France

Fri 08 Sep 2017

How Green is Your (Loire) Valley?

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One of the big surprises for me, when I visited the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers with buyer Jo Locke MW earlier in the year, was just how many organic and biodynamic producers were there. There was even a separate exhibition alongside the main wine fair purely for producers who farm in this way.

I wrote about our trip in our Travels in Wine feature on the website, if you’ like to read more about that.

Joanna Locke MW with producer Denis Jamain

 

Some of the producers we follow were in the Levée de la Loire – the organic/biodynamic hall, even though they don’t particularly make a big song and dance about their farming methods. Others chose to be in the main Salon, despite having organic or sometimes biodynamic certification. So I was interested in finding out why this might be, as well as in exploring the prominence of organics.

That 20% of the 250-odd exhibitors in the main hall were certified as organic and that the Levée had a total of 150 organic Loire producers and 70 biodynamic producers, came as a surprise to me, though I can’t think why. After all, the Loire has spawned some of France’s most vociferous advocates of biodynamics – Didier Dagueneau in Pouilly-Fumé and Nicolas Joly in the tiny Savennières appellation, for example. And then there’s star of Vouvray, Domaine Huet, who quietly went about converting to biodynamic viticulture, way before it could have been called trendy!

I had just assumed that grape-growing in this relatively northerly region and comparatively damp climate might present challenges to growers. So, I thought that it wouldn’t be possible to take the risk of farming organically or biodynamically and possibly lose one’s crop to the caprices of Mother Nature.

Chatting to winemakers, wine experts and importers during the fair, I tried to find out what the thinking is these days about organic/biodynamic production in the Loire. It’s fair to say that I heard quite a few different theories during our visit here, which I thought might be of interest to members.

One rather cynical school of thought attributes the popularity of ‘organics’ to the region’s proximity to Paris. ‘It’s partly down to the pressure from French journalists who can easily get here!.

A more generous explanation I heard was that, compared to other parts of France, land here is relatively cheap and therefore within the reach of young winemakers just starting out. They are far more likely to be predisposed to embrace organic and biodynamic principles from the start.

This was from a young French horticultural engineer who happened to be seated alongside us at one of our tastings. Interestingly, he also told me that the Loire Valley is a prime site for the cultivation of plants for seed production. The mild climate is ideal, apparently, and the germination rate of the seeds that come from here is higher than anywhere else in France. Perhaps that’s another reason the Loire Valley also goes by the name of ‘the Garden of France’.

Denis Jamain of Domaine de Reuilly, who produces a number of cuvées (including biodynamically), and who chose to exhibit in the main exhibition hall rather than the one specifically for organic/biodynamic producers, had a more prosaic explanation: ‘There’s more and more demand for organic and biodynamic wines from importers in North America and Scandinavia, particularly where there are state-controlled monopolies on buying wine – they’re much more interested in ethical concerns I have noticed.’ That’s not to diminish his own commitment – he is far from being the type to jump onto any kind of band-wagon for marketing purposes, I can assure you!

And, talking of commitment, this is something that Evelyne de Pontbriand of Savennières estate Domaine du Closel, highlighted to us in a talk about her wines and converting from sustainable farming to biodynamics. She wishes her neighbours in Savennières would do the same too: ‘Around 60-70% of growers are organic and we would love the whole appellation to convert. It is not that people are against it as such, it’s more a question of economics. Farming this way is bound to reduce your yields; some say your vineyards suffer more disease and it’s harder on a bigger scale. Organic farming doesn’t make you rich!’

Importer and Loire expert, Chris Hardy spends a great deal of time in the region. I was interested in his thoughts on the subject:

‘Yes, as we are more northerly, vineyard management methods need to be adapted to keep the grapes healthy as they ripen, though with coherent management, rot isn’t a major problem.’ He told me.

He went on to tell me about the growers he works with, most of whom work sustainably, many certified under the Terra Vitis organisation, ‘but most just using their brains – treating their vineyards as little as possible and preferably only in a preventative way. When needed they will spray, but will use the least damaging and most eco-friendly preparations – some non-organic sprays are more friendly than organic ones!’

Chris sees what work goes into bringing in a healthy crop, and I think that’s the crux of it. Whether you chose to follow organic or biodynamic principles or prefer to go the sustainable route, there just is no substitute for hard and intelligent work – these are the people we at The Society champion too.

Here, Chris gives some idea of what’s involved:

Basic steps, from the ground up:

  1. Grass through the vineyards: that means a little more competition for the grapes, potentially lowering yields, but it’s easier to ripen smaller crops. It also means that when it rains, the water first goes to the grass and not into the vines and grapes, which would then swell, burst and rot. If you go into the vineyards pre-harvest you can see that this a no-brainer: where there’s grass, it is long and vibrantly green and the grapes are healthy. Where there’s no grass, the grapes swell and start to burst, causing rot.

 

  1. Pruning: ideally starting with at la taille which begins around November and pruning long and then de-budding, rubbing out alternate buds so as to space the bunches, keeping them apart. Short pruning short packs the bunches close together, so if one starts to rot, they all do.
  2. Green harvest: if the grower didn’t prune that way, they can catch up later with either a green harvest (the earlier the better so as not to waste energy going to grapes that will be thrown away), reducing the yield and separating the bunches.
  3. De-leafing/leaf plucking around the bunches: this can be done by machine (fans sucking leaves away or with gas burners) or by hand. The idea is to clear the leaves from around the bunches, allowing better access to sun and wind. You can do this on one side or both. The risk in really hot summers it that you can lose some of your crop because the grapes shrivel without any shade.

The sun helps thicken the grapes’ skins, making them more resistant to disease and rot (and giving potentially more flavour) and the wind helps dry off any mist/rain from the grapes, again helping keep them free of rot. Leaf plucking early enough can give the grapes an extra week to ten days on the vines before picking. At a weekly gain of around 1° and a fall of around 1g acidity, that can make a BIG difference to the maturity of the harvest.

In a year when you can expect rain before harvest, to me, again, that’s a no-brainer.

  1. Raise leaf height (especially if you’ve de-leafed as you need to compensate for the grapes you have removed): leaves = photosynthesis = ripeness. Young leaves photosynthesise better than old leaves, so taking, say, 20cm of leaf away at the bottom of the vine and encouraging, say, 40cm at the top will really boost the ripeness of the grapes.

This really increases the chance of reaching phenolic maturity (ripe tannins), essential in the Loire as red wines by law are dry with a max 2 g/l residual sugar, so any under-ripeness can come across as bitterness.

You can see the ripeness arrive with the reds – the stalks start to turn red and the pips start to go from green (and bitter) to brown (and nutty).

We often get rain end September and in October, so the more work done early, the better. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work and takes vigilance and strength of mind at times!’

It’s quite humbling to hear about just how much work goes into producing your glass of wine and spare a thought for those that didn’t produce any in 2016 because of frosts, which don’t discriminate between organic or non-organic vines.

 

So, while I’m not sure that I found out the real reason for the high numbers of organic and biodynamic Loire producers represented at the trade fair in Angers, I did learn an awful lot more about vineyard husbandry. It makes me appreciate the wine all the more.

>Enjoy buyer Joanna Locke MW’s pick of the 2016 vintage in our current offer

>Read more about our trip to the region in Travels in Wine

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Fri 07 Jul 2017

The Society’s Big Night Out!

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The annual International Wine Challenge Awards Dinner at London’s Hilton on Park Lane is always a glitzy affair, with the great and the good of the world’s wine trade coming together to celebrate the best in wine and sake.

Society CEO Robin McMillan receiving the IWC Wine Club of the Year award from IWC Co-Chair Peter McCombie MW

We always know how The Society is doing in the eyes of you, the members, because you’re always so generous with your feedback, whether positive or constructive. That’s what drives us and is the very essence of what we are about – The Society is, after all, its members – but it’s always rewarding when we receive third party endorsement, especially from our peers in the trade.

Last night was the night when the IWC gives out its coveted UK Merchant of the Year awards. The Society was shortlisted for six 2017 awards, so it was with anticipation and excitement that six from The Society (CEO Robin McMillan, buyer Marcel Orford Williams, campaign manager Vicki Markham, Member Services co-ordinator Tracy Richardson, buying administrator Sarah MacCormack and PR manager Ewan Murray) joined over 600 wine trade colleagues.

And we weren’t disappointed! Being shortlisted is already an achievement, but winning is the icing on the cake!

We have a proud history of winning Wine Club of the Year and so were very pleased to continue this tradition. Another award we retained was that of Specialist Merchant for Regional France (Alsace, Beaujolais, Corsica, Jura, Provence, Savoie, South West France and other lesser known nooks & crannies). It was also very special to regain the Specialist Merchant for Portugal crown. Congratulations to our buyers Jo Locke (Alsace & Portugal), Toby Morrhall (Beaujolais until May this year) and Marcel Orford Williams (the rest!).

While there is a lot of work behind the scenes all year round from all 220 Society staff to get things right, it’s really all down to you, the members, who keep on drinking , and appreciating the quality and value for money of, the wines we discover for you. There are so many merchants and channels to choose from when buying wine – we thank you for your loyalty, and look forward to continuing the good work together!

Ewan Murray
PR Manager

Fri 23 Jun 2017

Bordeaux 2016: Roll Out The Barrel

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I have been visiting Bordeaux vineyards every year since the early 1980s. Though Tim Sykes, our current Bordeaux buyer, now does all the work, going out there several times a year, I was delighted to join him for the crowded but fascinating week in early April, when all the châteaux first show the new vintage together in organised tastings for the world to judge.

Bordeaux vineyards

We visit all the top châteaux to taste on the spot, and many others too, and double check or triple check samples with merchants at well-organised general tastings.

Because they receive so many visitors, châteaux prepare fresh samples of their final blend so people can taste from sample bottles. I rather miss the opportunity of tasting direct from barrel with maîtres de chai, which was possible when I made several more leisurely visits in the past. So I was delighted to be able to do just that on a couple of occasions during a packed week this year.

Bordeaux

At Château Canon in Saint-Emilion, Nicolas Audebert has recently taken over from John Kolasa, who did such a marvellous job rebuilding the quality of both Canon and Rauzan-Ségla for owners the Wertheimer family, of Chanel fame. Nicolas let us taste Canon 2016 from several barrels (subtle differences because of different barrel makers), before we tasted the final assemblage. The wine looks most promising.

Nicolas Audebert

Tasting with Nicolas Audebert

Next day Tim and I missed a turn (my fault) on the way to Tertre Roteboeuf and stopped to ask a couple of men chatting in a nearby vineyard for directions. One of them turned out to be Nicolas. Another promising sign for the future of Canon. This man does not just sit in an office and tell others what to do. He walks the walk.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

Bordeaux has produced an abundance of superb wines in 2016. Our main en primeur offer is available now, including reds, dry whites and sweet whites.

Fri 19 May 2017

Rating The Range: Your Recent Highlights

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You’ve been busy! It has been great seeing so many Society members sharing their thoughts on wines they’ve ordered recently.

Eager to spread the love and (hopefully) put you on to something new to enjoy, we couldn’t resist sharing a few recent reviews, all of which were accompanied by 5-star ratings from your fellow members.

Five-star wines

Help other members by rating and reviewing any wines you’ve purchased from your Society via My Wines.

Teroldego Rotaliano Riserva, Mezzacorona 2012
£8.25 per bottle
“This wine really is very good, and it’s quite astounding value given the price. I have tasted inferior wines that cost double the price. I ordered this as one of our wedding wines last summer, and all our guests were raving about it. I still have a few bottles left that are drinking very well. I will be ordering more when I run out.” – Mr Lawrence Sorrentino

The Society’s Exhibition Alto Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
£13.50 per bottle
“I’m still working my way through mixed cases to learn what I like but this bottle went straight to the top of the favourites list. Delicious from the moment it was opened. Perfect round mouthful of loveliness. I just can’t believe that my non wine drinking husband used half of the second bottle in a sausage casserole. It was a very good casserole!” – Mrs Shirley White

Adega de Pegões Colheita Seleccionada, Península de Setúbal 2015
£7.25 per bottle

PW5731

“I have bought every vintage since 2012 and I think this one is the best so far. There is a complexity to it, with a great creamy texture and finish, and at this price, it is an absolute bargain. Keep it coming……” – Mr John E Curtis

Grignan-les-Adhémar, Delas 2015
£7.25 per bottle

RH43541

Gorgeous, far better than a glugable red at a ludicrously low price. Served with a rack of lamb, it went down a treat and I got the somewhat undeserved plaudits. Totally recommendable from a top Rhone producer!!” – Soorat Singh Esq

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‘Little town, it’s a quiet village…’

If you’re a Disney fan, your brain sang that line. (If you’re not a Disney fan, this blog post probably isn’t for you, although you’re very welcome to stick around for some gorgeous French scenery.)

The iconic opening to Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast is impossible to forget. Belle wanders into a sleepy village of colourful houses, cobbled streets and towering church spires that suddenly springs to life with gossiping villagers buying and selling their daily groceries.

This classic film moment came to life in Disney’s recent live-action remake of the film, but wouldn’t you like to walk the cobbled streets for yourself?

Riquewihr

Riquewihr

Well, you can – and you can drink some delicious wines while you’re at it – because the setting is reportedly based on two villages in the Alsace region: Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé.

Riquewihr
Not too far from Colmar, visiting this storybook village is like stepping back in time. The half-timbered houses date back to medieval times, and are identical to those in Belle’s village, and you can definitely imagine the villagers thrusting open the pretty windows to shout ‘Bonjour!’

The village square, the Dolder Tower (once a defensive gateway, now a beautiful clock tower) and the cobbled streets transport you straight into the world of the film. It’s particularly nice to visit in spring and summer when the colourful houses are given a run for their money thanks to the village’s vibrant floral decorations.

Riquewihr's Dolder fountain

Riquewihr’s Dolder fountain

There’s an antique shop if you fancy searching for your own candlesticks and carriage clocks (talking or otherwise), a fabulous pastry shop if you want to spy the ‘baker with his tray like always’, and plenty of picturesque old fountains at which to pause, take a seat and read a book just like Belle does (page-chewing sheep not guaranteed).

Famille Hugel's winery in Riquewihr

Famille Hugel’s winery in Riquewihr

The wine
There are two grands crus in Riquewihr, Sporen and Schoenenbourg, and one of Alsace’s most famous wine producers, Hugel, meaning you won’t be short of fine rieslings and delicious gewürztraminer. A member of the family, André Hugel, also established a wine-themed museum here, giving you an extra reason to visit.

Ribeavillé
Ten minutes north of Riquewihr, and roughly double the size, the town of Ribeavillé is packed full of history and fairytale charm.

Ribeavillé

Ribeauvillé

The beast would have his pick of real estate here as the town and the surrounding hills are dominated by the ruins of not one but three fortified castles (as well as a number of defensive towers, including the Tours des Bouchers, or Butcher’s Tower, which dates back to the 13th century.)

Castle over Ribeavillé

Wandering through the cobbled streets, you‘ll find postcard-perfect squares with more bubbling fountains that Belle would have pegged as reading spots, and you’ll find it a challenge not to burst into the Gaston song if you visit the Wistub Zum Pfifferhus, which really is the spitting image of the tavern Gaston and Lefou raucously frequent in the film.

The wine
Ribeauvillé has three grands crus: Osterberg, Kirschberg and Geisberg, and also hosts another of Alsace’s best-known wine producers: Trimbach. They are based just outside the town, and are known best for dry, steely riesling, producing one of the finest examples in Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile. Excellent gewurztraminer and pinot gris is also made here.

The Trimbach winery in Ribeavillé

The Trimbach winery in Ribeavillé

There’s plenty of magic to be found in Alsace so it’s good to find another excuse to sing this region’s praises. It really is one of the most underappreciated holiday spots in France, in my view, so even if you’re not a Beauty and the Beast fan, if you are planning a visit you’re certain to find beauty, at least.

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Wed 25 Jan 2017

Reaping The Rewards Of En Primeur

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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?!

Languedoc en primeur wines

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 wines

• 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!

Paul Trelford
Head of Content & Communications

Our en primeur offer of the 2015 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon vintage is available until 8pm, Tuesday 28th February.

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Recently I was at my village wine club tasting (nothing to do with my job at The Wine Society) in the local parish rooms for a tasting. Our host Simon brought along some wines he’d bought en primeur, some from us and some from another merchant.

He wanted to see how the wines had developed and to see if buying them en primeur had ‘paid its way’ in terms of initial cost (including storage) vs how much the wines would cost now.

The wines were great (with just one that was ever so slightly past its best), and Simon had done his calculations and seen that, for those wines which he could still get, the prices now were much higher on almost all the wines.

En Primeur tasting

It was a fascinating evening for me as I look after our en primeur offers at The Society and it was very reassuring to meet another wine drinker so interested in it and getting such satisfaction from the service; both in terms of value and, more importantly, pleasure from the experience.

I buy en primeur myself mainly for the enjoyment and delayed gratification of having it stored away – sometimes for decades – only to get them out, having long forgotten what I paid for them and slightly smug about being able to drink something so mature that not many others can!

So it was nice that, for the wines we had last night anyway, the numbers also made great sense…

I did come in to work the next morning feeling that what I do gives enormous amounts of pleasure to a lot of our members and it offers good value too. Oh, and none of the wines were the stellar-expensive wines you often hear about – most were in the £15-£40 bracket.

With our 2015 Rhône offer available now, it also felt like a good time to share the experience!

Shaun Kiernan
Fine Wine Manager

Here are some quick notes from what we tasted:

1. Three vintages of Clos Floridène Blanc, one of members’ favourite dry whites from Bordeaux.

Clos Floridène Blanc, Graves 2010
Real class here – exactly what you’d hope for from this excellent wine and vintage. The sauvignon blanc and semillon that make up the blend were in perfect balance, and this wine will still keep for some time yet.

Clos Floridène Blanc, Graves 2009
Still very good too with real class and finesse, and a long satisfying finish.

Clos Floridène Blanc, Graves 2007
Sadly this wine was just outside its drink date and should have been drunk already. It was slightly oxidised but still interesting, but its mature flavours may not be for everyone.

2. Four vintages of Vacqueyras Saint Roch from Clos de Cazaux. This family-owned southern Rhône producer is another popular name at The Society, featuring regularly in our regular and en primeur offers – not to mention being the source of our Exhibition Vacqueyras – so I was especially intrigued to taste these.

Vacqueyras Saint Roch, Clos de Cazaux 2010
From a great year, this is still muscular and would benefit from further ageing. You could certainly see its potential though. Keep for two more years: will make a fab bottle.

Vacqueyras Saint Roch, Clos de Cazaux 2009
Similarly young as per the 2010 and would be better kept for longer, although the 2009 was lighter in weight. Still highly enjoyable.

Vacqueyras Saint Roch, Clos de Cazaux 2008
Smoother and more mature, this was just about ready, and backed up by some appealing sweetness of fruit.

Vacqueyras Saint Roch, Clos de Cazaux 2007
Wonderful wine – for me, this is what what en primeur is all about. Totally à point, this is all chocolate and cream, with the freshness that demanded we try a second glass! Best wine of the night for me.

3. Three vintages of Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, a bit of a Bordeaux ‘insider’s tip’ gaining an increasingly large following for its excellent claret, which is offered at reasonable prices.

Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc 2009
Lovely sweetness here, and quite tannic. Not typical of 2009, so without the heaviness I sometimes associate with the vintage. Good wine.

Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc 2008
Leave a little longer: quite typical of 2008 (not my favourite vintage) in its austerity, but the quality was evident and there is more to come from this wine.

Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc 2005
From a classic vintage, this is now ready but was drier than I thought. Slightly muscular, and would come into its own with food.

4. Two vintages of Château Suduiraut, Sauternes, one of the grandest sweet wines one can find in Bordeaux, and which still offers excellent value for its quality.

Château Suduiraut, Sauternes 2010
This is rich but also very fine with lovely balancing freshness, and will keep well. Marmalade nose and lemony freshness on the palate but rich too.

Château Suduiraut, Sauternes 1997
A lovely contrast to the 2010 with the aromas and flavours that come with maturity. A barley-sugar nose but rich on the palate, and again with good acidity. Needs drinking now but won’t go over the top for a few years. Very good indeed!

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My Corsican trip is always a bit of an adventure and giving it time is always a bit tricky. It comes at a busy time for any buyer of northern hemisphere wines.

How soon can a buyer taste a new vintage? Of course there is no real answer. After all during the vintage, there is a certain satisfaction from tasting grape juice, or even the grapes themselves. Young wine on the other hand goes through stages when it doesn’t taste that well. That’s often when it’s just been racked or moved around, or indeed when it is still full of solid matter. Early smells and tastes can be misleading; young wines need time to settle a little and become more like the finished article.

So I asked my good friend Etienne: how about early December? Fine came the answer and so it was.

Corsican trip Dec16

I haven’t fully explored all the travel options yet though I’ve tried a few. There are direct flights in the summer but out of season one has to change, at least once. For the time being my favourite option is to start from Saint Pancras which is conveniently close to home. And yes, it allows me to fantasise about some of the great trains of the past: the Mistral and Blue Train.

There’s an early train to Paris and a quick jaunt on the metro and a fast train to Marseille. The journey itself was relatively uneventful. No murders or vanishing ladies. Vanishing power maybe, as the train came to a halt outside Ashford and remained there for half an hour.

I like Marseille station (I quite like Marseille as well). It’s a station that looks different, definitely imbued with a feel of the orient. There are trees within the station, making it look like a rather large orangery. There’s a friendly intimacy about it and people seem remarkably unrushed. There’s a good place for a coffee and a croissant where people have time to talk.

The two women behind the counter may be busy, drawing one coffee after the other but still have time to exchange smiles and small talk with customers. There’s a tramp seated not far away with his coffee and a sandwich. A heavily armed Gendarme greets a passenger with a kiss. This is all such a contrast with Paris which, by comparison seems cold, fearful and furtive.

Marseille airport is like any other airport and in common with all airports, there are building works and road works; yet it too seems a little laid back. People have time for each other. Even at the security gates, there is an air of friendliness. Not that any of this affected security, which was as tight as anywhere.

Corsica by air

Corsica has four airports which is good going for an island with a population of around 350,000.
But Corsica is more than just an island. It is a sort of mini continent with lots of quite different bits and these are separated by mountains making communication on the island slow and difficult.

Politics play a big part here too. City mayors are powerful beasts whose reach has to extend to Paris. Corsica punches well above its weight in most matters. And so there are four airports.

I still have only explored a tiny bit of the island. There is vineyard everywhere, but it is probably true that some of the top and most forward thinking growers are in the north. And so that stretch that separates the towns of Calvi and Bastia, has become Wine Society territory!

Calvi is where Lord Nelson lost an eye in 1794. It amuses people much that Corsica might have ended up a British possession. Indeed for a couple of years George III was king of an Anglo-Corsican kingdom.

Back to wine!

Clos Culombu is not far from Calvi airport, barely 15 minutes’ drive away. It was dark when I got there. The samples of rosé from the new vintage were all lined up on the counter.

Somewhere in all these different hues is the 2016 blend!

Somewhere in all these different hues is the 2016 blend!

Etienne Suzzoni was there, all six-and-a-half feet of him (or more!), and his son Paul-Antoine who as it turned was largely responsible for making the 2016 vintage. Father Etienne is these preoccupied with other ventures; he is after all Mayor of his local town, Lumio.

2016 is a good vintage here. It was explained that it was hot and dry but that crucially that it had rained just enough so that drought was never really a problem. We tasted from a round 20 different tanks, all representing specific parts of the vineyard and different grape varieties, and different ages of vine too. Some of the samples were already blends with two varieties present. For instance, the first tank was of sciaccarrellu with a little syrah, and very good it was too.

Before continuing maybe a few words are needed about varieties. Corsica has a rich and varied ampelography taking in influences from France, Genoa, Tuscany and even Catalonia. Many varieties were lost during the phylloxera epidemic though some have since been rediscovered, growing wild.

In the north, niellucciu is the main red grape variety and is in fact identical to the Tuscan sangiovese. It produces full-flavoured, full-bodied and often tannic wines. Sciaccarellu is a native Corsican variety, grown nowhere else. It tends to make wines that are fragrant, fruity with plenty of grip and is the majority variety further south such as in Ajaccio. Local wisdom says that it is the choice variety for making rosé. Grenache is also indigenous and probably came from Aragon or Sardinia. Syrah and cinsault are more recent imports. Last year, the blend for our Corsican Rosé was mostly niellucciu with a little sciaccarellu and grenache.

Silence tends to reign during these tastings, considerable levels of concentration being required. Each sample is tasted, one after the other. Each could have something to say in a blend. One sample might have low pH which could be a good thing while another might have high pH, less desirable. Likewise excessive alcohol might not be a great idea. And so I write down a comment or two beside each wine, by the time the last wine has been tasted I have an idea which samples to retain for the blend.

And then starts the fun with test tubes and calculators at the ready. The sciaccarellu wines are all very good and yet, on its own, something is missing.

There are several false leads until finally a blend sticks. Jean Dépagneux, for many years in charge of a business in Beaujolais and Mâcon, always used to tell me that three elements in a blend are better than two.

And then I found it. There was a tank of pure cinsault which didn’t seem much and was easily overlooked. Just 10% was enough to bring the niellucciu and sciaccarellu together. And so the 2016 vintage was born.

The following day the three elements, 60% niellucciu, 30% sciaccarellu and 10% cinsault, were blended together.

What happens now?
The wine now rests; it will remain untouched over the winter and will be bottled after a filtration in the spring.

The first shipment to Stevenage will be in April and I for one am looking forward to trying it!

Corsica is a big place and 36 hours doesn’t allow for much exploration. After Calvi, my route took me east to the other fortress town of Nelsonian fame, Bastia. A high point was the entering the forbidding-sounding Désert des Agriates. North of the main road, there is just a startlingly beautiful emptiness.

Vineyards in Corsica

I had to meet Marie-Brigitte Paoli who picked me up in her incredibly large land cruiser. The next four or five miles were not easy driving on a deeply rutted track but eventually we arrived at her estate. Hers is called Clos Teddi while her husband’s, next door is Clos Alivu. One cellar serves both and there is one winemaker, a Parisian who came to Corsica as a student to do a vintage and never left!

There are lovely wines here in all three colours and complemented to perfection the lunch which was brought out on a windswept terrace. There was charcuterie, figatellu sausage, spare ribs, an eyewateringly strong cheese, Fiadone cheese cake and garden-picked clementines, a sole guardian of sensible eating!

The wines of Corsica are fascinating and though I’ve spent much of the time on rosé, the whites and reds are also worth exploring. More Italianate then Gallic, they are at their best at the heart of a meal.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

If you enjoy finding out what goes on behind the scenes on our wine buyers’ visits to our winemakers, visit the Travels in Wine™ pages on our website.

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Wed 11 Jan 2017

Buyer Freddy Bulmer: My 2016 Highlights

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I had to pinch myself a few times throughout 2016. Since landing my dream job as trainee buyer (and subsequently taking on buying duties for England, beers and accessories), I have been lucky enough to meet some amazing people, visit some beautiful places and experience some remarkable things.

One thing that will stick with me though is some of the fantastic people that I have been lucky enough to meet who, whilst all have stories of their own, always share one thing in common with me: a love of wine.

Putting together a list of just three bottles that really meant something to me from 2016 was not easy, as there were so many more that I wanted to select. However, I settled on three very special wines from three very special producers, in three completely different wine-producing regions of the world.

You can buy a convenient three-bottle mixed case of these reds for £38 – with UK delivery included – via thewinesociety.com.

1. Château Monconseil Gazin, Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux 2013 (£9.50 per bottle)

monconseil-gazin

My very first trip accompanying one of the buyers was in January 2016 when I went to Bordeaux with Head of Buying Tim Sykes. The main goal of the trip was to blend the new vintage of The Society’s Claret but while there we managed to fit in visits with a few other producers. Our last visit of the trip was to a small, humble producer in Blaye on the right bank of the Gironde.

After a few days of suits and ties and smart sales folk, it was lovely to meet a proper winemaking family. We weren’t talking to a sales representative or a marketing person but the owner and winemaker of a small and excellent-quality winery. Jean-Michel and Françoise Baudet are the couple in charge here, at one of the oldest wineries in Blaye. They love nothing more than driving visitors around their vineyards and talking them through the subtle nuances that each vineyard has on their wines. After the tour it was time for a bit of cake before going to the airport.

This was the first time that I felt like I got to the heart of Bordeaux; despite all the money in the region and all the marketing, it is people like these who live for the wine and who make good wines at very affordable prices.

This 2013 vintage of Chateau Monconseil Gazin was one which I remember for its soft tannins, fresh acidity and feeling of being complete, by which I mean everything was in harmony and as it should be. Fresh fruit is there, but it is soft and relatively gentle, with an appealing, simple charm. For me, this wine spoke of its place very well, from the freshness in the fruit on the highest vineyards, kept cool in the wind, to the ripeness of the fruit that bit closer to the river, where the temperature is moderated thanks to the influence of the Gironde.

2. Chianti Rufina Riserva, Villa di Vetrice 2011 (£10.95 per bottle)

grati-chianti

When I joined The Wine Society’s Buying Team, I was lacking in the foreign language department, other than a miniscule amount of Italian. In order to fit in to such a linguistically talented team of buyers, I had to brush up on it! After a number of Italian lessons, Sebastian Payne MW, our buyer for Italy, said: ‘If you really want to learn the language, you need to get out there!’ So I did.

I spent a couple of weeks working at wineries in Italy; firstly with the lovely folks at Vallone in Puglia but I spent the second week with the truly lovely, and truly Italian, Grati family in the Rufina Valley of Chianti.

I’ve never had a week where I felt so looked after and learned so much. The warm and incredibly intelligent Gualberto Grati and his sister Christi are now at the helm of their family winery, having taken over from their parents who live at Villa di Vetrice itself. I managed to experience all sorts of jobs which surround the harvest on my visit, from the picking of the grapes, to hanging up bunches in the vinsantaia (see above), to carrying out a whole experimental micro-vinification of the very rare grape variety sanforte.

Sitting around the family table for dinner at Vetrice on the first night of my visit, not being even nearly competent with my Italian, was a strange mixture of lovely and terrifying. However when, on the last night of my trip, Gualberto and I were invited for dinner with Christi, her husband Luca and their two daughters, I found I was able to have a conversation in Italian, the feeling of pride was really quite memorable. It was all thanks to the kindness and patience of this Tuscan winemaking family.

Their wine is really rather delicious too! This one combines the rusticity and ‘hands-off’ approach to winemaking found in the most authentic of Tuscan wines with such obviously excellent fruit, from a region that really seems born to produce wines. Silky smooth yet still fresh, thanks to the signature acidity of the Rufina valley. A charming, approachable and thoroughly enjoyable wine, whilst still smart and proper, much like the family who make it!

3. Hedges CMS Washington State 2015 (£13.50 per bottle)

the-hedges-family-washington

I’d never been to the USA before being lucky enough to get a place on a trip arranged by the Washington State Wine Commission. The bulk of the trip involved a small group of us visiting a number of wineries spread over five days. I wasn’t able to fly out to Seattle until the day after the rest of the group, which meant that I would be there a couple of days after they had all gone home again at the end of the trip. With that in mind, I had made plans to go and visit a couple of producers who we already worked with at The Wine Society, one of which was Hedges Estate.

I’d heard that Christophe Hedges was a pretty cool guy and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. He lives with his wife Maggie and their two young sons, in a beautiful white-stone house which is down the end of a dirt track, in the middle of the vineyards of Red Mountain. I drove down the track and pulled up outside the house, which was clearly still undergoing some construction work. I walked around the side and knocked on the door but there was no answer.

Eventually, this tall, muscular wine god of a man came around the corner. This was Christophe, who it turns out is not only a great winemaker but also a seriously good stonemason. So good in fact, that he built the house himself!

The Hedges family were like something out of a film – painfully good looking with perfect smiles and a sense of coolness and calm about them which makes you feel like they just love living life. When I went to visit them, I had just left the rest of the group who had flown home and as I got into my hire-car I distinctly remember a sudden sense of real loneliness, now finding myself in a small town in a country I had never been to before, almost 5,000 miles away from home. When I got to the Hedges’ home, it was like seeing old friends.

I tasted a lot of good wines with Christophe, many of which could have been featured here; but for me, this was perhaps the most approachable now. It encapsulates the terroir of Red Mountain, with a hint of earthiness and bright, fresh acidity. The complexity of fruit here is impressive, thanks to the clever blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, making a wine which is juicy and bright, while maintaining a peppery touch and a firm backbone.

Enjoy!

Freddy Bulmer
Trainee Buyer

Buy the three-bottle mixed case for £38 – with UK delivery included.

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Thu 01 Dec 2016

South-West France: A Buyer On The Road

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Reminiscences along the road in south-west France with buyer Marcel Orford-Williams.

I have never been to South America but in my imagination I see areas of wide, open spaces and in some places, the backdrop of the Andes. The south-west of France is also about wide, open spaces and in places the majestic Pyrenees provide a similar snow-capped backdrop.

The analogy can go further as there are strong cultural ties between many of the growers in Argentina and Uruguay with those from this side of the Atlantic. Malbec, so important in Argentina came from Bordeaux and Cahors, while tannat, the principal black grape in Uruguay, was brought there by Basque migrants from south-west France.

aquitaine

Earlier in the year I spent a week exploring this vast and disparate region of France searching out wines to offer to members and visiting some of our long-standing suppliers. This is a region that for a long time lived in the shadow of Bordeaux and then was almost wiped by phylloxera. The region is steeped in history with Romans, Gauls, Visigoths all leaving their mark. Not to mention the Angevins from the day in 1152 when Henry II of Anjou married Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The Romans probably brought wine culture to the region but it is the growth of monasticism that created the patchwork of vineyard areas that we have today. The link with Santiago de Compostela is very strong as the south-west of France is crossed by numerous pilgrim routes to that holy place in north-western Spain. As I was driving out of the border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I saw numerous walkers marching along the roadside, with poles and rucksacks and some with tell-tale scallop shells around their necks.

Waymark in the south-west

If you want to read more about the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela, Anthony Gunn MW has written an article for our website.

My week was one of tasting, meeting people and assessing the 2015 vintage and in four days I managed to visit the majority of appellations. 2015, as I expect you will now have realised, was looking good, especially for the later-harvested varieties such as tannat and gros and petit manseng. That means outstanding wines from Jurançon and Madiran, and also the Basque Irouléguy.

Irouléguy with Pyrenees in background (photo by E Poupart)

Irouléguy with Pyrenees in background (photo by E Poupart)

The south-west, dominated as it is by Bordeaux and even to some extent the Languedoc, doesn’t sell by itself. It has always needed big personalities to bring these wines to the attention of consumers. As it happens such people have never been lacking here and many have become proud suppliers to The Society – the Grassa family of Château Tariquet, for example, suppliers of our Society’s Côtes de Gascogne, whose pioneering spirit we wrote about in Societynews some years ago.

The new generation at Château Tariquet]

The new generation at Château Tariquet

I have mentioned the strength of the 2015 vintage but in fact, most vintages have their strengths and that the grape varieties planted here are perfectly adapted to the vagaries of climate. That’s the exciting part of my job, travelling to these wine regions and tasting the wines alongside the winemakers, finding out exactly what has worked well and what hasn’t so that I can make my selection for members.

Château Aydie's father-and-son, Pierre and Jean-Luc Laplace

Château Aydie’s father-and-son, Pierre and Jean-Luc Laplace

This year I was bowled over by so many of the wines that I tasted and I can’t help feeling that members will want to share in my enthusiasm for these distinctive wines.

We have just released one of the largest offers of wines from south-west France that includes reds and whites from most appellations, and with Christmas in mind a few gratuitous treats for desserts. A selection from the south-west would not be complete without the spirit of the region, Armagnac.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

View the offer of wines from south-west France

If you enjoy reading about our buyers’ exploits in the field, visit our online e-publication Travels in Wine

Categories : France, South of France
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