I am part of a group, originally formed by Clive Coates, now retired, that meets twice a year to taste Burgundy blind from bottle.
The group comprises journalists Neal Martin (e-Robert Parker) and Neil Beckett (World of Fine Wine), and wine merchants Roy Richards (formerly Richards Walford), Jasper Morris (BBR), Zubair Mohamed (Raeburn Fine Wines), Lindsay Hamilton (ex Farr Vintners), Giles Burke-Gaffney (J&B), Julie Richards (own company), Jason Haynes (Flint Wines), Christopher Moestue (own company in Norway) and Adam Bruntlett (BBR).
The process, its challenges and rewards:
We last met in September to taste 244 red premiers and grands crus Burgundies from the 2013 vintage, arranged in 38 flights, where the identity of flight is known, perhaps Pommard Rugiens, but not the producer.
It is probably the most useful, informative and challenging tasting of the year. It is very difficult to line up a comprehensive selection of Burgundy because the wines are so rare and in such demand they disappear into wine lovers’ cellars as soon as they are sold. We mark out of 20 and then discuss the wines before revealing who made them. Everyone shares their knowledge and views and I learn much from my peers during this tasting.
Burgundy is very challenging to assess. Marks may vary considerably between scorers as Burgundy is one of the most diverse wines in terms of style. Partly because the owner is usually winemaker and viticulturist, rather than a hired hand as is more usual in, say, Bordeaux, you get risk-taking owners each with their own view about how to make wine. This is why we recommend you choose producer before appellation.
As a taster you are confronted with a wide range of styles and you have to judge a wine’s quality, how it will develop and its character (ie. whether the wine is typical of its appellation).
How do you mark a rich, dark, oaky and powerful wine in an appellation like Chambolle, which one expects elegance and grace? It often comes down to a philosophical view of what one expects from a particular appellation and a judgement of how it measures up.
Just looking at the colours in a single flight they can range from black, usually a sign of over-extraction of colour and tannin, or oxidation, to very pale and light, often a sign the wine was made with whole bunches. Wines made with whole bunches absorb the colour in the stems, hence the pale colour, and are usually softer and less acid as potassium in the stems precipitates some of the acidity. But if done badly with underripe stems one can get a load of green, harsh tannins on the palate. Whole-bunch wines may smell a little vegetal in youth, but can develop a remarkable aromatic complexity with age.
One can see how an enormous variation in opinion can develop if one considers just the aspect of wines made with whole bunches compared to destemmed wines. There are those who like wines with whole bunches as they believe they are capable of a type of aromatic complexity with bottle age that destemmed wines are not. Others are not so keen, and see any green, herbaceous aroma as detrimental. A very light wine can be divisive as some admire the purity and delicacy while others may judge it as a good wine now yet perhaps without the ability to mature and develop further complexity.
Conversely, a dark wine, perhaps with significant presence of new oak can split the group, some looking to the future and betting it will come round while others decide the contrary. In one’s mind ‘demons’ can encourage second guessing! Is this one of those superb producers whose wines show their ugly side in their youth, but develop into graceful swans later, or is it just badly made?
Whilst the marking is of interest, the great benefit of tasting as a group are the discussions we have about these wines after marking and before we reveal who made them. The group contains some brilliant Burgundy experts who generously share their knowledge and experience. Listening to how members of the group judge and reason can be very instructive and revealing. It is a wonderful learning environment.
Seen by some as the best way to taste, blind tasting has its advantages and disadvantages. It is at is most useful where one is comparing like with like, which is how our tasting is arranged with wines from the same vintage and cru or a small mix of similar crus. However, even with 6-9 wines, the usual size of the flights, one must beware of how the order of the wines can influence your tasting. If you taste a big and powerful wine followed by a lighter wine, unless you have ‘perfect pitch’ (ie the ability to re-gauge your palate after tasting each wine), you may perceive the light wine as much lighter than it in in reality as you may be making a ‘relative’ rather than ‘absolute’ judgement by comparing it to an unusually powerful wine.
The French call the big wine that succeeds in blind tastings la bête du concours, the beast of the tasting competition. Particularly during a long tasting, when one may become a little tired, and tannin build-up can affect one’s tasting where red wines are involved, one is less well able to judge the more delicate and elegant wines. I have been to celebratory competition dinners where the prize winners are served and while one sip can be impressive, occasionally one doesn’t want to have a second glass of the crowned champion! Sometimes less is more and too much is too much! I usually taste in one order, and then again in a different one. Finally, after marking them, I go through the flight again in ascending order of points awarded.
The results: what came out well?
2013 was a cool year with significant hail in the Côte de Beaune, so generally is was the richer, fuller appellations that did best. Nuits-St-Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée stood out. Global warming has really benefited Nuits-St-Georges, especially the southern premiers crus which are more tannic. The extra heat is softening and sweetening the tannins. Vosne-Romanée was very successful, both at premier and grand cru level. As a group Echezeaux, not always our favourite appellation, showed very well.
The top 20 red Burgundy 2013s as marked by the group were as follows, in descending order:
• La Romanée, Comte Liger Belair
• Romanée St Vivant, Follin Arbelet
• Richebourg, Domaine Jean Grivot
• La Grande Rue, Domaine François Lamarche
• Musigny, Domaine JF Mugnier
• Richebourg, A-F Gros
• Chambertin, Domaine Armand Rousseau
• Chambertin, Camille Giroud
• Echezeaux, Domaine Jean Grivot
• Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, Robert Groffier
• Musigny, Domaine de la Vougeraie
• Gevrey Chambertin Clos St Jacques, Domaine Armand Rousseau
• Latricières-Chambertin, Domaine Duroché
• Grands Echezeaux, Domaine du Clos Frantin, Bichot
• Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, Domaine JF Mugnier
• Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, Domaine Georges Roumier
• Chambertin, Domaine du Clos Frantin, Bichot
• Echezeaux, Comte Liger Belair
• Mazis-Chambertin, Domaine Maume-Tawse
• Gevrey Chambertin Clos St Jacques Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Fourrier
• Visit our website for a selection of red Burgundy for drinking now, selected from a tasting conducted by Toby and spanning vintages between 1995–2012.
• For more information on the region, we highly recommend Toby’s comprehensive How To Buy Burgundy Guide.
Annegret Reh-Gartner, who died this October aged 61, will be sorely missed by all who knew her. Her sense of responsibility, hard work ethic and determination may have been inherited from her father, but I shall chiefly remember her warmth, sense of humour and disarming honesty.
Tasting the new vintage in her company at the von Kesselstatt winery in Morscheid was always a joy. The wines were nearly always exciting and beautifully made, but she was the first to admit with humility if one was not a complete success.
Gunther Reh, her father, had bought the historic von Kesselstatt estate and vineyards (with the help of profits from his Sekt business) when it was an almost unmanageable 100 and more hectares with vines and cellars scattered throughout the Mosel and its tributaries. It was Annegret, who had the vision to concentrate her efforts on 36 hectares of its top Mosel-Saar-Ruwer sites, determined only to make top-quality wines.
These include Josephshöfer in Graach, a good chunk of the heart of the great Piesporter Goldtröpfchen amphitheatre, Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenühr, Scharzhofberger, Ockfener Bockstein and Wiltinger Braunfels in the Saar, and Kaseler Nies’chen in the Ruwer. Each has its own distinct personality and stamp of real quality which made those tastings such a pleasure.
We were able to draw on these Saar vineyards and also the excellent underrated Niedermenniger Herrenberg for The Society’s Saar Riesling.
Though she and her Michelin-starred chef husband Gerhard had no children of their own, Annegret, as the eldest of Gunther Reh’s children was the one all the others often turned to. Her care and concern for her family, the people who worked for her and her customers was deeply felt and evident.
Her last vintage, 2015, is looking wonderful and will be a living testament to her work that we shall continue to enjoy for many years, because rieslings of this calibre age so well. But when I drink them I shall specially remember Annegret herself, her infectious laugh and warm heart.
Sebastian Payne MW
20 years is a short time in the wine world. Just enough for your first vines to have become fully mature and to be providing great fruit.
Couple that with one of the best ever summers for grapes on England’s South Downs and expect some delicious wines to come from the 2016 vintage.
The first Ridgeview vines were planted in 1994 by Mike Roberts MBE and his wife Chris. Sadly Mike passed away in November 2014, but the baton has been picked up by the second generation, namely winemaker Simon and his wife Mardi and CEO Tamara and her husband Simon They are continuing the family vision of creating world class sparkling wines in the South Downs. You can check out this short video to hear Mike, Simon, Tamara and others talk of their involvement in the business.
Ridgeview has been supplying The Society since the 2001 vintage, and I have been enjoying their wines since I started at The Society in 2004. Every year I enjoy them more as the vines get more established and as the experience of the Roberts family grows.
The proof of the ever-improving pudding came when they started making our chardonnay-dominant Society’s Exhibition English Sparkling Wine. We have just this week moved on to the 2014 vintage after selling out of the maiden 2013.
When Mardi Roberts invited me down to the estate at Ditchling Common in East Sussex for a day’s picking and pressing I didn’t need to be asked twice.
On arrival I talked with head winemaker Simon, vineyard manager Matt Strugnell and vineyard assistant Luke Spalding. They were visibly excited about the quality of this year’s harvest, agreeing that it is of the best quality they have ever had at Ridgeview, although rain at flowering time has meant that pinot noir quantities are down.
Walking around the winery and meeting chief operation officer Robin, production manager Olly, winemaking assistants Rob and Inma and others, it was clear that they were energised by the quality of the grapes and by the job they had to do to ensure that we will be enjoying the fruits of their labours for years to come.The winery and vineyards were abuzz with activity when I got there: the brilliant, efficient and hard-working Romanian and Portuguese pickers were in the vines, and the winemaking team was weighing the freshly picked chardonnay grapes on their way to the press.
There are seven hectares (17 acres) of vines on the Ridgeview site, but they work with growers on a further six sites on the South Downs (five in Sussex, one in Hampshire). The viticultural management of everything they grow or contract out is fascinating. There are four experimental rows of vines nearest the winery. Here they try various techniques to improve the yields and quality of the grapes.
These include canopy management (taking away / leaving leaves on the vines), cover crop planting (which crops are best for the soil quality), frost protection measures (currently trialling a warming electric cable along the trellis that is switched on when there is a risk of frost) and other experiments. Once a method has been deemed practical, it is rolled out into their own vineyard, and from there across the vineyards of the contracted growers.
I spent some time with Mardi in the vines harvesting chardonnay. The grapes themselves were delicious – well, it would have been rude not to taste! There was a lovely acidity, a sweetness and a fine texture already in the mouth. Things bode well for the 2016 vintage, with the bunches from row 13 particularly well snipped, IMHO!
Once the grapes have been picked, the bins are brought to the winery and put into the press. The unfermented chardonnay juice was very drinkable and, after tasting it, Simon and Luke were having their habitual daily bet on what the sugar level was (75-76? Oechsle seemed to be the consensus). The sugar level is of course a good guide to the eventual alcohol content of the finished wine. In the case of the 2016 chardonnay, this will be around 12%, with no chaptalisation (the adding of sugar to the grape juice to increase the potential alcohol of the wine) necessary.
The whole team is dedicated to the cause, and doing a fine job. The genuine smiling faces all around were a pleasure to behold, and it is clear to me that our Exhibition English Sparkling Wine couldn’t be in better hands.
Today I’d like to share these wonderful photos from Viña Zorzal in Navarra, Spain, which give a flavour of how things are going at this forward-thinking bodega.
The Sanz family has 70 hectares of vines, some of which – including the graciano and garnacha used for the Zorzal range we buy – are over 35 years old. Brothers Xabi and Iñaki, who oversee sales and winemaking respectively, have injected a new lease of life into Zorzal. Xabi was in touch with me this week- he says the 2016 fruit is excellent quality.
I’ll report back once I’ve tasted the wines in 2017.
One of the Loire regions hardest hit by frost this spring (the worst since 1991, with some growers cropping as little as 5-10 hl/ha, a fraction of an increasingly rare ‘normal’ crop) the Nantais concluded its harvest in fine conditions after a growing season full of challenges to stretch every grower.
A wet spring and extended cold, damp flowering period compounded the in-some-cases gloomy start to the season. Heat and drought ensued in a summer that even challenged holiday makers with more than one period of exceptionally high temperatures. The only good news in this, other than sun tans all round, was that earlier disease pressure in the vineyards was stopped in its tracks, and there will not be much need to chaptalise this year either.
A fine late season, with a little rain at just the right time to revive the vines and restart maturation, and dry, sunny, often windy days and chilly nights allowed growers to bring in a healthy, if often cruelly small crop.
On my recent visit at the tail end of the harvest I saw – and tasted – healthy fruit, talked with sanguine (mighty relieved) growers and heard some pretty tragic stories that may see more Muscadet vignerons throwing in the towel.
And the wines? There will not be a consistent picture (it was a particularly tricky year for organic producers for example), but the best results will produce a richer style of Muscadet, perhaps somewhere between 2015 and 2003 in style.
Jo Locke MW
As the mercury lowers and the nights draw in, October’s Staff Choice is naturally… a rosé.
Hats off to Cellar Showroom manager Lisa Fletcher for reminding us, quite rightly, that drinking pink needn’t be confined to the summer months; and this well-priced off-dry wine from the exceptionally reliable Bougrier family is as versatile with weather as it is with food. Take a look at Lisa’s recommendation below…
I enjoy this delicious wine all year round. Light, refreshing and only 11% alcohol, it has bags of character for the price with delicious sweet (but never sickly) fruit flavours. Its off-dry palate and lovely delicate flavour makes it all-too-easy to enjoy on its own, but it’s also a surprisingly versatile food wine.
Recently it proved a big hit with salmon and some cold cuts; it goes brilliantly with chicken and even a mild Saturday night curry.
Another reason I always keep some of this in my wine rack is because it’s my ‘mother-in-law wine’: she enjoys off-dry rosés, and this always hits the spot!
£6.50 – Bottle
£78 – Case of 12
View Wine Details
Earlier this year I was contacted by an old friend in the trade who buys for one of the top wine shops in London.
He had been trawling through a cellar in the bowels of a castle in Scotland and had come across a few old bottles of Wine Society labelled red Burgundy. He wondered whether we would be interested to acquire the bottles.
Seeing that they were 1961s I tried not to appear too excited and managed, after a bit of horse-trading, to purchase the wines. So we now have 2 bottles each of 1961 Pommard Premier Cru and 1961 Chambolle-Musigny.
The wines are now lying securely in our cellars in Stevenage, and will probably be used in future tastings. As you can see from the photograph, the levels of the wine are quite good, so there is a reasonable chance that they will still be drinkable.
Within five minutes of me showing the bottles to my colleague Tom Wain, who has been working for The Society for over 40 years, he presented me with the original ledger which indicates that in June 1964 we shipped 12 hogsheads of the 1961 Chambolle-Musigny and six hogsheads of the 1961 Pommard Premier Cru.
A hogshead would have contained the equivalent of around 400 bottles. Tom reckons that the wine would have been bottled by The Society in Hills Place, behind the London Palladium. The wines were made for us by the négociant Remoissenet, who had very good contacts with domaines across the Côte d’Or. He used to buy up and blend wines from top estates before Domaine bottling was commonplace
This discovery of old bottles made me wonder what else is out there in members’ cellars with Wine Society labels…
Head of Buying
Never work with children or animals, they say, but Joanna Locke MW and colleague Steve Farrow were obviously quite taken with the latest addition to the Paul Cluver clan and almost as much by Niels Verburg’s inquisitive four-legged friends.
And that’s to say nothing of the wines!
The below is just an extract from the fascinating write-up in our online Travels in Wine™ feature. There is much more to read about in Steve Farrow’s report on his and buyer Jo Locke’s recent trip to the Cape, with insights into our growers, tempting tales of wines tasted and stories by the barrel-load.
Paul Cluver Wines
‘…we met celebrated winemaker Catherine Marshall to taste her wine. It was a very happy meeting. Quite apart from the warm welcome and the cheery banter between the ebullient Paul Cluver IV, his brother-in-law and winemaker Andries Burger, Catherine and Jo Locke, there was the presence of Paul’s baby son Maximilian (so not Paul then?) who won the hearts of everybody. What a smiler! No wonder doting daddy Paul, clearly and beautifully besotted with his son, was cooing and baby-talking with the littl’un throughout, and up and down to check on him when he was put to bed in another room. It seems inconceivable that he won’t find his own niche in this most familial of family-owned companies.
…Sadly it was time to take our leave, but not before Jo got to hold the baby. Her beaming smile as she held young Maximilian was a highlight of the trip.’
‘Niels Verburg farms close to the Bot River, just outside the town of the same name, where prized grazing land has also shown itself a prime site for vineyards too.
As we pulled up at Niels’ house we were met by several inquisitive dogs, including the irrepressible Doris, a welcoming Jack Russell who we were warned against accidentally taking away with us as she loves to climb into visitor’ cars. Apparently, she will follow anyone who passes by on the road too, and knowing this Niels was well prepared when a fun run was to pass by the gates. He took a washable marker pen and wrote his mobile phone number on Doris’ flank and was unsurprised to find that she was gone at the first sight of runners going by. Sometime later he received a phone call from someone at a stadium several miles away saying that Doris had finished the race and was safe with them. Apparently she made the local news. I got her autograph.’
At The Society, we are putting our wines in front of the press, including earlier this week at London’s One Great George Street, just off Parliament Square. This preview of wines in our forthcoming Christmas List (out on 30th September), as well as the next Fine Wine List (8th November) and offers later in the autumn, was well attended by many of the nation’s wine writers, including Jancis Robinson MW, Tim Atkin MW, Victoria Moore, Fiona Beckett, Jane MacQuitty, Sarah Jane Evans MW, Malcolm Gluck, Christelle Guibert and others.
Ten days before the event, the Buying Team and I got together to taste through over 120 wines that had been proposed for the tasting and whittle them down to the final 67. (It may sound a lot, but writers frequently complain about having 150+ wines to go through at some competitor tastings.) We always seek feedback from the writers after our tastings, and among the many positive comments regularly received is the fact that our selection is just the right size – big enough to make a detour, but not so big that they have to decide what to miss out.
You will be able to see the reviews of the wines in various publications over the coming weeks and months, and can check them out as they are periodically uploaded to our Society in the press page.
In the meantime, first impressions can be spot on, and below are just a few of the comments made during and just after the tasting.
— christos ioannou (@christoswineman) September 20, 2016
— Roger Jones (@littlebedwyn) September 20, 2016
Once the List is out, you too can post your own reviews, as well as post your star-ratings against the wines you have bought. Just click on any wine you’ve tried, visit the ‘Reviews tab’ and click ‘Leave a Review’ (Please note: you will need to be logged in). Then rate the wine in question from 1–5 stars. We look forward to hearing from you.
They say that every dog has its day.
Well, a quick browse of the web will quickly reveal that not just every dog but pretty much everything else has its day also!
For instance, did you know that September alone plays host to International One-Hit Wonder Day, Teddy Bear Day, Love Note Day (aww) and – my personal favourite – International Red Panda day (it’s the 21st for those who were wondering)?
So why should we even bat an eyelid at International Grenache Day?
International Grenache Day, or IGD, is on the third Friday in September (presumably it lost out on the first and second Friday slots to International Bring Your Manners To Work Day and those troublesome teddy bears I mentioned earlier). Why should we care?
Well, here’s what the team behind IGD have to say:
Why should you care about grenache, one of the most widely planted and least known red grapes in the world? Because you love wine; because you are bored with merlots and pinot noirs; because you are fascinated with pairing just the right wine with your foods; because you have an insatiable curiosity for the finer things in life; because your mother always said you should learn something new every day.
Maybe they have a point! It does offer the opportunity (or should that be excuse?) to try a whole load of different wines made from grenache. This is certainly something not to be sniffed at – if you’ll excuse the pun: given that grenache is so widely planted it’s still relatively low key compared to the cabernets and pinots of the wine world.
Pretty much all the major wine regions produce some decent single-varietal or grenache-blended wines. If trying to stick a pin in its spiritual home, most would aim for France’s southern Rhône valley, where it plays a big part in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Spain would likely be another popular choice: here garnacha, as it is known here, can produce exceptional everyday wines and provide an important ingredient in Rioja wines.
But there’s plenty of choice globally when looking for grenache. Its popularity with winemakers looks set to grow, mainly due to global warming, as it has an ability to thrive in dry, hot climates and is fairly drought resistant.
Its ability to work well in blends is simultaneously its strong suite and its Achilles heel, sometimes suffering from sharing the limelight with better-known varieties.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some cracking single-varietal wines available (check out this beauty made from old vines by specialist Domaines Lupier in Spain, for instance); but grenache’s ability to contribute to a blend is where, for many, its true genius lies.
So what does grenache add to a blend? I asked our Buying Team for their thoughts and the recurring themes were juiciness and generosity of fruit, strawberry and raspberry flavours, and a sweet, ripe character. On its own, grenache can deliver quite high levels of alcohol, so blending it with other lower-alcohol varieties can be useful in providing balance in a wine. As Rhône buyer Marcel Orford-Williams put it:
‘At its simplest grenache makes round, heartwarming wines. At its best it has real majesty.’
Whether in a blend or pure and unadulterated, we therefore feel that grenache is a grape worth exploring. So if you’re not in the mood for International Teddy Bear Day, do consider raising a glass of grenache on Friday!
We guarantee it will provide more pleasure than International One Hit Wonder Day!
Marketing Campaign Manager
Ideas for celebrating International Grenache Day:
• Indulge in some vinotherapy by covering yourself in crushed grenache grapes and honey. Very good for the skin apparently.
• The International Grenache Case features six delicious under-£10 grenache wines selected by our buyers, and is available for £48 (including UK delivery).
• Go to The Society’s Cellar Showroom in Stevenage where all the wines featured in this case will be available to taste free of charge on Friday 16th September.
• Join in the conversation on social media: use the #GrenacheDay hashtag to share any grenache highlights and see what others are enjoying.
• Enjoy some delicious grenache wines!