My Corsican trip is always a bit of an adventure and giving it time is always a bit tricky. It comes at a busy time for any buyer of northern hemisphere wines.
How soon can a buyer taste a new vintage? Of course there is no real answer. After all during the vintage, there is a certain satisfaction from tasting grape juice, or even the grapes themselves. Young wine on the other hand goes through stages when it doesn’t taste that well. That’s often when it’s just been racked or moved around, or indeed when it is still full of solid matter. Early smells and tastes can be misleading; young wines need time to settle a little and become more like the finished article.
So I asked my good friend Etienne: how about early December? Fine came the answer and so it was.
I haven’t fully explored all the travel options yet though I’ve tried a few. There are direct flights in the summer but out of season one has to change, at least once. For the time being my favourite option is to start from Saint Pancras which is conveniently close to home. And yes, it allows me to fantasise about some of the great trains of the past: the Mistral and Blue Train.
There’s an early train to Paris and a quick jaunt on the metro and a fast train to Marseille. The journey itself was relatively uneventful. No murders or vanishing ladies. Vanishing power maybe, as the train came to a halt outside Ashford and remained there for half an hour.
I like Marseille station (I quite like Marseille as well). It’s a station that looks different, definitely imbued with a feel of the orient. There are trees within the station, making it look like a rather large orangery. There’s a friendly intimacy about it and people seem remarkably unrushed. There’s a good place for a coffee and a croissant where people have time to talk.
The two women behind the counter may be busy, drawing one coffee after the other but still have time to exchange smiles and small talk with customers. There’s a tramp seated not far away with his coffee and a sandwich. A heavily armed Gendarme greets a passenger with a kiss. This is all such a contrast with Paris which, by comparison seems cold, fearful and furtive.
Marseille airport is like any other airport and in common with all airports, there are building works and road works; yet it too seems a little laid back. People have time for each other. Even at the security gates, there is an air of friendliness. Not that any of this affected security, which was as tight as anywhere.
Corsica has four airports which is good going for an island with a population of around 350,000.
But Corsica is more than just an island. It is a sort of mini continent with lots of quite different bits and these are separated by mountains making communication on the island slow and difficult.
Politics play a big part here too. City mayors are powerful beasts whose reach has to extend to Paris. Corsica punches well above its weight in most matters. And so there are four airports.
I still have only explored a tiny bit of the island. There is vineyard everywhere, but it is probably true that some of the top and most forward thinking growers are in the north. And so that stretch that separates the towns of Calvi and Bastia, has become Wine Society territory!
Calvi is where Lord Nelson lost an eye in 1794. It amuses people much that Corsica might have ended up a British possession. Indeed for a couple of years George III was king of an Anglo-Corsican kingdom.
Back to wine!
Clos Culombu is not far from Calvi airport, barely 15 minutes’ drive away. It was dark when I got there. The samples of rosé from the new vintage were all lined up on the counter.
Etienne Suzzoni was there, all six-and-a-half feet of him (or more!), and his son Paul-Antoine who as it turned was largely responsible for making the 2016 vintage. Father Etienne is these preoccupied with other ventures; he is after all Mayor of his local town, Lumio.
2016 is a good vintage here. It was explained that it was hot and dry but that crucially that it had rained just enough so that drought was never really a problem. We tasted from a round 20 different tanks, all representing specific parts of the vineyard and different grape varieties, and different ages of vine too. Some of the samples were already blends with two varieties present. For instance, the first tank was of sciaccarrellu with a little syrah, and very good it was too.
Before continuing maybe a few words are needed about varieties. Corsica has a rich and varied ampelography taking in influences from France, Genoa, Tuscany and even Catalonia. Many varieties were lost during the phylloxera epidemic though some have since been rediscovered, growing wild.
In the north, niellucciu is the main red grape variety and is in fact identical to the Tuscan sangiovese. It produces full-flavoured, full-bodied and often tannic wines. Sciaccarellu is a native Corsican variety, grown nowhere else. It tends to make wines that are fragrant, fruity with plenty of grip and is the majority variety further south such as in Ajaccio. Local wisdom says that it is the choice variety for making rosé. Grenache is also indigenous and probably came from Aragon or Sardinia. Syrah and cinsault are more recent imports. Last year, the blend for our Corsican Rosé was mostly niellucciu with a little sciaccarellu and grenache.
Silence tends to reign during these tastings, considerable levels of concentration being required. Each sample is tasted, one after the other. Each could have something to say in a blend. One sample might have low pH which could be a good thing while another might have high pH, less desirable. Likewise excessive alcohol might not be a great idea. And so I write down a comment or two beside each wine, by the time the last wine has been tasted I have an idea which samples to retain for the blend.
And then starts the fun with test tubes and calculators at the ready. The sciaccarellu wines are all very good and yet, on its own, something is missing.
There are several false leads until finally a blend sticks. Jean Dépagneux, for many years in charge of a business in Beaujolais and Mâcon, always used to tell me that three elements in a blend are better than two.
And then I found it. There was a tank of pure cinsault which didn’t seem much and was easily overlooked. Just 10% was enough to bring the niellucciu and sciaccarellu together. And so the 2016 vintage was born.
The following day the three elements, 60% niellucciu, 30% sciaccarellu and 10% cinsault, were blended together.
What happens now?
The wine now rests; it will remain untouched over the winter and will be bottled after a filtration in the spring.
The first shipment to Stevenage will be in April and I for one am looking forward to trying it!
Corsica is a big place and 36 hours doesn’t allow for much exploration. After Calvi, my route took me east to the other fortress town of Nelsonian fame, Bastia. A high point was the entering the forbidding-sounding Désert des Agriates. North of the main road, there is just a startlingly beautiful emptiness.
I had to meet Marie-Brigitte Paoli who picked me up in her incredibly large land cruiser. The next four or five miles were not easy driving on a deeply rutted track but eventually we arrived at her estate. Hers is called Clos Teddi while her husband’s, next door is Clos Alivu. One cellar serves both and there is one winemaker, a Parisian who came to Corsica as a student to do a vintage and never left!
There are lovely wines here in all three colours and complemented to perfection the lunch which was brought out on a windswept terrace. There was charcuterie, figatellu sausage, spare ribs, an eyewateringly strong cheese, Fiadone cheese cake and garden-picked clementines, a sole guardian of sensible eating!
The wines of Corsica are fascinating and though I’ve spent much of the time on rosé, the whites and reds are also worth exploring. More Italianate then Gallic, they are at their best at the heart of a meal.
If you enjoy finding out what goes on behind the scenes on our wine buyers’ visits to our winemakers, visit the Travels in Wine™ pages on our website.
Reminiscences along the road in south-west France with buyer Marcel Orford-Williams.
I have never been to South America but in my imagination I see areas of wide, open spaces and in some places, the backdrop of the Andes. The south-west of France is also about wide, open spaces and in places the majestic Pyrenees provide a similar snow-capped backdrop.
The analogy can go further as there are strong cultural ties between many of the growers in Argentina and Uruguay with those from this side of the Atlantic. Malbec, so important in Argentina came from Bordeaux and Cahors, while tannat, the principal black grape in Uruguay, was brought there by Basque migrants from south-west France.
Earlier in the year I spent a week exploring this vast and disparate region of France searching out wines to offer to members and visiting some of our long-standing suppliers. This is a region that for a long time lived in the shadow of Bordeaux and then was almost wiped by phylloxera. The region is steeped in history with Romans, Gauls, Visigoths all leaving their mark. Not to mention the Angevins from the day in 1152 when Henry II of Anjou married Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The Romans probably brought wine culture to the region but it is the growth of monasticism that created the patchwork of vineyard areas that we have today. The link with Santiago de Compostela is very strong as the south-west of France is crossed by numerous pilgrim routes to that holy place in north-western Spain. As I was driving out of the border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I saw numerous walkers marching along the roadside, with poles and rucksacks and some with tell-tale scallop shells around their necks.
If you want to read more about the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela, Anthony Gunn MW has written an article for our website.
My week was one of tasting, meeting people and assessing the 2015 vintage and in four days I managed to visit the majority of appellations. 2015, as I expect you will now have realised, was looking good, especially for the later-harvested varieties such as tannat and gros and petit manseng. That means outstanding wines from Jurançon and Madiran, and also the Basque Irouléguy.
The south-west, dominated as it is by Bordeaux and even to some extent the Languedoc, doesn’t sell by itself. It has always needed big personalities to bring these wines to the attention of consumers. As it happens such people have never been lacking here and many have become proud suppliers to The Society – the Grassa family of Château Tariquet, for example, suppliers of our Society’s Côtes de Gascogne, whose pioneering spirit we wrote about in Societynews some years ago.
I have mentioned the strength of the 2015 vintage but in fact, most vintages have their strengths and that the grape varieties planted here are perfectly adapted to the vagaries of climate. That’s the exciting part of my job, travelling to these wine regions and tasting the wines alongside the winemakers, finding out exactly what has worked well and what hasn’t so that I can make my selection for members.
This year I was bowled over by so many of the wines that I tasted and I can’t help feeling that members will want to share in my enthusiasm for these distinctive wines.
We have just released one of the largest offers of wines from south-west France that includes reds and whites from most appellations, and with Christmas in mind a few gratuitous treats for desserts. A selection from the south-west would not be complete without the spirit of the region, Armagnac.
If you enjoy reading about our buyers’ exploits in the field, visit our online e-publication Travels in Wine™
Buyer Marcel Orford-Williams celebrates our all-too-easily-overlooked Specialist Merchant Award for Regional France won at the IWC this month…
The late Edmund Penning-Rowsell, chairman of The Wine Society from 1964 to 1987, was always keen that the buyers should look beyond the ‘classic’ regions and source wines from off the beaten path for members to enjoy. And so, as long as I have been at The Society, the Committee of Management has afforded buyers the freedom to roam the backwoods of France and elsewhere to source exciting wines for our range.
In all the excitement and rightful pride in winning Overall Merchant and Online Merchant of the Year at the IWC (International Wine Challenge), it was easy to overlook that we had also won prizes for our South American and Regional France ranges.
We were naturally thrilled to have received this last award. It is the result of a good deal of work over many years. While France’s classic regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône are historical passions for The Society, our range also makes plenty of room for other French wines which much of the trade has barely discovered.
We have long championed the wines of Alsace and our range was recognised as the country’s finest by the International Wine Challenge for eight consecutive years to 2015.
During the last 12 months, we have visited Auvergne, Beaujolais, Alsace, Lorraine, the south-west, Provence and Corsica. A trip to the Jura will feature later in the year. There have been dedicated offers covering the wines of Alsace and Beaujolais and one for the south-west is also on the drawing board for release in the autumn.
It is not so long ago that many of these wines were for local consumption only. But globalism has changed all that. Growers from Savoie, Beaujolais or Corsica are as well travelled and skilled as any and keen to share the secrets of their terroirs with the rest of us.
We never forget though that it is thanks to members’ support that we can explore the wine world in this way. Members play a vital role in all of this by always being receptive to new ideas and new tastes. We hope that you enjoy the wines as much as we enjoy discovering and sharing them.
We salute you!
Explore our range of French wines at thewinesociety.com
Once upon a time, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel were the only two named ‘crus’ of the southern Rhône.
But of course it is the ambition of every village to aspire to cru status.
Making it happen can be a long process and has to involve a Paris-based body called INAO which stands for the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine. It alone can decree that Brie de Meaux can be called Brie de Meaux or that Chambertin can be called Chambertin.
In the case of Cairanne, that process seemed interminable.
The case for Cru Cairanne began when the appellations were first created back in the 1930s. Growers then were far-seeing, and even then had begun by insisting on low yields and that only a certain number of grape varieties could be used.
There were geological surveys, an infinite number of tastings and meetings, and plenty of politics and negotiations to determine which could be crus and which vineyards couldn’t.
What makes a good Cairanne?
With a majority of grenache in the blend, Cairanne is never going to be anything less than a full-bodied, generous wine with a certain fruity charm and tannins that should always be well integrated and soft.
The upshot is that Cairanne is now the 17th cru of the Côtes-du-Rhône, joining the likes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage; and it applies to both red and white wine though red is by far the more important.
As far as we are concerned, it means that from the 2015 vintage just ‘Cairanne’ need appear on the label. Goodbye ‘Côtes-du-Rhône Villages’!
Quality won’t change that much as most growers have been making such brilliant wine anyway. Yields are a little lower which will mean that the wines should have more substance and greater concentration.
Cairanne itself is a delightful place to visit. It’s an old village, typically laid out, Provence style, on a hill with a church at the top, lots of winding lanes and plenty of character.
These days there are some good places to eat with the choice possibly headed by the Tourne au Verre. This is very central and has an excellent wine list with most if not all Cairanne producers represented. The food is good and simple, and one can eat outside in the summer.
The 2015 vintage is looking very promising, and some of the wines will soon be in bottle.
As for the 2016 vintage, flowering is still a little way off but so far so good…
So, roll on Cairanne, the Rhône’s newest cru!
It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Aimé Guibert at the age of 91.
He was the founder of the iconic Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc and it would not be too fanciful a claim to state that he, more than anyone was responsible for putting the Languedoc on the map of fine wine.
He was born in 1924 in Millau in the département of the Aveyron. His first career had been as a tanner and then as a successful glove maker. His second career came somewhat unexpectedly and as a result of finding somewhere peaceful where he and is growing family could escape from the bustle and noise of Paris.
They bought a large farmhouse or Mas on a virgin, wooded hillside by a cold mountain stream called the Gassac. Then their world changed when a friend, professor Henri Enjalbert, a geologist specialising in wine, visited the Guiberts on their farm in 1971 and declared on examining the site that the soils and climate were perfect for growing vines. He went on further, proclaiming that with cabernet sauvignon, a great wine could be made.
And so it began.
Aimé with his wife Véronique put all their energy into creating a vineyard where none had existed before. Remarkably, and with the help of another academic, professor Emile Peynaud of Bordeaux, the first vintage was made in 1978.
Aimé’s vision was extraordinary and all encompassing. Making a wine was not enough. Daumas Gassac had to be a great wine that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best. From his previous career he bought sales and marketing expertise that at the time was probably unique in the world of wine, at least outside Champagne and Bordeaux.
No appellation existed for the valley of the Gassac so his wines were labelled as mere vin de pays, becoming the most expensive non-appellation wine. But that didn’t seem to matter and Mas de Daumas Gassac gained a large and devoted following around the world.
From the start, Aimé and Véronique Guibert wanted to work as close to nature as possible. They were pioneers in creating an environment that promoted biodiversity. Though cabernet sauvignon is the principal black grape, others were planted with varieties coming from elsewhere in France, Italy and even Georgia. Plots of vineyard were kept small and surrounded by woods and hedges. Other wines followed including a viognier-inspired white.
That the Guiberts were sitting on a gold mine did not go unnoticed. Others moved in nearby with mixed success. Robert Mondavi became interested. An offer to buy Daumas Gassac was rejected and a plan to create a Mondavi estate vigorously and successfully opposed with the passionate Aimé very ably leading the local population in revolt. In the film Mondovino, Aimé Guibert is seen as the champion against what he saw as the industrialisation of wine.
His greatest achievement was to prove the notion of terroir. In creating Daumas Gassac, Aimé Guibert created the Languedoc’s first grand cru.
Many other vignerons would follow often with the same energy, spirit of enterprise, determination and individuality as the great man himself. The Languedoc owes him an awful lot and will miss him.
He is survived by his wife Véronique and his nine children including Samuel, at the head of the business.
My time as buyer for the Languedoc was greatly enriched by his wisdom and I shall miss him too.
Around a year ago, a small party of lucky members, random winners of our Buyers’ Tour competition, met up one morning in Saint Pancras.
Six hours or so later, we were in the Rhône valley tasting our first wine. The highlight of the trip was a safari-style excursion in Gigondas, aboard two Land Rovers, one coming from Clos de Cazaux, the other generously on loan from the Beaumes de Venise co-op.
Jean-Michel Vache bought the Cazaux land rover ex-United Nations, where it had seen service in Bosnia and Kossovo. But that’s another story!
The trip had been hugely successful and it got me thinking:
Why not bring Gigondas to the UK?
The Land Rovers were left behind.
Instead five Gigondas producers came over, first to London and then the following day to Newcastle, and they gave an hour-long masterclass on Gigondas as part of our annual Rhône event.
There were eight vintages shown, from the youthful fruit of a 2014 to the majesty of 2007.
Gigondas itself was represented by the aforementioned Jean-Michel Vache, showing a mighty 2009, Thierry Faravel of Domaine la Bouïssière, Jean-Baptiste Meunier of Moulin de la Gardette, Louis Barruol of Chateau Saint-Cosme and Henri-Claude Amadieu of Domaine Amadieu.
A reason why it worked so well is that the growers are all mates, some very close, so there was no infighting and no jealousies.
Gigondas is a not an especially large appellation and all of it pulls well together. It is heartening to see members’ enthusiasm for the wines on the rise, and perhaps we’ll do it again sometime!
In the meantime, our current offering of affordable pleasures from the excellent Rhône 2014 vintage features a delicious juicy red from Moulin de Gardette (£13.50), as well as what would be a blueprint for white Gigondas, if such a wine legally existed, from Amadieu (£9.95).
Travels in Wine is a brand new section of our website. Here you’ll find the inside track from the latest trips throughout the wine world. Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams tells us more.
Behind every wine label, even the most modest, there hangs a story – of where and how it was made and by whom. Most of the wines will have been bought as a result of a buyer visiting the cellars, tasting from barrel and vat, and tramping through the vineyards.
Indeed, as buyers we are actively encouraged to leave the sanctity of the Stevenage tasting room and to boldly go and seek out new wines wherever they are made.
Stories of our travels abound and so we thought we should share some of them with members.
Over the course of a year, between us, we travel to most of the main wine-producing areas of the world, sometimes on our own, sometimes accompanied by colleagues.
We taste thousands of wines, sorting out the wheat from the chaff, finding out what’s new and exciting and forging relationships with the growers that we think are already making, or have the potential to make, great wines.
The stories and insights garnered along the way will help to bring even more context to the wines we bring back for your enjoyment and we hope that members will enjoy coming along for the ride.
Visit Travels In Wine here, and please feel free to let us know what you think. We’ll be adding new ‘Travels’ regularly, so watch this space for visits to Champagne, Piedmont, Bordeaux, Beaujolais and many more.
It seems not long ago that we were grieving for Laurence Faller. Yet Alsace is now faced with another desperately premature loss as it was reported that on the morning of Saturday 9th April, Etienne Hugel very suddenly passed away, aged just 57.
Etienne always seemed to be in a hurry, no less so than in this sudden exit from the world’s stage, and it leaves us desperately sad and empty. Such a loss seems impossible to comprehend.
He entered the family business in 1982, not the best of vintages for Alsace. But his uncle, the irrepressible ‘Johnnie’ Hugel had made sure there was enough good claret to make up for any shortcomings. Château Léoville Barton1982 would thereafter always be associated with the Hugel family. Etienne was the twelfth generation of Hugel, along with his cousin Jean-Philippe and winemaker brother Marc.
Family meant everything for Etienne. Indeed, the official name of the business was recently changed to Famille Hugel to reflect this indelible bond. Each active member of the family had a role, and for Etienne this was sales and marketing, to which he was admirably suited. As roving brand ambassador, replacing his revered uncle Johnnie, he was in his element.
Selling Alsace wine has never been an easy proposition and so a successful salesman has needed the skills akin to those of a proselytiser. Here, Etienne excelled with his energy, undying love and passion for the wines, his charisma and his unfailing ability to engage with everyone who fell under his spell.
Etienne was the master of communication in all its forms. The Hugel website is a model in interaction. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were the tools of his trade. In this regard he was my mentor, teaching me the importance and vitality of social media. Not so long ago I had my first Facetime conversation with him. Not an experience I particularly enjoyed!
He was a constant traveller and globe trotter. At first he shared the accumulation of air miles with Gérard Jaboulet, often appearing together at venues, including several memorable Wine Society tastings. It is impossible to think of Etienne without recalling that sad July day in 1997 when, with Johnnie and Nick Clark MW, we were all sweltering by the Chapelle on Hermitage Hill to say adieu to Gérard Jaboulet.
Of late, Etienne’s travels seemed to have become more focused on the Far East and indeed he regularly spent the first few weeks of the year based there. He was surely at his happiest in Singapore or Japan. He shared some of his impressions with wonderful photos which he posted on Facebook. His love for Kaoru, his Japanese-born wife, was immense and he was especially proud when together they won a contract to supply Japan Airlines.
As Hugel brand manager, Etienne was always keen to raise the family image at every opportunity. Joining forces with other great wine families seemed a most natural way forward and he was a fervent supporter of the Primum Familiae Vini which included Pol Roger, Symington and Drouhin among others.
Etienne was always keen to innovate. With his brother Marc, he created a new cuvee of pinot noir. Nobody had believed that Alsace could produce great red wine. The new cuvée, ‘Les Neveux’, proved everyone wrong. The first vintage, 1990, remains an exceptional red wine showing no signs of dying.
One of his last acts was to help modernise the famous yellow labels. They now seem bolder, more confident, reflecting the renewed dynamism that is clearly evident at Hugel. At the top end, the name Jubilee, coined to mark the firm’s 350th in 1989, gives way to something that has the touch of the atavistic and archaic and yet equally bold. Grossi Laüe is Alsacien for ‘Grand Cru’, and will replace the name Jubilee.
And there was still more. Amidst great pomp and ceremony last year at The Shard building in London, a new wine was revealed. This was a 2007 riesling, a great vintage and from a very particular plot of vineyard on the grand cru Schoenenbourg and called Schoelhammer. This is undoubtedly a grand statement of a wine and already hailed as one of the world’s finest dry rieslings.
Riesling is at the core of what Alsace and Hugel are about. It was also Etienne’s particular passion; riesling in all its forms, from steely dry to lusciously sweet. And his brother Marc made riesling in all those styles, providing Etienne with a showcase that was second to none.
However, we did think he had gone a little too far when out of his briefcase came a handful of riesling tattoos. Still we were game and for the next few days, some of us were sporting ‘riesling’ tattoos on our forearms.
Though selling Hugel was the aim, Etienne quite happily sang the praises of other vignerons and more than once made recommendations of who I should visit. The Hugel shop in Riquewihr has a formidable range of Alsace wines.
He never missed a Wine Society tasting, and was due to co-host a tasting of botrytis-affected wines with Fabrice Dubourdieu. More often there was the Wine Society Alsace roadshow, often with his cousin Jean Trimbach.
After a Chester tasting we danced a cancan on stage for the amusement of members. After an equally memorable tasting in Bradford we booked into the best curry House in town. The Maitre d’ did show some surprise when we turned up with a case of gewurztraminer but he took it surprisingly well!
He was generous with his time, welcoming me in my early days with The Society and sharing his Alsace with me. There must be many other wine buyers, wine writers and sommeliers who will today be thanking him for all those hours he spent preaching his gospel.
Etienne helped bring on board the thirteenth generation. His son Jean Frédéric is part of the sales team while his nephew Marc-André is on the production side, working with Marc. A cousin Christian is in accounts and is daughter Charlotte is currently working in London, learning her craft at the offices of wine importers John E Fells.
Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to them, to his father, wife and brother and to the many Hugels that make up this great and indomitable family.
We shall miss you Etienne.
It is with a feeling of infinite sadness that I have to announce the death of Jean Meyer at the age of 71 after a long illness, which he faced with great courage, helped of course by his wife Odile and daughters Céline and Isabelle.
It would be difficult to overstate his contribution to Alsace. If this French and Rhenish region has achieved anything since its post war elevation to appellation status, much of the credit must stop at his door.
As a winemaker he had no master, believing in the intrinsic quality of Alsace wines, and every year facing the challenge of turning his grape into wines worthy of the appellation and the Josmeyer brand.
Josmeyer had started as a négoce house but Jean gradually did away with purchased grapes. Today all the production comes from own vines, and that includes The Society’s Exhibition Alsace Riesling. Moreover, all the vines are now farmed both organically and biodynamically.
Alsace revels in its grape varieties and Jean made all their diversity a strength. Together with his daughter Isabelle, he designed labels according to grape variety, changing with every vintage. He was a passionate advocate of grand cru and designed a Japanese-inspired label just for these exalted wines.
His wines were never less than elegant and always were marked by a sense of purity. Jean was a remarkable epicurean and realised, perhaps before anyone else, the importance of food in selling wine. And he had an answer for any number of dishes. He extolled the virtues of gewurztraminer with anything tomato, for example, and took the time to write a lovely piece on matching Alsace wines with cheese on our website.
There was more to this focus on gastronomy than just marketing savvy. Jean was an outstanding cook in his own right, understanding the delicate balance that exists between wine and food. It is the same sense of balance that made him an outstanding blender. As a host, he had no equal; his lunches were always a high point of the year. His risotto was something of legend and the perfect foil for an aged riesling or pinot gris.
He had a boyish charm and infectious enthusiasm that will be irreplaceable.
Odile was his life companion who allowed him to shine, though not without the occasional tease. Céline and Isabelle are his talented daughters who for some time have held the reins of this extraordinary Alsace house. Our thoughts are with them.
Normally trade tastings in Paris are to be avoided. So often they are overcrowded with dozens if not hundreds of tasters packed into small spaces, pushing and shoving along with scribblers, sommeliers and merchants representing the dozens of small independent Parisian wine shops. But this was no ordinary tasting.
As for Paris, with all that has happened, it was not quite business as usual. The Tuesday felt more like a Sunday with maybe a few more frantic police cars about, and the Eurostar was maybe half full with so many business meetings put on hold or cancelled.
I walked from Pont Saint-Michel to the Avenue Montaigne and was struck by the beauty of the place. It felt good to back.The event itself, possibly a first, reunited a majority of producers from two neighbouring and complementary appellations, Cornas and Saint-Péray.
It was a rare opportunity to taste from practically every producer.
If nothing else it showed the increasing confidence that seems to be there. They are probably not the best-known appellations of the northern Rhône, lagging behind Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, but they make up for that with youthful enthusiasm and obvious talent.
The main town in the area is Valence and its growth has threatened the existence of both these appellations. Indeed Saint-Péray, now more a small town rather than a village, nearly did disappear under the concrete of developers. It took the concerted work of growers, negociants and the local co-op to keep it alive.
It probably explains some of the dynamism that clearly exists here. There is a real pioneering spirit which of course is essential here of all places: this is, after all, not an easy place to grown grapes. The cost of labour involved in these hillside vineyards, with their terracing and dry stone walls, is huge.Cornas
Of the two, Cornas is the better known, and the largest. With recent expansion, Cornas is now slightly larger than Hermitage but with twice as many growers and more of them are involved in making and selling wine. Cornas itself has a real village feel to it with the old buildings huddled around the church, mostly along the Grand Rue. The community is close knit and is mostly involved in wine in some way. The cemetery and war memorial are full of the same names.
Cornas still has the image of an old-fashioned, rustic wine with fearful tannins, a cross maybe between Rhône and Madiran or Cahors. The wines always needed keeping often at least ten years before they had softened enough. These were manly wines to go with manly dishes, invariably the result of a day’s shoot. But why should the wines of Cornas be any less elegant than Hermitage?
The reason is winemaking. It should be remembered that being a vigneron in Cornas was never considered a full-time occupation. Even today, there is often a day job as an electrician or mechanic. So there was never much time for cellar work and wines were left to fend for themselves. Wines were traditionally left on the skins for weeks, and the practice of removing stems was unheard of. Moreover, syrah here ripens well and quite naturally produces a wine with a good deal of tannin. The revolution came in the 1980s and 90s with growers like Alain Voge who were determined to change the style and that perception of rusticity.
Cornas is said to be granite and that is largely true, but in places there is some limestone mixed in, and some clay too, and these differences have an effect on the wine. There are also different expositions and more importantly still, wide differences in altitude. Many of the best producers have parcels in different plots.
Cornas: the main plots
• Saint-Pierre: altitude, freshness and elegance. Saint-Pierre and the heights above is where Cornas was extended (overextended some say as the grapes don’t always ripen, as was the case in 2013).
• Chaillots: northern slope. Steep with lots of old vines. Chalk mixed in with clay. Big structured wines for long-term keeping.
• Les Eygats: colour and structure, often with quite high acidity. Here too, the wines invariably need keeping.
• Reynards: a very well-exposed granite slope. Perfect exposition. Full-bodied wines, big ripeness levels.
• Southern slopes, including La Côte, Sabarotte and Patou: granite too but with clay. Weighty, fat wines, which are very rich and complex.
A few growers are making single-vineyard wines but most do not, preferring instead to achieve complexity by blending. It should be said too that vineyard holdings tend to be very small.
Effectively rescued from a building site, Saint-Péray has real potential to make exciting white wine.
Curiously its call to fame was sparkling wine, and indeed at one time these wines fetched better prices than Champagne. Richard Wagner was a fan: he wrote Parsifal while drinking it. Must have been a sizeable bottle!
The reputation suffered and quality tumbled, and other wines improved. The raison d’être was simple enough; the largely limestone soils were perfect for growing white grapes, and somehow the wines kept their freshness. Today less than 10% of Saint-Péray is sparkling though growers are keen to develop it. The rest is still. Made from marsanne, often on its own but sometimes with roussanne, the wines have Rhône-like flavours of honey and lemon, but with more grip.
• Frank Balthazar: a nephew of the great Noël Verset. Good Chaillots here in an elegant style. Makes two wines: the first, from young vines, is of no interest but the old-vines Chaillots is different and we occasionally buy it.
• Domaine Mickaël Bourg: new to me. Mostly Saint-Pierre. Fairly elegant 2012. Quite good. Better than the frankly uninspiring Saint-Péray.
• Domaine Clape: traditional style. No destemming, so the wines are often a little austere when young. Two wines: Cuvée Renaissance is made from younger vines. The 2013 was a bit tetchy. The top wine, which has no cuvée name, also 2013, was quite splendid: thick and rich and wonderful. Tiny quantities, not enough for us sadly.
• Domaine du Coulet: new-wave Cornas and the antithesis of Clape. Expression of very ripe fruit. All destemmed. Very black, concentrated and ultra smooth. Would love to see how well the wine lasts. Certainly impressive.
• Chapoutier: better known for Hermitage. Fairly modern approach to Cornas. Elegant and refined but maybe a little lacking in personality. A second cuvée, made in conjuncture with 3 Michelin star chef Anne-Sophie Pic seemed more rewarding with better length. I was less keen on the Saint-Péray, which seemed dull.
• Domaine Courbis: generous yet stylish, these are all lovely wines in a modern style, polished and presentable. Champelrose is the entry-level wine and very good value; approachable when young. Lovely 2013 Les Eygats: tight, sinewy and dark. Needing time, especially the 2013. The 2012 Sabarotte was immense, plump and fat. Outstanding.
• Yves Cuilleron: to be honest, he is better known for Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. Neither his Cornas or Saint-Péray seem to click.
• Durand: two very talented brothers, Eric and Joël. Lovely white which we don’t yet do, but made in small quantities. Two Cornas: ‘Les Prémices’ is a young-vines cuvée for the restaurant market. Very easy but probably not very Cornas like. ‘Les Empreintes is made with old vines from lots of small plots. Modern style, elegant yet concentrated. Brilliant value for money.
• Guy Farge: Saint-Péray was 90% roussanne but was 2013 vintage and maybe a little tired. Cornas from Reynards was pretty sound.
• Ferraton: small house run by Chapoutier, but independent, and always impressive. Didn’t disappoint. Cornas blend called Grands Muriers was good. Single vineyard ‘Patou’ was stunning as was Les Eygats. White somewhat dull.
• Paul Jaboulet Ainé: authoritative. Gorgeous Saint-Péray 2014: fine, bright and clean. Cornas 2011 was just perfect to drink now: soft and fleshy with a sweet, spicy finish. 1996 Saint-Pierre stole the show. Outstanding. Essence of truffle and spice. Lovely weight and length.
• Domaine Lionnet: related to Jean Lionnet and one of the Cornas families. Workmanlike Cornas in 2014 & 2013. Lacked finesse – hard act to follow after Jaboulet though!
• Leménicier: had always wanted to taste his wines but was frankly disappointed. Not helped by oxidised sample of 2014.
• Domaine des Lises: new to me. Grower from Pont-de-l’Isère so presumably also a Crozes producer. Disappointing. Not fine.
• Johann Michel: Saint-Péray based. Two Cornas wines: first is light and easy but not really interesting. Second, called ‘Jana’, altogether different and much more interesting: both 2014 & 2013 were brilliant. Weighty white which I liked less.
• Rémy Nodin: new to me – new guy and ex-Tain co-op member. Still learning and has some way to go yet.
• Julien Pilon: like Cuilleron, more of a Condrieu-based producer. I did not like his offerings from down here.
• François Villard: he too is better known for Condrieu but in this case his Saint-Péray were perfectly good, especially the rich and fat ‘Version’. Modern take on Cornas. Attractive but un-Cornas like maybe.
• Tain Co-operative: such a big player with so many aces up its sleeves and yet… The Saint-Péray was sound but no more than that and the Cornas from 2011 and 2013 vintages seem to suffer from excessive and unintegrated oak. Overall disappointing. But I know things are changing there so one lives in hope.
• Nicolas Perrin: lovely Cornas. Modern style with poise but also depth. 2013 fab. Still learning about Saint-Péray and not there quite yet. Worth keeping a look out for.
• Laure Colombo: her father is enologist and negociant. She is talented grower in Saint-Péray and Cornas. White 2014 was floral and attractive. Cornas ‘Terres Brûlées’ is a blend with part Eygats and Chaillots. Gorgeous 2013. ‘La louvee’ is from well-exposed La Côte. Very impressive 2013. ‘Ruchets’ from Chaillots is the top wine and also very impressive. Lovely wines indeed.
• Dumien-Serrette: favourite grower with old vines, especially in Patou. Just the one wine, 2013 Cornas. A real joy: packed with blackcurrant fruit, full and complex, slightly wild and exuberant and untamed. Will need a few years yet.
• Vins de Vienne: a negociant company set up by Yves Cuilleron, François Villard and Pierre Gaillard. Has been in the doldrums but now back on form. Stunning Saint-Péray, especially ‘Bialères’, in a flattering, oaky style. ‘Archeveque’ oaky and needs time but very good. Cornas was sound enough.
• Domaine Du Tunnel: this is named because there really is a disused railway tunnel on the estate in Saint-Péray which has now been converted into a spectacular and effective cellar. Spectacular for a railway enthusiast, that is! Stéphane Robert is the winemaker and owner of what is without doubt the top estate in Saint-Péray. He makes four wines from different ages of vine and different plots and including one full-flavoured cuvée of pure roussanne. The best wine is the Cuvée Prestige, made from 80% marsanne and 20% roussanne raised in barrel. It’s a wonderful wine, fine with clarity, precision and pleasure. The Cornas is equally polished and assured.
• Domaine Voge: Alain Voge was an important figurehead in the story of both appellations and was one of those who broke away from the past to create a modern style of wine. Alain has been unwell for some time and has taken a back seat leaving the running of his business to the very dynamic Alberic Mazoyer, who used to be chef de cave at Chapoutier. Brilliant wines across the range. Three Saint-Péray, the best coming from old vines and called ‘Fleur de Crussol’, and three Cornas: Vieille Fontaine is the top wine and only rarely produced. Cuvée Vieilles Vignes though is very impressive. Outstanding 2013 with 2014 also looking very promising.
There were a few absentees like Thierry Allemand, who very rarely ever leaves his vines.
But this was an exceptional tasting.