Grapevine Archive for June, 2011

Wed 29 Jun 2011

How Green Is Wine?

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No, not those appetising tints in a perfect glass of riesling, but the now commonly used term for all that is environmentally responsible.

The endangered Cuivré des Marais butterfly found at Châteaux Latour and Caronne Sainte Gemme.
Once something of a bandwagon, the organic and biodynamic movement has shifted up a gear, the world over, and many of those producers who have embraced the philosophy – usually steadily and having made good wine first – are producing wonderful wine. Most wine producers are making enormous efforts in vineyards and cellar (both voluntarily and seeing the likelihood of future legislation if they don’t) to reduce any negative impact on our environment and especially on their unique locations. Some go further and seek accreditation, for example from the Terra Vitis association or by signing up to the IPW in South Africa.

It is reassuring to hear, as I did this morning, from André Van Rensburg, winemaker at Vergelegen, that they are moving to lighter glass for their bottles. Often outspoken and always frank, André is one of the most stimulating of wine industry leaders I am lucky enough to meet. Vergelegen has been at the forefront of work steadily to eradicate virus problems from South Africa’s vineyards (the latest on which is that dogs are now being trained in early detection skills. Having met a surprisingly handsome poodle last weekend who represented the training of dogs to detect dangerously low sugar levels in severely diabetic children, I begin to wonder is there anything our canine friends are not capable of?!). But I digress…

On top of all this, the conservation work undertaken at Vergelegen, which has already earned them BWI (Biodiversity in Wine Initiative) Champion status, has not only boosted their ladybird population but returned no less than four adult male Cape Mountain leopard to the property (more on which to follow!).

Closer to home, on our Bordeaux ‘primeurs’ visit to Château Caronne Sainte Gemme, Sebastian Payne and I saw healthy, lush, green vineyards – with vegetation a good three weeks ahead of the norm after an exceptionally warm, dry early spring – and heard from owner François Nony about the “Cuivré des Marais” butterfly, an endangered native of the Médoc currently found only at Châteaux Latour and Caronne Ste Gemme, where the proximity to water and the pollution-free environment provide just the habitat it needs. The vines looked pretty comfortable too, and François’ impressive 2010 features in our Opening offer which is about to arrive through your door, or is available now on our website.

Joanna Locke MW
Bordeaux & South Africa Buyer

In his third guest blog for Society Grapevine, Paul Pujol (winemaker at Central Otago’s Prophet’s Rock) looks at riesling’s perennial image problem…

How is it that the most beautiful, erudite and alluring aromatic wine in the world keeps getting jumped in the next big white variety queue?

Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris have all had a turn – now, they are not exactly the ugly sisters but it still doesn’t seem fair. When will the wine drinking public notice the gorgeous wallflower in the corner (chatting with her bohemian friend gewurztraminer)?

'Why won't anyone talk to me?'

I have quizzed a number of people about this state of affairs (read, I won’t shut up about riesling) and there are some interesting theories.

Many are quick to blame riesling’s dodgy past (who hasn’t got one of those) of watery acidic bulk wines and brushes with substance abuse at the hands of some greedy industrial wine producers. This did undoubtedly happen, albeit 20+ years ago, and left consumers with a hangover it seems they are still getting over.

The upside of this tarnished history is that producers have put an enormous amount of energy into rebuilding the quality and image of riesling. Now, in any given price category riesling will invariably offer the best value for money.

This is also due to the fact that winemakers love riesling and when talking with them it quickly becomes evident that it gets a disproportionate amount of love, care and attention in the vineyard and winery. In fact, several friends in the industry have pointed out that they don’t actually want riesling to become fashionable so that it remains a bargain for those in the trade.

Another factor that causes consumers to hesitate in choosing riesling is that like any true beauty she can carry off a wide range of styles. From mouth-watering dry styles to some of the most opulent, poised dessert wines in the world, this makes for a bit of confusion when facing a selection of riesling. Again, producers have responded to this by moving towards very clear labelling with regard to the sweetness or lack of in their wine. For our riesling, we try to make this blindingly obvious by putting it on the front label – Prophet’s Rock Dry Riesling.

So, having put those issues to bed we are running out of excuses as to why riesling shouldn’t finally take off. A fantastic food wine, a refreshing terrace wine, relatively low alcohol, the list of reasons to give riesling the time of day goes on… I also thought that if I write ‘riesling’ enough times in this post, that subliminal messaging might work too.

I’d love to hear your views on riesling, good or bad. Rant away: I just did.

Paul Pujol
Winemaker, Prophet’s Rock

Categories : New Zealand
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Fri 24 Jun 2011

A Man For All Seasons

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A few of the 1860 paraffin heatersA few of the 1860 paraffin heaters
Sebastian Payne MW and I were welcomed by Sébastien Ratron, winemaker at Clos des Cordeliers, Domaine Ratron just outside the village of Saumur-Champigny in the Loire. Here he grows 100% cabernet franc primarily for red but also a little rosé and crémant rosé. We stock his Clos des Cordeliers 2009.

Weather is always a challenge. In winter he puts out 1,860 paraffin heaters around his vineyard, all attached to a piping network to carry ‘le fuel’. This won’t prevent a really hard frost damaging the crop but will raise the temperature by a few degrees so is definitely worth the full week it takes to rebuild the heaters each year, and the week to disassemble them in Spring.

Permanent piping for the fuel – we thought this was for irrigation at first (which is of course not allowed in the region)!
At the moment though it’s the dryness and the heat that is causing worry – he reckons the crop is 3-4 weeks ahead of normal and he is praying for rain as they have not had any since May 2nd. Sébastien says that he’s expecting lower yields though high quality due to the concentration and deep vine roots.

If it does however rain a lot, as it started to the day after we were with him, the underground cellar he has will allow him to go from his house to the winery without getting wet!

Back in the tasting room, Sébastien offered us the wines we know and some we don’t (always an opportunity) and the 2005 and 2001 Clos des Cordeliers which showed how well the wine matures if you can resist temptation for a few years. Coincidentally, we found a magnum of the 2005 in a restaurant that same evening, which shows that the locals know a thing or two too.

Categories : France, Loire, Miscellaneous
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The Town of Aniane is neither remarkable nor indeed especially attractive. For years it was asleep, waking up only to vote in its Communist mayor and to harvest its grapes which were invariably delivered to the town cooperative.

It all changed when a new and independent estate burst suddenly on the scene. At first, Daumas Gassac was built as a retreat for its new owners trying to escape from the rat race. But then a visiting friend and expert geologist from Bordeaux remarked on the exceptional quality of the soils. Another Bordelais, Emile Peynaud, nursed the first wine and in so doing created a legend.

Today the “Terre d’Aniane” is a Mecca for winemakers. Chateau Cissac from the Medoc has a vineyard here, as does Gerard Depardieu. Robert Mondavi nearly came, but then came up against local rivalries and the Communist Mayor.

Laurent VailleLaurent Vaille of Domaine La Grange des Pères

The Vaille family was local. This was a respected, hard working family who had farmed a few acres for generations. What changed it for them was a son, Laurent (pictured), who had ideas of creating another Grand Vin.

He first came under the wing of Aime Guibert himself who soon sent him to another friend, Eloi Durrbach at Domaine de Trévallon and from there to Chave in Hermitage and Perrin in Châteauneuf. Laurent Vaille returned with cuttings from all these estates, rather like Jack with his beans.

Success was also pretty well immediate, but stardom did not suit this reserved family quite as well. The Vailles remain aloof, reserved and shy of the public gaze. Visiting is tricky and convenient ways of communicating such as email haven’t made their way here. Rather large guard dogs make their presence felt as one approaches the wrought iron gate. Crossing the threshold is a little unnerving. After all the dogs are quite large and Laurent Vaille still hasn’t said anything as we work across the pretty courtyard to the cellars.

At this stage heavy sweaters are put on, even at the height of summer, as these are the coldest cellars for miles around. The wines are tasted, grape variety by grape variety and it is immediately obvious that the wines are like no other; the mourvèdre and counoise for instance speaking as if from the grandest estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Meanwhile Laurent still hasn’t said anything, answering my attempts at conversation with at best a smile. The tasting is soon over. Back in daylight and twenty degrees hotter, sweaters come off. The dogs are back to escort me back past the iron gate.

La Grange des Pères makes exceptional wines. The whites, made from roussanne and chardonnay have both weight and finesse and in taste fall somewhere between the Rhone and Meursault. The reds, greatly influenced by mourvedre have spice and Mediterranean warmth. Both are better decanted and both gain in complexity with age.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Languedoc buyer

In his second guest blog for Society Grapevine, Paul Pujol gives us a Central Otago perspective on the subject of terroir.

I was recently asked to write a piece for an Asian wine event on the concept of terroir in relation to our Bendigo Vineyard, home of Prophet’s Rock Pinot Noir. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the below is what I came up with.

Paul Pujol at the Bendigo VineyardPaul Pujol at the Bendigo Vineyard
Do you think wines from Central Otago are starting to show a sense of place beyond just the region, or is it too early to say? I would love to know readers’ thoughts on the subject.

How to pin down the unique combination of environmental and human factors that define our vineyard’s terroir? Quantify every element in the soil, every breath of wind, every drop of rain, every ray of sunshine, add each vine’s unique structure, then combine all this with us and everything we do? It seems impossible.

We simply think of it as Our Very Small Corner of the World.

Let me take you to our Bendigo Vineyard. Firstly, head south, a long way south, to the southern-most wine growing region in the world. Here, on the 45th parallel, you will find yourself in spectacular, mountainous Central Otago.

In this semi-continental climate, unique in New Zealand, is the sub-region of Bendigo. Our vineyard is located on a high terrace, 120 metres above the valley floor. Our elevation is 320 – 382 metres, which means cool nights, yet our steep north-facing slopes intercept loads of sunshine. This means we easily get our grapes ripe, but retain good acidity at the same time. Our picking dates are several weeks behind those of the vineyards just a few minutes’ drive down the hill.

The soils in our Bendigo Vineyard are a fascinating mix of quartz, bands of different-coloured clays, and a layer of chalk about a foot thick lying 60 to 100 centimetres below ground. There is a lot of schist: ground-up in the soil, as rocks and also in the form of an enormous house-sized boulder in the centre of the vineyard.

We love this site and we do the best we can in the vineyard to produce fruit which reflects our special place. Crop loads are kept very low. We practise sustainable viticulture and make our own compost on site. In the winery, use of native ‘wild’ yeast, very gentle extraction and extended élevage are features of our vinification.

Our goal is a wine that is a true reflection of our vineyard, our very small corner of the world. But that’s enough description – taste our wines and catch your own glimpse of our terroir.

Paul Pujol
Winemaker, Prophet’s Rock

Categories : New Zealand
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Members will have drunk many of Paul Pujol’s wines over the last decade – he has made wine at Kuentz-Bas in Alsace, Lemelson in Oregon and now back in his homeland at Prophet’s Rock in Central Otago. Making small lots of pinot noir (including the excellent Mount Koinga, which he crafts exclusively for members), riesling and pinot gris, the style of his wines perfectly balance old-world complexity with new world generosity. In the first of his guest blogs for Society Grapevine, Paul gives us an engaging report on Central Otago’s 2011 vintage.

Pierre Mansour
New Zealand buyer

At Lake WanakaAt Lake Wanaka
When I think back over the 2011 vintage in Central Otago I find myself immediately shaking my head and wondering, ‘what the hell was that season all about?’ Depending on what part of the growing season my mind falls on, my descriptors range from beautiful, mad, too rainy, too hot, too dry, too cold, just right, heavy cropping, low cropping, awesome, worrying, tense and relaxed…

Perhaps I should start at the start and you might get the idea.

After a pretty warm end to winter in Central Otago (and a good ski season) spring really took off with a bang. October and November 2010 were easily the hottest I have seen in Central Otago. It felt like every day was over 30°C and my kids were swimming in Lake Wanaka in October – usually a ridiculous idea until at least January. We therefore experienced very rapid spring growth and a very successful flowering of the vines. This ultimately meant two things – one, we had ‘locked-in’ an earlier than normal harvest and two, that potential crops could be quite high in certain sites due to quite sizable bunches of grapes.

All well and good you say. Then came December, where the temperatures dropped, the wind arrived and the weather became more variable. Although the wind was a little annoying (more canopy management) everyone was pretty relaxed and glad that the early season extremes were over. Personally I was quite happy that the high temperatures had dropped as I favour a ‘slow cook’ in terms of ripening grapes rather than a hot, fast ripening – not that I’ve ever had a say in the matter. From the end of December the weather settled into quite an alarming weekly pattern: Rain, clearing with wind, a nice day or two, wind and then the next rain front again.

Ummm, not text book stuff but at least the vines weren’t stressed and we didn’t need to irrigate. Disease pressure was a little higher than usual which meant we did a couple of extra organic sulphur sprays than normal. As the season progressed through the summer I started to receive the common question: ‘How’s the season looking?’ My response was initially, ‘well it’s the last six weeks that really count’, then as the crazy weather continued: ‘well it’s the last month that really counts’ and finally, ‘well it’s the next two weeks that are critical’ – this is when the worry kicked in.

Thankfully as we entered the harvest period the weather sorted itself out and moved into typical autumn conditions. The rain disappeared and we had calm settled weather right through the harvest period. We had successfully dodged any disease issues and our yields were right on target, time to make wine.

At Prophet’s Rock we harvested some of the best fruit I have seen from our two sites thanks to a nice finish to the season and some excellent work from our team of pickers. Any fruit that showed signs of shrivel or damage from the weather was left on the ground for the birds. They say (whoever ‘they’ are) that a vintage with character makes for wines with character – I look forward to watching these wine evolve and seeing what sort of character that will be!

Moral of the story: When you are in the southernmost wine growing region in the world, anything can happen but it usually comes right in the end. Luckily for us, pinot noir and aromatic whites love life on the edge.

Have you been to Central Otago? I would love to hear your impressions of the region and the wines.

Paul Pujol
Winemaker, Prophet’s Rock

Categories : New Zealand
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Wed 15 Jun 2011

2010 Bordeaux: To buy or not to buy?

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The first of The Society’s two Bordeaux 2010 opening offers is now live on the website, and will be mailed shortly.

BarriquesWe, along with record numbers of the world’s Bordeaux buyers, embarked on this year’s primeur tastings with some trepidation. A second good, potentially great, vintage in a row, with the crop down by as much as 50% in some cases, meant prices might be high again. That has since proved to be the case, with many significantly higher than the earlier fêted 2009.

We were also led to believe that the tastings themselves would be more challenging than usual given reports of record tannin levels. Would the wines have the balance and appeal after such a successful 2009 campaign?

In the event, the best wines have it all. They are ripe and balanced, solidly structured and with all the elements for a long and rewarding future; and they are different in style from 2009. More importantly for us, there are delicious and exciting wines at all price levels.

So, yes, for the Bordeaux drinker, enthusiast, collector, this is a vintage to buy. The Society has, and negotiations have now started at home!

Joanna Locke MW
Bordeaux buyer

Tue 14 Jun 2011

MBE for Ridgeview’s Mike Roberts

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Mike Roberts RidgeviewMike Roberts, MBE

Many congratulations to Mike Roberts, founder, director and winemaker at Ridgeview Wine Estate who has been recognised in the Queens Birthday honours. He has been awarded an MBE for his services to the drinks industry through his position as Chairman of the English Wine Producers.

Mike currently supplies The Society with two sparkling wines Ridgeview Bloomsbury, 2008 and Ridgeview Fitzrovia Rosé, 2008. The 2004 Fitzrovia Rosé was recently served by Her Majesty The Queen at a dinner at Buckingham Palace attended by President Obama and other guests.

Well done Mike!!

PS: Look out for our offer of English wines due to be made in August, which will include Ridgeview sparklers.

Categories : England
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Mon 13 Jun 2011

Wine & War

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Montreuil-sur-Mer is well-known to members of The Wine Society who have ventured across the Channel to pick up their favourite wines at favourable French rates of duty and discovered the many delights of this atmospheric walled town.

What is far less known is that Montreuil was home to the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the largest army Britain ever put into the field – the British Expeditionary Force – from 1916 to 1919.  Montreuil was a key strategic stronghold in the 11th and 12th centuries, and its site on a hill surrounded by impressive ramparts still played a role in its fortunes right up to the middle of the 20th century. The part played by Montreuil in The Great War is  now celebrated with a permanent exhibition in the blockhouses of the Citadel. Members at our event on Saturday 18th June will have the chance to visit as part of the ‘treasure hunt’ during the afternoon.

The exhibition is a joint venture between the Musée de Montreuil and The Expeditionary Trust, and more information can be found on The Society’s website here.

Categories : Miscellaneous, Montreuil
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Fri 10 Jun 2011

Sebastian Payne’s last AGM as chief buyer

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On Monday 6th June The Wine Society held its 137th Annual General Meeting in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. Chairman Sarah Evans addressed the 425 members and their guests; there was a wide variety of questions and comments from the floor. Sarah paid tribute to Sebastian Payne MW who was taking to the stand for a last time in the capacity of chief buyer. Before the meeting closed, Sebastian made the following brief speech:

Sebastian Payne MWSebastian Payne MW
Since it is the last time I shall do this, I would like to end, if I may, on a personal note.

I joined The Wine Society as a member in 1967. Six years later I became a member of its staff.

It was obvious to me from the start that The Society, formed in 1874 almost by happy accident, was an exceedingly good idea. Its focus always was and is to provide members with delicious wines from all over the world at a fair price. To do this well in the long-term interest of its members and owners rather than in the short-term for profit.

I have been fortunate to work with successive Committees who understand this completely and with colleagues who, I believe, have managed the business well and with integrity.

I have been doubly fortunate to have been The Wine Society buyer since 1985, the best job in the wine trade.

It has been a pleasure to do the job for such an articulate and discriminating and reasonably critical membership, who keep us on our toes.

Thank you all.

Long may The Wine Society flourish!

Read a transcript of Sarah Evans’ speech here including a full tribute to Sebastian Payne.

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