Grapevine Archive for August, 2013
The next morning saw us back on the bus and heading south into the Mâconnais, the southernmost point of Burgundy. Its 6,000 hectares of vines are sandwiched between Côte Chalonnaise to the north and Beaujolais’ Saint-Amour to the south. Its best wines – all white – are winning a growing reputation for offering Burgundian quality but at much more affordable prices. Indeed, The Wine Society’s bestselling wine, The Society’s White Burgundy, comes from here.
The best plots are found surrounding the villages of Pouilly and Fuissé and that was our destination. We started at Château des Rontets high on the hill overlooking the amphitheatre of Pouilly-Fuissé vines. Unusually, the vines face north, but thanks to their height up the hill they still get plenty of sunshine. Owner Fabio Montrasi grows the grapes organically and keeps yields low to ensure outstanding quality. The relative altitude and aspect provide warm days and cool nights, which are so good for acidity and freshness, attributes that can be hard to come by this far south.
Fabio uses natural yeasts for fermentation and enjoys the different flavours they can give his wine. Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Varambon, Château des Rontets 2011 elegantly showed the attention to detail that goes into every stage of winemaking here. It was an early vintage and there were concerns over the ‘tension’, or acidity, but the wine is delicious and well balanced.
Pouilly-Fuissé Pierrefolle 2011 comes from older vines and has greater concentration as a result; it is rounder and softer. We tried a barrel sample of Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes 2012 which is due to be bottled soon. This is a serious wine: the old vines contribute much more length and complexity. A keeper.
A Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Varambon 2010 showed that the château’s wines need some time in bottle after release to show their best. This had a nice tension between richness and freshness with good complexity and length.
We finished with a Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes 2010 that was gloriously textured – almost silky – with buttery ripe concentration.
I left marvelling at what lives some winemakers lead! Fabio did at least have the good grace to appear suitably contented to be making such delicious wines in such a glorious spot at such a lovely château.
A GRAND VIEW
Our next stop was Château de Beauregard, who have perhaps done more than anyone to get Pouilly-Fuissé and the Mâconnais on the map. Frédéric Burrier is the latest generation at the helm of this family company and he is also president of the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation. And he has great plans.
Frédéric would like to apply some of the classification and hierarchy of the Côte d’Or to Pouilly-Fuissé. Apparently the first premier crus were introduced in the Côte d’Or in 1943 during the Nazi occupation, but because the Germans didn’t come this far south it didn’t happen here.
His wines certainly deserve greater recognition. We tried his Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Cras 2012 from cask. The Vers Cras vineyard is closest to the winery, and possibly closest to Frédéric’s heart. It was ripe yet with an almost saline freshness, with excellent body.
It was then up to the dining room for a tasting over lunch. Beauregard is aptly named with breathtaking views of Mont de Pouilly and the roches of Solutré and Vergisson.
We started with a magnum of Saint-Véran, La Roche 2011 which was further evidence of the strength of 2011 vintage. It can be difficult to find good Saint-Véran like this, but when you do it can be a marvellous source of good-value white Burgundy.
We then followed with magnums of Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Pouilly 2010 and Pouilly-Fuissé Aux Charmes 2005. The 2010 was slightly closed at first but soon opened up to reveal full-body and round fruit to match the delicious home-made pork pie. 2005 was a small, very rich and ripe harvest and the wine was a little too rich for some although I have to admit that I loved it.
Grand Beauregard is an unusual wine in that is a mix of wines from different wines across the appellation – more Bordeaux than Bourgogne like in its parentage. It is a blend of the best casks from the best climats, and, says Frédéric, a synthesis of all that is good about the region. The Grand Beauregard 2008 was gloriously rich and long and opulent and right up there with the great whites of the Côte d’Or.
One of the revelations over lunch was a magnum of Fleurie, Colonies de Rochegrès 1999: proof positive that cru Beaujolais can age well and that gamay takes on a pinot noir-like persona as it matures. The strawberry and tobacco flavours went beautifully with the Comté and goat’s cheese.
A GRAND FINALE
For our last visit Toby had chosen Maison Louis Jadot, one of the largest negociants in Burgundy. A clever interactive map in their headquarters in Beaune shows the sites of Jadot’s vines which cover some 210 hectares scattered from the Côte d’Or to the Mâconnais and down into Beaujolais.
If you want a good example of the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux then Jadot’s cellars are a good place to start. Jadot control some 210 hectares of vines but because the majority is bottled by vineyard that means they make some 200 wines each year (130 reds and 70 whites). In Bordeaux, Château Lafite, for example, is in the region of 100 hectares from which they will make just two wines.
With this many wines to monitor and prepare it is little wonder that Jadot’s cellars are highly mechanised and absolutely spotless. Given the number they have to bottle here for some six months each year. The contrast between their large-scale production and the small artisanal approach elsewhere was marked.
Their charismatic export manager Sigfried Pic was determined to show us that bigger doesn’t mean any loss of attention and quality. He delighted in showing us a range of vintages across all quality levels and the standard was remarkably high.
Pernand-Vergelesses 2011 was delightful. This villages wine is a blend of different wines, including some premier cru, and is medium-bodied, fresh and slightly rustic. Good value here for what is a baby Corton-Charlemagne.
Beaune Grèves Le Clos Blanc, 2011 showed more depth and class despite still being so young. The fruit was spicy with a delicious hint of almonds.
Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2011 was very much in its shell. You could sense the structure and grip but this needs many more years yet to come round.
Monthélie 2011 is like a baby Volnay – all strawberries, a delicate touch of oak and ripe tannins and gloriously drinkable.
The Volnay Premier Cru Clos des Chênes 2011 has a seductive nose of cherry pips and a seductive earthiness. This has the structure to ensure it keeps and develops over many years.
It was tasting the Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2011 that my admiration for the buyers who put together our opening offers really grew. This wine was so young and tight and I really struggled to spot its potential. It must takes years of experience to envisage the charms to come.
It was then that Sigfried picked up his pipette and herded us all into the cellars for a spot of cask sampling of the 2012 vintage.
Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Premier Cru Clos de la Chapelle had a rich peachy opulence that was delicious. The limestone here is very deep with a thick layer of clay that encourages a fatter, richer style.
This contrasted nicely with the mineral, taut almost saline Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru La Garenne; here there is little soil so the vines are on limestone, which encourages the more mineral linear style.
The 2012 vintage was a classically velvety year for red Burgundy as the Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Couchereaux showed so elegantly. The grapes are grown on fully south-facing slopes which ripens the grapes nicely providing plenty of ripe dark fruit. The tannins are pronounced but velvety and smooth. Very promising.
The Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules combined density, structure and weight with soft strawberry fruit. Still young but very encouraging.
Corton Pougets Grand Cru, on the other hand, was extremely tight and uncommunicative and will need several years to come round.
The evening culminated with a grand dinner at the marvellous Couvent des Jacobins in Beaune. The wine list included Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2001 – one of the wines of the week for me: so luscious at one level yet fresh as a daisy too. Such balance and finesse.
Corton Pougets Grand Cru 1976 and Beaune Premier Cru Boucherottes 1995 were classic mature red Burgundies and they led to a good debate about the meaning of sous bois, that mushroomy, woody, earthy autumn smell you get from fine Burgundy. ‘Compost’ as one guest called it. He meant it as a compliment.
‘A glorious finale to a wonderful trip,’ said Matthew Holford of the dinner and tasting; I couldn’t have agreed with him more.
Head of copy Paul Trelford continues his tour of Burgundy. It starts with a bump but ends in euphoria Click here to read the first part.
A YEAR’S WORK LOST IN MINUTES
Burgundy’s year had been much like ours back in Blighty. A very long, cold winter and a non-existent spring had left the vines an estimated three weeks behind schedule. So the glorious July weather was welcomed with open arms and the vines were beginning to catch up. Hail is always a threat, however. In July we reported how storms had devastated much of Vouvray and on our journey back from Chablis we felt the full force.
The hail stones, the size of table-tennis balls, crashed against the roof of our bus. Outside they ripped through vines in Côte de Beaune, Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, Savigny-lès-Beaune and Chorey-lès-Beaune. Your heart really goes out to the growers who work so hard on their vines all year round only to have to stand helplessly by and watch as they lose the lot in a matter of hours.
After three lower-than-average vintages, Burgundy is facing supply pressures, exacerbated by a growing thirst for the region’s top wines in Asia.
It’s enough to drive you to drink. And that’s literally what our bus driver did as we visited Alain Coche of Domaine Coche-Bizouard in Meursault.
OLD-SCHOOL WINEMAKING IN THE BEST POSSIBLE SENSE
Alain is a winemaker of the old school and has recently handed over the reins to his son Fabien, although you get the impression that Alain still watches over things closely. We tasted through the 2012 vintage which was still in cask in their rather soulless modern air-conditioned warehouse.
Although Meursault has no grand crus, the quality of its premier crus are rarely surpassed in the Côte d’Or. What they do have is lieu dit or ‘named plots’ of particularly good land which is classified as village Meursault but actually sit somewhere between villages and premier cru. Alain gave us a tour.
The Meursault Les Chevalières 2012 is a classic example: wonderfully rich and round and opulent but retaining freshness too. The Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2012 certainly lives up to its name. Even though the malolactic fermentation hadn’t finished it was richer still with lovely fat palate and glycerol. Outstanding.
Alain then boarded our coach and took us for a tour of the Meursault vines. This was the first time we had really got into the Côte d’Or itself, that magical hillside criss-crossed with priceless vineyards that, to quote the great Hugh Johnson, ‘In certain sites and certain years only, pinot noir and chardonnay achieve flavours valued as highly as any flavour on earth.’
The vineyards of Côte d’Or are the most classified in the world. This is because of the huge fragmentation of the land thanks to Napoleonic inheritance laws which decree that an estate should be divided equally among family members. Small holdings, therefore, get divided and subdivided over generations until a single vineyard may be owned by scores of different individual owners, each of them cultivating sometimes just a row or two of vines.
This is a problem and a blessing. It means that growers here tend to get their hands dirty and will often prune and care for their own vines. It also means that there is a huge variation in quality. The different techniques favoured by different growers means that two wines from the same vintage and the same vineyard can taste completely different. It’s a bit of a nightmare for buyers but it does offer a large amount of diversity and personality. I was trying to explain this to the youngest member of our group, a 21-year-old who had just joined The Society, and I felt very sorry for him. Burgundy is not the place to start if you want to understand the world of wine. Toby has done a brilliant job describing the eccentricities in his How to Buy Burgundy guide and I recommend it to you, whether you’re a Bourgogne pro or just starting out.
Having seen the vines, Alain invited us in to the dark Cistercian cellars below Fabien’s family home. And here he came alive. It’s wonderful to see a winemaker taking so much joy in sharing his outstanding wines with an appreciative audience in a gloriously atmospheric setting.
Wine after wine followed, all glorious interpretations of fat buttery opulent chardonnay. Meursault Les Chevalières 2011 comes from a lieu dit in the northern part of Meursault near Auxey-Duresses which has plenty of breadth and body and a lovely balance between richness and freshness. Meursault Le Limozin 2011 is another lieu dit below Les Charmes with the similar ability to match softness and succulence with thirst-quenching clarity and freshness.
These wines were such a contrast with the ones we had enjoyed in Chablis in the morning. Here fermentation and maturation in oak are the norm, techniques that give the wines their full colour and vanilla, toasty aromas and flavours. These are wines to go with food, local poulet de Bresse perhaps, or capon or cheese.
Meursault Les Luchets 2011 is another lieu dit high up the hill and tenser, leaner and more linear. The vineyard, or climat (literally a ‘climate’) as they call it here in the home of terroir, has more limestone and less clay creating a more mineral style. Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2011 is still quite tight but full of promise. The balance of opulence and freshness, and the length are glorious. The oak here is perfectly integrated with lovely white-peach vigour.
Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru 2011 was glorious – just like ‘little drops of gold’. A totally dry wine but the sensation and glycerol make it seem sweet. Lovely buttery length but there’s a vibrancy too that prevents it being too flabby. Tasting the Meursault Charmes Premier Cru 2010 got us thinking about when it is best to drink these wines. This was a great wine but a baby still – there was almost electricity running through it. Toby said that he thought this was perhaps the wine of the vintage.
Toby is convinced that Diam corks are the way ahead and that they have given him more confidence to predict longer futures for white Burgundy than he had dared to recently. See Toby’s article for more details.
To back up what a fabulous vintage 2010 is, Alain opened a bottle of his Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru which had a glorious opulence and almost caramel richness.
We were already overrunning and Toby, worried about our dinner reservation, was trying to hurry the old master along. Alain wasn’t having any of it. ‘Encore une bouteille!’ he would say as he reached into his racks and pulled out another bottle of golden nectar.
There weren’t too many complaints.
Next up was Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2006 which showed a slight touch of botrytis with its aromas of honey, barley sugar and caramel. It was slightly overripe but glorious.
Just one more, he said. Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2004 which was, he said, ‘slightly bizarre’. 2004 was a tricky vintage but the mark of a good vigneronne is to make good wine in ‘bad’ years. This was rich with great structure, depth and acidity. Sumptuous texture.
He then disappeared out the back and returned with a twinkle in his eye and a label-less bottle. It was Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru 1974, and of all the treats I’ve enjoyed working in the wine business over the years, this was the sweetest. The aroma I can still smell now was the perfect combination of buttered toast, orange peel and honey. Just absolutely glorious. And proves how the best wines will keep and keep and keep.
What a wine to end on, and what a lovely person to enjoy it with. They don’t make them like Alain anymore, more’s the pity.
That night over dinner, (a fine Saint-Aubin Premier Cru En Remilly Marc Colin, 2010 and a Marsannay, Domaine Denis Mortet which showed all the power and finesse of the wonderful 2005 red vintage, since you ask) we all agreed that the ‘74 Meursault had been the wine of the day.
Next up was the chardonnays of the south in Pouilly-Fuissé.
In the first part of his tour of Burgundy head of copy Paul Trelford is cooled by heady Meursault and then heads for the glories of the north in Chablis
What to do in Beaune when the mercury is pushing 40 degrees with energy-sapping humidity to match? Meursault is the answer. At least that was long-term Society supplier, and champion, Roy Richards’ answer. And how well it went down.
I was in Beaune (along with The Society’s Toby Morrhall and Emma Dorahy) to escort a group of four members and their guests round some of the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy. The members had won a prize draw run earlier in the year to reward those who had proposed a wine-loving friend or relative as a new Society member.
You could have forgiven them for wondering what they’d got themselves into when we rolled out of Lyon airport having skipped lunch into the relentless heat and begun the long sweaty journey up to Beaune.
Cue Roy and his delicious cooling bottle of Meursault – I really don’t think anyone looked back after that first sip. The bottle in question was Meursault Premier Cru Charmes, Domaine Coche-Bizouard 2002. A great vintage and an absolute delight 11 years on. It would have inspired great happiness on a rainy night in Cleethorpes, but drunk under the dappled shade of a lime tree in Ray’s lovely garden in his house in Beaune on such a sweltering day it was magnificent. Everything mature Meursault should be: a luscious golden colour, with butter, nuts and honey and exquisitely long. Just the thing to wash down the fresh gougères, the delicious local cheesey savoury pastries.
‘Roy taught me more about Burgundy and wine then anybody else in the trade,’ Toby Morrhall, The Society’s Burgundy buyer and not one given to hyperbole, explained. And Roy, known as the ‘wine merchants’ wine merchant’, certainly proved to be a lively dinner guest telling wonderfully indiscrete stories about his favourite growers – but my lips are sealed. Generous to a tee he produced a magnum of Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Domaine Tollot-Beaut 1985. 1985! That was seven years older than the youngest member of our party. But you wouldn’t have known it as it was so fresh still with touches of citrus to go with the honey, almonds and caramel. Superb.
HEADING FOR THE COOL NORTH
Burgundy isn’t one big vineyard but made up of at least three separate groups: Chablis to the north, the Côte d’Or in the middle and the Mâconnais to the south being the most important. Toby had organised our tour so that we would visit two domaines in each region and today was Chablis’ turn to shine.
It’s a long drive up from Beaune – Chablis is in fact closer to the Aube department of Champagne than Beaune – but you know when you’ve arrived thanks to the dramatic change in the soil. Chablis sits on the outcrop of a rim of a submerged basin of limestone made up of layer upon layer of prehistoric oyster shells. The soil is named after the Dorset village of Kimmeridge that sits on the far ridge. And it is this soil that gives the wines their unique mineral, stony character.
Our first stop is at Louis Michel. Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel is the sixth generation of the family to be at the helm and he patiently and expertly took us through his wines. Guillaume’s winemaking philosophy is simple: to respect the unique terroir of the vineyard and region. The use of oak is quite controversial in this part of Burgundy, but Guillaume uses none whatsoever in order to let the terroir speak clearly.
We tasted his Petit Chablis 2012 – green apple, quite austere and firm. And his Chablis 2012 which is a blend of six well-placed parcels from the left and right banks of the Serein river. It has biting acidity and a stony, crunchy red-apple freshness. Great potential for a wine so young.
Next we tried Chablis Premier Cru Forêts, Domaine Louis Michel 2011 which has a glorious rich yellow colour with a delicious baked-apple nose. The steely high acidity was balanced by the sweet ripeness of the fruit.
Guillaume has started to use only natural yeasts in his winery. ‘Yeast is an element of the terroir,’ he explained. ‘Natural yeasts give greater complexity in the wine, but the process is very stressful.’ Guillaume said that the natural fermentation process took three months, much longer than normal, leading to high risks of volatile acidity so the wines had to be monitored night and day.
But this sublime complexity was there for all to see in his Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2011. A wonderful wine showing all the fine attributes of Chablis and the chardonnay grape at its most pure. Long and complex with minerality and steely freshness yet balanced by pure ripeness of fruit.
Montée de Tonnerre is a right bank premier cru very close to the grand cru sites and is a great source of long-lived nigh-on grand cru Chablis at a premier cru price. We tried the 2011 and it was sensational with wonderful length, depth and complexity. This will last for 20 years at least.
The seven grands crus of Chablis are on the great sun-soaking slope above the village on the right bank of the Serein. These prime slopes are all on the white Kimmeridgian limestone and produce the richest whites of the region generally at least half a degree of alcohol more than the premiers crus. Louis Michel produces approximately 13,000 bottles of grand cru Chablis each year from their plots in Grenouilles, Les Clos and Vaudésir.
We were lucky enough to try all three. Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir 2011 was richer, rounder and fuller than anything we had tried to date but still with that nervy, steely Chablis edge. A great wine. Fleshy and generous with superb white-peach character. Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles 2011 was much more delicate. This needs time for that tight steeliness to turn into noble complexity.
Les Clos is considered by many to be the finest of the grands crus and we were lucky enough to try the 2011. I can still smell the chalk bouquet– it was like being back at school before they introduced white boards. This had just been bottled so one would expect the wine to be closed but 2011 is such a ripe vintage that it was already round and generous. The potential is all there.
Guillaume, acknowledging his appreciative and knowledgeable audience, nipped off down the corridors of his spotless cellars and came back with a special treat for us to try: Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles, Domaine Louis Michel 1991. It was real pleasure to taste such a mature wine in such a wonderful environment. So gloriously rich and long! The mushrooms on the nose turned to honey and caramel on the palate. Simply delicious, and testament to the fine keeping ability of top-class Chablis.
We returned blinking into the sunshine after such a long time in the dark cool cellars quite breathless with the quality of the morning’s tastings.
We couldn’t possibly visit Chablis without a trip to long-term Wine Society favourite Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, the name behind The Society’s Chablis and Exhibition Premier Cru Chablis and numerous other bottles besides. So that is where we headed for lunch.
BALANCE AND EQUILIBRIUM
Jean-Marc Brocard started in the wine trade in the 1970s when he married his childhood sweetheart, a vigneron’s daughter, and was given a hectare of vines by his father-in-law. With much hard work he now has control of about 180 hectares, and has gradually become one of the leading lights of Chablis. Julien Brocard describes his father as a true man of the soil and ‘an adventurer who saw his opportunity and took full advantage’.
Since 2012, Julien has taken over day-to-day control of the vineyards and business from his father. Julien had earned his stripes when his father invited him back from Paris where he was training as an engineer and rented the Boissonneuse vineyard so that Julien could trial biodynamic viticulture there. We got the impression that there was quite a competitive spirit and a degree of cynicism about the whacky new techniques Julien employed. But Julien convinced his father through the sheer quality of the wines he produced and he is now converting all the vineyards of the estate to biodynamic.
‘It’s all about balance and equilibrium,’ explains Julien. ‘Traditional techniques just treat the symptoms not the disease. Biodynamism makes you be better farmers as you need to predict and understand problems. We want to create a healthy, lively soil which leads to healthy vines and less reliance on chemicals.’
Julien pointed out the swallows nesting in the roof of his cellars: ‘These weren’t here before – just shows that our land is now healthy and back in balance.’
Whatever one thinks about cow’s horns and ‘fruit days’ there is no escaping the fact that biodynamism makes winemakers think about their land in a different way and understand it better. Those reasons alone must help them make better wine.
Like Louis Michel, the Brocard house style has been for maturation in stainless steel. The winery itself is extremely impressive; built in stages from 1980, it houses stainless steel temperature-controlled fermentation vats to accentuate the purity and freshness of the wines. They have also had success with foudres (large oak barrels) for certain wines, such as Les Clos, and are trialling concrete egg-shaped vats. Julien talked at great length about the different techniques used. It’s good to see that the experts are still trying new things even after all this time in the wine business.
One of Brocard’s greatest assets is a particular slope of vines called Malantes. It has the same soil and exposition as premier cru Montmains but is classified just as village Chablis. This is entirely to our advantage as it is these underrated grapes that make up most of The Society’s Chablis and the reason why it is such a great buy.
We kicked off our tasting over lunch with The 2011 Society’s Chablis and the quality shines through. Wonderfully intense and linear.
From the 2012 vintage we tried his Chablis Sainte Claire, and his premiers crus Montmains and Vaillons (which will be sold under our Exhibition label). 2012 was a tiny vintage but the quality is very high. These wines were young and tight but you could feel the potential bursting to come through like a dog needing a walk.
2011 was also a difficult year and only the best-tended vines coped with the challenging alternating conditions of drought then flood. The wines are ripe, with intense aromas with full and fruity palates. We tried The Society’s Chablis, Les Vieilles Vignes de Sainte Claire – where the extra old-vine concentration really shines through. Chablis La Boissonneuse from the vineyard where Julien had earned his stripes and the wine was excellent: fuller-flavoured and more complex. And the premiers crus of Vaillons (our current Exhibition vintage), Vau de Vey, Fourchaume, Butteaux, Montée de Tonnerre and Vaulorent.
To me premier cru Chablis is perhaps the greatest expressions of the region with plenty of flavour and that lovely Chablis cut of acidity. The grands crus are richer and stronger and therefore rounder; they are delicious but perhaps less classic. They also take much longer to come round and can be hard to taste when young. Having said that, Julien showed us three grands crus from the 2010 vintage, Bougros, Les Clos and Les Preuses, which were ripe, aromatic with exceptional concentration.
Chablis is truly a blessed place and it was a real pleasure to see two growers who were so respectful of their environment and so clearly determined to make the most of the their family legacy and create the very best wines that they can.
The weather had been glorious but close, and as we returned to Beaune all went dark and the heavens opened. But that’s for next time…
An unplanned stop made this new discovery, with a little help from the France tourist bible Michelin, all the more special: a menu – a whole restaurant! – built around cheese.
The Restaurant La Laiterie at the Fromagerie du Col Beard is in the hamlet of Laye, around 15mins from the town of Gap (regular Tour de France country).
Jo Locke MW
Over the past decade, the pace of change in what is, literally and figuratively, South Africa’s hottest wine region has been difficult to fathom.
Others, however, are getting people up to speed: hugely positive reviews – from a South Africa cover feature in the self-consciously pulse-fingered Wine Spectator to Tim Atkin’s excellent recent article – are encouraging more and more people to take notice of this rugged patch of plains, rolling hills and mountains that begins some 50km north of Cape Town.
‘As a wine region, South Africa is starting to feel like a teen coming-of-age movie,’ said South African wine writer Harry Haddon (whose thoroughly entertaining blog is worth checking out) recently on jancisrobinson.com: ‘…it is as though someone has cued the montage… the odd kid is starting to gain some popularity.’
How does Swartland fit into the montage?
Like many a Hollywood plot, a thrilling and oddly serendipitous combination of elements is at work. Firstly, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the region’s incomparable resource of rediscovered old vines, capable of producing outstanding intensity of flavour and complexity.
Then there are the winemakers themselves. The vinous riches in the Swartland (available, for now, at far more attractive prices than land in the ritzier Stellenbosch, Walker Bay et al) have attracted the country’s brightest talents, including a fair share of vinous risk-takers and well-travelled autodidacts determined to do something different, exciting and innovative. Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst, Chris and Suzaan Alheit, and the astoundingly gifted Eben Sadie are among those making the most inspiring wines from grapes exclusively or in large part from old Swartland vineyards.
It is also well worth mentioning the refreshing spirit of co-operation among many of the winemakers. This is epitomised by the SIP (Swartland Independent Producers) group, which now includes some 24 of the 34 or so wineries in the area, making wines under a series of mutually approved guidelines in a truly collective spirit.
‘It’s all about the quality, and also the camaraderie – we’re not really a marketing body,’ explains Chris Mullineux. ‘We meet up fairly regularly to taste each other’s wines – just to share experience and knowledge, and hopefully lift the overall quality of the wines.’
Quite apart from the undoubted improvements this approach has produced, the marked departure from the cloak-and-dagger competitiveness seen in so many other regions is as conspicuous as it is inspiring.Their most successful marketing initiative hasn’t been anything as mundane as glossy brochures, trade tastings or the like; as it happens, it’s a party. The Swartland Revolution event started three years ago, with the curious and the captivated coming in greater numbers each year to taste, drink, eat and enjoy themselves in a flurry of tastings and Che Guevara t-shirts.
Anyone tempted to dismiss the unfettered creativity of the region as gimmicky is unlikely to have tasted the wines, the best of which share the lack of traditional constraint alongside the benefit of old-vine fruit and relatively hands-off, terroir-focused winemaking.
Rhône grapes thrive in the region’s accommodating soils, with syrah, grenache (red and white), cinsault, carignan, viognier and clairette all contributing star turns in the vineyards and blending rooms. Unlike so many of California’s ‘Rhône Rangers’, however, there is a delightful freshness so many of the wines, the heat of the region being tempered by altitude and, in some parts, proximity to the Atlantic. Chenin blanc and semillon are other calling cards, giving winemakers a significant pallet of varieties to choose from.
A hat-trick of warm and relatively trouble-free vintages from 2009 to 2011 helped further quality. 2012 was more challenging, but while lower yields dictated the results were scarcer, ‘there’s fantastic richness and concentration,’ says Chris. Qualities that describe the region very well.
Whether the Swartland is indeed the most exciting of the Cape’s wine regions, of course, subjective. If you have yet to try anything from this region, though, I urge you to unburden yourself of any preconceptions about what South Africa’s wines are capable of. Indeed, in some ways it’s starting to feel like a cliché to tout the area’s ‘up-and-coming-ness’.
Then again, the thing about clichés is that they tend to be true.
Look out for The Society’s forthcoming South African offer at the end of this month, which will feature a section devoted to the Swartland, including Chris and Andrea Mullineux’s ‘Kloof Street’ red and white, a new exclusive release under ‘The Liberator’ label and wines from Adi Badenhorst, Painted Wolf and Boekenhoutskloof.
We have talked before about our ‘champion’ winemakers. The latest, and in my book with ‘super champion’ status, is Jeremy Borg of Painted Wolf Wines, producer of the Rosalind Pinotage Rosé and The Den Pinotage (which returns, along with a couple of other Painted Wolf wines, for our offer of South African wines in September).
Jeremy and his English wife, Emma, met through wildlife conservation work in Africa and have continued this good work by supporting efforts to protect the African Wild Dogs or ‘painted wolves’ which feature on all their labels. Jeremy himself would admit that he has not been as dedicated to fitness, but that all changed last year when he undertook a fundraising bike ride in the depths of Africa. This year’s ride took place in June, with two kids in tow, and Emma driving the support vehicle, and included a visit to a village school which produced these memorable pictures.
Take a look at the Pedals 4 Paws website to find out more about the rides and the charity.
Jo Locke MW
Society Buyer for South Africa
We don’t see much hail in Stevenage so I often struggle to imagine how isolated storms can wreak such havoc in vineyards.
We reported in June how Vouvray had been hit followed by similar news from Champagne and just last Friday a 10-minute hailstorm is reported to have devastated some 20,000 hectares in Bordeaux.
I got a true taste of the violence of such storms last month when the heavens opened as we accompanied a group of members back from a visit in Chablis to our base in Beaune.
Turn the volume up to get the full impact. The noise was deafening.
The good news for wine drinkers is that often a bit of hail can improve quality as the grapes that survive the onslaught can go on to produce excellent wines. But it’s obviously a tragedy for the growers who work so hard on their vines and have to stand helplessly by and watch the destruction ensue.
The storm was a small blip in an otherwise excellent tour of Burgundy. Watch this space for a full report…
Head of Copy
The weekend before last saw an intrepid band of Wine Society members make their way over to Montreuil-Sur-Mer for an evening of Provencal food and wine, and a son et lumière (‘sound and light’) rendition of Les Misérables courtesy of the local townspeople.
Warnings of severe thunderstorms did not deter us – we came prepared with a large bag of red plastic ponchos, which were to be used in case of emergency – but in the event, thankfully, they did not need to be deployed.
Our first stop was Froggy’s Tavern, which ranks among my personal favourite restaurants in Montreuil. Simple and tasty, their winning formula revolves around a choice of rotisserie meat, accompanied by a bowl of sautéed potatoes and a bowl of green salad.
In my humble opinion this is the kind of food the French do so well (although don’t get me wrong, I love the whole fine-dining experience as well!).
A glass of white, Cassis Clos Val Bruyére Château Barbanau, 2011 was taken outside in the sunshine, before we made our way indoors for a Provencal-inspired four-course meal complete with wines from the area. The pissaladière tomates/anchois was the perfect foil to the Château de Galoupet Cru Classé Rosé, and on my table at least, the Les Terraces, Domaine Richeaume, 2006 was an excellent accompaniment to the lamb main course. Unusually for the area, this particular red is 100% syrah, and whilst obviously still very young, it had a lovely concentration of fruit which enabled it to stand up to the thyme and olives, and the ratatouille which accompanied the dish.
Despite decanting, the Bandol, Domaine Tempier, 2010 a blend of mourvèdre, grenache, carignan and cinsault was still a little closed, though for those who thought to save it for the cheese course, it worked very well. As did the Château Vignelaure, 2006, a cabernet-dominated blend from what is said to be the most famous wine-producing estate of Provence.
By the time we had got to the dessert – a strawberry and basil soup with olive oil ice cream – we had started to run out of options for a Provencal sweet wine. We pushed the boundaries slightly and showed the sparkling Blanquette de Limoux, Méthode Ancestrale from Antech. One might say in our defence that Carcasson is only a few hours away from Provence (with the wind in your favour…). However, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t strictly kosher in terms of where it came from, it did work with the combination of flavours in the dessert.
Dinner concluded promptly to give everyone a chance to stroll along the ramparts to watch the Les Misérables spectacle.
Victor Hugo visited Montreuil in the summer of 1837. His visit only lasted a couple of hours, but it was long enough for him to meet a waitress called Cosette and witness the rescue of a man pinned under a runaway cart, events which made a deep impression upon him and which later made an appearance in his novel, Les Misérables.
Whilst initially disappointed that Hugh Jackman wasn’t going to make an appearance and that there was no singing to be heard, I must say that the Montreuil-Sur-Mer rendition of Les Misérables was truly impressive! The choreography was a feat in itself, especially when one considers that all 600 roles were reprised by the locals. From schoolchildren to the elderly, they put on their costumes and mimed their way through 90 minutes of sheer spectacle – from a prison chain-gang being marched across the streets of Paris to a bloody battle with horses galloping across the set. The evening culminating in an impressive firework display which must have been visible for miles around.
So Les Mis à la Montreuil-sur-Mer? It’s not Hollywood, but it’s no less the worse for that.
Tastings & Events Co-ordinator
Vinho verde is making something of a comeback, as Jane Parkinson writes in our Wine World & News section. The Society’s Vinho Verde – the first non-fortified Portuguese wine to bear The Society label – hails from the Adega de Monçào Co-operative.
Established in 1958 by 25 founding members, the co-op’s membership has now been capped at 1,600, with serious investment in winemaking facilities in order to capture the best of its numerous sources of fruit.
Quality & attention to detail are everything here (the attractive hairnets we sport in the picture are testament to how seriously they take their work!).
After a tour of their facilities and a close-up inspection of the busy (not to mention deafening) bottling line, we tasted a range of nine wines. Fascinating though it was to taste all the different styles this winery is capable of producing, it became clear that the best of the several options has been selected by Jo Locke to become The Society’s Vinho Verde.
We then drove 40 minutes to visit Anselmo Mendes, the man hailed as the guru of vinho verde, and the source of the original, delicate and delicious Muros Antigos. His winery is situated in the exceptionally green Minho Valley (right).
The man himself is charming, brimming with enthusiasm but yet down to earth in a way that belies his status amongst the great and the good of Portuguese wine.
The wines we taste here are somehow bigger and quite different from those tried earlier in the day. There are also more of them. A lot more.
It’s worth noting that, having worked at The Society for eight years I know (or thought I knew) how hard the buying team work in order to source wines from across the world for members. However, I must admit I wasn’t quite prepared for the 20-hour day that would constitute the first of our trip, and the number of wines that have to be assessed therein. It takes a very practiced and to a certain degree a naturally gifted palate not to suffer from tasting fatigue when presented with such a wide range of white, red and sparkling wines.
Indeed, at the point in my notes I appear to have jotted ‘flagging’ in the margin (as much to warn myself when reviewing at a later date!) I remember noticing that Jo didn’t seem to be struggling at all, swapping notes with Anselmo about subtleties and attributes I could no longer fathom. A testament to the combination of talent and experience needed to be a wine buyer.
We rounded off the tasting with a red vinho verde, something that I’d certainly never experienced before but with enough refreshing acidity to revive my now somewhat exhausted taste buds in preparation for our next visit to Quinta do Ameal.Quinta do Ameal is a true hidden gem. So well hidden in fact that we had to ask for directions twice (the sat nav was also flagging by this point!) and ended up driving down a track that would test the suspension of a rally car.
If there was such a thing as a stealth winery then Quinta do Ameal would fit the bill. Even when we finally arrived at the Quinta itself we were not 100% sure we are at our destination: no signage, nor indeed any sign that this could be a winery was in evidence. No vats, barrels or other wine-related paraphernalia. Just a small farm building and a few stone walled sheds have been cleverly utilised to house the winemaking operation. However, after a little exploration we spotted the vineyard and were soon greeted and given the tour of the winery.
The winery here has quite a different feel and it becomes apparent that the Quinta is keen to embrace agro-tourism as they are currently renovating several outbuildings into holiday accommodation and are in the stages of completing a new outdoor swimming pool. This doesn’t mean for a second that they have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to their wines. Far from it: a ten-year-old bottle of their white was a particularly impressive advertisement for the quality on show, while demonstrating how well the loureiro grape can age when handled skilfully as well.
A lot of food for thought in a single day, and a fascinating insight into a country whose wines deserve more recognition, and indeed were the catalyst for The Society being founded in 1874. With next year marking our 140th anniversary, expect even more Portuguese finds to make an appearance soon.
Marketing Campaign Manager for Portugal