Grapevine Archive for September, 2015

I visited the Rhône recently for a week to begin tasting the 2014s, taking in the northern whites in particular.

Growers were in the middle of picking the 2015 fruit and cellars were busy. Wellington boots were much in evidence, essential footwear for cellar work during this time. It is often said that to make wine you need to use a lot of water. Very true. After a busy day everything gets hosed down from floors, tanks and wine presses; everything needs to be spotless for the next truckload of grapes. Good hygiene is every bit as important as the quality of the grapes.

André Perret, Condrieu

André Perret, Condrieu

Distances are not much of an issue so going from one cellar to the other: around six or seven in a day is quite possible. The first two days centred on the two small towns of Ampuis and Condrieu. Such is their proximity and fragmented ownership of vineyard, that most growers make wines from at least two appellations and often three.

First was Christophe Pichon, who has clearly benefited from having sent his son to make wine in Australia. New ideas such as sulphur-free vinification have given this estate a real boost. Theyhave made lovely 2014s, especially the Condrieu which I thought was one of the best.

The next two meetings were up the hill, on the plateau were temperatures in winter can be significantly lower than down in the valley and were wines often age just a little more slowly. Emmanuel Barou was delighted with 2014, as he was with 2015 which he was still picking. For once, his yields were normal. ‘My banker will be pleased,’ he said. So will members, because both his Condrieu and Viognier vin de Pays are clearly outstanding.

Côte-Rôtie

Côte-Rôtie

Highlights in the afternoon continued with Côte-Rôtie from two top estates: Domaines Duclaux and Barge. Gorgeous reds from both. I’ll try to encapsulate the style of 2014 a little later, save to say that this is a vintage for pleasure.

There was more from Condrieu the following day, from three iconic growers, François Villard, André Perret and Robert Niéro. All made delicious whites and these will be available to members in the January en primeur offer.

And so the tour progressed, ending up in Saint-Péray and Cornas, a couple of days after the great Noël Verset had been laid to rest. In some ways the best was served up last. This was a visit to Domaine de Tunnel and for the first time actually visiting the tunnel which Stephanne bought several years ago. In fact his interest then were fore the old marsanne vines that happened to grow on top of a disused railway tunnel. The railway closed in 1930 and so the tunnel came cheap. A couple of years ago, Stephanne took the plunge and built a new cellar within the tunnel. I thought his were among the classiest tasted during the week, both white and red.

I go back to the Rhône in a fortnight and undoubtedly will have more so to say on both the 2015 and 2014 vintages.

But there already things that can be said about 2014:

Condrieu

Condrieu

Firstly, it is clearly exceptional for whites from all grape varieties. In some ways the whites are similar to 2013. There is the same precision, freshness and grip but with a little more roundness and flesh. These are really winning wines that will give pleasure early. For fine drinking next summer, the 2014 Condrieus will be outstanding.

The reds too are delicious. There the accent is on fruit and charm. The wines have plenty of colour and vibrancy and have sweet-tasting tannins. I was very pleased by the way the 2013s are turning out but the best of these will need keeping a while. The 2014s will be more immediate and give pleasure much sooner.

One always tries to talk vintage comparison with growers but such discussion seems to get harder as every vintage seems so different to anything that might have happened before. And so it is the case with 2014, where there was enough heat to ripen the grapes. Spring had been especially hot and summer relatively cool and sometimes wet.

And then there was the unwelcome visit of Drosophila Suzukii, a pesty little fruit fly with a predilection for ripe, healthy black grapes. So growers spent agonising extra hours in the vineyard, getting rid of affected bunches, even berries. Hard work often pays and it has done so in this 2014 vintage.

Wines of the week?
Condrieu from Domaine Pichon and Saint-Péray from Domaine de Tunnel for the whites. As for the reds, Cornas Vieilles Vignes from Domaine Voge.

And I can’t wait to get back.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

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This is the second part of my blog about a three-day trip to the Rhône Valley in June when I acted as guide to a small party of members. These lucky (or not so lucky!) few had earned their place on the tour having signed up new members to The Society earlier in the year. Here we head south…
Part I can be read here.

Heading south into Gigondas
The Rhône has become known as the third of the great red wine regions of France after Bordeaux and Burgundy. Yet this has come about quite recently, helped by a combination of improved communications and the appellation system. It seems odd to us today that so many of these great wines were shipped to Bordeaux or Beaune to be used as blending wines.

The second chapel in our tale

The second chapel in our tale

A little bit of history
The best thing to have happened to the Rhône was when the Papacy movied to Avignon in 1309. Even before that event, much of the surrounding country, then known as the Comtat Venaissin, was in Papal hands. It gave the region a Patron on a par with the Dukes of Aquitaine and Burgundy.

Yet when all this happened, Gigondas and its wines had seen over a thousand vintages. The first to plant vines were probably veterans of the Second Legion and the name of the settlement probably comes from the Latin jucundus or villa jucundatis. The joy in the name speculated to have come from the abundance of spring water here.

People make wine and people of course create entities such as Bordeaux or Chianti. It is the same for Gigondas. One of the most significant names was Raspail. This family of noted Republicans, politicians, scientists included among their number, Eugene Raspail who while in Gigondas did much to improve the quality of the wines. His great nephew, François Ay, was president of the growers’ syndicate and it was he who, after a long and fierce struggle, obtained appellation status for Gigondas in 1971.

The granting of the appellation was a big step forward as it gave impetus to growers to do more, either for themselves or through the co-operative. The grenache grape had for a long time been what Gigondas was about and new status reinforced this and did away with many other varieties that had cropped for one reason or another over the years. Out went carignan, alicante and aramon to be replaced by syrah and mourvèdre, and the white clairette.

For a while the merchants became chief beneficiaries of the better wines that gradually were being made here. But there were a good number of estates too, with many growers having the desire to extend vineyard into the less hospitable mountain areas behind the village.

My first memory of Gigondas was a 1967 from Jaboulet, a great wine from a great vintage. It is a wine that combined two, often contradictory elements: power and freshness. I was hooked and have followed Gigondas ever since.

Those veteran legionnaires who settled here were not daft. A more beautiful spot is hard to imagine with the jagged Dentelles de Montmirail providing a stunning backdrop and with no lack of water.

The Romans also knew about planting on hillsides. What they did not possibly appreciate was the intensely complex geology which, as in Hermitage, is a key reason why the wines are so interesting. Unlike Hermitage though, or even Châteauneuf, Gigondas is far less well known, its secret is still largely hidden.

It was this that prompted me to make Gigondas the final destination for this trip. And of course also the fact that there are some great wines being made here! To test this out, we had organised a veritable gala dinner with four key producers joining us with wines and not all from the best vintages. Indeed I shan’t forget Moulin de la Gardette 2002 and 1968 in a hurry.

Jean-Baptiste Meunier of Moulin de la Gardette explaining Gigondas

Jean-Baptiste Meunier of Moulin de la Gardette explaining Gigondas

If Hermitage derives some of its uniqueness from its complex geology, the same can be true of Gigondas. The terroir here is the result of the same tectonic convulsions that created the Alps and Pyrenees. Except here, the layers of rock, limestone and marls were tilted to end up looking like a Mille-feuille on its side, an analogy favoured by Louis Barruol, the genie of Saint-Cosme. In this vertical landscape, the hardest limestone has weathered the least to create the jagged, tooth-like Dentelles de Montmirail with further shaping from wind, rain and ice. This verticality means that soil changes almost continuously – plainly visible as one goes round the vineyard seeing how the colour and composition of soils changes every few yards.

And yet despite everything, Gigondas still lives in the shadow of better-known Rhônes. The problem for Gigondas is it took longer to recover from the various disasters that befell viticulture towards the end of the XIXth century, ending with the Great War and depression. Before the appellation system was created, there was nothing to define what Gigondas really was.

Jean-Michel Vache, whose father literally carved out his vineyard from the rock, by hand, said that when it came to planting grape varieties in the early days, one did what one could. So people planted whatever was available, choosing some varieties because they produced good yields with plenty of juice or others for alcohol. And no doubt, some growers planted hybrids that were resistant to phylloxera.

Gigondas as we know it starts to take shape
The appellation gave hope and a structure for growers to follow, even if for the first 35 years, it was just Côtes du Rhône. The co-op also tends to pay more for higher alcohol as well as yield. And so gradually the grenache grape was to become dominant in Gigondas and a reputation for strong, full-bodied wines was duly formed.

Louis Barruol's turn to explain his terroir

Louis Barruol’s turn to explain his terroir

The addition of other grapes brings greater finesse
Strong alcohol does not mean great wine of course and the next challenge was to go from coarseness back to finesse. And that is a journey that has been going on for at least half a century and is continuing. Other grape varieties have been brought in to add something else. Syrah adds colour, fragrance and structure. Structure too comes from mourvèdre which adds a spicy edge. The white clairette, often planted together with grenache, can add elegance.

But the real work is in the vineyard. It isn’t just about planting grape varieties, it is also about matching variety and soil and exposition. The landscape offers so many possibilities with north-facing slopes and slopes planted at high altitude. Some of Amadieu’s most interesting wines are coming from vines planted at over 400m. These include a sensational white which for now remains Côtes du Rhône; for some reason white Gigondas had never been part of the deal, unlike in next door Vacqueyras.

Still plenty of joy in Gigondas
There remains plenty to do but luckily the ambiance in Gigondas is good. There is both rivalry and camaraderie among the growers and even the co-op is a force for good. The future is bright. So much so that there isn’t that much bulk wine around for the merchants to buy. Though in fairness, many of these merchants have always played the quality card; both Jaboulet and Guigal for example, make fine examples of Gigondas.

The Dentelles de Montmirail

The Dentelles de Montmirail

But leading the way of course are the growers and there are many of them, some big like Amadieu and some very small but all making exceedingly exciting wines. And the good news has been spreading, attracting outside investors. The Brunier brothers of Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf teamed up with their excellent American importer, Kermit Lynch to buy one of the historic estates, Les Pallières. More recently the Perrin family, owners of Beaucastel, also in Châteauneuf also bought a fine estate in Gigondas called Les Tourrelles. All have been welcomed and are actively involved in raising the image of Gigondas.

So I had good reasons to choose Gigondas as a final destination for this members’ trip. After the gala dinner with its succession of venerable wines and a good if somewhat shortened night, it was up for an early start to meet our transport for the morning. Jean-Michel Vache was in charge here, aided by Jean-Baptiste Meunier of Moulin de la Gardette. The Beaumes de Venise co-op unwittingly lent us their large Land Rover for half our number. This would be driven by Jean-Baptiste. Jean-Michel had his own, bought second hand from the United Nations and still in its all- white livery. There was a Sarajevo sticker in the window, indicating where this had been. And we were off on a two-hour excursion, exploring the Dentelles and the terroirs of Gigondas. This was exhilarating driving on the roughest tracks or no tracks at all, hair-pin bends, impossible gradients and views to savour for a lifetime. Water is the giver of life and was not forgotten as we stopped to drink from a spring.

Henri-Claude and Jean-Marie Amadieu explaining Gigondas

Henri-Claude and Jean-Marie Amadieu explaining Gigondas

L'apéro with Barruol in charge. Jean-Michel Vache in discussion with Henri-Claude Amadieu in the background

L’apéro with Barruol in charge. Jean-Michel Vache in discussion with Henri-Claude Amadieu in the background

As for Louis Barruol and the Amadieu brothers, they made themselves busy organising a perfect casse-croûte at a perfect location, the Chapelle de Saint-Cosme.

There used to be many chapels in Gigondas but time and the Revolution have diminished their number. Its full name is Chapelle de Saint Côsme et Damien and was named after two Christians noted for their powers of healing.

The chapel is just off the road as it goes past Louis Barruol’s estate and on its way to the Col du Cayron. Some of the tiny church dates back to the XIth century though the foundations are older still. Its history is obviously complicated. It is part in ruin, maybe as a result of land slips or war. It is undoubtedly a place of beauty and serenity and a perfect place to ponder and marvel.

Safari by Land Rover: one of the highlights of the trip

Safari by Land Rover: one of the highlights of the trip

And so came the party of Land Rovers, up a short, twisty and very steep drive, to the foot of the chapel. Everything was ready for a pre-prandial picnic, otherwise known as the apéro. There were cheeses, saucisson and of course olives, washed down by some delicious whites from Amadieu and Saint-Cosme.

Gigondas produces rosé and that is how we finished this trip, drinking these full-bodied pinks, well chilled to cope with the intense heat of the summer of 2015.

Dining in Gigondas
The farewell lunch was at the Florets, a very well-established house with good food, an impressive wine list and after a long dinner, the necessary rooms! The Hôtel de Montmirail, above Vacqueyras is similar and as good. Better still though is the restaurant l’Oustalet. This is in the middle of the village opposite the Mairie. It’s always been there but was never that good. And then it was bought by the Perrin family who put one of their youngsters in, Charles Perrin, to run. And they just happened to have a resident chef at Beaucastel. Laurent used to while away his time dreaming up dishes to go with Beaucastel. He came to The Wine Society once to cook a festive dinner for members at Merchant Taylor’s Hall. He knows cooks in Gigondas, in charge of one of the most creative kitchens in the southern Rhône. The Perrins do nothing by half; the amazing food is matched by a brilliant wine list. Sipping Pol Roger on a balmy Provençal evening has got to be one of the highlights of the year!

And so it was adieu to what was a memorable week for all. Though I knew that I would be back soon with the 2014 vintage to taste in depth and the first soundings of the new 2015 harvest to take. And hopefully more discoveries to make!

15June_Marcel-with-broker-Charles-Blagden

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

If this blog post has whetted your appetite for Rhône wines you may wish to browse our current Vintage Rhône offer 

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You may have noticed that it’s been a number of years since The Wine Society sold any top wines from Austraila’s iconic Penfolds.

Around eight years ago, when I had the pleasure of buying these wines for members, I realised we had a problem: as worldwide demand soared, allocations were being cut, and we risked frustrating more members than we could satisfy. After much thought, we decided to turn this challenge into an advantage.

The results will be live on our website on Monday 5th October: an offering of rare and delicious Penfolds wines from vintages going back to 2000 and spanning Grange, St Henri, RWT, Yattarna and many more.

Penfolds tasting

Find the Penfolds offer here and read tasting notes from Jancis Robinson MW & Anthony Rose.

An accountant’s nightmare; a wine lover’s dream
The Wine Society is unique in the world of wine: we are able to ship wines, store them in our cellars to age, then release them many years later when they are ready to drink. With this in mind, I bought our allocations throughout the past eight years and held them in our cellars until we had enough bottles to put together several mixed cases across a number of styles and vintages.

Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago in Stevenage, tasting the wines from our forthcoming offering.

Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago in Stevenage, tasting the wines from our forthcoming offering.

Taking the long view
By keeping the wines and offering them in this way, we can share them out to a bigger audience, meaning we can be fairer to members an important element of our co-operative ethos.

Tasting notes from Penfolds’s winemaker, Jancis Robinson and more
Such is the quality and rarity of some of these wines that Penfolds’ head winemaker Peter Gago made the trip to Stevenage for our final assessment tasting earlier this year. His comments, as well as those of Jancis Robinson MW and Anthony Rose (who also joined us), and of current Australia buyer Sarah Knowles MW, will be included in the offer.

Jancis Robinson MW tasting the wines.

Jancis Robinson MW tasting the wines.

Our offer of Penfolds’ wines will be published online on Monday 5th October and a printed offer will be mailed to those that have bought fine Australian wines from The Wine Society in the past two years.

If you don’t believe you fall in to this category but wish to receive the printed offer, please contact Member Services on 01438 741177 or by e-mail, remembering to include your share number.

Pierre Mansour
Society Buyer

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Thu 24 Sep 2015

Noël Verset, 1919-2015

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It is with great sadness to have to report the passing of Noël Verset at the age of 95.

It is not just for the man himself and of the grief felt by his family, including nephews Alain Verset and Frank Balthazar. In some ways it is also about the passing of an age.

Noël Verset in his cellar.

Noël Verset in his cellar.

Noël represented that kind of instinctive winemaking that knew nothing of oenology, oenologists or laboratories. His were truly natural wines in the best sense of the word, devoid of artifice, faithful to the syrah grape and the great terroir of Cornas in the Rhône Valley.

Cornas remains a village of vignerons though its recent expansion beyond the railway has more to do with the spread of the city of nearby Valence than to wine. But the old heart of Cornas has probably changed little; mingling dressed stone with the granite landscape with its terraced vineyard.

It was here that Noël grew up, leaving school as was custom at the age of 12 to join his father Emmanuel. His first vintage was 1931 and his last, 75 years later, was 2006, though by then Noël was only making wine for family consumption.

Noël married in 1943, the same year he took over the running of the vines, though has dad continued to lend a hand for many years after. Emmanuel Verset died at over a 100, a year or two before I made my first visit in 1989. Cornas growers live long lives.

Working a vineyard, particularly one as small as this and especially when Rhône wines were still relatively unknown, was not a full-time occupation. Noël’s primary source of living came from the railways. Even today, his nephew Alain has a day job working on making refuse trucks for the city of Valence.

Noël bought his first vineyard in 1948, a plot on the Sabarotte slope in the south of the appellation. This complemented to perfection his father’s vines on Reynards, vines on the Chaillots which he got when he married in 1931, and then a tiny parcel of Champelrose.

Noel VersetSeeing him at work was like seeing a glimpse into the past. Winemaking wisdom was passed down the generations. All the work was manual and over the years, sixty-degree slopes would have their revenge with surgery on hips and joints. ‘I can still climb up the slopes but find it hard to walk down,’ he told me. In his prime he was still making his own grafts to replace dead vines though towards the end of his days he became reliant on others.

His cellar was tiny, just a garage next to the house and everything again was done by hand. There is a concrete tank where the wine was made; treading was done the old way by foot. And in an age of making umpteen different wines, Noël made just the one wine.

Life was hard. The Cornas appellation was created in 1938 but even before then very little was ever sold as Cornas. Most of the wine was sold as jug wine in bars in Valence and the rest was bought by négociants and then usually blended to make Côtes-du-Rhône. The war years were especially hard and remained so for some time. The frosts of 1956 which destroyed so many vineyards but which largely spared Cornas proved to be something of a turning point and prices began to rise. For a time, the top wines of Cornas still came from merchants like Delas and Jaboulet, but growers were beginning to assert themselves in a big way. And in their number was Noël Verset.

I first met Noël in 1989 thanks to his UK importer, Roy Richards and Mark Walford, and the first wine I tasted was the 1988 vintage, from barrel.

I was smitten. Technically, it was hardly the most accomplished of wines; they were more than a little rustic yet there was honesty, generosity and simplicity that made so attractive. And with a stew served for the lunch at the local restaurant, his wines were fantastic. Vintages followed suit, each offering a slightly different facet on the same theme. I’ve only just started to drink the 1990, which is outstanding.

Noël Verset was a gentleman with a short stature, a bald head and deeply wrinkled face which would crease whenever he smiled, which he did quite often. He would chuckle and laugh when thinking of the past and amusingly he spoke with the squeakiest of voices. He was always dressed in blue, true ‘bleus de travail’, no longer seen quite as much.

He once drove me around the vineyards in an ancient little Renault van. He was so short; his head was barely visible above the wheel. I remember mentioning the fact that he didn’t seem to be applying any brakes when driving. ‘You don’t really need brakes to stop,’ he said, and pointed to a heavy stone in the back of the car: ‘I use this to stop it rolling down the hill.’

'He would grab a decidedly rickety old wooden ladder which had one foot shorter than the other and then swinging somewhat, compensating for both the ladder and the uneven earthen floor,  he would climb to the top of each of the two casks to take a sample.'

‘He would grab a decidedly rickety old wooden ladder which had one foot shorter than the other and then… climb to the top of each of the two casks to take a sample.’

He walked with a pronounced limp, swaying a bit from side to side. In the cellar, he had two oval oak casks, then one 500-litre barrel and one smaller barrel, mostly used for topping up the others. When I turned up in October to taste the wine, he would grab a decidedly rickety old wooden ladder which had one foot shorter than the other and then swinging somewhat, compensating for both the ladder and the uneven earthen floor, he would climb to the top of each of the two casks to take a sample. The young wine was dark, limpid, with the smell of dark fruits, sometimes olive and Provence herbs. If ever there was ever a wine that told of its origins it was Noël Verset’s Cornas.

By the 1980s, at an age when so many of his countrymen were thinking of retiring, Noël Verset had gained cult status, receiving visits from journalists and merchants from everywhere. He was especially kind with young, aspiring vignerons, taking them under his wing. This was the case of Thierry Allemand. Not only did Noël teach Thierry skills and wisdom but he also gave him vineyard when he had become too old to work it himself. Other vines he would leave to Clape and Courbis, all iconic figures in today’s Cornas.

Noël Verset is survived by two daughters, neither of whom expressed an interest in continuing the vines. Those sixty-degree slopes…

Rest in Peace, Noël.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

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Tue 22 Sep 2015

Pest Control in The Cape

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The Cape is going green in more ways than one.

Villiera – producer of The Society’s South African Chenin Blanc amongst numerous, equally reliable Estate wines – uses ducks for pest (specifically snail!) control.

Villiera ducks

Is it a herd, gaggle or brood of ducks? Whatever it is, and in this number, they are a highly effective and natural option, albeit without great common sense in the face of an oncoming 4×4!

Jo Locke MW
Society Buyer

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Sat 19 Sep 2015

Bordeaux 2015: The Right Bank

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Head of Buying, Tim Sykes, continues his whistle-stop tour of Bordeaux to assess the 2015 vintage. After the Médoc yesterday, he heads for the right bank.

A damp start to Thursday in central Bordeaux, and noticeably cooler than yesterday.

Chateau de Pitray

Grape test at Chateau de Pitray

First stop is Château de Pitray in the Côtes de Castillon (an hour’s drive east of Bordeaux, beyond Saint-Emilion), which is owned and run by the very able Jean de Boigne. Pulling up in front of the imposing château I notice that the temperature gauge on the car reads just 13?C. Such low temperatures would be worrying if the grapes were a long way from reaching full ripeness. However, Pitray’s grapes are almost ready to pick, and the cool weather wards off the possible onset of rot which can attack the grapes in damp conditions.

On the dining room table Jean has lined up three plates, each bearing a bunch of healthy looking grapes. He invites me to guess which variety is lying on each plate.

I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory, managing to identify the cabernet franc (the right-hand bunch), but getting the merlot (middle) and malbec (left) the wrong way round.

All three bunches were picked first thing this morning by Jean, and they all tasted delicious.

Next stop Pomerol, and a first tasting from the 2015 harvest with Edouard Moueix at Château La Fleur Pétrus. The wine (or more accurately young-vine merlot grape juice) had deep colour and tasted lush and vibrant.

As we sat down to the traditional Moueix pickers’ lunch (thankfully indoors) the heavens opened and an unscheduled 15-minute deluge ensued. Christian Moueix, attending his 45th consecutive harvest lunch, immediately got up and announced to a euphoric group of 75 pickers not only that there would be no harvesting this afternoon, but also that the entire team was invited to attend today’s matinée performance of Marguerite at the local cinema.

Harvest lunch at Le Fleur Petrus

Harvest lunch at Le Fleur Petrus

I made my excuses and then headed off to Saint-Emilion to drop in on François Despagne at Château Grand Corbin Despagne. François, much like his neighbours in Pomerol, could barely contain his excitement at the quality of merlot grapes arriving in his cellar. The grape sorters (human not mechanical) were having to discard just a tiny fraction of the grapes, so healthy were the berries, picked just a few minutes earlier.

Having never had an opportunity to look around the cellars at Grand Corbin Despagne, François gave me a quick guided tour, including a peek inside the ‘Réserve de la famille’ – dusty bottles of vintages such as 1929, 1949 and 1961 lay enticingly in the wine bins.

1929 Grand Corbin Despagne

So tempting…the 1929 Grand Corbin Despagne

My last visit of the trip before heading back to the UK was to Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan, where ever-lively winemaker Rémi Edange updated me on the latest news from the Château. ‘Le potentiel est incroyable’ were his exact words – I don’t believe that I need to include a translation!

Categories : Bordeaux
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Fri 18 Sep 2015

2015 Bordeaux – Early Impressions

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Every year The Society’s Bordeaux buyers make one or two whistle-stop visits to the region during harvest time to gain a first impression of the nascent vintage. Bordeaux is notorious for putting out (at best) confusing or (at worst) misleading messages about the vintage, and so there is no substitute for actually witnessing what’s going on with one’s own eyes, and talking to château owners and winemakers that you know will give you an honest assessment of the state of the harvest.

Beaumont 2015

Rainbow over Chateau Beaumont

Having made it to Bordeaux on Tuesday night, somewhat later than anticipated, I headed out to the Médoc first thing Wednesday. The drive to Pauillac, where I had my first appointment, was slow (the traffic in Bordeaux is worse than London), but I made it to Château Batailley by 9 o’clock. Owner Frédéric Castéja and winemaker Arnaud Durand were there to meet me, and were happy to update me on the state of the vineyards and the anticipated harvest. Their vineyards are in good shape, with the vines in excellent health. Flowering in spring was good and there has been no disease, hail, rot or other nefarious interruptions in the vines’ vegetative cycle. Early summer was very dry, and there were fears that the vines would shut down due to lack of moisture, but some well-timed light showers in early August alleviated the situation.

The weather today was warm (26C) and humid but despite some distant rumbles of thunder, very little of the forecast rain actually fell on the Médoc. Batailley will start picking their merlot vines on Thursday and, if the decent weather holds, they expect to have harvested all their merlot by the middle of next week. The cabernets (sauvignon and franc) are likely to be ready to pick towards the end of September.

Next visit was to Château Beaumont, a member favourite for many years. Head Winemaker Etienne Priou had a smile on his face, always a good sign at this crucial time of the year. His relaxed demeanour was in part due to the fact that Beaumont’s grapes look to be in good shape, but also because there was a gleaming new optical grape sorter sitting in his winery for the first time. Optical sorters are a recent, but welcome, innovation that discards sub-standard grapes before they find their way into the fermenting tanks. The entire production from Beaumont’s 98 hectares of vines will pass through Etienne’s new toy, ensuring that only perfect berries are processed in 2015.

South to Margaux and Château Angludet
Picking of the early ripening merlots started on Monday this week and so approximately half of Angludet’s merlot crop was safely in the winery by the time I visited. I tasted some merlot berries coming off the vibrating table de trie (sorting table) and was impressed by the sweetness of the fruit.

Angludet sorting table

Angludet sorting table

Ben Sichel, winemaker at Angludet, seemed quietly confident about the 2015 vintage, whilst rightly pointing out that until the cabernets, which are due to be picked in around a fortnight, are safely harvested, the vintage still lies in the balance.

I was lucky enough to join the Angludet team for their daily ‘harvest lunch’, a convivial affair on a long trestle table by the sorting table in the winery. Hearty food washed down with a bottle each of 1986 and 1988 Angludet (both fully mature but delicious) made the lunch a particularly memorable occasion.

Lunch at Angludet

Lunch at Angludet

My last visit in the Médoc was to Château Rauzan Ségla, a second growth Margaux property that we have been buying consistently for many years. John Kolasa, chief winemaker and manager of Rauzan Ségla and sister Saint-Emilion property Château Canon, retired at the end of July and his successor Nicolas Audebert was on hand to update me on the state of the harvest. The remarkably youthful Audebert was at one time chief winemaker at Krug in Champagne, and more recently the winemaker for Cheval des Andes in Argentina. He seemed genuinely excited by the prospect of a good harvest, taking me into the vineyard in front of Rauzan Ségla and showing me row after row of perfectly ripe and healthy merlot grapes.

Nicolas Audebert, Rauzan Segla

Nicolas Audebert, winemaker at Rauzan Segla

The weather forecast for the region for the coming week looks decent, if somewhat changeable, so whilst a fine vintage is by no means a fait accompli, with fingers and toes crossed we can all hope that the Mother Nature will deliver something wine lovers can get excited about.

Next stop the Right Bank….

Thu 17 Sep 2015

Passing the Masters of Wine Exam

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Last week marked the conclusion of a process I started six years ago, and I am delighted (and relieved) to announce that I passed the Masters of Wine exam.

Sarah KnowlesMy studies began in 2009 with an intensive week-long course in Rust, Austria. I felt very much out of my depth, pruned vines in the snow and received feedback on a tasting paper that had more red pen on it than black…

Luckily though, that year I joined a great student-led tasting group in Vauxhall and stuck at it, tasting at least a dozen wines a week blind, and swapping essay plans each weekend.

The first-year assessment came and went, and second year beckoned.

Second year saw an equally humbling study week, this time in Bordeaux where I suddenly wished for a chemistry degree, my own vineyard to practise in and more time!

Back in London I had now managed to infiltrate another two student-run tasting groups, meaning that I was tasting upwards of 48 wines blind a week. I also took every opportunity to gather data and examples, ranging from yeast and rootstock choices to Canadian monopolies and shipping wine in bulk. I visited cooperages, bottlers, vineyards and labs, and made notes on them all. By the time the exams rolled around I travelled everywhere with postcards of these examples in my handbag and with podcasts about wine on my iPod.

Exam week consists of three 12-wine blind-tasting papers that all start at 9am, followed in the afternoon by four essay-based written papers. Amazingly the week went well, and I was astounded to pass both parts at the first attempt.

The third and final part of the MW is to write a 10,000-word dissertation (later to be known as a research paper) on a topic of our choosing. Having passed the exams in September 2011, I needed a dissertation topic, title and synopsis ready for that December. I didn’t really get my act together fast enough, and my embryonic title was dismissed. There is only one opportunity a year to submit a synopsis, so I effectively had a year off.

The following autumn I put together a title only to have it dismissed as well. At this stage I didn’t seem able to latch onto a topic that really had current relevance to the wine trade, could be tested to a high measurable degree, and – crucially – researched and written up within nine months.

The victorious blind tasting team at Oxford, 2003, where Sarah first got into tasting wine

The victorious blind tasting team at Oxford, 2006, where Sarah first got into tasting wine

Finally, last September, I came across a suitable topic – the impact of amateur vs expert reviews on wine sales.

I spent last autumn researching the wider topic and writing a thorough synopsis. I got the go-ahead last January and got my head down. I was extremely fortunate to have an incredibly supportive mentor in Caro Maurer MW, who kept me on track, and by May I had 10,000 words ready for review and submission in June.

Last week, on Monday at 8.20am, I received the best news. Penny from the Institute called to say that I had been successful, and on completion of a confidentiality form, and payment of my first year’s subscription, I could add the coveted ‘MW’ to my name.

The process has been tough and without the support of my friends, The Wine Society and my mentor I wouldn’t have finished.

However, the friends I made in the first and second year are some of my best today. The rigour in learning the theory is something I would have never done alone, and the tasting side was simply wonderful and something I miss already!

Celebrating in style!

Celebrating in style!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheers.
Sarah Knowles MW (!)

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… seems to be the lot of this underrated grape.

But I have had a long-time love affair with wines made from this underrated grape: Rioja, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Minervois, Banyuls, Gigondas, Priorat, all contain grenache (garnacha in Spain) and therein lies the reason, I feel, for the lack of due deference paid to this most versatile grape.  An important player in the assemblage of these well-known wines, its name rarely appears on the label, leading to its position of relative obscurity and under-appreciated status.

Grenache - always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Grenache – always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Other grapes that can command the spotlight, chardonnay, syrah to name two, are practically brands in themselves. But poor old grenache remains under the radar.

But this is a grape that can produce rosés, reds at all levels, and even sweet wines that can take on chocolate; not to mention the white mutations of grenache blanc and gris that produce a range of full-bodied whites which are now becoming more widely appreciated.

Well it’s time to put things right and this Friday 18th September, grenache gets to have its share of the limelight as it is International Grenache Day – a day where the grape can be celebrated by showcasing wines where grenache not only dominates but rules. My kind of wines!

If you’re looking for a place to start your love affair or reacquaint yourself with the glories of grenache then these would be my recommendations:

From Navarra in northern Spain, there’s Señorio de Sarria Rosado, Navarra 2014, a smooth and fruity rosado to try with marinated anchovies. A good insight into the grape in its white form would be the round and refreshing Grenache Blanc from Domaine du BoscDomaine Jones in Tuchan, close to the border with Roussillon, produces a full and herby grenache gris perfect for aperitifs or robust fish stews. Her ample red (Domaine Jones, Côtes Catalanes Grenache 2013)

Mrs, and now Mr Jones, in Katie's old-vine vineyard below Queribus

Mrs, and now Mr Jones, in Katie’s old-vine vineyard below Quéribus


from old grenache vines in the shadow of Cathar stronghold, Château de Quéribus, is overflowing with luscious fruit; a winter warmer to delay the central heating switch on as the nights close in.

For a lighter fragrant style which demonstrates grenache or garnacha’s versatility why not give Salvaje del Moncayo Garnacha 2014 a try? It’s made by self-confessed garnacha nut, Raul Acha whose parents’ ancient garnacha vines in Rioja inspired him to seek out interesting parcels to vinify across Spain. Both reds would suit hearty fare and serving the latter cellar cool introduces an appealing freshness, one of the hallmarks of good grenache or garnacha which also deserves to be better understood.So whatever you choose, let’s afford grenache the acclaim it deserves as the headliner and not just a support act.

Conrad Braganza
The Cellar Showroom

The wines mentioned above will all be open to taste in The Cellar Showroom on International Grenache Day this Friday 18th September. If you are in the area, do call in and try them.

Read more about the grenache grape in our online guide here.

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Tue 15 Sep 2015

Rejuvenation in The Cape

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Springtime in South Africa and the vineyards are at varying stages of bud burst, turning the already beautiful winelands a fresh and vivid green.

Proteus flowers at Eagles' Nest

Proteas flowers at Eagles’ Nest

Peter Stewart at Eagles’ Nest in Constantia, pictured below with head of Buying Tim Sykes, explained the challenges of extreme viticulture in this cooler area, where strong winds are a regular occurrence.

Peter Stewart and Tim Sykes

View from Constantia mountains

The view from the Constantia mountains towards the sea shows the green protective netting which is going up to protect the young shoots, and gives an idea of the steep slope and contour-hugging terraces in this vineyard amphitheatre.

Eagles Nest

Shiraz vines are trained low, with a tall cover crop offering extra protection. Also in view is some charred wood, recalling earlier bushfires which, with the right frequency, regenerate indigenous local plants.

View from Eagles Nest

Jo Locke MW
Society Buyer

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