En Primeur

Wed 18 Jan 2012

The Ventoux

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The Mont Ventoux, known locally as the ‘geant de Provence’, dominates the landscape for miles around like a Mount Fuji, and it comes with a white summit that sparkles in the sun. The summit is white all year round but rarely thanks to snow: the Ventoux is a huge pile of limestone and at the summit it is quite bare.

The mountain features much in folklore and there are doubtless plenty of poems by Mistral. There are various stories about the name but one thing is certain and that is that it is seriously windy at the top. It stands at 1912m, making it the highest peak for miles around. An observatory was built on the summit and at the same time a road was built over the top. It’s a fun drive and only a wee bit scary near the summit, above the tree line where the rock is bare and white and when the gradient suddenly becomes interesting. The view from the top is fabulous, except on the day I chose to drive up, when low cloud reduced visibility to a few yards. It is of course one of the great cycling challenges and regularly features on the Tour de France.

Vines at Château de Valcombe

The lower slopes are a sea of lavender and where there is shelter from the Mistral other crops are grown. There are fruit orchards and olives, and of course vineyards. The wines used to be called Côtes du Ventoux. Today the name has changed to Ventoux and it is very much a part of Rhône.

The Romans were possibly the first to grow grapes here; they saw the benefit of planting at slightly higher altitude amidst the ever-present cool Alpine breezes. There was a time when co-ops controlled all the production and then quality was not always good and prices always below that of simple Côtes du Rhône.

Things have changed. The climate is warmer and vintages here are more consistent. And the level of winemaking shows more skill and greater confidence.

Suddenly, too, there are a whole load of growers. The Ventoux has become smart. The fashion has brought higher prices (but not for all). A lot of Ventoux is sold to the Negoce – including Jaboulet, who make a very good wine at a very reasonable price. We are now buying from Château de Valcombe, which is excellent and which will feature in the 2010 Rhône opening offer.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Buyer, Rhône

The Society’s 2010 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon opening offer will be published next week.

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Burgundy CellarOne of the most challenging and interesting privileges of the buying job is to go out to Burgundy and taste a vintage from barrel in October, buy the wines and make an assessment of the vintage. October to December is the time when most buyers go to Burgundy to taste from barrel the wines of the main domaines and négociants of the Côte D’Or.

Last October I was tasting the superb 2010 vintage after a year in cask. A few wines are already bottled, mainly whites, but most are still in barrel or tank awaiting bottling usually January to March 2012. However, it is not without its pitfalls.

In theory, October is generally a good time to taste. Ideally the crucial secondary fermentation, the malolactic (hereafter malo) fermentation, will have taken place in spring.
Before the malo, wines are very difficult to judge, especially red wines, although the worst time is during the process itself where the reds can taste metallic and all sorts of buttery and cheesy aromas can occur in the whites as the malic (the sharper appley acidity) is transformed to the lactic acidity (the milder milk acidity). Then frequently for a couple of months after the malo the wine will not taste well. The aromas and the flesh of the wine seem to disappear leaving a hollow shell.

Temperature is one of the crucial factors required for the malo to take place. The process normally takes place as the temperature reaches 16-19ºC. Given Burgundy’s more continental climate, it is quite cool at vintage time (when the harvest is mid-September and global warming doesn’t mess it all up) and after the wines have finished their alcoholic fermentation they are sent to barrel to rest in the autumnal cool of the cellar and it is not until spring arrives that the temperature rises to the necessary level.

It has now been discovered that the traditional empirical Burgundy view that a six month delay between the two fermentations is beneficial for red wine, helping to soften the astringent nature of the tannins. It had long been held as controversial by the Bordelais. As sulphur blocks the fermentation none is added, and the men in white coats, the oenologues, considered that the wine is potentially at risk from spoilage yeasts and bacteria during this time. In Bordeaux’s warmer Atlantic climate, and because wines are stored above cellars in chais in the Médoc (because the water table is too high to dig cellars) the malo traditionally takes place in tank immediately after the alcoholic fermentation in October. It can be artificially inoculated to speed the process up. The wine is then sulphured and sent to barrel.

However, in the absence of sulphur, alcohol oxidises to acetaldehyde and this is a catalyst in red wines to encourage colour (anthocyanins) and tannins to form complexes that provide a round and velvety mouthfeel. Tannins not bound to colour are hard and spiky. For a number of years it has been the height of fashion in Bordeaux to delay the onset of the malolactic fermentation and for it to happen in barrel.

In very hot years like 2009 there is little malic acid in the grapes, whereas a cooler year like 2010 will have much more. In the cooler years the wine is transformed by this process and many ugly ducklings have become elegant swans. However, there is a Catch Twenty Two here. The higher acid the vintage, and thus the more beneficial to the wine for the malo to occur, the more difficult it is to start the process.

So that seems clear and fine then! The buyer must arrive in October when the wines will be tasting beautifully after a spring malo. If only it were that simple!

In practice the malo takes place when it wants to. Even in the same cellar in October there can be some wines that went through it early, some late, and some have yet to do it. The process is still only partially understood. Some say a new barrel which has less sulphur residue and allows more oxygen ingress helps the process, others say old barrels carry the malolactic bacteria, and help inoculate the process. Once the malo has finished, the maturation process begins and the wine starts to change. One should really consider a wine’s age and maturity not from the date of the harvest but from the date of the malo.

After the malo each cellar may then proceed quite differently. Some cellars rack from barrel to barrel. In this case the individual character of the barrel is preserved. Some cellars rack all the wine into tank and then back into barrel. In this case the barrels have been assembled and should taste similar. Some, like Jean-Marie Fourrier do not rack at all, which means his wines have more carbon dioxide in the wine, which can cut the richness of the wine, but against that the wine has been left to enrich itself on its lees without disturbance. Some add more or less sulphur at this time which can ‘bleach’ the flavours from the wine, which may require 6-8 weeks to recover.

Principally for this reason, I do not pay too much attention to assessments of Burgundy between one and six months after the vintage. In this media age we are all being pestered to give instant opinions but, in my view, it is very dangerous to assess a wine before malo as they can totally change character. A famous agent Russell Hone describes the 1993 red Burgundies as ‘performing a backflip’ after malo. It was very harsh and metallic before malo, softened appreciably after it and is now considered a great vintage.

Thus when one arrives in a cellar and before tasting one of the first questions to ask is when the malo, or malos took place, and were the wines racked afterwards, and in which case were they assembled in tank or racked from barrel to barrel. Now one can begin to assess the wines before you and make allowances if necessary for the blessed malo!

Toby Morrhall
Buyer, Burgundy

The Society’s opening offer of 2010 Burgundy will be available in late February.

Tue 18 Oct 2011

Two Ports of call

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Adrian Bridge

On Monday evening 100 members and their guests were treated to a wonderful tasting of Fonseca and Taylor’s Ports, presented by the MD of The Fladgate Partnership Adrian Bridge, aided and abetted by The Society’s Port buyer Mark Buckenham. Adrian spoke with great enthusiasm and clarity, also fielding the numerous questions, many coming from interesting angles, with aplomb. This 319-year-old company is certainly being expertly  steered through the 21st century with Adrian at the helm.

Five wines from each house were tasted, in pairs. As an experiment 140 character tasting notes were tweeted as we tasted (which engendered both positive and negative feedback with some enjoying the interaction and joining in the banter, while others felt bombarded by too many tweets – we’re still learning when it comes to social media).

The 140 (max) character notes, complete with stylistic errors, went as follows. Caveat: These are of course my own personal, spur-of-the-moment, tasting notes.

Fonseca ’70 Genteel butterscotch, smooth and very easy to drink.

Taylor ’70 More heat of alcohol, more structure than Fonseca. Still beautifully mellow. Leather, tobacco and soft red apple skins?

(NB, both of the above will be available on our November Fine Wine List, priced at £135 per bottle)

Fonseca ’83 Lovely lifted, slightly leafy, perfume. Fresh, sweet red fruit and liquorice on palate.

Taylor ’85  savoury in character, edgy, nervy, bitter orange prevalent. Prunes and dates on finish.

Fonseca Guimaraens ’98 Rich violet nose. Smells like teen spirit! Rich chunky smooth black fruit. Pontefract cakes.

Taylor Vargellas ’01 table wine, rather than fortified, nose – light, structured, delicate berries and chammy leather.

Fonseca 2000 – Rubenesque, reclining, voluptuous, inviting, bursting with blackberries. Ripe, ripe, smooth tannins

Taylor 2000 – upright, edgy, mineral, damson, licorice, structured, delicious, tannins need to soften. Tight (the Port, not me!)

09s have a light gunpowder tea aroma about them. Mineral edge. Fonseca immediately softer on the nose than the Taylor.

Both 2009s rich on palate, Fonseca still showing more velvety texture. Deeper. Spirit hidden by bags of fruit. Taylor has finesse.

The 2009s can be found in our Port opening offer.

It was an excellent evening drinking some glorious Port wine. If anyone else would care to comment below with their own notes and opinions, whether you were present or not, we would be most interested to hear them.

Ewan Murray
Head of Tastings & Events

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Wed 10 Aug 2011

Extreme Weather

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The weather in the mountains is always changeable, sometimes dangerously so. In two weeks in the Haute Savoie this summer we saw the extremes of 32.5C – the hottest we’ve known it – and well under 20C, as well as storms and torrential rain. On June 1st, more snow fell in 24 hours than on any single day last winter (it wasn’t a great season for snow here, and our local resort closed early, with April temperatures up to 28C).

The Loire, carrying only a third of its normal volume of water (photographed on a Society visit in July by Ben Chishick)

Nevertheless, this was a local first, with children rejoicing in being able to make snowmen with the help of parents much freer than they are in the ski season. Then when the ‘bonhommes de neige’ melted, the Alpine flowers were revealed once again. But the tragic consequence of such a heavy, late snowfall was that thousands of trees, already in leaf, were lost, unable to bear the weight. Under their unseasonal blanket of snow, trees broke and the forest resonated with the cracking of trunks and branches. Many survived but remain bowed, in deference to the extremes of nature.

In the foothills, local vineyards fared far better, as this was not frost but far more benign snow, in a period of cooler weather which helped to slow down development which had been racing ahead following the unusually warm spring.

On a visit to the Loire in June, the normally majestic River was carrying only a third of its normal volume of water. Vignerons here were predicting harvest up to three weeks earlier than a normal year – though none could immediately remember when they last saw one of those!

Richard Mayson has not seen the prolonged heatwaves that persisted in his ‘cooler’ part of Portugal’s Alentejo last summer, and is expecting to pick around ten days earlier. On our Primeurs tasting trips to Bordeaux in April and May we had never seen such verdant vines, and the early fine weather had meant naturally healthier vineyards, with far fewer vineyard treatments necessary. Personnel were being asked to take their summer holidays earlier than usual, in expectation of an early harvest.

Since then in the Loire and Bordeaux, some welcome rain and cooler weather had slowed things up a bit. Then, on 2nd August, Bordeaux was apparently hit by ‘biblical rainstorms’, according to one of our suppliers, presumably alleviating the reported water stress in the vineyards. We are yet to hear of any negative impact, other than to those early holidaymakers.

It’s been a strange year so far, and, as always, the next few weeks will be critical. I’m off to the Loire again at the end of the month to get first impressions of the 2011 harvest, and to Bordeaux mid September. Fingers crossed for the all-important Indian summer.

And if the Mondeuse in the Savoie turns out as well as the 2010 we enjoyed this year, we may need to squeeze in fewer Wine Society cases on our next trip to the mountains.

Joanna Locke MW
Buyer for Bordeaux, Loire & Portugal

Edit: 25th August
I wanted to share a phrase from recent correspondence with one of our producers in the Loire updating us on the situation: All fun and games here as vineyards duck and weave to avoid the storms.
I shall be visiting Muscadet and Touraine next week so I will soon see for myself!

Wed 15 Jun 2011

2010 Bordeaux: To buy or not to buy?

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The first of The Society’s two Bordeaux 2010 opening offers is now live on the website, and will be mailed shortly.

BarriquesWe, along with record numbers of the world’s Bordeaux buyers, embarked on this year’s primeur tastings with some trepidation. A second good, potentially great, vintage in a row, with the crop down by as much as 50% in some cases, meant prices might be high again. That has since proved to be the case, with many significantly higher than the earlier fêted 2009.

We were also led to believe that the tastings themselves would be more challenging than usual given reports of record tannin levels. Would the wines have the balance and appeal after such a successful 2009 campaign?

In the event, the best wines have it all. They are ripe and balanced, solidly structured and with all the elements for a long and rewarding future; and they are different in style from 2009. More importantly for us, there are delicious and exciting wines at all price levels.

So, yes, for the Bordeaux drinker, enthusiast, collector, this is a vintage to buy. The Society has, and negotiations have now started at home!

Joanna Locke MW
Bordeaux buyer

Sat 28 May 2011

And what about 2011?

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I returned yesterday from a visit to Bordeaux with Jo Locke MW. While all the hype about 2010 continues, and prices continue to drip, drip, drip slowly out of Bordeaux (click here for details of timings of our 2010 en primeur offers),  in Blaye, Bourg, Castillon and Entre-Deux-Mers, concern is for the current happenings in the vineyards rather than the markets.

It has not rained in these parts since February, and growers’ attitudes range from fretting over the lack of water right through to ‘que sera sera’. Those who have older vines with deeper root systems are less worried, as they will likely be reaching right down to the nappe phréatique (water table) but for those who have more recent plantings, these drought conditions are causing some frowns. Driving past the vines bore this out – the older the vines, the healthier looking the leaves.  Some of the younger vines’ leaves  were visibly wilting. There was one man in particular, however – Thierry Lurton of Château de Camarsac – who was particularly pleased with the wall-to-wall sunshine because of the way he powers his chai (see right)!

Flowering, which last year happened at the end of the first week in June, happened before mid-May! It hasn’t been that early since 1976. Pictured left is a young bunch of cabernet sauvignon at Château de la Dauphine. Hard to believe that we’re not even at the end of May. If things continue at the same pace, harvest is anticipated for 3rd September. It is early days yet, though – watch this space for further news as and when we get it.

Ewan Murray
Head of Tastings & Events

Categories : Bordeaux, En Primeur
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The barrel room at Château Palmer

We are currently putting together a tasty selection of 2010 Clarets at affordable prices that will provide drinkers with plenty to enjoy over the next 20 years. This, our first Bordeaux 2010 Opening Offer, will be mailed and available online in early June.

Our selection of classed–growths will take longer to finalise. We had the first sign of silliness today when Château Beychevelle announced a 22% increase in its price, even though the wine is no better than last year. This is largely because the Chinese market knows the brand and likes the dragon and boat label.

But for drinkers this is a bad buy and we have refused it.

Prices of the more famous, highly priced Clarets are slowly being released. We will judge each wine on its merit and finalise a second offer as soon as we can.

Categories : Bordeaux, En Primeur
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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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Sat 09 Apr 2011

Bienvenue au Cirque de Bordeaux

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Spring sunshine and temperatures of nearly 30*C brightened the mood during the annual circus when all Bordeaux châteaux display the new vintage for the first time. We have found some outstanding wines and many good wines in 2010. The best wines are intensely flavoured with great keeping potential.

The bad news is that the top names have mostly made as much as 20% less wine than in 2009 and international interest in buying them is as strong as ever, so prices are unlikely to come down. Some will increase from the all-time high levels of last year.
The good news is that, if you look hard enough as we do, there is absolutely no need to pay top prices. We found excellent Claret to drink over the next 5 to 15 years among the properties with less fancy names.

We will return to Bordeaux later in May, when the world has gone away, to double-check the quality of our favourites and give you the lowdown in more detail.

Categories : Bordeaux, En Primeur, France
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Mon 23 Aug 2010

Bordeaux 2009: A Trip of a Lifetime

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Four lucky members and their guests joined The Society’s chief wine buyer Sebastian Payne MW and me, on a trip to Bordeaux last month.

‘We are still wondering if the events of last week were real or some sort of dream,’ was the wonderful reaction of John and Elizabeth Maycock when they got back from our mini-tour of Bordeaux in July, and I must say I share their sentiments.

Première Cru: Château Margaux

Première Cru: Château Margaux

Earlier in the year we offered members who had proposed a wine-loving friend or relative as a Society member the chance to win a place on a trip to some of Bordeaux’s finest vineyards with chief wine buyer Sebastian Payne. We stayed at the beautiful Margaux estate of Château Rauzan-Ségla, who really couldn’t have done more to make our stay enjoyable.

During a whirlwind four-day trip we learned a potted history of Bordeaux wine (how the French Revolution, inheritance tax laws and scoundrel uncles are behind property divisions and châteaux name changes). We had a crash-course in viticulture and vinification (including why soggy roots make bad wines, how candles are used in racking, and how fining using egg whites explains egg-yolk-based Bordelaise gastronomy).

We explored the notion of terroir and tasted the difference between the ‘merlot queens’ of the right bank (represented by flagship examples from Châteaux Magdelaine and Bélair-Monange in Saint-Emilion, and  Château Hosanna in Pomerol) and ‘cabernet kings’ of the left bank (represented by special bottles from Châteaux Lafite, Margaux, Palmer, Rauzan-Ségla, Lynch-Bages, Léoville-Barton, Langoa-Barton and Angludet).

Winning Wine Society members with Chief Buyer Sebastian Payne MW at Rauzan-Ségla

Winning Wine Society members with Chief Buyer Sebastian Payne MW at Rauzan-Ségla

All were brought to life by the experts behind the wines: Frédéric Lospied and Edouard Moueix of JP Mouiex; Sabrina Permet at Château Palmer; Jean-Charles Cazes of Lynch-Bages; Charles and Ben Sichel of Angludet; Lilian Barton of Léoville-Barton and Langoa-Barton and John and Delphine Kolasa of Rauzan-Ségla, who, together with Magali Puppo and team where instrumental in organising the trip. As members Barry and Mandy West so eloquently put it:

‘It was such a wonderful few days, seeing and meeting such interesting people and visiting all the châteaux – a trip that we don’t think can be repeated.’

Outstanding wines (tasting the 2009s made us all want to rush home to place an en primeur order), sumptuous food and the companionship of liked-minded members made it a never-to-be-forgotten trip of a life-time. New member Danielle Fletcher summed up her experience:

‘I didn’t even know there was a prize draw! I just proposed a friend because we have enjoyed The Society’s wines since we were introduced by another friend. But this was a very special trip. It has really cemented my relationship with The Society.’

Member the Reverend Philip North e-mailed us to say that he had to attend a parish party as soon as he returned from Bordeaux. ‘Being fed the cheapest supermarket plonk after days of vintage Bordeaux was extremely painful!’ he said. One hopes we haven’t all been spoiled for life.

Over the coming weeks I look forward to sharing our experience with you through blog posts, videos and photos. So whether you are an avid Claret fan and want to learn more about these special châteaux, or you want to discover more about the region of Bordeaux, make sure to visit SocietyGrapevine regularly. For regular updates follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

Thanks to the experts at each Château and Sebastian Payne, we all learned a lot in the four days. So, if you have any burning questions about Bordeaux, its wines or the different Châteaux we visited, please feel free to post your questions below. I can’t promise to answer all of them, but if we were taught it on the trip, I’ll try to answer.

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