Grapevine Archive for Members’ prize draw trip

Thu 29 Jan 2015

Douro Reflections

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It was a huge pleasure to join my colleagues Liz and Mark and our super group of members and their guests in Portugal back in October.

Douro. The Wine Society

Old journals at Taylor'sOld journals at Taylor’s
My involvement was for the Douro’s wonderful unfortified wines, but it was fascinating to hear and re-learn from Mark and our generous hosts so much about this extraordinary region and how the port story began.

There is such a wealth of history here, as these old journals at Taylor’s illustrate, and the small ‘museum’ at Graham’s lodge portrays so vividly. Both are well worth the detour for tasting as well as a history lesson, with the added bonuses of Graham’s restaurant Vinum and Taylor’s top-notch hotel to hand if you’d like to linger longer.

Our first-ever Exhibition Douro red is available now with introductory savings until 8th February)

Jo Locke MW
Society Buyer

Tue 18 Nov 2014

Visiting Taylor’s Port

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Our whirlwind prize-winners’ Portugal trip started with a private tour and extensive tasting at Taylor’s Port wine cellars in the heart of the historic area of Vila Nova de Gaia.

Established over three centuries ago, in 1692, Taylor’s is one of the oldest of the founding port houses – The Society being a mere baby in comparison!

Set in beautiful gardens with views across the Douro River, Taylor’s Port lodge is in a stunning location. Although we arrived in the rain, we were soon given a very warm welcome from our host Chris Forbes, Taylor’s marketing projects manager. We started with a refreshing glass of ‘Chip Dry’, usually served as an aperitif in the Douro, ‘Chip Dry’ is a mixture of one part of white port with two parts of chilled tonic water served in a tall glass, with lemon and ice. Delicious.

The remarkable cool cellars at TaylorsThe remarkable cool cellars at Taylors

Chris showed us Taylor’s long cool, dark cellars which house the casks and vats where the ports age, giving us a history of Taylor’s along the way (to read more about Taylor’s history visit their excellent website). The cellars’ thick granite walls and high ceilings keep the port casks at an even temperature, particularly important during the hot summer months but not such an issue on a rainy October afternoon!

Taylor’s wines come from their three quintas in the Douro valley, each with their own unique character: Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta de Terra Feita and Quinta do Junco.

It was clear that Taylor’s still embrace the traditional methods of making port from the hand-picking and selection of grapes in the vineyard through to foot treading the grapes in lagars (wide thigh-deep granite tanks) in the quinta.

Prior to visiting the Douro, foot treading conjured up visions of fun and frivolity. However, in reality it is a very physical, laborious process lasting between 2-3 hours. Taylor’s still see this as the best way to achieve the gentle yet complete extraction of juice and pulp from the grapes without crushing the pips that would release bitter tastes into the wine.


Foot treading at Taylor’s

Following our tour, Chris treated us to an extensive tasting of some outstanding ports. Chris explained the differences between what makes a Vintage, Crusted and Tawny port (Mark Buckenham, The Society’s port buyer gives a guide to different ports in our How To Buy Port guide).

Tasting the ports at Taylor's

Alongside tasting our very own Exhibition Crusted Port and Exhibition Tawny Port, 10 years old made for us by Taylor’s, highlights included the Fonseca Guimareans 1998 Vintage Port, Taylor’s 1985 Vintage port, Taylor’s 20-Year-Old Tawny and the fine, silky Taylor’s 1964 Single Harvest Port.

Tasting our Exhibition ports 'in situ', among othersTasting our Exhibition ports ‘in situ’, among others

It was a wonderful start to our Douro trip. Thank you, Taylor’s!

Elizabeth Brown
Recruitment & Retention Manager

Categories : Port, Portugal
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Fri 30 Aug 2013

The Beautiful South: Pouilly-Fuissé

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In his final chapter Paul Trelford heads to the south of Burgundy to sample some of the region’s best-value whites, and ends with some of its finest. Click to read the first and second parts

Toby Morrhall and Fabio Montrasi welcome the party at Château des Rontets in Pouilly-Fuissé Toby Morrhall and Fabio Montrasi welcome the party at Château des Rontets in Pouilly-Fuissé

The next morning saw us back on the bus and heading south into the Mâconnais, the southernmost point of Burgundy. Its 6,000 hectares of vines are sandwiched between Côte Chalonnaise to the north and Beaujolais’ Saint-Amour to the south. Its best wines – all white – are winning a growing reputation for offering Burgundian quality but at much more affordable prices. Indeed, The Wine Society’s bestselling wine, The Society’s White Burgundy, comes from here.

The best plots are found surrounding the villages of Pouilly and Fuissé and that was our destination. We started at Château des Rontets high on the hill overlooking the amphitheatre of Pouilly-Fuissé vines. Unusually, the vines face north, but thanks to their height up the hill they still get plenty of sunshine. Owner Fabio Montrasi grows the grapes organically and keeps yields low to ensure outstanding quality. The relative altitude and aspect provide warm days and cool nights, which are so good for acidity and freshness, attributes that can be hard to come by this far south.

Fabio uses natural yeasts for fermentation and enjoys the different flavours they can give his wine. Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Varambon, Château des Rontets 2011 elegantly showed the attention to detail that goes into every stage of winemaking here. It was an early vintage and there were concerns over the ‘tension’, or acidity, but the wine is delicious and well balanced.

Pouilly-Fuissé Pierrefolle 2011 comes from older vines and has greater concentration as a result; it is rounder and softer. We tried a barrel sample of Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes 2012 which is due to be bottled soon. This is a serious wine: the old vines contribute much more length and complexity. A keeper.

A Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Varambon 2010 showed that the château’s wines need some time in bottle after release to show their best. This had a nice tension between richness and freshness with good complexity and length.

We finished with a Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes 2010 that was gloriously textured – almost silky – with buttery ripe concentration.

I left marvelling at what lives some winemakers lead! Fabio did at least have the good grace to appear suitably contented to be making such delicious wines in such a glorious spot at such a lovely château.

A GRAND VIEW
Our next stop was Château de Beauregard, who have perhaps done more than anyone to get Pouilly-Fuissé and the Mâconnais on the map. Frédéric Burrier is the latest generation at the helm of this family company and he is also president of the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation. And he has great plans.

Château de Beauregard. Owner Frédéric Burrier has a tough job trying to raise the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation to Burgundy’s top tierChâteau de Beauregard. Owner Frédéric Burrier has a tough job trying to raise the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation to Burgundy’s top tier

Frédéric would like to apply some of the classification and hierarchy of the Côte d’Or to Pouilly-Fuissé. Apparently the first premier crus were introduced in the Côte d’Or in 1943 during the Nazi occupation, but because the Germans didn’t come this far south it didn’t happen here.

His wines certainly deserve greater recognition. We tried his Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Cras 2012 from cask. The Vers Cras vineyard is closest to the winery, and possibly closest to Frédéric’s heart. It was ripe yet with an almost saline freshness, with excellent body.

It was then up to the dining room for a tasting over lunch. Beauregard is aptly named with breathtaking views of Mont de Pouilly and the roches of Solutré and Vergisson.

The wonderful view from the dining room at Beauregard of the roches of Solutré and VergissonThe wonderful view from the dining room at Beauregard of the roches of Solutré and Vergisson

We started with a magnum of Saint-Véran, La Roche 2011 which was further evidence of the strength of 2011 vintage. It can be difficult to find good Saint-Véran like this, but when you do it can be a marvellous source of good-value white Burgundy.

We then followed with magnums of Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Pouilly 2010 and Pouilly-Fuissé Aux Charmes 2005. The 2010 was slightly closed at first but soon opened up to reveal full-body and round fruit to match the delicious home-made pork pie. 2005 was a small, very rich and ripe harvest and the wine was a little too rich for some although I have to admit that I loved it.

Grand Beauregard is an unusual wine in that is a mix of wines from different wines across the appellation – more Bordeaux than Bourgogne like in its parentage. It is a blend of the best casks from the best climats, and, says Frédéric, a synthesis of all that is good about the region. The Grand Beauregard 2008 was gloriously rich and long and opulent and right up there with the great whites of the Côte d’Or.

One of the revelations over lunch was a magnum of Fleurie, Colonies de Rochegrès 1999: proof positive that cru Beaujolais can age well and that gamay takes on a pinot noir-like persona as it matures. The strawberry and tobacco flavours went beautifully with the Comté and goat’s cheese.

A GRAND FINALE
For our last visit Toby had chosen Maison Louis Jadot, one of the largest negociants in Burgundy. A clever interactive map in their headquarters in Beaune shows the sites of Jadot’s vines which cover some 210 hectares scattered from the Côte d’Or to the Mâconnais and down into Beaujolais.

Toby Morrhall (feet) and Jadot’s Sigfried Pic (stick) demonstrate more traditional forms of pigeage, or punching down of skins and other solids, before showing us the more modern techniques.Toby Morrhall (feet) and Jadot’s Sigfried Pic (stick) demonstrate more traditional forms of pigeage, or punching down of skins and other solids, before showing us the more modern techniques.

If you want a good example of the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux then Jadot’s cellars are a good place to start. Jadot control some 210 hectares of vines but because the majority is bottled by vineyard that means they make some 200 wines each year (130 reds and 70 whites). In Bordeaux, Château Lafite, for example, is in the region of 100 hectares from which they will make just two wines.

With this many wines to monitor and prepare it is little wonder that Jadot’s cellars are highly mechanised and absolutely spotless. Given the number they have to bottle here for some six months each year. The contrast between their large-scale production and the small artisanal approach elsewhere was marked.

Their charismatic export manager Sigfried Pic was determined to show us that bigger doesn’t mean any loss of attention and quality. He delighted in showing us a range of vintages across all quality levels and the standard was remarkably high.

Pernand-Vergelesses 2011
was delightful. This villages wine is a blend of different wines, including some premier cru, and is medium-bodied, fresh and slightly rustic. Good value here for what is a baby Corton-Charlemagne.

Beaune Grèves Le Clos Blanc, 2011 showed more depth and class despite still being so young. The fruit was spicy with a delicious hint of almonds.

Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2011 was very much in its shell. You could sense the structure and grip but this needs many more years yet to come round.

Monthélie 2011 is like a baby Volnay – all strawberries, a delicate touch of oak and ripe tannins and gloriously drinkable.

The Volnay Premier Cru Clos des Chênes 2011 has a seductive nose of cherry pips and a seductive earthiness. This has the structure to ensure it keeps and develops over many years.

It was tasting the Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2011 that my admiration for the buyers who put together our opening offers really grew. This wine was so young and tight and I really struggled to spot its potential. It must takes years of experience to envisage the charms to come.

2012 is a very small vintage, as the vacant slots in Jadot’s usually chocker-block cellars show2012 is a very small vintage, as the vacant slots in Jadot’s usually chocker-block cellars show

It was then that Sigfried picked up his pipette and herded us all into the cellars for a spot of cask sampling of the 2012 vintage.

Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Premier Cru Clos de la Chapelle had a rich peachy opulence that was delicious. The limestone here is very deep with a thick layer of clay that encourages a fatter, richer style.

This contrasted nicely with the mineral, taut almost saline Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru La Garenne; here there is little soil so the vines are on limestone, which encourages the more mineral linear style.

The 2012 vintage was a classically velvety year for red Burgundy as the Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Couchereaux showed so elegantly. The grapes are grown on fully south-facing slopes which ripens the grapes nicely providing plenty of ripe dark fruit. The tannins are pronounced but velvety and smooth. Very promising.

The Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules combined density, structure and weight with soft strawberry fruit. Still young but very encouraging.

Corton Pougets Grand Cru, on the other hand, was extremely tight and uncommunicative and will need several years to come round.

The group gather before dinner at Couvent des Jacobins in Beaune The group gather before dinner at Couvent des Jacobins in Beaune

The evening culminated with a grand dinner at the marvellous Couvent des Jacobins in Beaune. The wine list included Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2001 – one of the wines of the week for me: so luscious at one level yet fresh as a daisy too. Such balance and finesse.

Corton Pougets Grand Cru 1976 and Beaune Premier Cru Boucherottes 1995 were classic mature red Burgundies and they led to a good debate about the meaning of sous bois, that mushroomy, woody, earthy autumn smell you get from fine Burgundy. ‘Compost’ as one guest called it. He meant it as a compliment.

‘A glorious finale to a wonderful trip,’ said Matthew Holford of the dinner and tasting; I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

Categories : Burgundy, France
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Tue 27 Aug 2013

Burgundy: From The Destruction To The Sublime

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Head of copy Paul Trelford continues his tour of Burgundy. It starts with a bump but ends in euphoria Click here to read the first part.

HailA YEAR’S WORK LOST IN MINUTES
Burgundy’s year had been much like ours back in Blighty. A very long, cold winter and a non-existent spring had left the vines an estimated three weeks behind schedule. So the glorious July weather was welcomed with open arms and the vines were beginning to catch up. Hail is always a threat, however. In July we reported how storms had devastated much of Vouvray and on our journey back from Chablis we felt the full force.

The hail stones, the size of table-tennis balls, crashed against the roof of our bus. Outside they ripped through vines in Côte de Beaune, Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, Savigny-lès-Beaune and Chorey-lès-Beaune. Your heart really goes out to the growers who work so hard on their vines all year round only to have to stand helplessly by and watch as they lose the lot in a matter of hours.

After three lower-than-average vintages, Burgundy is facing supply pressures, exacerbated by a growing thirst for the region’s top wines in Asia.

It’s enough to drive you to drink. And that’s literally what our bus driver did as we visited Alain Coche of Domaine Coche-Bizouard in Meursault.

OLD-SCHOOL WINEMAKING IN THE BEST POSSIBLE SENSE
Alain is a winemaker of the old school and has recently handed over the reins to his son Fabien, although you get the impression that Alain still watches over things closely. We tasted through the 2012 vintage which was still in cask in their rather soulless modern air-conditioned warehouse.

Although Meursault has no grand crus, the quality of its premier crus are rarely surpassed in the Côte d’Or. What they do have is lieu dit or ‘named plots’ of particularly good land which is classified as village Meursault but actually sit somewhere between villages and premier cru. Alain gave us a tour.

Trying the Domaine Coche-Bizouard 2012s where Toby Morrhall (left) demonstrates bâtonnage or lees stirring with Alain Coche. Trying the Domaine Coche-Bizouard 2012s where Toby Morrhall (left) demonstrates bâtonnage or lees stirring with Alain Coche.

The Meursault Les Chevalières 2012 is a classic example: wonderfully rich and round and opulent but retaining freshness too. The Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2012 certainly lives up to its name. Even though the malolactic fermentation hadn’t finished it was richer still with lovely fat palate and glycerol. Outstanding.

Alain then boarded our coach and took us for a tour of the Meursault vines. This was the first time we had really got into the Côte d’Or itself, that magical hillside criss-crossed with priceless vineyards that, to quote the great Hugh Johnson, ‘In certain sites and certain years only, pinot noir and chardonnay achieve flavours valued as highly as any flavour on earth.’

The vineyards of Côte d’Or are the most classified in the world. This is because of the huge fragmentation of the land thanks to Napoleonic inheritance laws which decree that an estate should be divided equally among family members. Small holdings, therefore, get divided and subdivided over generations until a single vineyard may be owned by scores of different individual owners, each of them cultivating sometimes just a row or two of vines.

This is a problem and a blessing. It means that growers here tend to get their hands dirty and will often prune and care for their own vines. It also means that there is a huge variation in quality. The different techniques favoured by different growers means that two wines from the same vintage and the same vineyard can taste completely different. It’s a bit of a nightmare for buyers but it does offer a large amount of diversity and personality. I was trying to explain this to the youngest member of our group, a 21-year-old who had just joined The Society, and I felt very sorry for him. Burgundy is not the place to start if you want to understand the world of wine. Toby has done a brilliant job describing the eccentricities in his How to Buy Burgundy guide and I recommend it to you, whether you’re a Bourgogne pro or just starting out.

The dark Cistercian cellars below the Coche family home hide a treasure trove of outstanding Meursault The dark Cistercian cellars below the Coche family home hide a treasure trove of outstanding Meursault

Having seen the vines, Alain invited us in to the dark Cistercian cellars below Fabien’s family home. And here he came alive. It’s wonderful to see a winemaker taking so much joy in sharing his outstanding wines with an appreciative audience in a gloriously atmospheric setting.

Wine after wine followed, all glorious interpretations of fat buttery opulent chardonnay. Meursault Les Chevalières 2011 comes from a lieu dit in the northern part of Meursault near Auxey-Duresses which has plenty of breadth and body and a lovely balance between richness and freshness. Meursault Le Limozin 2011 is another lieu dit below Les Charmes with the similar ability to match softness and succulence with thirst-quenching clarity and freshness.

These wines were such a contrast with the ones we had enjoyed in Chablis in the morning. Here fermentation and maturation in oak are the norm, techniques that give the wines their full colour and vanilla, toasty aromas and flavours. These are wines to go with food, local poulet de Bresse perhaps, or capon or cheese.

Meursault Les Luchets 2011 is another lieu dit high up the hill and tenser, leaner and more linear. The vineyard, or climat (literally a ‘climate’) as they call it here in the home of terroir, has more limestone and less clay creating a more mineral style. Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2011 is still quite tight but full of promise. The balance of opulence and freshness, and the length are glorious. The oak here is perfectly integrated with lovely white-peach vigour.

Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru 2011 was glorious – just like ‘little drops of gold’. A totally dry wine but the sensation and glycerol make it seem sweet. Lovely buttery length but there’s a vibrancy too that prevents it being too flabby. Tasting the Meursault Charmes Premier Cru 2010 got us thinking about when it is best to drink these wines. This was a great wine but a baby still – there was almost electricity running through it. Toby said that he thought this was perhaps the wine of the vintage.

Toby is convinced that Diam corks are the way ahead and that they have given him more confidence to predict longer futures for white Burgundy than he had dared to recently. See Toby’s article for more details.

To back up what a fabulous vintage 2010 is, Alain opened a bottle of his Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru which had a glorious opulence and almost caramel richness.

We were already overrunning and Toby, worried about our dinner reservation, was trying to hurry the old master along. Alain wasn’t having any of it. ‘Encore une bouteille!’ he would say as he reached into his racks and pulled out another bottle of golden nectar.

There weren’t too many complaints.

Next up was Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2006 which showed a slight touch of botrytis with its aromas of honey, barley sugar and caramel. It was slightly overripe but glorious.

Just one more, he said. Meursault Les Charmes Premier Cru 2004 which was, he said, ‘slightly bizarre’. 2004 was a tricky vintage but the mark of a good vigneronne is to make good wine in ‘bad’ years. This was rich with great structure, depth and acidity. Sumptuous texture.

The Society’s Emma Dorahy trying to convince everyone that she wasn’t even born in 1974 The Society’s Emma Dorahy trying to convince everyone that she wasn’t even born in 1974

He then disappeared out the back and returned with a twinkle in his eye and a label-less bottle. It was Meursault Goutte d’Or Premier Cru 1974, and of all the treats I’ve enjoyed working in the wine business over the years, this was the sweetest. The aroma I can still smell now was the perfect combination of buttered toast, orange peel and honey. Just absolutely glorious. And proves how the best wines will keep and keep and keep.

What a wine to end on, and what a lovely person to enjoy it with. They don’t make them like Alain anymore, more’s the pity.

That night over dinner, (a fine Saint-Aubin Premier Cru En Remilly Marc Colin, 2010 and a Marsannay, Domaine Denis Mortet which showed all the power and finesse of the wonderful 2005 red vintage, since you ask) we all agreed that the ‘74 Meursault had been the wine of the day.

Next up was the chardonnays of the south in Pouilly-Fuissé.

Categories : Burgundy, France
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Thu 22 Aug 2013

The Home Of Glorious Chardonnay

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In the first part of his tour of Burgundy head of copy Paul Trelford is cooled by heady Meursault and then heads for the glories of the north in Chablis

With Roy RichardsWhat to do in Beaune when the mercury is pushing 40 degrees with energy-sapping humidity to match? Meursault is the answer. At least that was long-term Society supplier, and champion, Roy Richards’ answer. And how well it went down.

I was in Beaune (along with The Society’s Toby Morrhall and Emma Dorahy) to escort a group of four members and their guests round some of the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy. The members had won a prize draw run earlier in the year to reward those who had proposed a wine-loving friend or relative as a new Society member.

You could have forgiven them for wondering what they’d got themselves into when we rolled out of Lyon airport having skipped lunch into the relentless heat and begun the long sweaty journey up to Beaune.

Cue Roy and his delicious cooling bottle of Meursault – I really don’t think anyone looked back after that first sip. The bottle in question was Meursault Premier Cru Charmes, Domaine Coche-Bizouard 2002. A great vintage and an absolute delight 11 years on. It would have inspired great happiness on a rainy night in Cleethorpes, but drunk under the dappled shade of a lime tree in Ray’s lovely garden in his house in Beaune on such a sweltering day it was magnificent. Everything mature Meursault should be: a luscious golden colour, with butter, nuts and honey and exquisitely long. Just the thing to wash down the fresh gougères, the delicious local cheesey savoury pastries.

Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Domaine Tollot-Beaut 1985‘Roy taught me more about Burgundy and wine then anybody else in the trade,’ Toby Morrhall, The Society’s Burgundy buyer and not one given to hyperbole, explained. And Roy, known as the ‘wine merchants’ wine merchant’, certainly proved to be a lively dinner guest telling wonderfully indiscrete stories about his favourite growers – but my lips are sealed. Generous to a tee he produced a magnum of Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Domaine Tollot-Beaut 1985. 1985! That was seven years older than the youngest member of our party. But you wouldn’t have known it as it was so fresh still with touches of citrus to go with the honey, almonds and caramel. Superb.

HEADING FOR THE COOL NORTH
Burgundy isn’t one big vineyard but made up of at least three separate groups: Chablis to the north, the Côte d’Or in the middle and the Mâconnais to the south being the most important. Toby had organised our tour so that we would visit two domaines in each region and today was Chablis’ turn to shine.

It’s a long drive up from Beaune – Chablis is in fact closer to the Aube department of Champagne than Beaune – but you know when you’ve arrived thanks to the dramatic change in the soil. Chablis sits on the outcrop of a rim of a submerged basin of limestone made up of layer upon layer of prehistoric oyster shells. The soil is named after the Dorset village of Kimmeridge that sits on the far ridge. And it is this soil that gives the wines their unique mineral, stony character.

At Louis MichelOur first stop is at Louis Michel. Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel is the sixth generation of the family to be at the helm and he patiently and expertly took us through his wines. Guillaume’s winemaking philosophy is simple: to respect the unique terroir of the vineyard and region. The use of oak is quite controversial in this part of Burgundy, but Guillaume uses none whatsoever in order to let the terroir speak clearly.

We tasted his Petit Chablis 2012 – green apple, quite austere and firm. And his Chablis 2012 which is a blend of six well-placed parcels from the left and right banks of the Serein river. It has biting acidity and a stony, crunchy red-apple freshness. Great potential for a wine so young.

Next we tried Chablis Premier Cru Forêts, Domaine Louis Michel 2011 which has a glorious rich yellow colour with a delicious baked-apple nose. The steely high acidity was balanced by the sweet ripeness of the fruit.

Guillaume has started to use only natural yeasts in his winery. ‘Yeast is an element of the terroir,’ he explained. ‘Natural yeasts give greater complexity in the wine, but the process is very stressful.’ Guillaume said that the natural fermentation process took three months, much longer than normal, leading to high risks of volatile acidity so the wines had to be monitored night and day.

But this sublime complexity was there for all to see in his Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2011. A wonderful wine showing all the fine attributes of Chablis and the chardonnay grape at its most pure. Long and complex with minerality and steely freshness yet balanced by pure ripeness of fruit.

Montee de Tonnerre

Montée de Tonnerre is a right bank premier cru very close to the grand cru sites and is a great source of long-lived nigh-on grand cru Chablis at a premier cru price. We tried the 2011 and it was sensational with wonderful length, depth and complexity. This will last for 20 years at least.

The seven grands crus of Chablis are on the great sun-soaking slope above the village on the right bank of the Serein. These prime slopes are all on the white Kimmeridgian limestone and produce the richest whites of the region generally at least half a degree of alcohol more than the premiers crus. Louis Michel produces approximately 13,000 bottles of grand cru Chablis each year from their plots in Grenouilles, Les Clos and Vaudésir.

We were lucky enough to try all three. Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir 2011 was richer, rounder and fuller than anything we had tried to date but still with that nervy, steely Chablis edge. A great wine. Fleshy and generous with superb white-peach character. Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles 2011 was much more delicate. This needs time for that tight steeliness to turn into noble complexity.

Les Clos is considered by many to be the finest of the grands crus and we were lucky enough to try the 2011. I can still smell the chalk bouquet– it was like being back at school before they introduced white boards. This had just been bottled so one would expect the wine to be closed but 2011 is such a ripe vintage that it was already round and generous. The potential is all there.

Guillaume, acknowledging his appreciative and knowledgeable audience, nipped off down the corridors of his spotless cellars and came back with a special treat for us to try: Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles, Domaine Louis Michel 1991. It was real pleasure to taste such a mature wine in such a wonderful environment. So gloriously rich and long! The mushrooms on the nose turned to honey and caramel on the palate. Simply delicious, and testament to the fine keeping ability of top-class Chablis.

We returned blinking into the sunshine after such a long time in the dark cool cellars quite breathless with the quality of the morning’s tastings.

We couldn’t possibly visit Chablis without a trip to long-term Wine Society favourite Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, the name behind The Society’s Chablis and Exhibition Premier Cru Chablis and numerous other bottles besides. So that is where we headed for lunch.

BALANCE AND EQUILIBRIUM

Julien Brocard (right) on the famous white Kimmeridgian soils of Chablis Julien Brocard (right) on the famous white Kimmeridgian soils of Chablis

Jean-Marc Brocard started in the wine trade in the 1970s when he married his childhood sweetheart, a vigneron’s daughter, and was given a hectare of vines by his father-in-law. With much hard work he now has control of about 180 hectares, and has gradually become one of the leading lights of Chablis. Julien Brocard describes his father as a true man of the soil and ‘an adventurer who saw his opportunity and took full advantage’.

Since 2012, Julien has taken over day-to-day control of the vineyards and business from his father. Julien had earned his stripes when his father invited him back from Paris where he was training as an engineer and rented the Boissonneuse vineyard so that Julien could trial biodynamic viticulture there. We got the impression that there was quite a competitive spirit and a degree of cynicism about the whacky new techniques Julien employed. But Julien convinced his father through the sheer quality of the wines he produced and he is now converting all the vineyards of the estate to biodynamic.

‘It’s all about balance and equilibrium,’ explains Julien. ‘Traditional techniques just treat the symptoms not the disease. Biodynamism makes you be better farmers as you need to predict and understand problems. We want to create a healthy, lively soil which leads to healthy vines and less reliance on chemicals.’

Swallows nesting at BrocardSwallows nesting at Brocard

Julien pointed out the swallows nesting in the roof of his cellars: ‘These weren’t here before – just shows that our land is now healthy and back in balance.’

Whatever one thinks about cow’s horns and ‘fruit days’ there is no escaping the fact that biodynamism makes winemakers think about their land in a different way and understand it better. Those reasons alone must help them make better wine.

Like Louis Michel, the Brocard house style has been for maturation in stainless steel. The winery itself is extremely impressive; built in stages from 1980, it houses stainless steel temperature-controlled fermentation vats to accentuate the purity and freshness of the wines. They have also had success with foudres (large oak barrels) for certain wines, such as Les Clos, and are trialling concrete egg-shaped vats. Julien talked at great length about the different techniques used. It’s good to see that the experts are still trying new things even after all this time in the wine business.

One of Brocard’s greatest assets is a particular slope of vines called Malantes. It has the same soil and exposition as premier cru Montmains but is classified just as village Chablis. This is entirely to our advantage as it is these underrated grapes that make up most of The Society’s Chablis and the reason why it is such a great buy.

Julien Brocard discussing biodynamism against a backdrop of Chablis vines Julien Brocard discussing biodynamism against a backdrop of Chablis vines

We kicked off our tasting over lunch with The 2011 Society’s Chablis and the quality shines through. Wonderfully intense and linear.

From the 2012 vintage we tried his Chablis Sainte Claire, and his premiers crus Montmains and Vaillons (which will be sold under our Exhibition label). 2012 was a tiny vintage but the quality is very high. These wines were young and tight but you could feel the potential bursting to come through like a dog needing a walk.

2011 was also a difficult year and only the best-tended vines coped with the challenging alternating conditions of drought then flood. The wines are ripe, with intense aromas with full and fruity palates. We tried The Society’s Chablis, Les Vieilles Vignes de Sainte Claire – where the extra old-vine concentration really shines through. Chablis La Boissonneuse from the vineyard where Julien had earned his stripes and the wine was excellent: fuller-flavoured and more complex. And the premiers crus of Vaillons (our current Exhibition vintage), Vau de Vey, Fourchaume, Butteaux, Montée de Tonnerre and Vaulorent.

Brocard winesTo me premier cru Chablis is perhaps the greatest expressions of the region with plenty of flavour and that lovely Chablis cut of acidity. The grands crus are richer and stronger and therefore rounder; they are delicious but perhaps less classic. They also take much longer to come round and can be hard to taste when young. Having said that, Julien showed us three grands crus from the 2010 vintage, Bougros, Les Clos and Les Preuses, which were ripe, aromatic with exceptional concentration.

Chablis is truly a blessed place and it was a real pleasure to see two growers who were so respectful of their environment and so clearly determined to make the most of the their family legacy and create the very best wines that they can.

The weather had been glorious but close, and as we returned to Beaune all went dark and the heavens opened. But that’s for next time…

Categories : Burgundy, France
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Tue 03 Jul 2012

Photos: Members’ Trip to Rioja – Day One

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First visit of the day: a tour and tasting at La Rioja Alta S.A.

La Rioja Alta

The pristine and stylish new winery built in 1986…

La Rioja Alta

…and ultra traditional ageing in the vast cellars, which contain no less than 20,000 barrels of wine (the equivalent of 6 million bottles!).

La Rioja Alta

The barrel ageing is followed by bottle ageing before release. The Gran Reserva 904 ages in bottle for over 5 years.

La Rioja Alta

Tasting, including a special preview of the new 2004 vintage of Ardanza (not yet released).

Next stop: Bodegas Muga, with Jorge Muga.

Muga

Admiring the vineyards by the River Ebro in the heart of Rioja.

Rioja vineyards

A light tipple and bite to eat ? Muga?s refreshing Rosado (drunk in the traditional el porron and vineyard-grilled Chorizo.

Muga

Muga

Back to the winery for a tour and lesson on barrel making.

La Rioja Alta

Muga

Finally, a wonderful local Rioja lunch with some delicious wines.

Rioja lunch

Until tomorrow, Salud!

Categories : Spain
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Good wine can always be measured the day after and we all awoke fresh and keen for Pol Roger, where we were met by James Simpson MW and then just after the cellar visit by Christian de Billy (long since retired and representing the family).

Bottles maturing gracefully in the cellars at Pol Roger.
If Gratien, visited the day before, is about tradition and small scale, Pol is about modernity and an annual production in excess of 1.5m bottles. No barrels here, instead gleaming stainless steel and with half the grapes coming from Pol’s own vineyards. The quality factor in Champagne depends on a quite complex succession of stages and one little something can make a huge difference. At Pol Roger one crucial element in the process is the depth of the cellars which is just a few feet deeper than at Gratien and just a fraction cooler. It means that the wines need more time, at least four years for the non-vintage Brut Reserve.

I have to admit to a penchant for chardonnay-only Champagne, an aberration for some, but for me an expression in finesse that is rarely captured in any other wine and Pol Roger make one of the loveliest. It is not made every year but we were treated to a glass of the newly released 2000 vintage. ‘Absolutely sublime’ was my note.

Pol Roger is of course also about Churchill, their best known customer who as of this month has a street name after him in Epernay. Indeed Pol Roger is situated at 1 rue Sir Winston Churchill. A coincidence? His memory also survives in an outstanding cuvée named Sir Winston Churchill and made in a style the great man would have approved and we were served a glass of the very full-bodied, pinot dominated 1999 vintage.

Bollinger

Oak Barrels ready for use at Bollinger.
What better contrast could follow Pol and Churchill than Bollinger and Bond (and Ab Fab!)?

Here we were back with tradition: barrels, even more than the 1,000-odd we saw at Gratien. Bollinger goes one better and has its own cooper who maintains and restores the collection of barrels (bought second hand from Burgundy). Bollinger’s fortune is to be almost self sufficient: the only grapes they have to buy are the pinot meunier from the Marne Valley which is an ingredient in the non-vintage. The vineyards even include a patch of pre-phylloxera vines just by the Château.

What is unique about Bollinger? Unquestionably its holdings of pinot noir in Aÿ, which delivers big powerful wines that are at the core of the Bollinger style. So too is its treatment of reserve wine, essential for maintaining the consistency of the non-vintage Brut. At both Gratien and Pol this is kept in tank, a blend of one or two vintages. At Bollinger, the reserve wine is kept amazingly enough in magnum, under slight pressure and stoppered with a natural cork. This represents an amazing collection of wine going back many vintages and used judiciously in the make up of the Non-Vintage Brut.

Inevitably, the Bollinger visit finished with a dinner and a chance to savour over food the very fine 2002 Grande Année.

Louis Roederer

The following morning we had to leave the Marne Valley and drive over the “mountain” to Reims, there to sample a wine of the Tsars at Louis Roederer. There is a very fine bust of Alexander II which I can’t help but admire. It was he after all who emancipated the serfs in 1861.

Just as Pol Roger found success in the United Kingdom, so Louis Roederer found favour in Russia, supplying the Imperial court with what was then a sweet Champagne poured from a unique bottle made of clear glass and no punt which could not hide any device that might injure His Imperial Majesty. Such was the birth of the first luxury cuvée: Cristal.

The group outside Roederer.
This final visit was intended to encompass everything we had seen before. Of the four Houses visited, this is the largest – almost the size of Pol and Bollinger combined. Like Bollinger, it is largely self sufficient and owns well over 200ha of vineyard, more often than not in the best locations. Like Pol, wines are mostly vinified in stainless steel but reserve wines are kept in large oak vats, as are the wines used for the liqueur de tirage.

During the days of the Tsars, the style was undoubtedly sweet. Tastes have changed and today Champagne tends to be a dry wine. Yet the opulence and richness remains at Roederer and the wine, exemplified perfectly by the Brut Premier has a wonderful creamy quality.

But of course this members’ visit was a red carpet affair and we were treated to a delicious buffet. Cristal 2002 was served en magnum and our jaws collectively dropped but for me, the sublime moment was the rosé. Chez Roederer, it is always a vintage and always made using a blend of white and rosé wine rather than the usual red. It means that the colour is much paler, but what fragrance, what finesse.

All good things come to an end. This has been a wonderful experience for all of us and we are left with wonderful memories and a wonderful taste in the month. But after Roederer and the Tsars it was time to get back across the Channel.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Champagne Buyer

Categories : Champagne, France
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At Nicolas Jaeger's house
Recently I escorted a party of eight (four lucky members and their guests) on a memorable ‘behind the scenes’ excursion to Champagne. The members had been entered into a prize draw to win a place on the tour when they proposed family and friends for membership of The Society earlier in the year.

The classiest way to go to Champagne is by train. It is a journey that begins within the Victorian Gothic splendour of Saint Pancras station and appropriately enough in the Champagne bar, where our group met and broke the ice over two very fine bottles of Bollinger Special Cuvée.

And then we were off, hurtling through Kent, before entering the tunnel with choice nibbles and a glass of Pol Roger. Out of Paris, the line soon reaches the Marne Valley and the first vineyards not long after. It is true that Paris had its own vineyards which before phylloxera had been extensive but today it is Champagne that is the nearest vineyard to the capital, barely an hour’s drive from the city centre.

The tour was in four parts, each representing a different House, style and method of making wine – in particular the all important non-vintage. We began with a full day at Alfred Gratien.

I shall always remember my first solo visit to The Society’s House Champagne when I got overly complicated directions and then got hopelessly lost in the one way system. Today Alfred Gratien is a small House producing some 300,000 bottles and is becoming quite well-known. Back then it was making less than half that amount and The Wine Society was buying as much as a third of the production.

Alfred Gratien came from Saumur and launched himself into making sparkling wine setting up Houses in Saumur and Epernay simultaneously in 1864. His vision for Champagne was from the start nothing short of excellence where no expense would be spared. His Champagne would be what Haute Couture was to the clothing industry. While most Champagne Houses were changing methods of production over the ensuing decades, Gratien remained wedded to the old ways. Even the cellar masters remained in the same family, something unique in Champagne.

Getting to grips with The Society's Champagne...
For this visit, we were in the company of Olivier Dupré (managing director) who had come down from HQ in Saumur for the day, Nicolas Jaeger, (cellar master) and his wife Delphine. We drove round the Côte des Blancs, looking at chardonnay vines in Cramant and Le Mesnil. This was a moment of light and fresh air before returning to Epernay and a descent into the darkness of Gratien’s cellars, nearly 60ft below ground.

Gratien is a real bijoux House. It behaves like a Grand House with a large number of suppliers dotted around the Grand and Premier Cru villages of Champagne. The difference is that here the contact between the Jaegers and the growers is intimate and delivery often the equivalent of just a few barrels. But growers like delivering to Gratien because they know that their hard work is respected. Nicolas Jaeger vinifies everything in small barrel and villages and growers are all vinified separately and kept in barrel over the winter. In some wines, structure is founded on tannin. In Champagne as with many white wines, that foundation is based on acidity and it is for this reason that Gratien chooses to block the malolactic fermentation, which is a bacterial process that changes malic acid into softer lactic acid.

Gratien MD Olivier Dupré & their Cuvée Paradis Rosé.
The final step before lunch was of course a tasting and after so much vine and bottle gazing this seemed to be much deserved. Now the problem of being in my position is that I do taste quite regularly and so at least half expected to guess the vintages so I felt a certain sense of triumph when I got both spot on: 1983 and to finish the session a remarkable bottle of 1979 to show just how well Champagne can age.

Lunch was a modest picnic affair in the Marne Valley chez Nicolas and Delphine. Magnums of the still youthful Society’s Millennium Champagne provided the aperitif. There was a little interlude of foie gras and a glass of Exhibition Sauternes while Olivier Dupré, the Boss from Saumur dealt with the lobster. With this we drank Gratien’s outstanding 2007 blanc de blancs. Then Côte de Boeuf and baked potato were paired with a rather fine 1996 Chambertin. Lunch fizzled out amiably at around seven when we invited the Gratien team for dinner at one of Epernay’s better bistro restaurants (and more Champagne).

Coming up in part 2: Pol Roger, Bollinger & Louis Roederer…

Marcel Orford-Williams

Categories : Champagne, France
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Mon 23 Aug 2010

Bordeaux 2009: A Trip of a Lifetime

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

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

Première Cru: Château MargauxPremière Cru: Château Margaux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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