom Perignon 1985 featured. Five bottles per lot. What happened to the sixth in the pack of six?

Did the sixth bottle smash in transit? Maybe a bottle had been kept aside for someone’s 30th birthday next year? I hope it was accidentally opened by a teenager when the parent’s were away sometime in 1995. At least one bottle was missing, hopefully enjoyed – but that’s a drinker’s point of view, rather than that of a collector.

The most famous recent example is Sir Alex Ferguson selling his wine collection at Christie’s Hong Kong.  But it is when complete cellars are sold at auction, without any extenuating reasons, that intrigue me the most.

When it is not just about collecting wine (or vinyl or butterflies or matchboxes or stamps). It is also about the obsession to possess, to catalogue and to control the world through a collection.

The guilty confession on Collector’s Frenzy from another record collector about why he had a “large, if not huge, record collection.” It does not become about the music anymore, “the album package can be as important as the music pressed into the vinyl.”

Then some sell it all. Just like that.

It may very well be true that for compulsive collectors, as for the Brazilian bus magnate in the New York Times, that “there comes a time when a collection gathers weight — metaphysical, existential.”

When wine is no longer the subject.  It becomes pure object. And all the consequences of that.

 

 

Image: Georg Oddner, Venice, 1957