All the current excitement about the excellence of the 2015 vintage reminds me of my first year working at The Society back in 2006.
The talk then was of the brilliance of the 2005 vintage, which was similarly hugely successful across much of Europe. My first few tasks were to write about this ‘Vintage of a Generation’ and my capacity for superlatives was being tested to the limit.
This was my first exposure to the concept of buying wines en primeur, ie purchasing wines that not only were nowhere near being ready to drink but not even bottled or shipped.
Persuaded no doubt by the overwhelming pulling power of my purple prose, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and take the plunge.
And all I can think now is why on earth didn’t I buy more?!
Just before Christmas I withdrew one of the mixed cases I had bought from the 2005 Rhône & Languedoc-Roussillon en primeur campaign and had been keeping in The Society’s Members’ Reserves storage facility since.
The case in question was the 2005 Languedoc First Growth Case and includes a roll-call of the great and the good of the South of France. And it provided all the wow factor I needed over the Christmas period.
• The one I was keenest to try was the Coteaux du Languedoc, Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian and it didn’t disappoint. Deliciously à point, this thrilling blend of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre confidently treads that fine line between power and elegance.
• I may have broached the cabernet sauvignon-dominant Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault a tad early; it was still mature and delicious but I think that I’ll leave the second bottle until next Christmas.
• Conversely, the Domaine de Perdiguier, Cuvée d’en Auger, Vin de Pays des Côteaux d’Ensérune may have been better last Christmas (the initial recommended drink date was indeed for 2015) but it was still a great taste experience.
• Domaine Alquier’s Faugères Les Bastides couldn’t have been better: all velvety richness and concentration.
• Domaine Madeloc Collioure Magenca was very mature and a tad raisiny, but I mean that as a compliment. The primary fruit flavours had all but disappeared to leave a rich, mineral, spicy, earthy complexity.
• The Roc d’Anglade, Vin de Pays du Gard was extraordinarily fine and elegant, and could easily have been mistaken for a very posh northern Rhône costing many times its price.
And let’s talk about the price, as that for me was the real bonus part of the whole experience and one I hadn’t really anticipated. I paid for the wines in 2007 and the duty and VAT in 2008. So long ago that, such is my head-in-the-sand attitude to personal finances, I felt that these fine wines were now, to all intents and purposes, free.
Sure I did have to pay for their storage in the interim but even so a little research online suggests that were I able to find these wines now (no small task in itself) it would have cost me a darn sight more than I had shelled out. Furthermore, if you factor in the pleasure of the anticipation of enjoying your purchases then I’ve had more than a decade of mouthwatering expectation!
That isn’t the point, of course, and it shouldn’t matter, but it does add to the rather smug satisfaction one experiences when you pull the cork.
I did my best to hide my self-satisfaction when sharing these special bottles, but even if I failed to suppress it then I’m not sure that anyone would have noticed. They were too busy enjoying the wines! I’m delighted to see that we’re expanding the range of wines we offer en primeur. In 2016 we offered wines from Ridge in California and the Cape’s Meerlust as well as the usual suspects from the classic French regions, and we have plans to continue to look further afield in 2017.
I for one will be buying as much as I can afford, including a good chunk of our 2015 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon allocation and I advise you to do the same. A decade or so down the line I’m certain that you’ll be very glad you did!
Head of Content & Communications
Our en primeur offer of the 2015 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon vintage is available until 8pm, Tuesday 28th February.
Research suggests that not only is red wine good for you but that traditionally made wines are better still, and that Madiran is best of all.
Madiran is a beautiful, sleepy, wineproducing region in the south west of France among the gentle foothills of the Pyrenees, south of Armagnac. The region is known locally as ‘the heart of darkness’, not apparently due to any similarity to Joseph Conrad’s nightmare vision but, some say, after the Black Prince who frequented the area in the 14th century. Others, myself included, prefer to believe it’s because of the deep, dark, brooding colour of the wonderfully individual local red wine.
The name of the favoured local grape, tannat, betrays the character of the wines it produces: often coarse, earthy and rustic with rough tannins, perfect for washing down the deliciously hearty duck, goose and cassoulet cooked locally.
US filmmaker Woody Allen reputedly once recommended ‘elephant burger’ when asked to suggest a suitable food to go with Madiran. I know what he means; Madiran calls for something BIG. In days gone by, the wines were guardedly closed and harshly tannic for most of their youth before eventually opening up to reveal structure, depth and spicy complexity alongside the inherent strength.
This lack of approachability meant that Madiran was little known, or loved, outside its home. Indeed, ravaged by the twin horrors of phylloxera and war, vineyards covered just 15 acres in the early 1950s.
Modern fashion, however, dictates that wine should be approachable much earlier and Madiran growers have cleverly managed to create a far more acceptable modern wine without compromising the individuality that makes it unique. The technique of micro-oxygenation, developed by Madiran grower Patrick Ducournau in 1990 and now widely used across France, involves bubbling tiny amounts of oxygen through young wines, reducing the ferocity of the tannins and making the wines much smoother.
The introduction of Bordeaux grapes, cabernets sauvignon and franc, to the blend (they can account for up to 40 per cent) have added structure. These factors and the picking of riper grapes and a warmer climate, have convinced devotees that the best examples can now match some of the finest wines of all of France.
Heart of the matter
But Madiran is also winning plaudits for its health benefits as well as its style and taste. ‘Wine is a food, a medicine and a poison – it’s just a question of dose,’ noted 16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus. A truism followed closely by Professor Roger Corder of the William Harvey Research Institute, London. Corder led a study by British scientists that examined the health benefits of wine consumption. ‘Wine drinkers are generally healthier and often live longer; have less heart disease and diabetes, and are less likely to suffer from dementia in old age,’ says Corder, encouragingly, in his book The Wine Diet (Sphere, 2007).
Corder and his team wanted to get to the bottom of the ‘French paradox’ – the statistical phenomenon of a relatively low level of heart disease in France despite a high level of saturated fat in the diet. He was attracted to further examination of the Gers region of France because it had double the national average of men aged 90 or above, despite it being the home of foie gras, cassoulet, saucisson and cheese. Had he found the home of the real French paradox?
Yes. In a word. And it was, he concluded, all thanks to the local red wine, Madiran. Corder’s research had revealed that while moderate consumption of red wine was beneficial to health, certain red wines were more beneficial than others. The secret is the amount of procyanidins, a polyphenol thought to protect the blood vessels and thus reduce the risk of heart disease, in the wine and the amount can vary enormously in different wine styles.
‘The best results I’ve had in my laboratory have been from Madiran wines,’ says Corder. ‘These have some of the highest procyanidin levels I’ve encountered, as a result of the local grape variety, tannat, and the traditional long fermentation and maceration.’
Corder says long fermentation and maceration are important wherever the wine is grown, and wine from grapes grown at high altitude and with low yields also score highly. ‘The basic, mass-produced, branded wines generally don’t conform to these criteria and have disappointingly low levels of procyanidins,’ Corder adds. ‘I believe the types of wine that are best for health are those designed to be sipped as an accompaniment to food, not those made for casual quaffing.
‘Madiran is a genuine heart-protecting wine and this is the real French paradox. One small glass of this wine can provide more benefit than two bottles of most Australian wine.’
In a world where wines taste increasingly alike, wines such as Madiran that dare to be different lift the soul and could well be protecting your heart into the bargain.
Our current South by South-West offer features some highlights from the south of France including Madiran Odé d’Aydie 2010, a lovely well-balanced modern example of the tannat grape and a great partner to the south-west’s classic cassoulet. Click here to read Marcel Orford-Williams’ cassoulet recipe
To find out more about the rich panoply of indigenous grapes in France’s south west, read wine writer and former member of The Wine Society’s tasting team Jane Parkinson’s guide here.
A vôtre santé!
This article first appeared in Societynews, The Society’s newsletter.
I’ve learned to my not insubstantial cost that the main Christmas meal isn’t the time to get out your very best bottles. There’s just too much going on to really appreciate your most precious, cherished wines.
You pull the cork and, before you know it, someone has slung a quarter of it into the gravy (‘that wasn’t anything special, was it?’), Auntie Mabel has poured herself a large glass to which she has added lemonade ‘to take away the edge’ and the rest has been knocked over by some hyperactive child who has been eating nothing but Quality Streets since dawn. That’s no way to start your annual celebration.
Last year, a special sherry did the job, but this year I’m going for a magnum of sublime Argentine elegance and grace: Weinert Cavas de Weinert 1997. It’s not cheap at £49 (for a 1.5-litre bottle, remember) but I still think it is an absolute steal. Now a teenager, the happy marriage of malbec, cabernet sauvignon and merlot is just hitting its stride.
Unlike many of the Mendoza fruit bombs that are about as subtle as an Australian cricketer’s sledge, this is a wine of considerable elegance and refinement. Aged for three to four years in large oak vats, it is soft and mellow with the cedary, leathery flavours of maturity. Tasted blind most tasters would, I’m sure, plump for traditional Rioja or claret rather than anywhere in the new world.
The fact that it is in magnum is an extra bonus. Magnum bottles just look so good on the table. They seem to hold much more than a mere two bottles and are sturdy enough to withstand an onslaught from toffee-fuelled, sprout-avoiding youngsters. Best of all, they are great bottles if you are having your meal away from home. Arriving with two bottles under your arm can cause some hosts to be offended that you didn’t trust them to provide enough to drink or dark mutterings about your drinking problem. Turn up with a magnum and everyone looks at you as a wise and generous guest that they’ll happily feed the last remaining roast spud.
I have my eye on a nice Burgundy I’ve been hoarding to enjoy over some quieter times during the holiday once the kids have gone to bed and the Twister is packed away. But I have to say that the bottle I’m looking forward to most is that big bottle of Argentine elegance.
Head Of Copy
Members are reminded that the deadline for guaranteed UK Christmas delivery is this Tuesday (17th December).
For more ideas for festive drinking, visit The Society’s online Christmas shop.
The next morning saw us back on the bus and heading south into the Mâconnais, the southernmost point of Burgundy. Its 6,000 hectares of vines are sandwiched between Côte Chalonnaise to the north and Beaujolais’ Saint-Amour to the south. Its best wines – all white – are winning a growing reputation for offering Burgundian quality but at much more affordable prices. Indeed, The Wine Society’s bestselling wine, The Society’s White Burgundy, comes from here.
The best plots are found surrounding the villages of Pouilly and Fuissé and that was our destination. We started at Château des Rontets high on the hill overlooking the amphitheatre of Pouilly-Fuissé vines. Unusually, the vines face north, but thanks to their height up the hill they still get plenty of sunshine. Owner Fabio Montrasi grows the grapes organically and keeps yields low to ensure outstanding quality. The relative altitude and aspect provide warm days and cool nights, which are so good for acidity and freshness, attributes that can be hard to come by this far south.
Fabio uses natural yeasts for fermentation and enjoys the different flavours they can give his wine. Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Varambon, Château des Rontets 2011 elegantly showed the attention to detail that goes into every stage of winemaking here. It was an early vintage and there were concerns over the ‘tension’, or acidity, but the wine is delicious and well balanced.
Pouilly-Fuissé Pierrefolle 2011 comes from older vines and has greater concentration as a result; it is rounder and softer. We tried a barrel sample of Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes 2012 which is due to be bottled soon. This is a serious wine: the old vines contribute much more length and complexity. A keeper.
A Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Varambon 2010 showed that the château’s wines need some time in bottle after release to show their best. This had a nice tension between richness and freshness with good complexity and length.
We finished with a Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes 2010 that was gloriously textured – almost silky – with buttery ripe concentration.
I left marvelling at what lives some winemakers lead! Fabio did at least have the good grace to appear suitably contented to be making such delicious wines in such a glorious spot at such a lovely château.
A GRAND VIEW
Our next stop was Château de Beauregard, who have perhaps done more than anyone to get Pouilly-Fuissé and the Mâconnais on the map. Frédéric Burrier is the latest generation at the helm of this family company and he is also president of the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation. And he has great plans.
Frédéric would like to apply some of the classification and hierarchy of the Côte d’Or to Pouilly-Fuissé. Apparently the first premier crus were introduced in the Côte d’Or in 1943 during the Nazi occupation, but because the Germans didn’t come this far south it didn’t happen here.
His wines certainly deserve greater recognition. We tried his Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Cras 2012 from cask. The Vers Cras vineyard is closest to the winery, and possibly closest to Frédéric’s heart. It was ripe yet with an almost saline freshness, with excellent body.
It was then up to the dining room for a tasting over lunch. Beauregard is aptly named with breathtaking views of Mont de Pouilly and the roches of Solutré and Vergisson.
We started with a magnum of Saint-Véran, La Roche 2011 which was further evidence of the strength of 2011 vintage. It can be difficult to find good Saint-Véran like this, but when you do it can be a marvellous source of good-value white Burgundy.
We then followed with magnums of Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Pouilly 2010 and Pouilly-Fuissé Aux Charmes 2005. The 2010 was slightly closed at first but soon opened up to reveal full-body and round fruit to match the delicious home-made pork pie. 2005 was a small, very rich and ripe harvest and the wine was a little too rich for some although I have to admit that I loved it.
Grand Beauregard is an unusual wine in that is a mix of wines from different wines across the appellation – more Bordeaux than Bourgogne like in its parentage. It is a blend of the best casks from the best climats, and, says Frédéric, a synthesis of all that is good about the region. The Grand Beauregard 2008 was gloriously rich and long and opulent and right up there with the great whites of the Côte d’Or.
One of the revelations over lunch was a magnum of Fleurie, Colonies de Rochegrès 1999: proof positive that cru Beaujolais can age well and that gamay takes on a pinot noir-like persona as it matures. The strawberry and tobacco flavours went beautifully with the Comté and goat’s cheese.
A GRAND FINALE
For our last visit Toby had chosen Maison Louis Jadot, one of the largest negociants in Burgundy. A clever interactive map in their headquarters in Beaune shows the sites of Jadot’s vines which cover some 210 hectares scattered from the Côte d’Or to the Mâconnais and down into Beaujolais.
If you want a good example of the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux then Jadot’s cellars are a good place to start. Jadot control some 210 hectares of vines but because the majority is bottled by vineyard that means they make some 200 wines each year (130 reds and 70 whites). In Bordeaux, Château Lafite, for example, is in the region of 100 hectares from which they will make just two wines.
With this many wines to monitor and prepare it is little wonder that Jadot’s cellars are highly mechanised and absolutely spotless. Given the number they have to bottle here for some six months each year. The contrast between their large-scale production and the small artisanal approach elsewhere was marked.
Their charismatic export manager Sigfried Pic was determined to show us that bigger doesn’t mean any loss of attention and quality. He delighted in showing us a range of vintages across all quality levels and the standard was remarkably high.
Pernand-Vergelesses 2011 was delightful. This villages wine is a blend of different wines, including some premier cru, and is medium-bodied, fresh and slightly rustic. Good value here for what is a baby Corton-Charlemagne.
Beaune Grèves Le Clos Blanc, 2011 showed more depth and class despite still being so young. The fruit was spicy with a delicious hint of almonds.
Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2011 was very much in its shell. You could sense the structure and grip but this needs many more years yet to come round.
Monthélie 2011 is like a baby Volnay – all strawberries, a delicate touch of oak and ripe tannins and gloriously drinkable.
The Volnay Premier Cru Clos des Chênes 2011 has a seductive nose of cherry pips and a seductive earthiness. This has the structure to ensure it keeps and develops over many years.
It was tasting the Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2011 that my admiration for the buyers who put together our opening offers really grew. This wine was so young and tight and I really struggled to spot its potential. It must takes years of experience to envisage the charms to come.
It was then that Sigfried picked up his pipette and herded us all into the cellars for a spot of cask sampling of the 2012 vintage.
Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Premier Cru Clos de la Chapelle had a rich peachy opulence that was delicious. The limestone here is very deep with a thick layer of clay that encourages a fatter, richer style.
This contrasted nicely with the mineral, taut almost saline Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru La Garenne; here there is little soil so the vines are on limestone, which encourages the more mineral linear style.
The 2012 vintage was a classically velvety year for red Burgundy as the Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Couchereaux showed so elegantly. The grapes are grown on fully south-facing slopes which ripens the grapes nicely providing plenty of ripe dark fruit. The tannins are pronounced but velvety and smooth. Very promising.
The Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules combined density, structure and weight with soft strawberry fruit. Still young but very encouraging.
Corton Pougets Grand Cru, on the other hand, was extremely tight and uncommunicative and will need several years to come round.
The evening culminated with a grand dinner at the marvellous Couvent des Jacobins in Beaune. The wine list included Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2001 – one of the wines of the week for me: so luscious at one level yet fresh as a daisy too. Such balance and finesse.
Corton Pougets Grand Cru 1976 and Beaune Premier Cru Boucherottes 1995 were classic mature red Burgundies and they led to a good debate about the meaning of sous bois, that mushroomy, woody, earthy autumn smell you get from fine Burgundy. ‘Compost’ as one guest called it. He meant it as a compliment.
‘A glorious finale to a wonderful trip,’ said Matthew Holford of the dinner and tasting; I couldn’t have agreed with him more.
Head of copy Paul Trelford continues his tour of Burgundy. It starts with a bump but ends in euphoria Click here to read the first part.
A YEAR’S WORK LOST IN MINUTES
Burgundy’s year had been much like ours back in Blighty. A very long, cold winter and a non-existent spring had left the vines an estimated three weeks behind schedule. So the glorious July weather was welcomed with open arms and the vines were beginning to catch up. Hail is always a threat, however. In July we reported how storms had devastated much of Vouvray and on our journey back from Chablis we felt the full force.
The hail stones, the size of table-tennis balls, crashed against the roof of our bus. Outside they ripped through vines in Côte de Beaune, Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, Savigny-lès-Beaune and Chorey-lès-Beaune. Your heart really goes out to the growers who work so hard on their vines all year round only to have to stand helplessly by and watch as they lose the lot in a matter of hours.
After three lower-than-average vintages, Burgundy is facing supply pressures, exacerbated by a growing thirst for the region’s top wines in Asia.
It’s enough to drive you to drink. And that’s literally what our bus driver did as we visited Alain Coche of Domaine Coche-Bizouard in Meursault.
OLD-SCHOOL WINEMAKING IN THE BEST POSSIBLE SENSE
Alain is a winemaker of the old school and has recently handed over the reins to his son Fabien, although you get the impression that Alain still watches over things closely. We tasted through the 2012 vintage which was still in cask in their rather soulless modern air-conditioned warehouse.
Although Meursault has no grand crus, the quality of its premier crus are rarely surpassed in the Côte d’Or. What they do have is lieu dit or ‘named plots’ of particularly good land which is classified as village Meursault but actually sit somewhere between villages and premier cru. Alain gave us a tour.
The Meursault Les Chevalières 2012 is a classic example: wonderfully rich and round and opulent but retaining freshness too. The Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2012 certainly lives up to its name. Even though the malolactic fermentation hadn’t finished it was richer still with lovely fat palate and glycerol. Outstanding.
Alain then boarded our coach and took us for a tour of the Meursault vines. This was the first time we had really got into the Côte d’Or itself, that magical hillside criss-crossed with priceless vineyards that, to quote the great Hugh Johnson, ‘In certain sites and certain years only, pinot noir and chardonnay achieve flavours valued as highly as any flavour on earth.’
The vineyards of Côte d’Or are the most classified in the world. This is because of the huge fragmentation of the land thanks to Napoleonic inheritance laws which decree that an estate should be divided equally among family members. Small holdings, therefore, get divided and subdivided over generations until a single vineyard may be owned by scores of different individual owners, each of them cultivating sometimes just a row or two of vines.
This is a problem and a blessing. It means that growers here tend to get their hands dirty and will often prune and care for their own vines. It also means that there is a huge variation in quality. The different techniques favoured by different growers means that two wines from the same vintage and the same vineyard can taste completely different. It’s a bit of a nightmare for buyers but it does offer a large amount of diversity and personality. I was trying to explain this to the youngest member of our group, a 21-year-old who had just joined The Society, and I felt very sorry for him. Burgundy is not the place to start if you want to understand the world of wine. Toby has done a brilliant job describing the eccentricities in his How to Buy Burgundy guide and I recommend it to you, whether you’re a Bourgogne pro or just starting out.
Having seen the vines, Alain invited us in to the dark Cistercian cellars below Fabien’s family home. And here he came alive. It’s wonderful to see a winemaker taking so much joy in sharing his outstanding wines with an appreciative audience in a gloriously atmospheric setting.
Wine after wine followed, all glorious interpretations of fat buttery opulent chardonnay. Meursault Les Chevalières 2011 comes from a lieu dit in the northern part of Meursault near Auxey-Duresses which has plenty of breadth and body and a lovely balance between richness and freshness. Meursault Le Limozin 2011 is another lieu dit below Les Charmes with the similar ability to match softness and succulence with thirst-quenching clarity and freshness.
These wines were such a contrast with the ones we had enjoyed in Chablis in the morning. Here fermentation and maturation in oak are the norm, techniques that give the wines their full colour and vanilla, toasty aromas and flavours. These are wines to go with food, local poulet de Bresse perhaps, or capon or cheese.
Meursault Les Luchets 2011 is another lieu dit high up the hill and tenser, leaner and more linear. The vineyard, or climat (literally a ‘climate’) as they call it here in the home of terroir, has more limestone and less clay creating a more mineral style. Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2011 is still quite tight but full of promise. The balance of opulence and freshness, and the length are glorious. The oak here is perfectly integrated with lovely white-peach vigour.
Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru 2011 was glorious – just like ‘little drops of gold’. A totally dry wine but the sensation and glycerol make it seem sweet. Lovely buttery length but there’s a vibrancy too that prevents it being too flabby. Tasting the Meursault Charmes Premier Cru 2010 got us thinking about when it is best to drink these wines. This was a great wine but a baby still – there was almost electricity running through it. Toby said that he thought this was perhaps the wine of the vintage.
Toby is convinced that Diam corks are the way ahead and that they have given him more confidence to predict longer futures for white Burgundy than he had dared to recently. See Toby’s article for more details.
To back up what a fabulous vintage 2010 is, Alain opened a bottle of his Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru which had a glorious opulence and almost caramel richness.
We were already overrunning and Toby, worried about our dinner reservation, was trying to hurry the old master along. Alain wasn’t having any of it. ‘Encore une bouteille!’ he would say as he reached into his racks and pulled out another bottle of golden nectar.
There weren’t too many complaints.
Next up was Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2006 which showed a slight touch of botrytis with its aromas of honey, barley sugar and caramel. It was slightly overripe but glorious.
Just one more, he said. Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2004 which was, he said, ‘slightly bizarre’. 2004 was a tricky vintage but the mark of a good vigneronne is to make good wine in ‘bad’ years. This was rich with great structure, depth and acidity. Sumptuous texture.
He then disappeared out the back and returned with a twinkle in his eye and a label-less bottle. It was Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru 1974, and of all the treats I’ve enjoyed working in the wine business over the years, this was the sweetest. The aroma I can still smell now was the perfect combination of buttered toast, orange peel and honey. Just absolutely glorious. And proves how the best wines will keep and keep and keep.
What a wine to end on, and what a lovely person to enjoy it with. They don’t make them like Alain anymore, more’s the pity.
That night over dinner, (a fine Saint-Aubin Premier Cru En Remilly Marc Colin, 2010 and a Marsannay, Domaine Denis Mortet which showed all the power and finesse of the wonderful 2005 red vintage, since you ask) we all agreed that the ‘74 Meursault had been the wine of the day.
Next up was the chardonnays of the south in Pouilly-Fuissé.
In the first part of his tour of Burgundy head of copy Paul Trelford is cooled by heady Meursault and then heads for the glories of the north in Chablis
What to do in Beaune when the mercury is pushing 40 degrees with energy-sapping humidity to match? Meursault is the answer. At least that was long-term Society supplier, and champion, Roy Richards’ answer. And how well it went down.
I was in Beaune (along with The Society’s Toby Morrhall and Emma Dorahy) to escort a group of four members and their guests round some of the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy. The members had won a prize draw run earlier in the year to reward those who had proposed a wine-loving friend or relative as a new Society member.
You could have forgiven them for wondering what they’d got themselves into when we rolled out of Lyon airport having skipped lunch into the relentless heat and begun the long sweaty journey up to Beaune.
Cue Roy and his delicious cooling bottle of Meursault – I really don’t think anyone looked back after that first sip. The bottle in question was Meursault Premier Cru Charmes, Domaine Coche-Bizouard 2002. A great vintage and an absolute delight 11 years on. It would have inspired great happiness on a rainy night in Cleethorpes, but drunk under the dappled shade of a lime tree in Ray’s lovely garden in his house in Beaune on such a sweltering day it was magnificent. Everything mature Meursault should be: a luscious golden colour, with butter, nuts and honey and exquisitely long. Just the thing to wash down the fresh gougères, the delicious local cheesey savoury pastries.
‘Roy taught me more about Burgundy and wine then anybody else in the trade,’ Toby Morrhall, The Society’s Burgundy buyer and not one given to hyperbole, explained. And Roy, known as the ‘wine merchants’ wine merchant’, certainly proved to be a lively dinner guest telling wonderfully indiscrete stories about his favourite growers – but my lips are sealed. Generous to a tee he produced a magnum of Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Domaine Tollot-Beaut 1985. 1985! That was seven years older than the youngest member of our party. But you wouldn’t have known it as it was so fresh still with touches of citrus to go with the honey, almonds and caramel. Superb.
HEADING FOR THE COOL NORTH
Burgundy isn’t one big vineyard but made up of at least three separate groups: Chablis to the north, the Côte d’Or in the middle and the Mâconnais to the south being the most important. Toby had organised our tour so that we would visit two domaines in each region and today was Chablis’ turn to shine.
It’s a long drive up from Beaune – Chablis is in fact closer to the Aube department of Champagne than Beaune – but you know when you’ve arrived thanks to the dramatic change in the soil. Chablis sits on the outcrop of a rim of a submerged basin of limestone made up of layer upon layer of prehistoric oyster shells. The soil is named after the Dorset village of Kimmeridge that sits on the far ridge. And it is this soil that gives the wines their unique mineral, stony character.
Our first stop is at Louis Michel. Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel is the sixth generation of the family to be at the helm and he patiently and expertly took us through his wines. Guillaume’s winemaking philosophy is simple: to respect the unique terroir of the vineyard and region. The use of oak is quite controversial in this part of Burgundy, but Guillaume uses none whatsoever in order to let the terroir speak clearly.
We tasted his Petit Chablis 2012 – green apple, quite austere and firm. And his Chablis 2012 which is a blend of six well-placed parcels from the left and right banks of the Serein river. It has biting acidity and a stony, crunchy red-apple freshness. Great potential for a wine so young.
Next we tried Chablis Premier Cru Forêts, Domaine Louis Michel 2011 which has a glorious rich yellow colour with a delicious baked-apple nose. The steely high acidity was balanced by the sweet ripeness of the fruit.
Guillaume has started to use only natural yeasts in his winery. ‘Yeast is an element of the terroir,’ he explained. ‘Natural yeasts give greater complexity in the wine, but the process is very stressful.’ Guillaume said that the natural fermentation process took three months, much longer than normal, leading to high risks of volatile acidity so the wines had to be monitored night and day.
But this sublime complexity was there for all to see in his Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2011. A wonderful wine showing all the fine attributes of Chablis and the chardonnay grape at its most pure. Long and complex with minerality and steely freshness yet balanced by pure ripeness of fruit.
Montée de Tonnerre is a right bank premier cru very close to the grand cru sites and is a great source of long-lived nigh-on grand cru Chablis at a premier cru price. We tried the 2011 and it was sensational with wonderful length, depth and complexity. This will last for 20 years at least.
The seven grands crus of Chablis are on the great sun-soaking slope above the village on the right bank of the Serein. These prime slopes are all on the white Kimmeridgian limestone and produce the richest whites of the region generally at least half a degree of alcohol more than the premiers crus. Louis Michel produces approximately 13,000 bottles of grand cru Chablis each year from their plots in Grenouilles, Les Clos and Vaudésir.
We were lucky enough to try all three. Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir 2011 was richer, rounder and fuller than anything we had tried to date but still with that nervy, steely Chablis edge. A great wine. Fleshy and generous with superb white-peach character. Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles 2011 was much more delicate. This needs time for that tight steeliness to turn into noble complexity.
Les Clos is considered by many to be the finest of the grands crus and we were lucky enough to try the 2011. I can still smell the chalk bouquet– it was like being back at school before they introduced white boards. This had just been bottled so one would expect the wine to be closed but 2011 is such a ripe vintage that it was already round and generous. The potential is all there.
Guillaume, acknowledging his appreciative and knowledgeable audience, nipped off down the corridors of his spotless cellars and came back with a special treat for us to try: Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles, Domaine Louis Michel 1991. It was real pleasure to taste such a mature wine in such a wonderful environment. So gloriously rich and long! The mushrooms on the nose turned to honey and caramel on the palate. Simply delicious, and testament to the fine keeping ability of top-class Chablis.
We returned blinking into the sunshine after such a long time in the dark cool cellars quite breathless with the quality of the morning’s tastings.
We couldn’t possibly visit Chablis without a trip to long-term Wine Society favourite Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, the name behind The Society’s Chablis and Exhibition Premier Cru Chablis and numerous other bottles besides. So that is where we headed for lunch.
BALANCE AND EQUILIBRIUM
Jean-Marc Brocard started in the wine trade in the 1970s when he married his childhood sweetheart, a vigneron’s daughter, and was given a hectare of vines by his father-in-law. With much hard work he now has control of about 180 hectares, and has gradually become one of the leading lights of Chablis. Julien Brocard describes his father as a true man of the soil and ‘an adventurer who saw his opportunity and took full advantage’.
Since 2012, Julien has taken over day-to-day control of the vineyards and business from his father. Julien had earned his stripes when his father invited him back from Paris where he was training as an engineer and rented the Boissonneuse vineyard so that Julien could trial biodynamic viticulture there. We got the impression that there was quite a competitive spirit and a degree of cynicism about the whacky new techniques Julien employed. But Julien convinced his father through the sheer quality of the wines he produced and he is now converting all the vineyards of the estate to biodynamic.
‘It’s all about balance and equilibrium,’ explains Julien. ‘Traditional techniques just treat the symptoms not the disease. Biodynamism makes you be better farmers as you need to predict and understand problems. We want to create a healthy, lively soil which leads to healthy vines and less reliance on chemicals.’
Julien pointed out the swallows nesting in the roof of his cellars: ‘These weren’t here before – just shows that our land is now healthy and back in balance.’
Whatever one thinks about cow’s horns and ‘fruit days’ there is no escaping the fact that biodynamism makes winemakers think about their land in a different way and understand it better. Those reasons alone must help them make better wine.
Like Louis Michel, the Brocard house style has been for maturation in stainless steel. The winery itself is extremely impressive; built in stages from 1980, it houses stainless steel temperature-controlled fermentation vats to accentuate the purity and freshness of the wines. They have also had success with foudres (large oak barrels) for certain wines, such as Les Clos, and are trialling concrete egg-shaped vats. Julien talked at great length about the different techniques used. It’s good to see that the experts are still trying new things even after all this time in the wine business.
One of Brocard’s greatest assets is a particular slope of vines called Malantes. It has the same soil and exposition as premier cru Montmains but is classified just as village Chablis. This is entirely to our advantage as it is these underrated grapes that make up most of The Society’s Chablis and the reason why it is such a great buy.
We kicked off our tasting over lunch with The 2011 Society’s Chablis and the quality shines through. Wonderfully intense and linear.
From the 2012 vintage we tried his Chablis Sainte Claire, and his premiers crus Montmains and Vaillons (which will be sold under our Exhibition label). 2012 was a tiny vintage but the quality is very high. These wines were young and tight but you could feel the potential bursting to come through like a dog needing a walk.
2011 was also a difficult year and only the best-tended vines coped with the challenging alternating conditions of drought then flood. The wines are ripe, with intense aromas with full and fruity palates. We tried The Society’s Chablis, Les Vieilles Vignes de Sainte Claire – where the extra old-vine concentration really shines through. Chablis La Boissonneuse from the vineyard where Julien had earned his stripes and the wine was excellent: fuller-flavoured and more complex. And the premiers crus of Vaillons (our current Exhibition vintage), Vau de Vey, Fourchaume, Butteaux, Montée de Tonnerre and Vaulorent.
To me premier cru Chablis is perhaps the greatest expressions of the region with plenty of flavour and that lovely Chablis cut of acidity. The grands crus are richer and stronger and therefore rounder; they are delicious but perhaps less classic. They also take much longer to come round and can be hard to taste when young. Having said that, Julien showed us three grands crus from the 2010 vintage, Bougros, Les Clos and Les Preuses, which were ripe, aromatic with exceptional concentration.
Chablis is truly a blessed place and it was a real pleasure to see two growers who were so respectful of their environment and so clearly determined to make the most of the their family legacy and create the very best wines that they can.
The weather had been glorious but close, and as we returned to Beaune all went dark and the heavens opened. But that’s for next time…
We don’t see much hail in Stevenage so I often struggle to imagine how isolated storms can wreak such havoc in vineyards.
We reported in June how Vouvray had been hit followed by similar news from Champagne and just last Friday a 10-minute hailstorm is reported to have devastated some 20,000 hectares in Bordeaux.
I got a true taste of the violence of such storms last month when the heavens opened as we accompanied a group of members back from a visit in Chablis to our base in Beaune.
Turn the volume up to get the full impact. The noise was deafening.
The good news for wine drinkers is that often a bit of hail can improve quality as the grapes that survive the onslaught can go on to produce excellent wines. But it’s obviously a tragedy for the growers who work so hard on their vines and have to stand helplessly by and watch the destruction ensue.
The storm was a small blip in an otherwise excellent tour of Burgundy. Watch this space for a full report…
Head of Copy
Pictured here are Tracy Richardson (left) of Member Services and Naomi Norwood of The Cellar Showroom surrounded by The Society’s record haul of awards at last night’s IWC (International Wine Challenge) Awards Ceremony and 30th Anniversary Summer Ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London’s Park Lane.
The highlight of the evening was when the judges named The Society their Wine Merchant of the Year, the second time in the last three years we have scooped their top award.
The IWC also awarded The Society Wine Club of the Year, for the third year, and Specialist Merchant of the Year awards for our Alsace range, for the sixth time in a row, Chile for the seventh year in eight, and we retained the Portugal award we picked up for the first time last year.
Presenting the award, judge Charles Metcalfe congratulated the team saying that The Society represented ‘the pinnacle of wine retailing’.
On a sweltering evening the great and the good of the wine trade were in attendance and kept entertained by the energetic double act of Tim Atkin MW and Charles Metcalfe, co-chairmen of the judges.
A particularly moving part of the evening was seeing veteran wine writer Hugh Johnson OBE pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award. All wine writers owe Hugh a huge debt of gratitude for leading the way. As scribe Malcolm Gluck put it on harpers.co.uk: ‘Johnson often writes so limpidly about his love I can taste the liquid in my mouth, though this is not as a result of crude fruit metaphors, the resort of hobbledehoys like myself, but by pinning down his feeling in such finely wrought aesthetic terms that one feels the experience as a personal encounter. This is, surely, the apotheosis of wine writing and we wine writers are, as expressionists in English, all in the giant shadow of this Monet of the craft.’
I think it is testament to Hugh’s high standing that most people’s reaction was amazement that he hadn’t already won such an honour.
Head Of Copy
… half bottle of delicious, delectable, unctuous sherry.Once you’ve worked at The Society for a few months it dawns on you that much of your hard-earned income is going to be transferred straight back to your employers.
‘I didn’t see any point in bringing you a bottle of wine’ is a phrase you get all too familiar with as yet another friend turns up at your doorstep with a bunch of flowers and, er, little else. Or worse, they think it highly amusing that they bring a bottle of the latest gimmicky, confected high-street plonk in order to ‘keep me real’, before making great inroads into my prized, but far from bottomless, cellar (if that isn’t making a bit too much of my cupboard under the stairs).
The trouble with working here is that friends and family expect you to blow them away with the wines you provide. ‘Should be easy given your privileged position,’ I hear you cry. Employees of The Society are in constant search of the ‘wow’ bottle with which to woo friends.
Subtlety and elegance, I’ve found to my cost, don’t really do it. ‘You’ll be amazed at the refinement of this godello from north-west Spain’ doesn’t always cut the mustard with guests who rarely shop outside the supermarkets and think that I drink Meursault for breakfast*.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my rundown of winners that don’t disappoint or necessitate re-mortgaging the house:
• A flavour of the unknown: Kiwi pinot. Though, strangely (and I don’t know why), this works better for men than women. Women, in my experience, seem to prefer a heartier brew.
• A flavour unknown II: good Madeira is always a winner – and this is more for women than men I find.
• Maturity: Marcel Orford-Williams released some ten-year-old Alsace riesling last Christmas for under £20 that was a big hit.
So that brings me, at last, to the sherry, which fulfils majestically and deliciously all criteria.
Everybody say: ‘Ahhhhh…’
Never before have I seen such a room full of usually loud opinionated people becalmed by a mince pie and a glass of amber liquid as I did this week.
And what a liquid. It was Williams & Humbert As You Like It Amontillado, a wine I first noticed when I saw that buyer Toby Morrhall said that it had ‘bowled him over’. That takes some doing. But I completely see what he means. The wine is now about 30 years old and the ageing process has mellowed the beguiling dried fruit and nutty flavours making them gloriously rich, complex and just oh so irresistible. It’s a wine to sniff and savour and luxuriate in. The palate doesn’t disappoint either: adding a welcome freshness to the rich flavours. We tried it with mince pies, but piquant Cheddar or perhaps even a strong blue cheese would, I’m sure, work just as well. Or just savour a glass by the fire. At £22 per half bottle I grant you that this isn’t a cheap wow – but it’s Christmas and such is the richness and intensity that a little goes a long way.
Friends and family please note that this is now top of my Christmas wish list, and my new favourite wow wine. Anyone turning up at my doorstep clutching such a bottle is guaranteed a very warm welcome indeed.
Head of Copy
* For the record I don’t … OK, there was that one time but that was very much the exception.
? Firstly, the excellent CVNE bodega agreed to let us bottle their exceptional 2001 vintage gran reserva under our flagship Exhibition label. This is the first gran reserva to wear The Society?s livery.
? The second is that the wine beat all comers to pick up a gold medal at the 2012 International Wine Challenge ? confirmation that the wine is as delicious as you might expect from such a bodega in such an exceptional vintage.
? Last, but not least, the support of CVNE has enabled us to reduce this wine by £7 per bottle to Society members until the end of June. The new price of £18 has also been backdated to members who have already bought this wine at the higher price.
An embarrassment of riches!