Now here is a story: red wine from the most white-wine-orientated region of France.
And yet the truth is that pinot noir has always been a grape variety planted in Alsace and what’s more, it is my opinion that the 2011 vintage produced some lovely Alsace reds.
A Little History
As curious as it may seem, pinot noir was the first grape variety to be mentioned in Alsace. It can trace its roots at least as far back as the 8th century and maybe further still, predating the arrival of the riesling grape by some 700 years. Alsace wealth and prestige peaked at about the time of the Reformation, and at that time the reds where probably on a level footing with the whites. Many Alsace villages gained a reputation for its reds, such as Rodern, Saint-Hyppolite and Rouffach.
General decline set in with the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War. There were then periods of reconstruction (sometimes under Germanic tutelage, sometimes French) but then more war until the final liberation of 1945 settled the issue.
During all of this time, pinot noir continued to be grown but the skills needed for top red-winemaking was largely gone. Moreover, pinot vines were rarely planted in good spots, these being reserved to the top white varieties.
My first taste of Alsace pinot noir was uninspiring, pale, watery and thin. There were exceptions from some of the great houses such as Léon Beyer and Hugel and it is thanks to these top names and others too that the revival started.
The turning point was probably the 1990 vintage when Alsace pinot noir really began to acquire depth and colour. New plantings of pinot were now frequently of Burgundian stock and the climate getting ever warmer was also having an effect.
Today there are nearly 1,000 hectares of pinot noir in Alsace out of a vineyard total of 15,000 hectares. And things are looking up, with better vintages, a generally warmer climate and a growing list of producers willing to make top-quality red wines in a land of whites.Alsace Grands Crus
When this appellation was created 40 years ago, the reputation of pinot noir was perhaps at its lowest and so the grape was not included in the new scheme. Alsace Grand Cru is reserved for riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat with one grand cru, Zotzenberg, authorised for sylvaner.
The good news is that there is likely to be one or two grands crus for pinot noir. That will take a little time but when I was there in February work was already in full swing. The village of Rouffach was always famous for its reds and the best comes from the slopes of its grand cru ‘Vorbourg’. There are many pinot noir producers on the Vorbourg but the best is René Muré, whose wines we will be buying
Styles of Alsace Pinot Noir
There are essentially three styles here. The pale rosé style continues to be made and is locally quite popular. Sometimes this is very pale, sometimes more like a very light red.
Among the reds proper, the debate rages somewhat over how to age the wines. To oak or not to oak. The old style, exemplified by Léon Beyer, is to age the reds in large foudres of old oak so there is no oak flavour. The more modern approach follows the Burgundian way of doing things using small oak barrels, sometimes with some new wood. Alsace pinot noir is about delicacy and charm so extraction has tended to be short and gentle. But red wines are creating excitement in Alsace and there are more than a few growers with real ambition for the reds.The Alsace Flute
Alsace is one of the few regions to stipulate a shape for its bottles. All Alsace wines have to be sold in the traditional Alsace flute, which tends to be green (see photo above). And that includes the reds though there is pressure for change as unquestionably red wines would look better in Burgundian-shaped bottles.
Drinking and Keeping
There are truly exceptional wines that will keep 10 years or more but by and large Alsace pinot is for drinking relatively young – up to five or six years. Generally, the wines are light in style and go well with cold meats, poultry or ham. In exceptional vintages, such as 2003 and 1990, pinot noir can produce wine with much more depth and character and become fabulous with game.
The 2011 Vintage
A very warm spring and a fine Indian summer did well for the pinot noir grape variety. The wines have colour, fruit, and a generally ripe, rounded flavour. The characteristic fruit flavour to describe Alsace pinot noir is kirsch or cherry, thought can change if the wine has been aged in barrel. (Previous fine red vintages include 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2000 and 1998.)
Society Buyer for Alsace
These recipes, while hopefully of use and interest to all, were written with the summer 2013 selections of The Society’s Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme particularly in mind. Voted Best Wine Club by Which? Magazine, Wine Without Fuss offers regular selections of delicious wines with the minimum of fuss. Why not join the growing band of members who let their Society take the strain, and are regularly glad they do?The variety show currently on offer to Wine Without Fuss subscribers – so many grapes, so little time to peel them! – make me yearn for the Mediterranean, not so much the bobbing waves but the quieter hinterland where farming takes over from fishing, the landscape is dotted with ancient olive groves and the air is pungent with wild herbs. I think wistfully of markets heaving with goodies we can only dream about at home – less a matter of ingredients, more of the perfect ripeness and concentration conferred by the sun. The difference it makes to a simple courgette is phenomenal, and as for tomatoes, don’t get me started.
We have become accustomed to year-round hothouse-grown peppers and aubergines from the Low Countries and to call them vehicles would be to insult minibuses. I still recall Financial Times cook Philippa Davenport’s memorable description ‘Dutch dullard’ whenever I see an impressively large and glossy but essentially vapid ‘obo’ at the greengrocer’s and I wonder why we import tasteless aubergines when we could produce them under glass ourselves.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed home-grown offerings at farmers’ markets, including designer varieties like the wondrous lavender-striated Pearl which seem to have a bit more about them. Armed with the best olive oil and most patrician sherry vinegar I can lay my hands on, I’m ready to take myself off to the sun with a colourful and classic Spanish salad.
In his book Cook España, Drink España, Michelin-starred chef Mario Sandoval quotes an old Catalan saying that the purpose of eating together is to have a conversation, and that food simply gives you something to do with your hands while talking. I defy your guests not to be rendered momentarily speechless by the sheer tastiness of this delightful dish, even if the odd dullard has sneaked into your shopping basket.
MARIO SANDOVAL’S ESCALIBADA DE VERDURAS
Traditional Roasted Vegetables
Wine recommendation: fruity reds made from garnacha or tempranillo, and rosés made from these varieties work brilliantly. White wines should be gutsy and full and Mediterranean in feel. The white grapes of the Rhône – marsanne, roussanne, viognier, grenache – deliver on all counts.
3 red peppers
1 whole garlic bulb
Salt to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sherry vinegar (optional)
Fresh dill, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F, Gas Mark 4). Wash and dry the aubergines, peppers and tomatoes, and place in an ovenproof dish with the onion and garlic. Drizzle over some olive oil and sprinkle on a little salt. Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes until tender (the onion requires the most cooking). Remove the dish from the oven and set aside to cool.
When warm, peel the vegetables, tomatoes and garlic cloves. Cut the aubergines and peppers into fine strips, and the tomatoes and onion into segments. Keep all the vegetables separate from one another. Dress each with plenty of olive oil, and a few drops of sherry vinegar if desired, then set aside in the refrigerator to chill.
On a large, flat plate, assemble a round vegetable ‘tart’ about 29cm (8in) in diameter. Arrange the strips of red pepper around the outside, and then, working inward, a ring of onion segments aubergine strips, tomato wedges and finish with a pile of soft garlic in the centre. Cut it into 4 portions and use a cake slice to transfer the slices to individual plates. Garnish each with a sprig of fresh dill.
From Cook España Drink España by John Radford and Mario Sandoval (Mitchell Beazley, 2007)
Janet Wynne Evans
Specialist Wine Manager
How many wines cost £10 or less but can age for 10+ years?
A few well-known styles spring to mind (German riesling, some but by no means all Beaujolais..), but a ubiquitously happy hunting ground is seldom assured.
Indeed, for some wine lovers, part of the fun in drinking mature wine comes in the form of the happy accident: unearthing a forgotten-about bottle and finding it to be unexpectedly symphonic, as opposed to Sarson’s. Society buyer Jo Locke MW has written in this blog about her experiences of this on more than one occasion.
Then there is Tahbilk Marsanne, that weird yet distinctly wonderful Australian white with which many Society members will be au fait, whose remarkable track record means that it requires no such wine-rack roulette.
Unlike many ageworthy wines that enter ‘dumb’ stages of unremarkable dormancy, I have yet to encounter a vintage of Tahbilk Marsanne that hasn’t been a joy to taste at any time of its life; but the chameleonic brilliance of an aged bottle is undoubtedly something special.
Last week, spurred by an unexpected sighting of sunshine over the south-east of England, a rummage in search for a nice white yielded a dusty bottle of the 2007 vintage. Its contents were anything but dusty, shimmering with lime and life with some subtle, nutty complexity and a gorgeous richness underpinning the fresh-fruit flavours.
A good time was had by all and I was reminded of Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW rightly describing Tahbilk Marsanne as ‘one of wine’s great gifts to the world’.
Although crisp, accessible and delicious, it is nonetheless a difficult wine to describe. For one, because it challenges many preconceptions surrounding the term ‘new world’. The marsanne vines here date back to 1927, making them older than any known in the grape’s traditional home, the Rhône Valley.
Its ‘old world’ attributes turned British heads as far back as 1953: served at a luncheon for the Commonwealth Heads of State in the House of Commons, it was described as ‘drier than Empire whites usually are….and could stand up to many Continental wines for flavour and genuineness.’ An antiquated but accurate summary, and however radically Australian wine has changed in the intervening years, today’s Tahbilk Marsannes are not dramatically different from the style that was served back then.
Whilst ‘new world’ is of course a useful term up to a point when discussing Australian wine, estates like Tahbilk, with a history stretching back to the 1860s, warn us that we take the phrase on board too literally, and with its accompanying baggage, at our peril. If only all warnings could be as pleasurable.
But what if you can’t be bothered to keep a bottle of wine for 5-10 years, or, like an elderly gentleman at a recent tasting claimed, ‘don’t even buy green bananas let alone wine to lay down’?
Help is at hand. Unsurprisingly, another fan of the wine is The Society’s buyer for Australia, Pierre Mansour, who has been keeping some back stock in our cellars. The current Australia regional selection, which closes on Sunday, includes a six-bottle mini-vertical case of Tahbilk Marsanne for £59, featuring two bottles each of the 2007, 2006 and 2002.
There are difficult vintages and there are difficult vintages. From the Californian drought of ‘77 to 2003s scorching European heatwave via the Bordeaux washout of ‘92, Mother Nature finds a variety of ways to test the mettle of both vine and man the world over.For most winemakers the common worries of a vintage concern the weather: too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet and/or a multitude of other combinations. Throw in a host of generally unpleasant diseases that prove troublesome to the vine and a tricky economic climate and the winemaker’s lot is not always a happy one.
But then of course there is the other kind of difficult vintage, those where man despite all the elements being in balance does his utmost to throw a spanner into nature’s carefully constructed works.
2006 was one of those difficult vintages for Lebanese winery Chateau Musar. Indeed at Chateau Musar difficult vintages can sometimes be translated as dangerous vintages.On July 12th the troubles that had blighted Lebanon through the latter part of the last century rose to the fore once again with the start of the 34-day conflict with Israel. Over 1,300 people lost their lives and approximately half a million more were displaced, and serious damage was inflicted to the country’s civil infrastructure.
Given such circumstances the team at Musar could have easily been forgiven if they had decided to look to their own safety first and leave the grapes hanging on the vines while the conflict raged around them. The grapes were harvested safely thanks to the dedication and bravery of the vineyard workers.
But sadly such adversity is not new in a country plagued by over 15 years of civil war and Chateau Musar has a proven history of shining when the days are darkest. Incredibly only two vintages were missed during the war years of 1975–1990. That the Musar winery is located just outside Beirut makes this achievement all the more astonishing. Indeed, the journey from their vineyards in the Bekka Valley to the winery is a particularly dangerous one, following a route known to be used by Hezbollah and in times of war often subjected to shelling by artillery.
Much has been written about Musar’s enigmatic figurehead, Serge Hochar. He was Decanter Magazine’s inaugural man of the year in 1984, and today in his 70s he still exudes energy and travels extensively. His eldest son, Gaston, named after his grandfather whose name appears on the label and who founded the winery in the 1930s, now looks after the day-to-day running of the estate and while of a different, perhaps calmer character to his father, he shares the same passion that that has propelled Musar to become a wine of worldwide acclaim ever since its emergence onto the international wine scene back in the late 1970s. Both men are engaging, unique and deservedly well renowned throughout the world of wine – qualities that are also rightly used to describe Chateau Musar itself.
The Society was one of the first merchants to import Chateau Musar into the UK, and we are delighted to announce that both Serge and Gaston Hochar will be visiting our premises in Stevenage as part of our Grand Day Out event on May 19th. They will be pouring wines and talking to members as well as hosting a masterclass showcasing several Musar vintages.
A fitting opportunity, then, to raise a glass to this remarkable estate and to pause and reflect on the dedicated and sometimes quite incredible efforts that go into making great wine.
Marketing Campaigns Manager for Lebanon
Recently I received these fantastic photos from Michael and Paul Brajkovich from Kumeu River, source of our Exhibition New Zealand Chardonnay and perhaps the finest producers of chardonnay in the country.
These pictures were taken on 12th March at their Hunting Hill vineyard, where Paul Brajkovich says ‘Quality is outstanding but unfortunately the quantity very low due to spring frost. As you can see… the fruit is beautiful (pity we do not have more of it!). ’ Michael echoed these sentiments: ‘Everything looking really good here if very small. 2013 has potential to be even better than 2010!’
Society Buyer for New Zealand
This was the Society workshop that many had been waiting for – a tasting of what is reputed to be the best sweet wine in the world, Château d’Yquem, hosted by The Society’s buyer for Bordeaux, Joanna Locke MW.
A group of 48 happy members tasted their way through eight vintages of Yquem, starting with 2003 and finishing with the 1954. I must confess at this point that I had never been lucky enough to try Château d’Yquem before. I’d heard so much about this liquid gold that I was slightly apprehensive that it might not live up to the hype that surrounds it. However, I was not disappointed. Even in ‘lesser’ vintages, the sheer quality was apparent.
Château d’Yquem was recognised as being pretty special in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, which saw the creation of a ranking system based on the wines market price at the time. Awarded the status of ‘premier grand cru superieur’, Château d’Yquem continues to be recognised as producing the best dessert wine in the world.
Though sold in 1999 to the luxury goods company LVMH, Yquem is still managed by the family and in 1998 Sandrine Garbay was appointed as cellar manager – a rather daring move in a very male-dominated world perhaps, and one which has proved to be a success.
The greatest vintages are those which have been affected by noble rot, a rather unattractive mould which leads to a biochemical process in which the volume of water in the grapes is reduced, leading to a loss of water and a concentration of sugar, whilst retaining the high acidity that gives the wines their freshness and stops them from being leaden on the palate. Unlike other properties in Sauternes who pick whole bunches affected by noble rot, Château d’Yquem pride themselves on picking the grapes individually; the must is then fermented in 100% new oak barrels for 36 months.
As with any great wine there is a lot of vintage variation with the wines of Château d’Yquem: the levels of residual sugar vary, as does the colour, particularly if the weather was warm towards harvest. There are also, as became evident during the workshop, differences in style due to the quality and quantity of noble rot present in each vintage. Whilst some of the wines showed better than others and we all had our own favourites, which of course all differed, this workshop was an amazing opportunity to taste this world-renowned wine. At the prices some of these wines now command, this is quite possibly the only way I would be able to try such treats.
Y de Yquem, 2000
Château d’Yquem’s dry white was included in this tasting as a little ‘extra’. This was an interesting wine, reminiscent of white Rioja in style. It is a wine of two halves – the first round of sauvignon and semillon to go into the blend were picked early to retain their crisp acidity and primary fruit character, then after the grapes had been picked for their sweet wine, a second round of late-picked, fully ripe semillon was added to the blend to give the wine added body and richness. Incredibly complex, with some citrus, white-peach and pineapple fruit and nutty walnut and caramel notes (partly from the oak ageing, partly from some oxidation), long length and fresh acidity. I could see this being a bit of a marmite wine – you either love it or you hate it. I loved it.
Château d’Yquem, 2003
2003 was a plentiful, highly regarded but atypical vintage with a very warm summer producing super-ripe grapes. The grapes were not affected by noble rot, but achieved their concentration of sugars due to dehydration, being left on the vine after the vine had started to go into its winter dormancy. As such, the vintage was picked in one pass through the vineyard (the average vintage takes six passes to pick all the botrytised grapes). This gives a wine which has a purity that you don’t sometimes get with botrytis, but also lacks the complexity botrytis can give a wine.
The 2003 had a mid-gold colour, with an intense nose with notes of honey, blossom, peach, apricot, creamy citrus and nuts. On the palate the wine was intensely sweet but beautifully balanced. Honey, toast and nuts, with cream, apricot and peach. Clean and refreshing, with high acidity, high sugar levels (147g/l of residual sugar) and typically for Sauternes, highish alcohol (14%).
Château d’Yquem, 2001
Considered to be a great Sauternes and Barsac vintage. The botrytis was prevalent this year and took hold quickly, ensuring healthier grapes that were not affected by undesirable grey rot, and a faster concentration of sugars in the grapes.
Again pale gold in colour with notes of honey, toast, peach and apricot, hazelnut and a touch of the medicine cabinet (a good thing: an indicator that there has been botrytis) on the nose. The palate had all of the above, with great complexity and very long length. Intensely sweet (150g/l residual sugar), beautifully complex and utterly balanced, this was perhaps the star wine of the workshop? The 2001 is still very young – the French consider it to be infanticide to drink Sauternes younger than 10 years old!
Château d’Yquem, 1999
Golden colour with some peach and apricot, creamy hazelnut and honey on the nose. Fresh acidity on the palate with marmalade notes and a little bit of bitter orange peel on the long finish. The quantities were small, and the quality good, though 1999 is not ranked amongst the best vintages. This wine is drinking well now.
Château d’Yquem, 1996
More old-fashioned in style, the 1996 does not have the reputation of other vintages and the quality is less consistent. It took five passes through the vineyards to pick the grapes for this vintage. With 122g/l of residual sugar, this wine lacks the fresh acidity present in the other vintages and is quite high-toned (has a lot of volatile acidity) in style. There is peach and apricot kernel here, with hints of mushroomy complexity (sign of botrytis).
Château d’Yquem, 1988
Not a heavily botrytised year – botrytis arrived late and was not consistent, therefore the wine has more purity than in more heavily botrytised years.
The wine has a deeper, more golden colour than previous wines. Brown sugar, golden syrup and honey on the nose, with a little bit of volatile acidity which adds complexity. There is very fresh acidity, with the usual creamy peach and apricot fruits, some walnut and floral notes, and excellent length. This is a beautifully balanced wine.
Château d’Yquem, 1986
1986 was made in the same style as 1996, but the noble rot was more consistent and therefore the resulting wine is much more complex. In addition to the peach, apricot, walnut and honey and fresh acidity, a few of us picked up a slight blue-cheese note, with the medicine cabinet lurking in the background. This wine had the second-lowest residual sugar levels of the workshop with just 97g/l.
Château d’Yquem, 1981
The property had high hopes for the 1981 vintage, which were unfortunately ultimately unfounded as the vintage only proved to be of modest quality and now lacks the freshness that other vintages displayed. Deep gold in colour the wine has the creamy, nutty peach and apricot flavours of the other wines, with some hints of blue cheese and good length.
Château d’Yquem, 1954
1954 was picked in two passes through the vineyard. A golden, tawny colour with nutty walnut and slightly oxidised notes, the 1954 is (unsurprisingly) starting to take on aged characteristics rather like a tawny port. In spite of its more advanced age, the 1954 still shows remarkable freshness, great length and has a lovely complexity. The residual sugar in this wine is 85g/l. A vintage in decline? Perhaps, but a real treat to have the opportunity to taste.
Tastings & Events Co-ordinator
Today was my first taste of the new Exhibition Crozes-Hermitage since it arrived in Stevenage and I have to say that I was quietly very impressed.
The trouble about the Exhibition range is that the wines chosen for it have to be better than just good and rightly or wrongly I felt that what we had done up til now was good but maybe not the benchmark that the Exhibition label demands. And so I kept on looking.
The ‘Eureka’ moment came inthe autumn during a meeting with Nicolas Jaboulet at his new office in Valence. Nicolas is the son of Michel Jaboulet who was last in charge of the family firm before the sale to Jean-Jacques Frey. Nicolas entered the firm and was quickly given responsibility of the UK market and with it The Wine Society account. Things didn’t go as planned. The Jaboulet family had invested big sums on new cellars and vineyard and there was not enough cash in the bank when two members of the family decided to walk.
All that is history now. For Nicolas there was a time for reflection, an unwelcome bout of illness and, since the 2007 vintage, a completely new direction, when he decided to go it alone and start his own négoce company. This wasn’t easy at first but luck was on his side. For a start he got technical and financial support from the Perrin family of Beaucastel. A joint venture was created adopting the compromise name of Nicolas Perrin. But also, Nicolas as a member of one of the most respected families in the Rhône Valley, suddenly found he had loads of friends and loads of people happy to sell him wine.
Back to my meeting in Valence. I tasted all the 2011s which were lovely but the Crozes was absolutely stunning. 2011 as a vintage could be good but not always, and over the weeks that I had been in the Rhône from September to November, I had tasted lots of indifferent Crozes. But Nicolas’ wine was exceptional. It comes from lots of growers, including all the top names. This wine I thought would be perfect for the Exhibition label and so we began talking. And then another bit of luck as an American customer pulled out. This was my opportunity to get my hands on something really quite special and fully worthy of the Exhibition label.
How does the new wine differ? Already just the aroma is different as Nicolas’ wine has more intensity, brightness and purity. The taste matches the smell: greater intensity and finesse and much better length.
Crozes- Hermitage is the most important appellation in the northern Rhône, accounting for well over half the production. A good Crozes is an essential requirement in any merchant’s armoury and I think this fits the bill to perfection. I would love to hear your views.
The new Exhibition Crozes-Hermitage is available now, priced at £12.50 per bottle.
Society Buyer for Rhône
A big spring clean, as it turns out, to get this venerable company fit for 2014, when it will celebrate its 150th year in business.
In every wine house there is always a room set aside for old labels. As a record of a great wine house’s activities over the years, there is nothing quite like it short of the bottles themselves. There is nothing simple about labels as it is much more than just the name of the wine and the producer. There are legal requirements and these will change according to where the wine is being sold, so one wine may need half a dozen labels or more, and most houses will keep records of every one.
The label room at Alfred Gratien did need, in all honesty, a little bit of sorting out and at last, as part of the extensive transformation at the Château Gratien site above the Loire in Saumur, that has come.
The result is that they have found The Wine Society’s very first label dating back to the 1906 vintage:
It seems that every grape has its day in the sun these days and today it is the turn of malbec. This is the third year now that the world has united to celebrate the great grape of Argentina and the grape behind the ‘black wines of Cahors’ in France’s South West.
Find out more about this variety (which is also known as cot or auxerrois) on our recently posted GUIDE TO MALBEC in the new Wine World & News pages of The Society’s website. If you happen to have a suitable bottle at home and have been looking for an excuse to crack it open…today’s the day!
Against expectations, Society buyers Joanna Locke MW and Tim Sykes find themselves genuinely excited and impressed by 2012 clarets.2012 has produced a Bordeaux vintage full of surprises. From properties that did, genuinely, make better wine this year than last, to wonderful cabernet-dominated wines in a generally more merlot-oriented vintage, our first week of tasting the grands crus and much else besides was a fascinating one.
We began with a ‘ok, impress me’ attitude, and found ourselves, well, impressed! As already noted on Grapevine, thus far the vintage has not received a great deal of comment, let alone hype, which is not only refreshing but all to the good for we buyers. Top-end Bordeaux has honestly risen to the 2012 challenge and cleverly kept its counsel on this one, allowing trade and press to make up their own minds. The general mood during UGC week, amongst a turnout of visitors not quite up to the numbers for the celebrated 2009 and 2010 vintages but pretty much in line with last year, seemed to be one of positive surprise sprinkled with genuine enthusiasm. A US buyer whose palate and opinion we respect used the analogy of childbirth to describe the long labour required for success in 2012 but (mostly) joyful end result that is parenthood!
We will be honing our main offer shortlist over the next few weeks, including during a second week of tasting in Bordeaux, but our first, pre-order offer of many of the most prestigious, sought-after, and exquisite wines will be online later in April.