Grapevine Archive for June, 2012
I have a confession, and I beg forgiveness from all francophile & hispanophile members. If I were to be restricted to drinking wine from just one country for the rest of my life I would choose Italy – no discussion.
While I admit that I would be hard pushed to find a direct replacement for my beloved Rhône reds, my aromatic Alsacien fix could come from the Alto Adige, and I would then be forever happy. The sheer diversity of Italy’s indigenous grapes has to be tasted to be believed, and our annual double-header tasting (this year in London and Bristol earlier in the week) has cemented this yet further into my taste buds.
14 estates present, 33 wines between them, 22 purely Italian indigenous varieties (with the exception of a dollop of cabernet sauvignon & merlot in one Umbrian sangiovese-based blend). The freshness of Etna’s frappato, the minerality and linear beauty of Soave’s garganega, the elegance and staying power of Piemonte’s nebbiolo and the grippy ripe food-worthiness of Puglia’s negroamaro were just four of the delights experienced by the palates of 300 members & guests in London and 200 in Bristol.
A full list of the wines tasted can be found on our website; many are either currently available on the List, or will appear in our Italian offer which runs from 6th August to 9th September.
The list of growers was impressive, reading like a veritable who’s who of who and what is hot in Italy at the moment: GD Vajra & Proprietà Sperino (Piemonte); Pieropan, Allegrini & La Riva dei Frati (Veneto); Isole e Olena & Gianni Brunelli (Tuscany); Monte Schiavo (Marche); Barberani (Umbria); Contesa (Abruzzo); La Guardiense (Campania); Masseria Monaci & Vallone (Puglia); and Nicosia (Sicily).
What is most reassuring is to see the next generation of families taking their business yet further, something that struck me as I looked at those sitting opposite me at our ‘thank you’ dinner on the Glass Boat in Bristol (see right), as well as others further around the table. The future is fixed on firm foundations, and with it my drinking habits should that aforementioned singularly restrictive day ever come!
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Many refer to Bordeaux?s famous sweet white as a ?dessert wine?, but this only represents a fraction of its culinary capabilities. A good bottle of Sauternes is as at home in the pre-prandial sunshine as it is next to a winter pudding. The Bordelais themselves are known to serve it with main courses and cheeses, and often enjoy a well-chilled glass as an aperitif before the food has even arrived.
A recent tasting, prompted by a suggestion from Sebastian Payne MW, showed just how good the combination of Sauternes and strawberries can be. Though often overlooked in favour of sparkling alternatives, the 2009 Exhibition Sauternes (made for us by the Dubourdieus at Château Cantegril) proved its credentials magnificently.
The Sauternes strikes a balance between rich, honeyed flavours (derived in part from noble rot) and refreshing acidity from the grapes themselves. When combined with the juicy sweetness of the strawberries, the results were simply sublime, and all the more so with cream.
Below are some of the comments from Society staff after tasting the combination for themselves:
?It seems to become an even better marriage the more you have. I think what the Sauternes does to the strawberries and cream is give them more definition somehow: they both bring out the flavour of the other.?
?Put an instant smile on my face ? absolutely lovely.?
?The wine didn?t taste sickly at all with the strawberries and cream and also had a creaminess of its own. An unctuous trio!!?
?It?s satisfying and decadent but really brings out the brightness in the wine ? remarkably refreshing. Neither overpowers the other. Wonderfully indulgent, yet still it finishes fresh and makes you want another glass. This will surprise people.?
Certainly something to bear in mind for Wimbledon and beyond.
First let?s put Vega Sicilia into context. Ribera del Duero, a few hours drive north of Madrid, is a region built on its reputation for red wines yet ironically it is a very difficult place to grow grapes. Frost is a risk until June and not uncommon in September, summer can be fiercely hot, hail is a constant threat and the growing season quite compressed. This means that quality can vary enormously, depending on the vintage conditions and producer.
So how has Vega Sicilia?s quality been so consistent? This was my question to Pablo during my first visit to the property a few years ago. ?The answer is simple,? he responded proudly: ?lots of hard work in the vineyard.? They employ 50 people all year just to manage the vines, yields are kept very low, selection is severe in difficult years and in very difficult years no Ùnico is produced (such as 2001 and 1971). Furthermore, the vineyards span 19 different soil types and the winery has 57 fermentation tanks, which enables winemaker Xavier Ausás to micro-vinify the 57 plots identified within their vineyards. This is winemaking at its most regal.
Here are my edited notes (with scores out of 20) from all 26 vintages.
Exuberant, powerful and layered with fruit. A hot vintage, resulting in an atypical Ùnico, but nevertheless will bring pleasureable drinking. 17.5+
Beautifully structured, immensely pure, with a refreshing line of acidity.Outstanding. Hold until at least 2016. 19.5+
A tricky vintage, 40% of fruit discarded, yet one of my favourite wines. Not a blockbuster but delicious for its Claret-like fragrance, finesse & vitality. 18
A very late harvest (November) due to rain. Cedary nose, a touch herbaceous, palate surprisingly good, succulent, lively, firm. A difficult wine to understand. 16
Wonderful bouquet, tobacco, cedar, very fine persistent fruit, opulent texture, backed by ripe velvety tannins.An exceptional & truly great wine. 20
Wow, am I dreaming! Real lift & precision here, punchy, long and very intense. 19+
Ùnico, 1990 (in magnum)
Widely proclaimed vintage, this has lovely savoury complexity, substantial palate, muscular grainy tannins and power. 19
I adored the style of the 1987: pretty, refreshing, and very harmonious with crisp acidity and integrated tannins. Perfect now; I want to drink this. 17
Evolved nose, a hint of stewed fruit, palate fresher. At an awkward stage? 15
Serious, highly complex nose, fine, almost Burgundian delicacy, silky tannins. At its peak. 19
Tertiary aromas, dank, muscular palate, drying out. 14
Meaty, savoury nose, round, austere palate, incredibly fresh for a 30+ year-old wine. 15
Potent, spicy and scented, wonderful backbone of acidity, supple, juicy fruit. Real charm here. 18
Excellent bouquet, leather, mocha complexity, beautiful structure, punchy tannins supported by long, rich finish. 18.5
Unusual nose, flat, closed aroma, palate surprisingly vibrant, some sweet fruit. A mesmerising wine, confusing to taste. 15.5?
Refined, elegant and poised, perfectly integrated and delicious. 18.5
Similar elegant style to the 1969. Rounder, riper, quince-like fruit, tobacco too. Very good. 18.5+
Combining muscle with finesse, an extraordinary Ùnico. Velvety, fine and complete. 18.5+
A sensational wine. Exotic, earthy quality, opulent, broad, superbly structured, very very long. 19.5
Restrained, mineral nose, compact palate, lively fruit, fine tannins, real harmony. 17.5+
Mellow, harmonious, developed fruit, still fresh, very alluring. 16
Vigourous, dense fruit, generous, smooth, impressive. 18
Funky, oxidative character, palate harmonious & refreshing. 16.5
Surprising pale amber colour (was this ever a red wine?). Tangy, salty palate, really lively, full of flavour, tastes weirdly like a very good dry Madeira.
Tawny colour, oxidised fruit, sadly past its best. No score.
I was chez Alfred Gratien last week, introducing new head of buying Tim Sykes to the Gratien team and immersing him, not too literally, into Gratien culture.
Sitting next to me was Olivier Dupré, sales director for the whole Gratien group taking in both Champagne and the Loire. Olivier himself hails from Saumur but comes over to Epernay every couple of months so ? like when two Wine Society buyers turn up.We were tasting the range and in particular the next blend of The Society’s Champagne, Brut. This will come on stream sometime in September or October and the first batch will need to be disgorged very soon. Though brut means dry, a little sugar is added at disgorgement to help soften the acidity. This is called the liqueur de dosage and it is made either from grape concentrate or cane sugar. The tasting confirmed what we had decided on my last visit: that the amount of dosage is on the decrease ? a reflection of the quality of the wines and riper fruit.
The new blend will be based on the excellent 2008 vintage, paler than the previous 2007 base, maybe a little finer too, and with a great sense of precision. There are subtle changes in the make-up of the blend with for once more pinot noir than meunier. The exact proportions are the following: 41% chardonnay, 31% pinot noir and 27% meunier.
One of the keys to Alfred Gratien’s success is the relationships it enjoys with its growers. Gratien wines are vinified in barrel, not only grape by grape but even grower by grower; the blend is not finalised till the spring after the vintage. Every year the growers are invited to taste “their” wine and such is the growing reputation chez Gratien that growers are queuing up to be suppliers; and they include a growing number from the Montagne de Reims, home of the best pinot noir. So in this new blend of The Society’s Champagne Brut will be wines from famous grand cru villages on the Montagne, such as Bouzy and Ambonnay and Verzy.
A new vintage Champagne will also be launched, maybe early next year, and this will be vintage 2000 (64% chardonnay, 25% pinot and 11% meunier). This promises to be a real beauty: rich and complex with great finesse with a wonderful sense of minerality, and close in stature to the exceptional 2002 vintage.
Alfred Gratien Champagne ages exceptionally. The way they are made and the quality of the raw material used means that they are built to last. The visit ended with a lovely bottle of 1969: the same vintage that was used in The Society’s Centenary Cuvée which some of us were lucky enough to drink in 1974!
Evidence of war is ever present in Alsace with innumerable castles and war cemeteries to prove it, but mercifully all that belongs to the past. The 30 Years War had brought to an end a golden age for Alsace wines. But today we are surely at the beginning of a new golden age, and members of the Wine Society Dining Club went out for a week?s tasting and dining to find out more.
I am of coursed distinctly biased in all this, strongly believing that Alsace is fully capable of producing exceptional wines. Challenges abound. First the fact that, notwithstanding the fine climate, Alsace is France?s most northern wine region after Champagne. Another complication is that though Alsace enjoys very low annual rainfall, most of it falls during the summer when the grapes are trying to ripen.
There is as well a human element to Alsace?s complications. Growers, remembering the hard times of the past, fall into two schools. There are still those that believe in quantity as the best sort of insurance. Most of Alsace?s grape varieties are quite capable of producing big crops but the results are invariably disappointing. A growing number of producers have gone the other way, becoming perfectionists and optimising the full potential of their vines. Alsace growers were among the first to take up biodynamic farming practices, and with them much reduced yields and bigger, more concentrated wines. Sometimes, too concentrated for their own good and as a result these wines can seem unbalanced. But that is the down side and in reality there is more and more coming out from Alsace that is spectacular.
This year I will have visited twice and am delighted to report that we will be buying wines from Albert Boxler in Niederhaussen; and that means a first listing at The Wine Society for a wine coming from the Grand Cru Sommerberg. We will also introduce wines from André Kientzler, another great house from the historic town of Ribeauvillé.
Back to Dining Club visit. The vintage uppermost in tastings was 2010 which from the start, I believed to be one of Alsace?s greatest vintages. That impression was more than reinforced by a week tasting in Alsace. This was not an easy vintage and the crop was tiny. Everything was late and the perfect Indian summer only really benefited the best exposed sites.
It is in such a vintage that the Grand Cru system suddenly becomes abundantly clear. The aim of the visit was to take in some of the great vineyards, starting with the Kitterlé and Rangen in the south, then via the Hengst, Brand and Eichberg to the Schoenenbourg in Riquewihr. The wines throughout the week were often astonishing with several producers choosing to pull out examples from the 1989 vintage to prove another point: Alsace wines keep very well!
Dining Club members were there to learn as well as profit from a memorable week going from cellar to cellar. At the end and after André Hugel had taken us on an architectural tour of Riquewihr, members were subjected to a blind tasting. Bravo to Ann Edwards who gave in a near perfect answer, winning herself a bottle of 1988 Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles from Hugel.
The Society?s current offer of the 2010 Alsace vintage is open until this Sunday, 17th June.
A thousand hectares of vineyard in Provence was literally shredded by hail stones, sometimes the size of golf balls. Among our suppliers was Domaine de Fontlade near Brignoles in the Coteaux Varois.The pictures show vividly the effects of hail damage. There is now little chance for the estate to get a harvest this year and there is every chance that even next year’s crop will be affected.
We wish them luck and hopefully they will get aid from the government; meanwhile their 2011 rosé is gorgeous, just waiting for a glimpse of summer.
? Firstly, the excellent CVNE bodega agreed to let us bottle their exceptional 2001 vintage gran reserva under our flagship Exhibition label. This is the first gran reserva to wear The Society?s livery.
? The second is that the wine beat all comers to pick up a gold medal at the 2012 International Wine Challenge ? confirmation that the wine is as delicious as you might expect from such a bodega in such an exceptional vintage.
? Last, but not least, the support of CVNE has enabled us to reduce this wine by £7 per bottle to Society members until the end of June. The new price of £18 has also been backdated to members who have already bought this wine at the higher price.
An embarrassment of riches!
What is a blind tasting?
Put simply, a blind tasting is one where the identities of the wines are concealed. All focus is on what?s in the glass and, having banished capacity for bias or preconception, every wine is given a fairer hearing. The Society?s buyers select our annual Wine Champions lineup via a series of blind tastings.
From tasting room to dining room
Rightly, our buyers take their responsibilities very seriously and academic levels of preparation, scrutiny, note-taking and re-tasting (not to mention, of course, spitting) are prerequisite in the intensive Wine Champions sessions.
Socially however, a relaxed blind tasting party can be enormous fun, as well as an informative experience for anyone with any level of interest in wine; and making the transition from studious tasting room to convivial dining room is very easy.
Here are a few tips:
The best way to start is by drawing up a list of guests who?d be prepared to bring a bottle.
Setting a price limit is normally a sensible strategy, and not merely for reasons of social harmony. Some readers may recall Sir Cliff Richard being filmed pouring scorn on his own modestly-priced Algarve table wine having been served it blind directly after a £400 bottle of Claret! This is a perfect example of how some thought will be needed when establishing your order of batting (of which more below).
It might well be worth suggesting a general theme for the tasting: great fun and helpful for you and your guests when working out what bottle to bring. Themes will depend on personal preference and level of interest.
Tried and trusted themes include:
? Guess the grape variety
? Guess the country or region
? Guess the price
Seasoned blind tasters may want to up the ante:
? Guess the grower/producer/château
? Guess the vintage
?or use a combination of any or all of the categories above. Some may like to add a competitive edge to the proceedings. To spice things up you may want to ask your guests to prepare ?Call My Bluff?-style wine notes for their wines to try and match the blind-tasted wines with the right wine tasting note, region, grape or price.
Perhaps you have a favourite theme for a blind tasting that we haven?t covered?
If so, we?d love to hear what it is, and any other ideas you might have. Do leave us a comment or share your ideas (and photos) via Facebook or Twitter.
Whatever is decided, the goal should be for you and your guests to find a lineup of delicious, interesting wines. As such, going a little left field can be particularly rewarding, whilst ensuring that any committed oenophiles present won?t be able to show off too much!
Concealing the bottles
Ideally, ask your guests to conceal the bottles before they arrive, but once over the threshold the ?bagging up? should be standardised to ensure no one recognises the bottle they brought.
A brown paper bag and some sticky tape should suffice (this has the advantage over tinfoil in that it conceals potentially telltale bottle shapes), but you can purchase slightly smarter means of concealment ? such as bottle bags ? at various places should you wish.
Don?t forget to remove neck labels and foils to make sure the bottles? identities will be concealed completely.
Working out a batting order
It is hardly worth pointing out that negotiating a lineup starting with a dessert wine and finishing with bubbles would spell disaster for digestion and enjoyment alike.
Accepted wisdom is usually to begin with any sparkling wines (dry before sweet, and if you have a mixture of vintage and non-vintage wines, it is best to begin with the latter before moving on to older wines) before whites (the drier and younger examples to begin with), reds (lighter and younger wines first) and then any sweet and fortified wines.
These rules should suffice for most lineups, but our team of Wine Advisers will be happy to assist if you have any more specific queries.
To this end, it might well be worth coming up with some loose categories (for instance ?white, dry, young?) to reveal just enough about the wine to put it in the best place. If there is a notable disparity between the prices of the wines, a further Sir Cliff-inspired category may also be helpful; for instance, bottles under £6, £6?£9.99,£10?£15, £15?£20 and so on.
For advice on serving temperatures, please refer to our Enjoying Wine guide.
? A set of numbered sheets for your guests to write on, or to complete in line with the theme of the night.
? A sufficient number of glasses. If you haven?t enough to hand, you might like to ask your guests to contribute, or you could peruse The Society?s range of glassware. Alternatively, members living near Stevenage may wish to take advantage of glass hire from The Cellar Showroom. Other local wine merchants may also offer a glass hire service.
? Water, and plenty of it ? goes without saying!
? Nibbles: also goes without saying, but do be wary of serving anything too strongly flavoured that might over-compete with the wines for your tastebuds? attention.
We recommend encouraging your guests to partake in crackers, bread and so forth between tastes: as well as lining the stomach, they work wonders cleansing the palate ready for the next wine.
? Finally, if you plan to make your tasting a competitive affair, an optional prize for the winner.
Taste and enjoy
After all that, it?s time to pour, discuss and enjoy the wines!
All we would advise from personal experience is to swirl your glasses generously and to take your time as you go (some wines can change a phenomenal amount with a bit of time and a bit of air).
Have a lovely time.