What does the organic and biodynamic wine producer do when his vines are invaded by locusts? Locusts even in modest number have a huge appetite for vegetation and like vine leaves.
Give up the struggle and resort to insecticide? Resign himself to losing his harvest? Neither of these things, as I found out when I visited the ingenious Apostolos Thymiopoulos in Naoussa this month.
Apostolos had noticed that a wasp nest close to his neighbours house had been destroyed and eaten by guinea fowl. So he went quickly to a local breeder and bought 50 guinea fowl and a few turkeys and let them loose in his vineyards. All the locusts were gobbled up in three weeks and his vines suffered only local damage.
Several of the guinea fowl were later eaten by a fox and a couple ended up in the pot, but I saw the heroic and quickest moving survivors safely fenced in next to the house and, if the link works, you can see them at work in the vines saving the harvest.
While there I visited and tasted a number of other producers of Naoussa and learnt more about this fascinating region which lies on the south-east facing hill slopes an hour and a bit?s drive due west of Thessaloniki. The city of Thessaloniki had been basking in 35° (Athens was 40°) but while Naoussa was marvellously hot, we were refreshed by a cooling breeze that came down from the mountains behind the town.
The key grape grown is xynomavro which with controlled yields is capable of producing wines of extraordinary finesse and depth of flavour, but which like Piedmont?s nebbiolo can lack charm if over-produced and be over-tannic if over-extracted or if badly handled in barrel. There are lots of different soils here from sandy, to clay and a stony mix of crumbly schist, quartz and sandstone. Thymiopoulos? wines capture wonderful bouquet with lovely rich, rounded fruit balanced by ripe tannins.
His organically cultivated grapes are planted on very stony soil. The Jeunes Vignes, 2011 (six to nine years) is delicious and best drunk cellar cool like Burgundy. We will be listing this wine shortly at £10.50 per bottle.
His ?Earth & Sky? Classic Naoussa, 2009, which we will list next year, from 40 year old vines has wonderful depth but may not reach its peak for three to five years longer. For me they are certainly the finest example of Naoussa I tasted proving yet again that Greece now has some world-class wines worth seeking out.
The school where Aristotle taught the young Alexander the Great is just outside the town and Vergina, where you can see the extraordinary treasure-filled tomb of his father, Philip of Macedon, now turned into a museum, is close by.
Sebastian Payne MW
Our recent tastings with Italian growers were huge fun for the members who attended (as many told us) and for the growers who enjoyed meeting so many who drink their wines.
Every one of the wines that were shown ? from the inexpensive and excellent Society?s Verdicchio to the highly classy Allegrini La Poja ? received orders after the tasting.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most ordered wine was the new shipment of Prosecco.
Now with Champagne cork and at higher pressure, it retains its effervescence extremely well. More importantly, it still comes from the Adami family?s estate in the heart of the Valdobbiadene hills unlike many inferior
wines that use fruit grown on the plains. This means it has more bouquet and delicacy.
We ship it as Prosecco Treviso because Italian law means we and you can pay less, and ?Valdobbiadene? (stress the second ?a?) is a bit of a mouthful. It is equally delicious in the pouring rain, as we proved today.
Sebastian Payne MW
Joanna Simon, who has one of the best palates among wine writers, giving sound advice regularly to Home and Garden readers and elsewhere, gave me the glad news that The Crooked Well in Camberwell lets you bring your own bottle on Monday nights.
This excellent pub and restaurant has been a delightful stop when we visit our son-in-law, daughter and small child because the food is delicious and the wines well-chosen and available by the glass, half-carafe or bottle. Both they and Joanna live conveniently close. The Monday ?BoB? night would be another excuse to go.
This set me thinking that members might write in with the names of their favourite restaurants that offer this service.
Sebastian Payne MW
It was with a tinge of sadness that I heard that Château Calon-Ségur has been sold. A limited number of the great Bordeaux classed growths are family owned (though that includes some of the great names like Lafite, Margaux and Haut-Brion) but at fewer still does the owner make the château their main residence. Ducru-Beaucaillou and Léoville-Barton are two such.
Calon-Ségur has belonged to the Gasqueton family since the 19th century and since her husband?s death was ruled by Madame Denise Capbern-Gasqueton, a grande dame in the best sense.
On occasion, Calon-Ségur has been in my view the best and most individual of all the Saint-Estèphe châteaux. I remember a bottle of 1928 drunk at the château with lamproie à la bordelaise and a gorgeous 1955 drunk at a generous friend?s house. Quality became uneven in the seventies and eighties but Madame Gasqueton had put it firmly back on track from 1995 onwards. Since her appointment of Margaux-trained cellarmaster Vincent Millet in 2002 we felt that the château had found a higher gear still.
Madame Gasqueton died in September 2011 at the fine age of 87 and no doubt French inheritance tax made the sale by her family a sensible move. The new owners have acquired a jewel.
Sebastian Payne MW
Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to speak when The Wine Society Dining Club celebrated their 250th dinner in Draper?s Hall in London.The location is splendid and the wines, which included Château Margaux 1983 and 1990, and the outstanding Pavillon Rouge 2000, were memorably magnificent. The bottles had been wisely laid down by the club en primeur when they cost very much less than they do today.
80 members and 40 guests attended and a very good time was had by us all.
Such bottles are meant to be shared and discussed among like-minded companions.
Sebastian Payne MW
Murky East-Anglian skies and extremely chilly days call for robust warming reds. We like them with a bit of age. After rummaging in the cellar I found a glorious bottle of 1997 Flaccianello and a cheering 1990 Crozes Hermitage Thalabert.
Giovanni Manetti?s Flaccianello (we list the 2008 at present) is one of Tuscany?s finest wines and was a real treat. It tastes good after five years but better still after 10 and it can clearly last 20.
The 1990 Thalabert (the 2005 and 2006 are available from us currently) has now long lost its baby fat and initial fruit but has a wonderful mellow roasted quality. No point in hoarding longer.
It also served as a reminder to put in my order for 2010 Rhônes (offer closes at 9pm this evening). The inexpensive Villages mixed case is a no-brainer and Marcel tells me that it was an exceptional year for Côte-Rôtie. With some of the most hard-to-work slopes in France, and planted with vines since Roman times, Côte-Rôtie does not succeed fully every year, but when it does, you have something very fine.
Sebastian Payne MW
I particularly enjoyed two member tastings in London last week.
I love Hunter’s food-friendly dry riesling, and our own Exhibition Marlborough Sauvignon which Jane Hunter supplies for is tasting particularly delicious. Pierre has done well to persuade the Brajkovich family of Kumeu River, chardonnay experts, to produce our own-label chardonnay too. Prophet’s Rock have made a pinot gris with real depth and flavour – the secret simply low yields, maturation on lees and later bottling. Their pinot noir is outstanding.
The growers went on to a tasting in Harrogate. I went on to watch Steve Farrow, well known to members who visit The Cellar Showroom, receive his scholarship prize for passing his Wine & Spirits Education Trust Diploma with flying colours – a surprise for him, but not for us.
Later in the week, 100 members and guests were lucky enough to taste 10 vintages from 10 different châteaux from the commune of Margaux. As Charles Metcalfe pointed out, Margaux is a very diverse commune spread over quite a wide area with different soil types, and several of the classed growths have altered their vineyards since 1855. The château is just the brand name. It proved to be a vivid example, the diverse qualities, different years and properties. My notes are as follows:
Château Angludet, 2007:
Excellent healthy fruit and subtle palate. Good now.
Château du Tertre, 2006:
Particularly fragrant and delicious now, the property next to Château Angludet has a higher percentage of cabernet franc than other classed growths.
Château Durfort-Vivens, 2005:
A cabernet-based wine from a keeping vintage showing the bright vivid fruit, great perfume and length of flavour of the vintage, but still very young.
Château Kirwan, 2004:
Modern-style late-picked Margaux: generous flavour and enjoyable but less fine.
Château Rauzan-Segla, 2003:
A great vineyard in an exceptionally hot year, which burnt off some of the finesse. Spicy, rich, ready.
Château Giscours, 2002:
A vintage that needed time but the true Margaux fragrance grows in the glass. Lean, more old-fashioned Claret, but distinguished.
Château Prieuré-Lichine, 2001:
Full and generous and spicy. Excellent to drink now.
Château Ferrière, 2000:
A tiny vineyard but a superb, full, fine Claret. Delicious now but with a future too.
Château Palmer, 1996:
Not as rich and full as some recent Palmer vintages, but exuding class and quality.
Château Margaux, 1989:
Still a giant of real first-growth quality and many years ahead of it.
What a treat.
Sebastian Payne MW
I have just been finishing up the Christmas Stilton with a glass of Fontodi’s luxurious Vin Santo.It’s an exquisite combination, first suggested to me by the inimitable Minuccio Cappello. Minnucio supplied The Society’s Chianti Classico from his Montaglio estate in Panzano where he also ran what must have been one of the simplest and best trattorias in Italy. All the produce was local and prepared in the Tuscan tradition by Anna. You could walk through the kitchen looking into all the pots before you made your choice. Sadly, when Minuccio had to sell the estate and trattoria, standards slipped, and badly.
Minuccio considers Stilton to be much better than any Italian blue cheese to accompany his concentrated Vin Santo, aged 7-10 years plus in small sealed barrels. Though Vin Santo is traditionally offered at family celebrations and to special guests at festivals, ‘santo’ is unlikely to be derived from the word for ‘holy’. Wine during the Turkish occupation of Greece, and earlier, sweet white wine used in Russian orthodox and Greek churches, came from the island of Santinori, and this is thought to have given the wine its name.
Sebastian Payne MW
Two of the world’s great winemakers came to The Wine Society this week. Chief wine buyer Sebastian Payne MW reports on one very special day.
Paul Draper came to Stevenage to talk to 60 eager members of Wine Society staff about Ridge, the remarkable Californian winery, high up on the San Andreas fault at Santa Cruz, whose reputation he has established over 40 years.
After Stanford he became a sort of undercover roving ambassador for Jack and Bobby Kennedy in South America. With his fluent Spanish he kept open lines with the USA by listening and talking to leaders of rival parties in several volatile countries. (It would be encouraging to feel the USA had a similar policy today in the Middle East.) At one stage, because of his beard, he was even mistaken for Che Guevara and nearly blown up. He then moved to Chile working for a foundation that was developing various agricultural projects including wine making.
The Ridge story began when he was invited by three brilliant Stanford friends who had bought the vineyard to help them by making the wine. He was convinced because he had seen the potential of old vintages of cabernet and chardonnay made in the 1930s pre-Prohibition.
Ridge’s international reputation was made when its Montebello vineyard wine outshone top Bordeaux wines in Steven Spurrier’s Judgment of Paris tasting in 1973. Paul’s philosophy is that wine is made in the vineyard and should express its origin above all, not to be created to a formula in the cellar. “If you haven’t tasted great wine, how can you make it?” Good bottles were his mentors. The enemy is ‘consensus’ wine-making.
Though his zinfandel-based wines are usually 14º, the level at which the grape becomes fully ripe, he abhors the high alcohol levels so commonly found in Californian wines and Montebello cabernets have similar levels to Bordeaux. The proof is in the wines which have been consistently the most complex and delicious to be made in the USA over the last 40 years.
Candour, integrity and passion
Jean-Philippe Delmas’ story is quite different. He was practically born in a vat of Haut-Brion, where his grandfather made the wine for the family till 1961, when his father Jean-Bernard took over. Jean-Philippe worked for ten years alongside his father until 2004, the first vintage for which he was solely responsible.
The quality of the 2004, set beside such great vintages as 2005, 2000, 1998 and 1990 was a revelation, making one realise that Château Haut-Brion, the most senior of Bordeaux’s first growths, is also possibly the greatest and most complex of all. Jean-Philippe modestly says that his grandfather and father had to contend not only with many cooler vintages but also much leaner resources. The fact that Haut-Brion made no money between 1935 and 1975 shows a long-term commitment from its owner, Clarence Dillon and his family, unusual in a banker! His challenge is that he has no excuse. All of us 240 members and guests privileged to be at Merchant Taylor’s Hall were, I believe, convinced by Jean-Philippe’s candour, integrity, passion and deep understanding of this great vineyard which was reflected in magnificent wine.
The greatest pleasures are often unexpected.
We had agreed to baby-sit our granddaughter (a predictable delight) while our daughter and son-in-law were at a friend’s wedding.
Our daughter and son-in-law booked us a room in a hotel, but the website was confusing and the place they thought they had booked knew nothing about it. The one with a similar name, and where we were booked in, looked at first sight distinctly unpromising, and in need of a good refurbishment.
But soon after we arrived and were about to regroup, a man arrived who changed our first impressions completely. He was carrying a tray of glistening Mediterranean fish, sweet-smelling lemon and tomatoes. It turned out that he was a born Sicilian, a trainee chef, had just taken over the hotel, and sensibly gone down to Portsmouth to meet the boat from Sicily (we were in Hampshire) and buy fresh produce for supper. My eyes lit up.
We discussed what fish we would eat for supper. We talked about the important subject of ripeness in lemons and tomatoes and later on we ate like kings. Our granddaughter slept with a seraphic smile on her face.
If the ingredients are fresh, ripe and good, and beautifully prepared, what more do you need?
So it is with wine too.
Sebastian Payne MW