Grapevine Archive for 2011
By far my most important buying job of the year is putting together the blend of The Society’s Rioja (important because around 11,000 members every year buy it).
Last November at Bodegas Palacio in Laguardia, winemaker Roberto Rodriguez and I spent most of a day mixing, tweaking and tasting various components. Quality this year is excellent, thanks to the concentration of the vintage (2011) and the fact that Roberto gave me access to some of his finest barrels of tempranillo normally destined for reserva-level wines.
Looking closer at the components, it’s clear to see why. Firstly, 2011 saw some of the Bodega’s healthiest tempranillo grapes which meant the wines were able to support extensive ageing. This year we selected from barrels where the wines have aged for a staggering 22 months (that’s 7 months more than the previous vintage).
Incidentally that means the wine does legally qualify to be labelled as a reserva. The barrels chosen were 90% American oak, a significant feature in good traditional-style Rioja, and 10% French oak: this combination endows the wine with a round, smooth texture and a hint of vanilla spice.
Our shipment of the new blend has arrived from Rioja and is available now for £7.50 per bottle. I hope you like it.
Now here is a story: red wine from the most white-wine-orientated region of France.
And yet the truth is that pinot noir has always been a grape variety planted in Alsace and what’s more, it is my opinion that the 2011 vintage produced some lovely Alsace reds.
A Little History
As curious as it may seem, pinot noir was the first grape variety to be mentioned in Alsace. It can trace its roots at least as far back as the 8th century and maybe further still, predating the arrival of the riesling grape by some 700 years. Alsace wealth and prestige peaked at about the time of the Reformation, and at that time the reds where probably on a level footing with the whites. Many Alsace villages gained a reputation for its reds, such as Rodern, Saint-Hyppolite and Rouffach.
General decline set in with the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War. There were then periods of reconstruction (sometimes under Germanic tutelage, sometimes French) but then more war until the final liberation of 1945 settled the issue.
During all of this time, pinot noir continued to be grown but the skills needed for top red-winemaking was largely gone. Moreover, pinot vines were rarely planted in good spots, these being reserved to the top white varieties.
My first taste of Alsace pinot noir was uninspiring, pale, watery and thin. There were exceptions from some of the great houses such as Léon Beyer and Hugel and it is thanks to these top names and others too that the revival started.
The turning point was probably the 1990 vintage when Alsace pinot noir really began to acquire depth and colour. New plantings of pinot were now frequently of Burgundian stock and the climate getting ever warmer was also having an effect.
Today there are nearly 1,000 hectares of pinot noir in Alsace out of a vineyard total of 15,000 hectares. And things are looking up, with better vintages, a generally warmer climate and a growing list of producers willing to make top-quality red wines in a land of whites.Alsace Grands Crus
When this appellation was created 40 years ago, the reputation of pinot noir was perhaps at its lowest and so the grape was not included in the new scheme. Alsace Grand Cru is reserved for riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat with one grand cru, Zotzenberg, authorised for sylvaner.
The good news is that there is likely to be one or two grands crus for pinot noir. That will take a little time but when I was there in February work was already in full swing. The village of Rouffach was always famous for its reds and the best comes from the slopes of its grand cru ‘Vorbourg’. There are many pinot noir producers on the Vorbourg but the best is René Muré, whose wines we will be buying
Styles of Alsace Pinot Noir
There are essentially three styles here. The pale rosé style continues to be made and is locally quite popular. Sometimes this is very pale, sometimes more like a very light red.
Among the reds proper, the debate rages somewhat over how to age the wines. To oak or not to oak. The old style, exemplified by Léon Beyer, is to age the reds in large foudres of old oak so there is no oak flavour. The more modern approach follows the Burgundian way of doing things using small oak barrels, sometimes with some new wood. Alsace pinot noir is about delicacy and charm so extraction has tended to be short and gentle. But red wines are creating excitement in Alsace and there are more than a few growers with real ambition for the reds.The Alsace Flute
Alsace is one of the few regions to stipulate a shape for its bottles. All Alsace wines have to be sold in the traditional Alsace flute, which tends to be green (see photo above). And that includes the reds though there is pressure for change as unquestionably red wines would look better in Burgundian-shaped bottles.
Drinking and Keeping
There are truly exceptional wines that will keep 10 years or more but by and large Alsace pinot is for drinking relatively young – up to five or six years. Generally, the wines are light in style and go well with cold meats, poultry or ham. In exceptional vintages, such as 2003 and 1990, pinot noir can produce wine with much more depth and character and become fabulous with game.
The 2011 Vintage
A very warm spring and a fine Indian summer did well for the pinot noir grape variety. The wines have colour, fruit, and a generally ripe, rounded flavour. The characteristic fruit flavour to describe Alsace pinot noir is kirsch or cherry, thought can change if the wine has been aged in barrel. (Previous fine red vintages include 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2000 and 1998.)
Society Buyer for Alsace
Today was my first taste of the new Exhibition Crozes-Hermitage since it arrived in Stevenage and I have to say that I was quietly very impressed.
The trouble about the Exhibition range is that the wines chosen for it have to be better than just good and rightly or wrongly I felt that what we had done up til now was good but maybe not the benchmark that the Exhibition label demands. And so I kept on looking.
The ‘Eureka’ moment came inthe autumn during a meeting with Nicolas Jaboulet at his new office in Valence. Nicolas is the son of Michel Jaboulet who was last in charge of the family firm before the sale to Jean-Jacques Frey. Nicolas entered the firm and was quickly given responsibility of the UK market and with it The Wine Society account. Things didn’t go as planned. The Jaboulet family had invested big sums on new cellars and vineyard and there was not enough cash in the bank when two members of the family decided to walk.
All that is history now. For Nicolas there was a time for reflection, an unwelcome bout of illness and, since the 2007 vintage, a completely new direction, when he decided to go it alone and start his own négoce company. This wasn’t easy at first but luck was on his side. For a start he got technical and financial support from the Perrin family of Beaucastel. A joint venture was created adopting the compromise name of Nicolas Perrin. But also, Nicolas as a member of one of the most respected families in the Rhône Valley, suddenly found he had loads of friends and loads of people happy to sell him wine.
Back to my meeting in Valence. I tasted all the 2011s which were lovely but the Crozes was absolutely stunning. 2011 as a vintage could be good but not always, and over the weeks that I had been in the Rhône from September to November, I had tasted lots of indifferent Crozes. But Nicolas’ wine was exceptional. It comes from lots of growers, including all the top names. This wine I thought would be perfect for the Exhibition label and so we began talking. And then another bit of luck as an American customer pulled out. This was my opportunity to get my hands on something really quite special and fully worthy of the Exhibition label.
How does the new wine differ? Already just the aroma is different as Nicolas’ wine has more intensity, brightness and purity. The taste matches the smell: greater intensity and finesse and much better length.
Crozes- Hermitage is the most important appellation in the northern Rhône, accounting for well over half the production. A good Crozes is an essential requirement in any merchant’s armoury and I think this fits the bill to perfection. I would love to hear your views.
The new Exhibition Crozes-Hermitage is available now, priced at £12.50 per bottle.
Society Buyer for Rhône
The USB wine tap: a beautifully simple idea.
A quick connection into the laptop or PC and a whole world of wine opens up beneath the fingertips, or indeed taste buds. With a built-in tap to dispense the wine being browsed on screen, such a device would revolutionise wine buying; the click-to-sip ratio would no doubt send delivery companies and wine drinkers into a frenzy, albeit for very different reasons.
If only such a device existed…which of course it doesn’t.
While the technology of winemaking has evolved hugely over the last century methods of wine communication have been somewhat slower. The written word still is still very much king (‘And rightly so!’ chorus my copywriter colleagues), be it in print or via digital media, and with such elegant exponents as Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and, if I may mention in such hallowed company, our very own Janet Wynne Evans, who am I to disagree?
However, as fanciful as the idea of having wine-via-wireless is, we do have the next best thing: video.
We now have the chance to see for ourselves the many shades of gold, lemon, straw and the million and one other descriptors for white wine and to compare the brickish orange of a well-aged Rioja to the vibrant purples of a youthful new world shiraz. And of course we are able to find out others’ opinions on wines and, hopefully, better inform our own vinous choices.
In this short video Simon Mason, The Wine Society’s Tasting & Events manager, highlights two of the gems from the 2011 vintage for white Bordeaux and talks through the growing conditions as well as providing a few tips about serving temperature along the way.
Seeing is believing? You decide.
We hope you enjoy it.
Marketing Campaign Manager for Bordeaux
The Society’s Vin d’Alsace occupies the pivotal spot in our extensive, multi-award winning selection of Alsace wine and it is the wine that has introduced Alsace wine to generations of members.
Up until 1991, the blend was mostly sylvaner with a little chasselas. In 1992, the blend changed dramatically and we introduced other grape varieties to give the wine more elegance and fruitiness. This is what we have done ever since.
The 2011 vintage is a little special, and not just because of the new label. For one, it is a wonderful vintage but most excitingly, this year’s blend is one of our best ever. It is currently available with a saving of £10 per dozen, thanks to supplier support.
Today most Alsace wine is sold as a single grape variety. But that was not always the case. Top Alsace houses often created blends and when these were made from a majority of noble grapes (riesling, pinot gris, etc.) the wines could be called ‘Gentil.’ Looking at the archives here in Stevenage, members were certainly drinking the 1955 Gentil back in 1958 and 1955 was of course a great vintage and, as it happens, my birth year.
Eventually Hugel’s Gentil was given The Society’s own label. The quality of the Gentil was something to be proud as can be seen from the magnificent Hugel menu of 1921 pictured below, when the 1893 Gentil from the Sporen vineyard was served.
The current blend is 49% pinot blanc/sylvaner, 18% pinot gris, 16% riesling, 11% gewurztraminer and 7% muscat. The grapes come from the area around Riquewihr and were all harvested by hand and brought in small crates to the press and then into the cellars, all without pumping. The wines then ferment in either vats large oak casks for a few months before bottling.
In short, it is Alsace in a bottle. Enjoy!
I’ve just completed the second of three intensive visits to the Rhône, each lasting about ten days. So far I’ve visited nearly 100 producers up and down the valley and in the Languedoc, and have one last trip next week to take in the Roussillon and Châteauneuf.
The first visit was in September, right in the middle of the 2012 harvest, which itself shows much promise. But tasting 2011 with the new wines bubbling away was not easy. And some of the 2011s were themselves still fermenting!So going back and forwards over three months has been essential. It was the same last year, but even more so in the 2011 vintage. As a result, not only will I have visited many producers, I will also have been able to sample the same wine two or more times, as well as being able to taste the same wine at different stages of the blending process.
The 2011 vintage
There was a time when vintages were pretty predictable. They could be good or not, but the rules were largely the same: such as being able to calculate the beginning of the harvest at a 100 days from flowering. Climate change has changed all that and for vignerons content to do just the bare minimum, things have become very complicated. 2010 of course was relatively straight forward and nearly everyone got it more or less right.
2011 is different. This was a roller coaster vintage with capricious conditions that teased growers from beginning to end. It started and ended with a heat wave. March was ludicrously hot and after a cold winter with snow, the vines burst into life. The whole growing cycle of the vine was rushed forward by at least a month if not six weeks. Just like 2003, if not more so. But history never quite repeats itself. The exuberance of early spring gave way to more normal conditions. Flowering was very early and bountiful. June began with a storm but was largely dry and warm. July was downright cool and sometimes wet and so was early August. By the third week of August, a heatwave had set in with temperatures hitting the high 30s. The vines closed down under the onslaught of such heat. September brought a return to cooler temperatures and rain, and the vines came back to life.
By now the grapes were sweet, gorged with sugar but were they ripe? Many growers, fearful of the weather getting worse, thought so and began picking. But sugar is not an indication of true ripeness and though the grapes were indeed sweet, pips and stalks were still green . This was when growers needed to keep calm and hold off, at least from the black grapes. The whites needed to be picked; the grapes had largely turned golden and were perfect.
The weather changed once again and growers were treated to perfect conditions which lasted till the last grapes were picked in early October. In some areas of the south, growers were faced with uneven ripeness within the bunch with some grapes that were black and ripe, others raisiny and not ripe and other berries that had barely changed colour. Many more man hours would be needed to eliminate anything unripe. This was a trying vintage that required skill and patience. Exhausting was how many put it. For what everbody foresaw as an ‘early’ vintage, 2011 was in fact picked at normal time or even slightly late.
What are they like?
2010 and 2009 Rhônes are dense wines. I retasted all the 2010s and they are quite majestic. The simpler 2010s are lovely now but the better ones will need time and are closing up. I sense that both these vintages will be for the long haul. The 2011s are simply delicious, a smiling vintage: perfumed with soft and ripe tannins and succulent fruit flavours. These are going to give a lot of pleasure, maybe in a style not too far away from 2006 and in many cases 2011s will be lovely young, perfect while waiting for the 2010s and 2009s.
A few pointers
The north: amazingly good in Cornas, again. Brilliant Hermitage of course and really lovely in Saint-Joseph, especially at the southern end. Gonon, Gripa and Chave are wonderful.
Côte-Rôtie came as a surprise because they are really very good. Barge Côte Brune comes to mind but so too does Clusel Roch and Rostaing. Good Crozes in general, though some disappointments.
The south: I really enjoyed Gigondas and everything from the northern belt that includes Vinsobres. It was never quite as hot here and the wines have a lovely natural balance. Of Châteauneuf du Pape, well that’s my next visit! Watch this space.
The Society’s opening offer of 2011 Rhônes and Languedoc-Roussillon will be available in January 2013.
The first trip is in the bag. This was the first of three visits to the Rhône Valley. By the time I will have finished in November I will have tasted from a hundred or so producers.So far, so good. Lovely wines in 2011, wines that make one smile because they are so delicious. Very different to both 2010 and 2009, which is a good thing: much more uneven, it is true, but there are plenty of successes. Great Cornas with one of my best tastings ever at Domaine Voge. The southern Rhônes seem to have been especially good along that northern strip which includes Vinsobres, Valreas and the Massif d’Uchaux. For the first time I visited the Tricastin, a Cinderella appellation if ever there was one. On this leg of my trip I shall report later.
From Vinsobres, down to Bandol and Cassis where the vintage was in full swing and looking very good. For Domaine Tempier, incidentally 2011 will be an exceptional vintage.
Rhône 2012s look very promising though only a few whites were actually finished and these were fragrant and fresh in style, and not unlike 2011 which itself was good for whites.
There is still a little way to go and some Châteauneuf growers have barely started to pick. We shall see.
The job of wine buying often goes beyond the mere task of selection. We like spotting talent and working with young growers and winemakers over many years, sometimes helping them by broadening their horizons. I remember once turning up at the salle polyvalente in Vinsobres with a bootful of Australian shiraz and giving a tasting to an audience of Vinsobres growers. It was some occasion; even the Mayor was there with his tricolour sash.
Just before leaving for the Rhône, my colleague Toby Morrhall was playing host to a group of Chilean winemakers from Undurraga. Much of their time at The Society was spent in the tasting room, where they were given a tasting of Rhône wines. Different producers, styles and vintages, and a world away from South America. For me, the tasting was just what I needed on the eve of my departure.
This is what was tasted:
2007: Séguret, Cuvée Tradition, Domaine de Mourchon and Notre Dame des Celettes, Domaine Sainte Anne
Both grenache dominated and both absolutely gorgeous and ready to drink. The Sainte Anne probably has more keeping potential but both really lovely now.
2007 again: Terres d’Argile, Domaine de la Janasse, 2007
This comes from outside the Châteauneuf area but is made in much the same way and from a typically Châteauneuf blend of varieties. Sumptuous but no hurry to drink
2006: St Gervais, Domaine Sainte Anne
Mourvèdre dominated. Spicy and rich. Still very young and in need of another year maybe. But what lovely complexity
1999: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de Beaucastel
Drinking very well now. Surprising density and concentration. Needed decanting.
1998: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine de la Janasse
Blockbuster wine. Very full, very concentrated. Again decanting needed to get the best out of it.
1995: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Clos des Papes
This was the best of these three Châteauneufs. Perfect, poised with great balance. Probably at its best though it will keep for ages.
And finally, Bandol, Domaine Tempier La Tourtine 1998
Sensational. Nothing else to say. Lucky Chilean growers.
Last week we had the pleasure of welcoming Ivan and Margaret Sutherland and their son Matthew from New Zealand?s Dog Point.As well as wine, Ivan is passionate about rowing, and he has excelled at both: he won a bronze medal in the 1976 Montreal Games and was Rowing Team Manager for New Zealand at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.
There are no prizes for guessing why he is in the UK at present. It was especially good of him and his family, therefore, to come to Stevenage and show us the current and future releases from Dog Point?s small but impeccably formed portfolio.
These wines have gained a deserved and enthusiastic worldwide following in a very short space of time, and so I thought these notes would be of interest to Society members.
Sauvignon Blanc, 2011
As a Kiwi sauvignon, the new 2011 Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc (available now) manages somehow to conform and rebel at once. Everything you could want from Marlborough sauvignon is here: verdant aromas, intense fruit and shimmering acidity, but all in a restrained and subtle style that would be as well-suited to food as it would an aperitif hour. It is so classic as to be atypical, but most importantly, it?s absolutely delicious, and may well be even better with a further six months in bottle if it can be resisted.
Section 94 (sauvignon blanc), 2010
Fermented and matured in old oak barrels using wild yeasts, this highly complex and individual wine could well be New Zealand?s finest sauvignon. We have already sold out of the 2010, so it would perhaps be impolite to expound upon it too much. Members who were lucky enough to get some however are in for a treat, and there is no hurry to enjoy it: Ivan recommends cellaring the wine, and having been fortunate enough to try a bottle of the 2006 vintage recently (which had opened out beautifully and still had years ahead of it), I can only agree.
A very popular wine made in tiny quantities, and the new 2010 (available soon) will certainly not disappoint its fans. I had to double check that this sophisticated chardonnay was 14% alcohol. It has power (a small proportion of new oak is used, along with extensive lees contact), but never to the point of obscuring the purity of the fruit, which is delicious.
Pinot Noir, 2010
The lone red in Dog Point?s range was my personal favourite of the wines tasted, and a ringing endorsement of the quality Marlborough is capable of when it comes to this fickle and ethereal grape. The 2010 (available soon) is a friendly intellectual: it has remarkable complexity, with savoury and vegetal characteristics which by themselves might be reminiscent of many a Burgundy. Above all though, it is such a delight to drink, with intense, red-fruit flavours that are succulent and juicy but not at all jammy or overdone. Society buyer Pierre Mansour thought this was Dog Point?s best pinot to date. Members should start getting excited about this wine?s impending arrival.
As well as being a talented sportsman and winemaker, Ivan is a thoroughly nice man whose passion for wine is unpretentious and infectious. Most wineries serve their guests their own wines and little more: not so, I learn, at Dog Point ? not because they aren?t proud of their fantastic range, but because the team loves to drink and enthuse over wines from all over the world.
Dog Point?s wines take on similar characteristics: they are without airs, comfortable in their own skin and show their class in a less ostentatious way than many of their peers. They are informed by winemaking expertise gained from all over the world, but they are classically and proudly Marlborough. It was a privilege to taste them.
Spring has sprung in the Roussillon, prompting Katie Jones of Domaine Jones to share her enthusiasm for the season of renewal. Hers is a pocket handkerchief estate making three lovely wines. Her white is outstanding and is made from the Grenache gris, locally prized for its ageing capacity but unknown anywhere else.
‘The more I work with this grape variety the more I like it. It is a little frightening though as the grapes are pink and the juice when the grapes are pressed is bright orange, so I am always amazed by the lovely pale colour of the final wine. Grenache Gris makes some of the best white wines from this area of southern France and is often blended with other local grapes. Mine is not blended but exclusively Grenache Gris.
So why are my Grenache Gris special? They are 80 years old, they are planted on black slate soils and therefore they produce a very limited amount of grapes. The low productivity of my vines gives great depth and concentration to the final wine. It also means that the root structure is so well established that they don?t suffer from summer drought.
It still makes me smile that I almost didn?t buy this vineyard. Monsieur Bourrell who sold it to me forgot to mention that half of the vineyard was planted with Grenache Gris and not the red Grenache noir that I was expecting. As he took the grapes to the local cooperative, it didn?t matter to him that half the grapes were white. When I told him that I wasn?t sure that I still wanted to buy his vineyard he told me it wasn?t a problem – I could just mix it all together and make the traditional sweet dessert wine from Maury!
Not on your nelly, Monsieur Bourrell.’
Here at The Society we still need to wait for the 2011 but a small quantity of the 2010 (ref FC22301) is still available to order. To do so, please call Member Services on 01438 740 222.
The Society Bordeaux buying team of Sebastian Payne MW, Jo Locke MW and myself has recently spent a second week in Bordeaux, retasting many of the 2011s that we had sampled a fortnight previously during the annual ‘en primeur’ bunfight, and tasting many other 2011s for the first time. It is remarkable how in that short time many of the wines have evolved, and the week proved invaluable in helping us to distil down our selection for the main en primeur offer that we will be sending out next month. Over the course of our two sojourns in Bordeaux we have tasted several wines three, four and occasionally five times, so we feel we are well placed to put together a coherent and considered offer for members.
Week one had been a whirlwind, visiting some of the best-known wine names in the Bordeaux firmament, with one day that involved visits to Châteaux Léoville Las Cases, Lagrange, Pontet Canet, Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Ducru Beaucaillou ? and that was just in one morning?
Our second week was, with one or two exceptions, more modest in terms of the global renown of châteaux visited and wines tasted, but no less interesting or enlightening. The vast majority of châteaux that we have followed for a number of years have made fresh, attractive and classically proportioned red wines that we have no hesitation in recommending subject, of course, to the wines being sensibly priced. Examples include Château Le Conseiller, Château Bouscaut, Château Belgrave, Château d’Angludet, Château Cantemerle and Château Batailley, to name but a few. 2011 was also an excellent Sauternes and Barsac vintage, with consistently high quality across the board, and we will be offering several of our favourites in our main Bordeaux opening offer.
Week two was also an opportunity to taste at the esteemed premises of JP Moueix in Libourne. Having “extinguished” our mobile phones [see above], we were treated to a procession of delicious merlot-dominant right bank wines in the splendid Moueix tasting room ? a cavernous but tranquil setting for the Society tasters [right]. We also paid a visit to the strikingly Burgundian-looking cellars [below] of François Mitjavile at Château Tertre Roteboeuf in Saint Emilion, our annual opportunity to shoot the breeze with one of the most cerebral winemakers in Bordeaux, and taste the delicious fruits of his labours.
Our week ended with a visit to Château Reynon in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux to see our old friend Denis Dubourdieu, wine guru, lecturer and oenologist to some of France’s most famous names; and a tasting at Château Climens in Barsac with owner Bérénice Lurton. Bérénice took us through no fewer than nine different barrels of 2011 Barsac, each cask containing the production of a single-day’s picking last autumn ? the later the harvest day the sweeter, more lush and complex the wines tasted. The 2011 Climens is a true labour of love.
All that we are waiting for now is for the châteaux to release their prices, and we are hoping that the owners and decision makers will take a pragmatic view this year and release the wines at sensible prices. We are expecting a flurry of activity from the Bordeaux négociants in the coming days, although the profusion of public holidays in France this month may hamper the process somewhat.
Head of Buying
The Society has put in place new procedures for ordering Bordeaux 2011 this year. The first of our two 2011 Bordeaux Opening Offers, containing 30 of the most sought after wines of the vintage, requires members to pre-order the wines before the prices are confirmed by the chateaux. The remaining, generally less expensive, wines will be offered as normal, in print and online, in June or July.