Buyer’s Report

Fri 18 Sep 2015

2015 Bordeaux – Early Impressions

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

Beaumont 2015Rainbow over Chateau Beaumont

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

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

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

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

Angludet sorting tableAngludet sorting table

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

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

Lunch at AngludetLunch at Angludet

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

Nicolas Audebert, Rauzan SeglaNicolas Audebert, winemaker at Rauzan Segla

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

Next stop the Right Bank….

This is about a three-day trip to the Rhône Valley in June when I acted as guide to a small party of members. These lucky (or not so lucky!) few had earned their place on the tour having signed up new members to The Society earlier in the year.

For me, this was the second of such trips, the first having been to Champagne, and fun, that certainly was: lunch at Alfred Gratien when Olivier Dupré, sleeves rolled up preparing freshly caught lobsters with a sharp blade came near to doing himself a mischief, is still talked about today!

Arriving in the Rhône by EurostarArriving in the Rhône by Eurostar

The Rhône trip had to be just as special as indeed it was. Happily, we were spared any sharp blade incidents, but there was a hair-raising safari by Land Rover in the Dentelles de Montmirail – more of that epic adventure later!

Planning the trip – spoilt for choice
Devising a trip to the Rhône Valley should not be a challenge for The Wine Society. It is a region we know well with certain supplier relationships that go back a very long time indeed. Yet our wealth in this very large region, number two for AOC red wine after Bordeaux, made choices all the more difficult.

The Rhône is strong on landscape and geology, so what better way to explore it than to visit places with a good view, interesting terroir and of course, good wine!

These days, of course, a trip to the Rhône can start at St Pancras International. And that is what we did, travelling in comfort and without needing to change, all the way to the Rhône.

When it comes to wine, it’s people as well as place that matter

Nicolas JabouletNicolas Jaboulet

Wine is about terroir but it’s also about people and people tend to come and go. Nicolas Jaboulet, scion to a great family name, might have expected a role in what used to be the family firm. But that was not to be and instead he started up afresh in partnership with another great family: Perrin of Beaucastel. Our first tasting was of his wines, including The Society’s Exhibition Crozes-Hermitage which we do in partnership).

Then came Ampuis, or Ampodium to use its Latin name. This is a small town built between the river and its world-famous vineyard called Côte-Rôtie. Time did not allow for an exploration of the roasted slope itself. That was a shame: it would have been such fun to have ridden on Gilles Barge’s monorail up the steep incline of his vineyard called Combard. Maybe next time.

Instead we had our meeting underground at Guigal, met by Philippe Guigal himself in his extraordinary cellars with its row upon row of barrels and a bottling and packaging hall seemingly operated by a platoon of well-disciplined robots (my colleague, Nicky Glennon wrote about this in her Romans and Robots blog post).

Guigal's trusty robots on the packing lineGuigal’s trusty robots on the packing line

Etienne Guigal, Philippe’s grandfather also started from nothing, leaving his old employer, creating a wonderful name and leaving his son Marcel to carry on, eventually even buying up his old employer! There were more acquisitions with vineyards in Saint-Joseph and Hermitage.

Guigal deity with a bunch of syrah... or is it viognier?Guigal deity with a bunch of syrah… or is it viognier?

Hermitage…lessons in history and geography
Hermitage is one of the great wines. It has as fine a view as any, great geology and of course a fine chapel. And what could be better than to spend a little time with Paul Jaboulet Ainé who, of course, own the chapel which gave its name to one of the greatest wines of the world, Hermitage La Chapelle.

Hermitage is probably the most famous vineyard in the northern Rhône. Though not the oldest, as winemaking further north in Ampuis goes back longer; indeed amphorae and other artefacts are on display at Guigal and most growers feel the need to have something from those days on show as badge of honour, maybe.

The northern Rhône cuts a furrow through two land masses. The eastern side, largely made up of limestone, eventually rises to form the Alps, while the western side, much older, forms the edge of the Massif Central and is dominated by granite. The river flows fast in between. Over the millennia the Rhône has changed its course several times and much of the limestone was a sea bed anyway, eroded and then lifted up as the Alps were formed.

Rock of ages…and wine
The river was a barrier separating two worlds and even today, despite bridges, those two identities persist. Most of the appellations sit on one side or the other. Cornas and Saint-Joseph are both largely on granite. Crozes-Hermitage, for the most part, is planted on an ancient river bed and the land is strewn with stones and pebbles washed down from the mountains.

Hermitage is exceptional because it is both. Its western side, typified by the vineyard called Bessard, is granite and geologically belongs to the Massif Central, while the eastern side is mostly limestone. The changing course of the mighty river, shifting sea levels and mountain building conspired to isolate the granite part of Hermitage, welding it to its limestone other half and creating today’s hill of Hermitage.

La Chapelle, HermitageLa Chapelle, Hermitage

Paying homage at Hermitage La Chapelle
We were in good company when we visited the top of the hill with Jean-Luc Chapelle, roving brand ambassador and Jacques Devernois, cellarmaster at Paul Jaboulet. The object of the visit was of course the Chapelle itself. This chapel stands on holy ground, marking the site where the crusading knight Gaspard de Sterimberg, rested and meditated.

We walked around the chapel, admiring Chapoutier’s vineyards that surround it! Jaboulet’s ‘La Chapelle’ doesn’t come from here or indeed from one specific spot on the hill. Jaboulet own roughly 50 acres of Hermitage and the wines are always blends from different plots, the sum being greater than the parts.

Lessons in site-specific wines
I mentioned the granitic Bessards already. When standing at the chapel and looking down, Bessards lay before us. This is where Hermitage gets its structure from. Pure Bessards is powerful but also tight and tannic, almost as if it were armour plated!

Beyond is another plot called l’Hermite which has a complicated geology with granite and limestone, sometimes with a covering of wind-born soil or loess and which I think makes an especially refined wine.

The very top part of the hill, incidentally, is very pure granite as here was always above sea level. But the height of this vineyard makes it less sheltered so that wind is a constant factor.

Le Méal is further on, not really visible from the chapel. It lies in a perfect amphitheatre-shaped bowl of limestone and clay, strewn with small stones. It gets very hot here and so not surprisingly Hermitage from here is rich and full-bodied. It is where Jaboulet have their largest holdings so it is often a key element in their La Chapelle.

Walking up to the chapel is a wonderful life-enhancing experience, especially if time is taken to observe the changing folds in the hill, changing flora and changing composition of the soils. Time was not with us on this trip so a coach was used, there and back.

Dining in Hermitage country
The little town below the hill is called Tain l’Hermitage. There is nothing especially pretty about it. It is built on either side of the N7, that most famous of all trunk roads that starts its life at the Place d’Italie in Paris and ends at a border crossing with Italy (bien entendu!). It’s a dangerous road at any time with large trucks trundling through.

There was a time when eating in Tain was a miserable experience. The grand people went further afield to Valence, Vienne or Lamastre for fine dining. That is now changing, thanks in no small part to the existence of the Valrhona chocolate factory which attracts visitors and students from around the world. Tain is becoming quite famous and there are now some decent places to eat.

Jaboulet’s offices are out of town but they now have a tasting room on the main square and with it a small wine bar with excellent food served at lunchtime, to be washed down with Jaboulet’s wines, of course. Almost next door Nicolas Jaboulet has his office, shop and tasting room, where his wines and those of his associates, the Perrins of Beaucastel can be tasted. Opposite is one fine and idiosyncratic wine shop, held by a father-and-son team of Greek parentage. Everyone goes there if only for gossip and some brilliant Greek olive oil.

The jewel in Tain is one tiny restaurant, right next door to Chapoutier. It is called Mangevins. He is local and does wine and front of house. His wife is Japanese, perfectionist in the infinitesimally small kitchen. The food served is always outstanding, fresh ingredients and often with just a hint of Japan mixed in with local.

The wine list is outstanding. This is one place to go as a teetotal! We had Montlouis from Jacky Blot but it could have been a riesling from Trimbach. The highlight, wine wise was a Cornas from Pierre Clape with a chocolate dessert.

Chapelle and chocolate, it works!Chapelle and chocolate, it works!

A revelation that was repeated the following evening chez Jaboulet when the chocolate pudding was given added meaning by Hermitage La Chapelle 2003. A further study is surely needed on chocolate and wine!

Marcel Orford-Williams
 Society Buyer

 

  • The second part of the tour when the group head for the southern Rhône will follow soon.
  • There’s early news of the 2015 vintage in the Rhône here.
  • If your appetite has been whetted for Rhône wines you may be interested in our Vintage Rhône offer, showcasing the wines of the 2011 vintage.

My first Society buying trip was to the picturesque vineyards of Three Choirs, outside the town of Newent near Gloucester. Travelling with The Society’s Buyer for English wine, Mark Buckenham, our mission for the day was to blend two exclusive wines that Three Choirs produce for us: Midsummer Hill and Stone Brook. Following the tricky 2012 English harvest, we were keen to taste the 2013 vintage.

For any members who have not been to Three Choirs Vineyard, I would thoroughly recommend a visit. Situated on gently undulating south-facing slopes at the convergence of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, it is a very pretty spot indeed. Growing conditions here are defined by the unique microclimate: sheltered by the Malverns and the Brecon Beacons, the grapes are kept cool and clean by the breezes coming up the valley from the River Severn. A lone wind turbine in the middle distance somehow adds to the bucolic scene, rather than detracts.

Three Choirs

Three Choirs grow a miscellany of different grape varieties, many of which go into our Midsummer Hill blend. The 2013 vintage here is characterised by its relative lightness and by a good balance of acidity – vital for freshness and crispness in a white wine.

This was my first experience of blending – something at which Society buyers are particularly skilled. The tasting room at Three Choirs resembles a science laboratory, with clean white surfaces, pipettes and measuring jugs. The process begins with a taste of the previous vintage so as to re-familiarise ourselves with the style. Incidentally, I was impressed at how well the Midsummer Hill 2012 was showing: still fresh and lifted, with lovely citrus and pear fruit. Next came the tricky part. With samples of various varieties in front of us, Mark and I, along with Martin Fowke and Liam Tinston of Three Choirs, began to blend different proportions to try to reach a wine that we think members will enjoy. We then repeated this painstaking, fascinating process for the Stone Brook.

When finally satisfied with the white blends, we turned our attention to rosé. Three Choirs have a number of dark-skinned grape varieties under vine, and the rosé blend will change from vintage to vintage. The 2013 blend is crisp, refreshing and vibrant, with a palate full of ripe cherry and red berry fruit.

One of the benefits of having such a wide variety of grapes under vine is that one can tweak the blends to maintain consistency of style and, more importantly, quality. Whilst the varieties themselves may not sound familiar (madeleine angevine , reichensteiner, seyval blanc, phoenix, siegerrebe, schönberger to name a few), I think that these 2013 Three Choirs blends are exceptional, and will make for perfect summer drinking.

Joe Mandrell
Trainee Buyer

Rasteau in October, with the Ventoux in the background.Rasteau in October, with the Ventoux in the background.

While other parts of France had a more problematic year in 2012, the Rhône Valley, and by extension, the Languedoc-Roussillon, was spared a similar fate and has produced some stunning wines.

I have visited the region on several occasions this year and am very excited by the quality of the wines. While quantities are down on previous years due to lower yields, the wines are, to quote Daniel Brunier of Vieux Télégraphe, ‘phenomenal’.

Perfect ripeness has been achieved throughout the valley and wines have lovely integrated tannins and elegant structure. While there are excellent wines across the board, 2012 is the year for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, standing alongside 2010 in terms of quality.

Prices are still coming out and we are finalising our selection to feature in our opening offer in January, but while yields are low and quantities therefore down, we will be adding to the list of estates that we buy from this year and taking more cuvées from growers that we follow year on year.

What can we expect?
As well as Châteauneuf, we can expect to see a greater representation of Cairanne and Rasteau this year, plus, from further south, stunning wines from the Languedoc, including a new cuvée from Society favourite Château Sainte Eulalie in Minervois. The north is equally exciting: Crozes-Hermitages are particularly supple and ripe-tasting and Saint-Josephs have wonderful depth of flavour.

And the whites?
Whites still make up a tiny proportion of the Rhône’s output but should not be forgotten, particularly in a vintage like 2012, where they display wonderful fruity elegance and concentration without a trace of heaviness.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Rhône Buyer

Our opening offer of 2012 Rhône & Languedoc-Roussillon wines will be published in late January. The offer will be published on our website and will be posted to those members who have bought from similar offers in the last two years.

Find out more about buying from opening offers.

STOP PRESS (20th January): The opening offer is now live!

Thu 26 Sep 2013

2013 Harvest? We’re Still Waiting!

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25 years or so ago, this was normal: people harvested in October. And even then, most grapes were picked at a much earlier stage in their ripeness. Fashions have changed, tastes have evolved and, by and large, we prefer drinking wines that are riper, fruitier and rounder.

Two things have happened to make the grape harvest start so much earlier: the climate is a little warmer and grape yields have reduced in size. Lower yields often mean better quality, and besides, a smaller crop has a better chance of reaching optimum ripeness.

The Rhône, photographed from L'Hermite, Hermitage, on 10th SeptemberThe Rhône, photographed from L’Hermite, Hermitage, on 10th September
And so harvest dates were brought forward to September and even earlier: the heatwave 2003 vintage was largely done and dusted by the middle of August.

Ten years later and by the end of September little has been picked, and hardly any red grapes at all. We didn’t really have a spring to speak of, just a long winter, with snow over Easter. Flowering was put back by at least three weeks and nothing really changed until the summer, which of course has turned out to be exceptionally good.

The situation now is one of fine weather but with cool nights and a harvest that is only very slowly coming to ripeness but there is still a lot to do. I was in the Rhône ten days ago and the syrah was barely sweet, though otherwise very healthy looking. The cellars are immaculate; everyone has been busy cleaning or bottling a previous vintage. Growers were still tinkering in the vineyards, removing excess growth, or grapes that had not changed colour and so would never ripen.

In general, it is going to be a smallish crop. Some grapes suffered from a poor flower set; that is the case of grenache in the Rhône Valley. In other cases, lack of rain means that grape berries have remained very small, which of course should be good for quality.

Chablis, photographed in JuneChablis, photographed in June
For some growers, 2013 will already have been blighted by hail. For some growers in the Côte de Beaune, this will be their second hail-damaged vintage in succession

Quality is looking good. England might be about to experience something of a record vintage both in quality and quantity. Champagne starts next week as does Beaujolais. Other regions might start a week later and doubtless there will be people still harvesting in November.

Fingers crossed…

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

Tue 02 Jul 2013

Chile: Realising Its Potential

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Earthenware amphorae ('tinajas') at De Martino in Isla de Maipo.Earthenware amphorae (‘tinajas’) at De Martino in Isla de Maipo.
I have just returned from a five-day visit to Chile to meet the pick of The Society’s growers in this most friendly and exceptionally beautiful country.

It has been an eye-opening experience, and it has confirmed to me that Chile, despite its established place in the UK market, still has considerable untapped potential as a quality wine-producing country.

My first visit to Chile was in the 1990s, when the industry was, from an international perspective, very much in its infancy. The majority of wines, with a few notable exceptions, were simple and eminently drinkable, but without much character. Most vines were planted in the country’s rich and highly productive flatlands, known as the Central Valley, south of the capital, Santiago, but little thought had been given to which climates and soils best suited particular grape varieties.

Over the years a gradual transformation has come about. Producers began matching the right varieties to the right microclimates in the traditional grape-growing areas, with sauvignon blanc, for example, being replaced in the hotter regions with red varieties better able to cope with the heat. At the same time, a number of cooler climates were identified in parts of Chile previously untouched by the vine.

The first such area was Casablanca, north-west of Santiago, where pioneer winemaker Pablo Morandé planted some of Chile’s first cool-climate vineyards. More recently, regions such as the Leyda Valley, located a few kilometres from the coast and benefiting from the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean, was planted with varieties such as sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, and the results have been very impressive. The Society’s Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, made for us by the eponymous Viña Leyda, are good examples of the quality potential of this part of Chile.

Ventolera in the Leyda Valley.Ventolera in the Leyda Valley.
During this trip I visited Ventolera, the other star of the Leyda Valley. My only visits to Leyda have been in winter, when coastal fog shrouds much of the region. This visit was no exception, with the sunny 18°C temperatures of Santiago, around 100km away, giving way to fog and a chilly 11°C. Stefano Gandolini, Ventolera’s winemaker, took my buying colleague Toby Morrhall and myself through an impressive range of sauvignons and pinot noirs in their tasting room with a view looking out over their foggy vineyards.

In addition to seeking out cooler-climate regions and matching the right grape varieties to climatic conditions, a great deal of work has been undertaken in recent years in Chile to map the soils of vineyard areas.

Ventolera is one of a handful of wineries that has dug a series of calicatas (pits) to better understand the soil profiles in the vineyard before matching the right clone of the appropriate variety. Try the 2012 Litoral (ie coastal) Sauvignon Blanc (£7.75) or the 2011 Ventolera Pinot Noir (£13.95) for a taste of Stefano’s labours.

Calicatas at VentoleraStefano Gandolini in the calicatas at Ventolera.

Another producer that has taken the subject of soil mapping very seriously is Viña Tabalí, who excavated no fewer than 500 calicatas on their properties in Limarí, 400km north of Santiago, to ensure that their new vine plantings would perfectly match the mosaic of different soils on their land. The results are most impressive, with the chardonnays from their Talinay property (Chile’s coolest vineyard) demonstrating the strides Chile is making in its quest to be taken seriously as a producer of world-class wine.

Sebastian De Martino.Sebastian De Martino.
In addition to the work being carried out to maximise the potential of Chile’s diverse vineyards, a number of producers are finding ways to improve wine quality in the winery, not all of them as hi-tech as building computerised soil-profile maps.

For example, De Martino, whom we visited at their winery in Isla de Maipo, are ageing some of their wines in tinajas, which are large earthenware amphorae collected from the length and (admittedly narrow) breadth of the country. Sebastian De Martino (pictured) showed us an entire warehouse full of assorted sizes of these elegant containers that are a throwback to ancient times. The shape and porosity of the amphora are well suited to the fermentation and gentle ageing of wine. Members might like to try the delicious, savoury 2012 Viejas Tinajas Cinsault (£9.50), made from old vines located in the Itata region, almost 500km south of the capital.

Another company harking back to the past, but this time adding a modern twist, is Miguel Torres. The company is using país grapes, a drought-resistant variety traditionally used for blending (and still the country’s second most widely planted variety), to make a table wine. The twist is that they are employing the technique of carbonic maceration (used widely in Beaujolais) to soften the wine and make it more approachable when young. Miguel Torres has also recently launched a traditional-method rosé sparkling país which will undoubtedly have the champenois raising an eyelid in years to come.

These wines neatly encapsulate all that is good about the Chilean wine industry today, and demonstrate unequivocally that Chile has a bright future.

Tim Sykes
Head of Buying

Comments (6)

2010 is in marked contrast to 2009. 2010 was a very late vintage that dragged well into October, just as vintages used to do years ago.

Spring was late and the vegetative cycle was 12 days behind 2009 and 15 days behind 2007. The reason was the winter, which was unusually cold and very long. A temperature of -10.8C was recorded in Orange on January 18th. Frosts were frequent but more unusually still was the amount snow. This is rare for the Rhône, especially the south, but in the winter of 2009/10 it snowed three times and it was cold enough for it settle. There was 40cm around Orange and Avignon and to make it worse there was a howling mistral which must have made the Rhône Valley seem more like the Yukon. There was snow for a week in February paralysing the traffic in Châteauneuf and closing the A7 autoroute.

Tough wintry conditions can be a pain, especially in places like the south of France that are not used to them. But on the other hand snow is also beneficial as it protects the plants from frost, destroys pests and provides the soil with both water and nutrients. The last snows came in March, very late, and then April was fine and sunny, but still cool. May was dull and wet, and flowering came very late, starting at the beginning of June but with wide differences between areas. Changeable weather, sometimes warm, sometimes cold and windy and coinciding with the flowering brought about poor flower set or coulure with the grenache grape suffering most. Areas like Gigondas, which is always a fortnight behind Châteauneuf, had better flowering and so less of a drop in quantity.

There was a little rain on the 16th, which saw mistral, blue skies and rising temperatures, though the nights remained cool. July was dry and hot, sometimes very hot. August continued to be dry and sunny, though temperatures were no more than warm, with cool nights. There was light rain at the beginning of August for some.

There was no drought in 2010 thanks to a combination of the winter snows, the absence of very high temperatures and the cool nights. The size of the crop was very small. All of this helped ensure even and perfect ripeness. There was rain in early September – just enough to give the vines nourishment – and the weather then set fair right to the end.

The quality of the fruit was exceptional. The small crop produced bunches that were light and airy, the berries small, thick-skinned, sweet and with very good acidity.

And the wines?

The wines reflect those growing conditions in the most magical way possible. The colours are as black as I can remember with tannins to match. But the tannins of 2010 are wonderfully polished, sweet with no hint of dryness or bitterness. The wines too are wonderfully aromatic, wild herbs in Cornas, precious violets in Côte-Rôtie.

The southern Rhônes are equally remarkable, perhaps more so as they enjoy a sense of balance that is more often found in the north, with full ripe flavours; but then just as in the syrahs of the north, there is too a sense of freshness and poise. Just like 1961, said Jean Abeille of Château Mont Redon in Châteauneuf. Also remarkable is the alcohol as the degrees are on average a half degree less than 2009 and with a notch more acidity, creating the perfect balance. If the 2010 reds are extraordinary, so too are the whites which taste fresher and lighter than normal and have wonderful fragrance. Good for Condrieu and the aromatic viognier grape.

And to conclude:

2009 and 2010 are two great vintages. 2009 is based on raw power generated by the heat of the sun. 2010 has the perfect balance with exhilarating freshness and fruit, concentration, complexity and infinite length. The debate will go on for many years to come. Happy thought!

Marcel Orford-Williams

Comments (2)

Which of these two great vintages will come out on top? This will no doubt be the subject of debate for years to come. They are both very different and will no doubt age differently as well.

Cornas2009 was a hot, sunny vintage with high temperatures throughout much of the summer. The northern Rhône was spared the worst effects of the drought and so in general the syrah grapes ripened to perfection. Cornas thrived in the heat and here 2009 is exceptional, possibly one of the great vintages, like ‘91 and maybe even ‘78. Hermitage too was great, and Crozes as well. Results in Côte-Rôtie were more mixed as some vines were still suffering from hail damage from the previous vintage. There were still great results, with Delas producing something quite spectacular.

Some have compared 2009 to 1990 but in Cornas, 2009 is a much greater vintage, and all the wines have a deep tannic structure quite unlike 1990. 2005 comes to mind but 2009 is on a far greater scale with more colour and more fruit. I have just retasted a good many and they are all looking very promising.

The story in the southern Rhône is different and that is because the drought conditions were more severe. The grenache grape simply went into shut-down mode during August. Sugars continued to concentrate but without the grapes actually ripening. Many growers pick when the potential alcohol reaches a certain point, say 14 degrees in the case of grenache. That was not a problem in 2009; grenache had reached that level by the beginning of September but picking then was almost certainly too soon.

I have tasted lots of 2009s from the south and found many that are pale, dry and already washed out. Good producers waited, testing ripeness by eating grapes and crunching pips. Unripe pips are green and taste stalky and bitter. When ripe, they become brown and sweeter tasting. Today many growers don’t even measure for sugars, judging when to harvest by tasting grapes, looking at the pips, the skins and the stalks.

September began with unsettled weather, as is the case in most years, when the Midi is subject to storms at about the time of the autumn equinox. The rains were quite heavy but also beneficial as they had the effect of unlocking the physiological process in the vine and the grapes began to ripen. The rains didn’t last long and soon a mistral set in bringing in dry and sunny conditions to the end of the harvest.

As with the northern Rhônes, there is tannin in the wines here but also a huge amount of ripe fruit. Comparing them to other vintages is not easy as every vintage is different, but there is to me something of 1989 in the style; but more concentrated, as yields were in 2009 were quite low.

Tomorrow attentions will be turned to the markedly different 2010 vintage…

Marcel Orford-Williams

Comments (1)
Thu 02 Jun 2011

News from the Midi

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Just back from an exhilarating week in the Midi, taking in most points between Faugères and Bandol, finishing up in the northern Rhône and a first look at the 2010s.

SyrahThe first thing to say was that it was very hot and that everywhere the vines are at least two weeks ahead of schedule. The vines are in full flower and the predictions are for a good size crop. Last year, the 2010 harvest, was very late, often picking in October. These early indications suggest that 2011 will be early, maybe late August for the northern Rhône, maybe earlier for parts of the Languedoc.

Another 2003 type vintage? Not in the south, or at least not yet as there is plenty of water and no signs of water stress. The vines look incredibly healthy. The photo by the way is syrah from the Méal slope on Hermitage.

All fruit crops are early with apricots already available and as good as I’ve tasted.

So there is still a long wait for 2011. The 2010s meanwhile, mostly still in cask, look very promising, dark, sleek and refined. More on that later.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Rhône, Southern France & French Country buyer

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Fri 13 May 2011

Bordeaux 2010: Take Two

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2010 is shaping up to be one of the top three vintages of an exceptional Bordeaux decade. As with all great years, it has a personality of its own. In some ways it lies between the seductive charm of 2009 and the intense, vibrant fruit and length of 2005. The extremely dry growing season and poor flowering, which reduced yields and intensified ripeness, tannin and flavour, also allowed the grapes to retain essential fruit acidity which gives wine its life. The best wines have the remarkable complexity for which Bordeaux is famous.

An exciting result is that there are some outstanding wines at even modest price levels because the concentration of flavour helped growers all over Bordeaux. The key, as ever, is good balance.

Joanna Locke and I choose our wines as seriously as Society members expect and are spending another fully-charged week tasting and comparing at Châteaux and with merchants around Bordeaux, to fine tune our selection. First prices of some wines have emerged and we will be buying the best of these in large quantities but many class growths will take their time. We plan, therefore, to make a broad first offer in early to mid June to enable you to make a balanced selection. The most expensive wines which are likely to be released late will form a second offer when all the prices are out. This second offer, including the more famous, higher-priced Clarets and Sauternes will be delayed until late June early July. We still expect prices to be high and supply to be limited but, thanks to The Society’s long relationship with the region’s suppliers, we are in a strong position to source as many of these wonderful wines as we possibly can.

I should add that the Wine Society selection will be based on our own independent judgments, not on anyone else’s scores. I have experience of visiting and selecting Bordeaux every years since 1981 and have seen young wines develop and mature over the years, and knowing members’ reaction to them. However skilled a taster may be, giving scores out of 100 or 20 to young unfinished wine is rather haphazard and limiting. We prefer just to choose very good wine and describe the different styles of each.

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