I am part of a group, originally formed by Clive Coates, now retired, that meets twice a year to taste Burgundy blind from bottle.
The group comprises journalists Neal Martin (e-Robert Parker) and Neil Beckett (World of Fine Wine), and wine merchants Roy Richards (formerly Richards Walford), Jasper Morris (BBR), Zubair Mohamed (Raeburn Fine Wines), Lindsay Hamilton (ex Farr Vintners), Giles Burke-Gaffney (J&B), Julie Richards (own company), Jason Haynes (Flint Wines), Christopher Moestue (own company in Norway) and Adam Bruntlett (BBR).
The process, its challenges and rewards:
We last met in September to taste 244 red premiers and grands crus Burgundies from the 2013 vintage, arranged in 38 flights, where the identity of flight is known, perhaps Pommard Rugiens, but not the producer.
It is probably the most useful, informative and challenging tasting of the year. It is very difficult to line up a comprehensive selection of Burgundy because the wines are so rare and in such demand they disappear into wine lovers’ cellars as soon as they are sold. We mark out of 20 and then discuss the wines before revealing who made them. Everyone shares their knowledge and views and I learn much from my peers during this tasting.
Burgundy is very challenging to assess. Marks may vary considerably between scorers as Burgundy is one of the most diverse wines in terms of style. Partly because the owner is usually winemaker and viticulturist, rather than a hired hand as is more usual in, say, Bordeaux, you get risk-taking owners each with their own view about how to make wine. This is why we recommend you choose producer before appellation.
As a taster you are confronted with a wide range of styles and you have to judge a wine’s quality, how it will develop and its character (ie. whether the wine is typical of its appellation).
How do you mark a rich, dark, oaky and powerful wine in an appellation like Chambolle, which one expects elegance and grace? It often comes down to a philosophical view of what one expects from a particular appellation and a judgement of how it measures up.
Just looking at the colours in a single flight they can range from black, usually a sign of over-extraction of colour and tannin, or oxidation, to very pale and light, often a sign the wine was made with whole bunches. Wines made with whole bunches absorb the colour in the stems, hence the pale colour, and are usually softer and less acid as potassium in the stems precipitates some of the acidity. But if done badly with underripe stems one can get a load of green, harsh tannins on the palate. Whole-bunch wines may smell a little vegetal in youth, but can develop a remarkable aromatic complexity with age.
One can see how an enormous variation in opinion can develop if one considers just the aspect of wines made with whole bunches compared to destemmed wines. There are those who like wines with whole bunches as they believe they are capable of a type of aromatic complexity with bottle age that destemmed wines are not. Others are not so keen, and see any green, herbaceous aroma as detrimental. A very light wine can be divisive as some admire the purity and delicacy while others may judge it as a good wine now yet perhaps without the ability to mature and develop further complexity.
Conversely, a dark wine, perhaps with significant presence of new oak can split the group, some looking to the future and betting it will come round while others decide the contrary. In one’s mind ‘demons’ can encourage second guessing! Is this one of those superb producers whose wines show their ugly side in their youth, but develop into graceful swans later, or is it just badly made?
Whilst the marking is of interest, the great benefit of tasting as a group are the discussions we have about these wines after marking and before we reveal who made them. The group contains some brilliant Burgundy experts who generously share their knowledge and experience. Listening to how members of the group judge and reason can be very instructive and revealing. It is a wonderful learning environment.
Seen by some as the best way to taste, blind tasting has its advantages and disadvantages. It is at is most useful where one is comparing like with like, which is how our tasting is arranged with wines from the same vintage and cru or a small mix of similar crus. However, even with 6-9 wines, the usual size of the flights, one must beware of how the order of the wines can influence your tasting. If you taste a big and powerful wine followed by a lighter wine, unless you have ‘perfect pitch’ (ie the ability to re-gauge your palate after tasting each wine), you may perceive the light wine as much lighter than it in in reality as you may be making a ‘relative’ rather than ‘absolute’ judgement by comparing it to an unusually powerful wine.
The French call the big wine that succeeds in blind tastings la bête du concours, the beast of the tasting competition. Particularly during a long tasting, when one may become a little tired, and tannin build-up can affect one’s tasting where red wines are involved, one is less well able to judge the more delicate and elegant wines. I have been to celebratory competition dinners where the prize winners are served and while one sip can be impressive, occasionally one doesn’t want to have a second glass of the crowned champion! Sometimes less is more and too much is too much! I usually taste in one order, and then again in a different one. Finally, after marking them, I go through the flight again in ascending order of points awarded.
The results: what came out well?
2013 was a cool year with significant hail in the Côte de Beaune, so generally is was the richer, fuller appellations that did best. Nuits-St-Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée stood out. Global warming has really benefited Nuits-St-Georges, especially the southern premiers crus which are more tannic. The extra heat is softening and sweetening the tannins. Vosne-Romanée was very successful, both at premier and grand cru level. As a group Echezeaux, not always our favourite appellation, showed very well.
The top 20 red Burgundy 2013s as marked by the group were as follows, in descending order:
• La Romanée, Comte Liger Belair
• Romanée St Vivant, Follin Arbelet
• Richebourg, Domaine Jean Grivot
• La Grande Rue, Domaine François Lamarche
• Musigny, Domaine JF Mugnier
• Richebourg, A-F Gros
• Chambertin, Domaine Armand Rousseau
• Chambertin, Camille Giroud
• Echezeaux, Domaine Jean Grivot
• Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, Robert Groffier
• Musigny, Domaine de la Vougeraie
• Gevrey Chambertin Clos St Jacques, Domaine Armand Rousseau
• Latricières-Chambertin, Domaine Duroché
• Grands Echezeaux, Domaine du Clos Frantin, Bichot
• Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, Domaine JF Mugnier
• Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, Domaine Georges Roumier
• Chambertin, Domaine du Clos Frantin, Bichot
• Echezeaux, Comte Liger Belair
• Mazis-Chambertin, Domaine Maume-Tawse
• Gevrey Chambertin Clos St Jacques Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Fourrier
• Visit our website for a selection of red Burgundy for drinking now, selected from a tasting conducted by Toby and spanning vintages between 1995–2012.
• For more information on the region, we highly recommend Toby’s comprehensive How To Buy Burgundy Guide.
Earlier this year I was contacted by an old friend in the trade who buys for one of the top wine shops in London.
He had been trawling through a cellar in the bowels of a castle in Scotland and had come across a few old bottles of Wine Society labelled red Burgundy. He wondered whether we would be interested to acquire the bottles.
Seeing that they were 1961s I tried not to appear too excited and managed, after a bit of horse-trading, to purchase the wines. So we now have 2 bottles each of 1961 Pommard Premier Cru and 1961 Chambolle-Musigny.
The wines are now lying securely in our cellars in Stevenage, and will probably be used in future tastings. As you can see from the photograph, the levels of the wine are quite good, so there is a reasonable chance that they will still be drinkable.
Within five minutes of me showing the bottles to my colleague Tom Wain, who has been working for The Society for over 40 years, he presented me with the original ledger which indicates that in June 1964 we shipped 12 hogsheads of the 1961 Chambolle-Musigny and six hogsheads of the 1961 Pommard Premier Cru.
A hogshead would have contained the equivalent of around 400 bottles. Tom reckons that the wine would have been bottled by The Society in Hills Place, behind the London Palladium. The wines were made for us by the négociant Remoissenet, who had very good contacts with domaines across the Côte d’Or. He used to buy up and blend wines from top estates before Domaine bottling was commonplace
This discovery of old bottles made me wonder what else is out there in members’ cellars with Wine Society labels…
Head of Buying
This busman’s holiday (on a bike…) all started on a tactically late lunch break last year to catch the end of the Tour De France climb up Alpe d’Huez.
French rider Thibaut Pinot had taken the stage win, and the crowds, which had swollen to just allow the bikes to pass, were full of a party atmosphere.
I looked at my colleague and fellow cyclist Freddy Bulmer, and said, ‘we’ve got to go.’ And that was that.
This year, the big climb was Mont Ventoux, so with the thought of a pretty long drive through some of the most famous wine-producing areas of the world, it was somewhat impossible for a couple of oenophiles not to stop off on the way down.
The break in the journey up came in Epernay, Champagne, and who better to visit than one of our oldest suppliers, Alfred Gratien?
After a quick cycle through the vineyards and a walk down the Avenue de Champagne, we had the opportunity to sample the forthcoming 2004 Vintage Brut with Gratien’s head winemaker Nicolas Jaeger. It really is something special!
Society members are regular visitors to the Gratien cellars, and Nicolas is extremely proud of the winery. He was especially keen to show us the innovative stacking system for the barrels: The Society’s Champagne is fermented in old Burgundian barrels to give the wine depth, and these can now be easily moved, drained and racked via a roller system, instead of backbreaking lifting.
Next up was Champagne Boizel, where we met with Florent Roques-Boizel. The cellars are cut out of the limestone, and there is plenty of evidence of riddling the bottles by hand still going on to this day. The soil above is very porous, and after a downpour of rain the puddles can get quite deep!
It was an absolute pleasure to taste back through some of the range currently in bottle. The Boizel non-vintage is a personal favourite of mine – a hidden gem in our List – and the back vintages are developing beautifully. The real treat was looking into the vintage room, where bottles date back to 1893, but unlike some other houses these bottles were stacked up against the walls, as if ready for drinking, as opposed to being hidden away as museum pieces.
Driving through the Rhône, and back up through Burgundy on the way home, is quite an experience in itself, with the steep valleys home to some of the world’s finest examples of syrah down through Rhône. Although we did not have time to stop off, the signs for Jaboulet and Chapoutier stood out from the hillside, enticing a future trip and earning a cross on the map for reference as we drove past.
Arriving in Bedoin, at the foot of Ventoux, the sun was out, the spectators had plenty of local wine inside of them, and two days of cycling had arrived. Along with a few thousand others, Freddy and I ground our way up the mountain on the first day. Even more were camped up in the prime spots for the following day, to watch the professionals pass through, and were in high spirits cheering each amateur as they passed by, pushing themselves to the limit.
We both made it, completely wind-battered and with jelly legs, but proud of the achievement. Nothing could have prepared us for it, but watching the tour riders shoot up a lightning speed the following day left us with a new found respect, both for them and the crowds which had amassed up the entire climb.
A trip to Burgundy’s Château de Beauregard was the icing on the cake. Welcomed by Bertrand, the export manager, as Frédéric Burrier was on his yearly trip walking through the Alps with friends, we were blown away by the location. A beautiful refreshing breeze cooled the sun-drenched vineyard positioned in the middle of Pouilly and Fuissé, and just out of eye shot of the Beaujolais vineyards.
A tour of the cellars, and tasting of the 2015 vintage (available en primeur now) and others confirmed that not only are Beauregard’s wines beautiful in bottle, this quality is also showing through into the future, both in barrel and in the pristine vineyards. The Saint-Véran La Roche 2015 is beautifully ripe and rich, but also balanced with grip and freshness. A real treat to look out for is the Grand Beauregard, which is an assemblage of the best barrels, parcels and crus, blended when Frédéric has tasted every one of them. Possibly the best wine I’ve ever tasted from the region.
All in all, it was a trip I’m sure neither of us will forget in a hurry, and we’d like to extend our thanks to all the producers who welcomed us, and were so generous with their time. There’s no better experience than visiting a producer or the sport you love, and to see the dedication to their passion.
All I can say is Allez Allez, Va Va Froome, and we’ll be back next year!
My first encounter with The Society’s bestselling wine was over a decade ago.
It was clear my host had an eye for value – an observation that was vindicated further when a bottle bearing a distinctive fish design was taken from the fridge.
‘The Society’s White Burgundy. I always buy some,’ I remember him telling me as he poured a glass.
‘It’s just… always good.’
I agreed heartily on the basis of this first taste (and how – another bottle had to be chilled and opened during the meal, such was our enthusiasm).
A pleasant evening, and one that I now realise could have happened almost anywhere in the UK and beyond, at any time over the past 30 years or so: we sell more than 20 bottles of The Society’s White Burgundy every hour of every day throughout a calendar year. It is a standard-bearer for The Wine Society and, with word of mouth The Society’s chief means of advertising, the wine’s powers of recruitment are also worth acknowledging.
At the time, however, my interest in wine was nascent at best. It would be another two years before I ‘got the bug’ and a further six before I began working for The Society. Therefore, I can’t pretend I would have been fascinated to learn how this beacon of its range was made. It didn’t occur to me what a challenge it could be to blend a wine of such trusted consistency in a region where vintage variation is marked; and an ill-timed heatwave or hailstorm can mean the difference between delicious and disastrous – with the small matter of vignerons’ livelihoods to consider as well.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Fast forward to the present and, having recently returned from Mâcon to blend the just-released 2014 vintage, I can confirm this labour of love is no easy task, but the results slip down just as easily as they always have.
The 2014 blending was an unusual occasion in this quest for consistency – not that one could tell from the resultant wine.
This is for two reasons.
Firstly, this was Marcel Orford-Williams’s last vintage overseeing the blend, an annual job he has been involved with since 1987. The wine’s history goes back further, and it was Sebastian Payne MW who used to oversee the blend. Now that Marcel will be handing the reins for our Beaujolais portfolio to Toby Morrhall, he will spend considerably less time in this part of France. The job from 2015 will therefore fall to Toby, whose own aptitude for blending can be tasted in all manner of wines from our Burgundian, Chilean and Argentine ranges. The future of the wine is therefore in good hands.
As Marcel said, ‘buyers come and go, but the style of this wine is sacrosanct.’ That is to say, the wine remains an unoaked, fresh and fine chardonnay with the depth of fruit and body necessary to make the wine as versatile as possible, to handle the myriad occasions upon which a wine of its popularity is poured. Though seafood is an obvious and well-loved choice, Marcel has always favoured it with chicken in a creamy tarragon sauce, whereas I have been known to enjoy previous vintages with mushroom risotto. I have also enjoyed more than few a half bottles on their own throughout my time at The Society.
The second reason for the 2014 blending being a little different can be best understood with a look back at the last three Burgundy vintages. Generalisations in this region are dangerous but in many areas the story of late has been the same: high quality, painfully low yields. Prices have had to rise and there is less wine to go around.
We’ve published a few articles recently about the alchemy involved in blending wines (including Steve Farrow’s much-praised insight into the blending of our bestselling red, The Society’s Claret). I’ve yet to read about a process quite like this one, though, where the very availability of some components in front of us was far from assured.
Our trusted négociant Jean-Marc Darbon of Dépagneux (also the source of The Society’s Beaujolais-Villages, Pinot Noir Vin de France, the Exhibition Juliénas and Fleurie, and The Stop Gap Chardonnay) was waiting for us in Mâcon with the candidates for the blend lined up and ready. If Marcel is the alchemist then Jean-Marc is the liturgist, sourcing the raw materials and assisting in the logistics of the operation as well as the blending.
As we tasted our way across the convoy of bottles spanning the whole length of Jean-Marc’s formidable 12-foot tasting table, Marcel began to spot the elements this year’s blend could need.
For the first but not the last time that day, mobile phones were deployed, almost as rapidly as the (to me) indecipherable French speed-negotiating shouted into them, all to ensure that we could get what we needed from the tank in question.‘Normally I can wait a little longer to blend this wine,’ Marcel had said on the train from Paris, ‘but with the market being the way it is, it has to be now.’ At this point I realised precisely what he meant.
For a region whose vineyards are infamously complex and patchwork-like, so too was the process of fashioning this wine from the various samples and pre-blends. For the wine geek, this is the most fascinating bit: to taste alongside and gain an appreciation of how Marcel’s mind and palate were working was astonishing. Having blended this wine for nearly 30 years, Marcel’s speed was something I hadn’t thought to take into consideration. I would still be nosing a sample to see whether it did indeed have ‘that extra fragrance’ we might need, only to notice that Marcel was two samples ahead. Samples I couldn’t understand the apparently burning need for suddenly lifted a pre-blend out of comparative doldrums and into something far more appetising than I could have envisioned.
The results, however, vindicate the decision to get in early. The quality is arguably a step up on last year’s, the first recent vintage in which we had to raise the price quite a bit to cope with the scarcity of its components.
This year we have managed to make a slight price reduction, and the wine is better.
I hope members will agree that this commitment to value and quality, and the balance therein, is something to be pleased about; and, most importantly of all, that The Society’s White Burgundy remains as delicious a wine as ever to serve at dining tables, gardens, parties and the like for the years to come. Even if we do not accept Nectar points.
EDIT: We are delighted to announce that The Society’s White Burgundy 2014 has now been reduced further in price, and is now available for £8.75
Once upon a time, there were no appellations, let alone the hierarchy of labelling possibilities that exist today, and these have been changing subtly over the years.The term appellation controlée is very gradually being superseded by appellation d’origine protégée or AOP for short. The now obsolete term VDQS has all but disappeared and wines like Saint-Bris, Moselle and Saint-Mont have all been elevated to full appellation status.
At one time, anything not of appellation contrôlée level was merely labelled vin de table, then as a way of improving quality and encouraging innovation a new vin de pays category was created. This allowed for an indication of provenance and at the same time offered producers more flexibility in the grape varieties that could be used and size of yields which were less restrictive than for appellation-level wines.
Vin de pays has been incredibly successful and the model has been copied elsewhere, in Italy and Spain. The same Europe-wide legislation that meant a change of name for AOC wines applies to vin de pays too and from the 2010 vintage this category is officially called IGP, or indication géographique protégée (though the term vin de pays is still permitted and often used on labels).
At the more prosaic level, the term vin de table was never very satisfactory; it gave producers little scope to individualise these wines and carried rather negative connotations for consumers. Now that has changed with the creation of vin de France which with one fell swoop replaces vin de table.
So what is the difference?
Vin de France still cannot give any idea of provenance other than being French but it opens up the potential for some creative cross-border blending and inventive use of unusual varieties. Now grape variety can appear on the label or even grape varieties if more than one is used, and the choice of varieties are now more or less without limit.
Another recently listed wine which takes advantage of this new category and which has already proved popular with members is the Duo Des Deux Mers Sauvignon-Viognier (£6.25). The two seas in question here are the Atlantic and Mediterranean, combining as it does fruity fresh sauvignon from Gascony with ripe soft Languedoc viognier.
Most vin de France wines are priced at entry level, but by no means all. A fine if eccentric example is the so called historical 19th century blend from Château Palmer – 85% Margaux merlot and cabernet and 15% syrah from the Rhône Valley. Though I doubt the grands crus will be rushing to take advantage of the new vin de France category, the possibilities for everyday drinking wines are endless!
Recently my colleague Shaun Kiernan, The Society’s fine wine manager, extolled the virtues of laying wine down and the pleasure gained from drinking wine at its delicious peak (a sentiment echoed by our buyers in the below video).
This is something I endeavour to practice at every opportunity, the only failing being my patience, or lack of it.
Many of the wines I have in my Members’ Reserves, though entering their drinking window, I feel are still perhaps a little too young.
Though wines traditionally laid down tend to be fine wines, and thus carry an associated price tag, I have found that the quality and depth of The Society’s listings, and the flexibility with regard to putting self-made mixed cases into Reserves, allows one to reap the benefits of sampling aged wine via a more modest outlay and timeframe.
My criteria for my modest BCP (Braganza Cellar Plan, modelled on our own Vintage Cellar Plan – as yet there is no copyright for the former) has been wines that have enough structure and body under £10. In the past I have laid down 3 each of Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso Torre del Falasco 2008 (the gold medal-winning 2012 vintage is now available for £9.50), Weinert Carrascal 2007 from Argentina (look out for the 2009 vintage coming soon) and Spain’s Blau, Montsant 2011 (the 2012 is currently on sale for £8.95). These should come to fruition in 2015/16 and I tend to push the drink date envelope so will look to withdraw them as a Christmas present to myself next year.
The current Society List has some potential BCP wines, namely, Côtes-du-Rhône, Château Courac 2010 (£7.95) and Domaine Gonon, Mâcon La Roche Vineuse 2012 (£9.50). Both have drink dates of up to 2017, ensuring a very pleasant Christmas in three years’ time.
While I appreciate these wines may never display the complexities and tertiary flavours that can come with laying down of fine wines, I am confident that even with this short period of maturation these wines are a testament to the quality of The Society’s range, and how even someone as eager as me can enjoy a certain maturity to their wine without paying a king’s ransom.
Non-vintage Champagne is also something I enjoy ageing. Whilst we advise drinking such wines within 2 years of purchase to ensure freshness, those who like a little more nuttiness and complexity may be interested to know that The Society’s Champagne takes on a lovely rounded quality after a couple of years.
I’d love to hear your own experiences of cellaring more modest bottles. For a little more information about laying down wine, please refer to our Storing Wine page and/or the video below.
The Cellar Showroom
Olivier Leflaive have launched a new wine which we are offering in our duty-paid selection of White Burgundy.
Named Oncle Vincent, it is made from old vines classified as Bourgogne but well situated, sited just below those of Puligny. It is a lovely barrel-fermented wine from the super 2012 vintage which is concentrated yet fine.
Society Buyer for Burgundy
Drouhin-Laroze have one of the best cellars in Burgundy. In fact they don’t just have one – they have two like this, one above the other.
This is effectively the first year cellar where the new wine is racked. It normally stays here for about six months until the malolactic fermentation in spring the following year.
Underneath is an identical cellar, where the wine normally ages a year, before bottling in spring.
Clos de Tart also have a similar arrangement but this is rare in Burgundy.
Society Buyer For Burgundy
Bonhomme make modestly priced Mâcon which keeps very well.
To prove the point, Aurelien Palthey kindly opened this 1969 for Tim Sykes and me in November.
It is very mature but still very much alive. Lovely flavours of hazelnuts, butter and crème brûlée.
We are selling the 2012 Cuvée Spéciale in our opening offer at the end of February.
Society Buyer For Burgundy
Edit (17/2/2014): This offer is now available.
Tollot-Beaut have very attractive cellars, although quite recent.
Still, the black alcohol-loving fungus has colonised the pillars and wine bins.
We will be selling their lovely 2012s in our opening offer.
Society Buyer for Burgundy
The Society’s opening offer of 2012 red and white Burgundy will be available from 17th February.
Edit (17/2/2014): This offer is now available.