Grapevine Archive for Members’ prize draw trip
In October four lucky members and their guests made a ‘trip of a lifetime’ to visit some of our favourite Tuscan producers in the company of Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW.
Here’s the second instalment from Societynews editor Joanna Goodman (read part one here).
Into the heartland of Chianti Classico for the winning members of our Tuscan tour starting at Castello di Brolio, the birthplace of modern-day Chianti, followed by an afternoon in the company of Paolo di Marchi at Isole e Olena to learn about the rebirth of Chianti in the post-seventies whicker-flask era and finishing up at Fontodi with Giovanni Manetti where the grapes were still coming in! A final flit to Carmignano country and Villa di Capezzana on the way to the airport completed our trip…
Good morning Siena!
What a difference a day makes. Opening up the shutters on our second morning in Tuscany, the sun streamed in and the view across the hills in the early-morning mist was stunning. The vision was made even more magical with the appearance of a host of hot-air balloons, hanging surreally in the sky before us. Today was going to be another great day.
Yesterday, our adventures in Montalcino and the very south of Chianti Classico were fabulous, despite the drizzle and cold. We’d found out about the fickle sangiovese grape and how it changes from place to place (even changing its name in Montalcino where it is called ‘brunello’), but today we would learn even more about its capricious nature, as well as the history of Chianti itself.
Castello di Brolio – the birthplace of Chianti
I had visited this famous Tuscan estate around 20 years ago and knew that we were in for a treat. Back then, we hadn’t gone inside the imposing castle – ancestral seat of the Ricasoli family since 1141 – so I was thrilled to learn that we would be taken on a guided tour.
We were met by Elisabetta, a cousin of the current Barone (Francesco Ricasoli), who took us first on a quick tour of the vineyards to point out the different aspects and soils of this vast 1,200-hectare estate, 230 of which are under vine. Most of the vineyards are south/south-west facing and at an altitude of 200-500 metres above sea level. 80% of the vineyard area is planted with sangiovese, but merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malvasia, plus experimental plantings are also grown.
Elisabetta explained that one of the most important aspects of the estate is the fact that they have more than 20 different soils on the estate, the five most important being: galestro (a schistous clay soil), sandstone, argilliti (sedimentary clay marl), limestone and alluvial soil.
She took us to the side of the road to point out the different rocks to help in our geological education. Some of the rocks dug out of the vineyard were huge – it gave you some idea of how hard the work must have been for the original land workers who would have had to haul out these rocks by hand. Nowadays, machinery and dynamite make it a little easier!
History of the Ricasoli family
Elisabetta explained that the castle was strategically placed almost mid-way between Florence and Siena and that the side facing Siena was constructed of red stone mirroring the buildings there. The north side facing Florence is made of ‘green stone’ (limestone), in homage to the architectural style of that city.
It seems that the castle has always been caught in between these two warring rival cities, but the ‘Iron Baron’ Bettino Ricasoli is credited with bringing about peace and unifying Italy, going on to become prime minister of Italy not once, but twice!
Whispering the secret password to get us inside the enormous castle walls, Elisabetta took us on a tour of the castle telling us more about the incredible Bettino, whilst showing us around the museum set up to display his many accomplishments.
He was a real polymath – an artist, philanthropist, scientist and politician – interested in the education of the children on the estate; he studied soils, collected shells, carried out early research into phylloxera; his studies of grape varieties and experimentation in wine led to the first written formula for Chianti as we know it today, identifying the importance of sangiovese in the blend.
Although the formula has been modified over the years, sangiovese is still recognised as the most important variety in the mix and today must make up at least 70% of the blend (80% for DOCG wines). The rest is made up of either native canaiolo or colorino, or non-native cabernet sauvignon or merlot. White grapes, which were included in the original formula (their acidity helps to fix the colour of the wine, among other things), can no longer form a part.
You can go on guided tours of the castle and I would thoroughly recommend it: there’s plenty to see and the castle is truly atmospheric in all its gothic splendour. Our host hinted that the building was still patrolled by the Iron Baron and someone heard her whisper thanks to no one in particular as we left.
Tasting the Castello di Brolio wines
We headed back down to the office building for a tasting with export manager Andrea Maiolatesi who took us through some of the more recent developments at Brolio.
Since the early nineties, the 32nd Baron of Brolio, Francesco Ricasoli, has been engaged in a massive replanting project. Using modern techniques, help from the university of Florence and also with the knowledge passed down over generations, he has set about replanting the vineyards, matching terroir to variety and identifying the best clones of sangiovese, matching vines with the best rootstock and increasing the vine density.
They are fortunate to have such a wide variety of different terroirs to play with all on one estate as well as a wealth of different vine stocks at their disposal.
Buyer Sebastian Payne MW had told us in the coach on the way here that he had stopped buying the wines for a while as they hadn’t been as good as they had been in the past, but that now they were really starting to shine again. All that hard work and endeavour is starting to reap dividends.
We started our tasting with the white Toricella 2015, a Tuscan IGT wine made from 75% chardonnay and 25% sauvignon blanc. Our group of members seemed to really like this wine. I can’t help but feel that the first wine of the day, especially a white in a predominantly red-wine region, always seems to have a little something extra about it! Sure enough the wine was beautifully poised – lush oaky vanilla flavours from oak-aged chardonnay combining with fresh, bright acidity from the sauvignon blanc.
Next came a red – Colledilà 2013 Chianti Classico DOCG – a Gran Selezione wine. This comes from a single vineyard and is 100% sangiovese. The Gran Selezione label is the highest category, above Riserva, and the grapes must come from the estate and the wine aged for a minimum of 30 months. It has to pass muster by a tasting panel from the Chianti Classico consorzio. Andrea explained that this wine isn’t produced in every vintage and that it undergoes 20 months in barrel and a further 10 in bottle. ‘It needs further ageing’, he said, but despite the smoky, cigar character, it wasn’t heavy but showed great elegance already. Sebastian says that he has bought a little for members, which will be released at a later date.
The Castello di Broilio Chianti Classioc DOCG 2013 is also a Gran Selezione wine made from 90% sangiovese, 5% cabernet sauvignon and 5% petit verdot. Still quite firm and ‘chewy’ with savoury, truffley aromas, there’s lots to get your senses around in this wine. It’s the big brother of the Brolio Chianti Classico, the 2013 vintage of which we currently list.
Casalferro Toscana IGT was the invention of Francesco Ricasoli when he took on the running of the business in 1993. His first release was a 100% cabernet sauvignon, in 1997 it was 50% cabernet 50% merlot but now, in the 2013 vintage, it’s 100% merlot. Why the change? After lots of tasting with his agriculturalist, Francesco decided that the merlot from this one particular vineyard was so amazing that it really warranted being made into the wine on its own. ‘Chiantified merlot’, Sebastian said and he must have approved of its sweet, herbaceous balsamic fruit as it’s currently on our List!
The final wine in the line-up was another relatively new invention of Francesco Ricasoli’s, made in tribute to Bettino Ricasoli. Called Brolio Bettino Chianti Classico DOCG 2013, it is made from predominantly sangiovese and is unfiltered and aged fo 18 months in large traditional barrels (botti). Lovely ripe red fruit with a touch of typical austerity, this could be drunk now or cellared further, we were told.
We were treated to lunch in Brolio’s restaurant, Osteria del Castello, before heading to our next appointment and very good it was too. Knowing that we were to be eating out in the evening too we tried to limit the number of courses taken (always tricky in Italy – even more so when there were some really interesting dishes on offer, created by chef Silvia Zinato).
If you are ever in the region, I’d recommend a visit, or you can even stay in some renovated cottages on the estate.
Isole e Olena – the story of Chianti’s rebirth
Winding our way up through the narrow forest roads, you really got a feel for just how isolated parts of Chianti Classico are. Sebastian said that the roads were much improved since he has been visiting these parts and that in the winter, the roads can still be quite hairy.
Sebastian explained that Paolo de Marchi’s family were Piedmontese and had bought up two neighbouring estates based around the hamlets of Isole and Olena in the west of Chianti Classico in the 1950s. The land had been share-cropped but, but as was the case with many such estates, the locals had abandoned the land for work in the cities.
It wasn’t until 1976 that Paolo took over the estate and he had to start practically from scratch with very little money. ‘The first years were all about survival,’ Paolo told us. ‘I had to borrow money from the banks to try to rebuild the tumble-down houses and replant the vineyards.’ It wasn’t until 1987 that Paolo planted his first vines, a project that is still ongoing. Importantly, he realised the significance of clonal variety in the vineyards; using massal selection he has managed to create vineyards with a great diversity of plant material.
‘Sangiovese isn’t genetically that strong,’ he explained, carrying on the refrain that we had picked up from our first visit in Montalcino. ‘It isn’t like cabernet sauvignon, for example, that gives a strong identifiable character, no matter where it is planted, sangiovese, is less easy to pin down, it’s more variable and sensitive to its surroundings, this is its beauty….think of it like the Alps, with lots of smaller peaks rather than the Himalayas with its great mountains!’
But he didn’t just stick to sangiovese, planting chardonnay, syrah and cabernet sauvignon amongst others too. Sebastian had told us that Paolo is always experimenting and trying out new things.
He took us up to the tiny hamlet of Olena where one family have moved in and are gradually renovating some of the ancient properties. Paolo explained that he has always tried to maintain something of the history of share-cropping – not-for-profit ventures such as bee-keeping, experimenting with ancient strains of wheat, orchards of apples and apricots – all great for maintaining biodiversity, essential for the good health of the land.
Before getting onto the subject of Chianti’s revival of fortunes (for which he can claim to be one of the trailblazers), Paolo shared his concern for the future. This is hard physical work and Paolo worries who will take over from him in the future. He knows it will be hard to let go of all that he has worked for but recognises that he will need someone to challenge and experiment as he has done and that he will need to stand back and watch them make mistakes.
‘I studied oenology at Turin university, but you don’t really learn about making wine properly until you get your hands dirty in the field and the winery.’ Looking around our band of members, I could see that some were wondering if they’d ever have what it takes to take on such a fantastic project – they were certainly under Paolo’s spell, anyway.
The perfect storm which dealt a huge blow to Chianti
The sun was starting to go down, but we were still wandering around the ruined buildings of Olena and Paolo was in full flow, telling us about the history of Chianti and the constant struggle to produce top-quality wine.
In the post-war period there was a demand for cheap bulk wine and, unfortunately, Chianti at that time was all about quantity and not quality. A surge in price for bulk wine (remember the old raffia flask wines?) didn’t help matters. The wine produced at this time was thin and pale in colour with white grapes helping to sweeten the rather tart, often unripe sangiovese. Sadly the DOC rulings came about in 1966 enshrining some of these bad practices and the mix of grapes in law before any of the moves to create more quality-focused wines could take hold. Things were only set to get worse when the oil crisis of the 1970s saw a slump in the bulk price of Chianti, just as the fruit from newly planted vineyards planted to meet the earlier high demand came on stream, creating a huge surplus. The bulk price fell dramatically leaving many estates on the verge of collapse.
But it’s an ill wind that doesn’t bring someone some good, and so it was for the top-quality producers of Chianti Classico. Innovative winemakers started to experiment with their wines, reducing the proportion of white grapes, introducing ‘foreign’ grapes like cabernet and merlot to beef out the sometimes austere sangioves, making 100% sangiovese wines and playing around with smaller barriques to age the wine in rather than the traditional botti. Because these wines flouted DOC regulations, they had to be labelled as simple vino da tavola, but their reputation grew and they started to gain attention, earning the sobriquet ‘Supertuscans’.
Paolo arrived just at the right time you could say. He focused on low-yielding clones, re-established the abandoned terraced vineyards and set his sights on producing quality Chianti. He too created his own Supertuscan, Cepperello, which is usually 100% sangiovese, though sometimes he adds in a little cabernet sauvignon to flesh out the mid-palate.
We walked through the cellars, dug into the rock below the house, and Paolo told us of his plans to extend – he’d like to be able to age his wines and release them when mature for the top restaurants. He said that when he first started out he had barrels all over the house, including the bedroom, ‘it nearly drove my wife mad!’
Back in the main building above the cellars, Paolo took us through his wines, talking all the time about changes in climate, in winemaking, in consumer tastes. But regardless of external forces, the Isole e Olena style remains one of elegance, with fragrance and drinkability to the fore. His 2014 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico DOCG has attractive red fruit and spice with a richness to the finish. It has a splash of syrah in the mix. ‘Table-friendly Chianti’ is how Paolo describes it and you can imagine it going beautifully with some of the lovely food we’d tried over the last couple of days.
Next came the 2013 Cepperello IGT Toscana. 2013 was a pretty good year in Tuscany, ‘like the old days with harvest in mid-October,’ Paolo said. Made from the best plots of sangiovese on the estate, the wine is aged in French and American oak barrels for 20 months before bottling. Very full-bodied but with the characteristic red-fruit character, the wine still feels like a sleeping giant. One for the cellar, I’d say.
We tried two of Paolo’s ‘Collezione Privata’ wines – a 2009 syrah and a 2013 cabernet sauvignon. Paolo said that he wasn’t trying to create another Supertuscan but felt that both the cabernet and syrah do well here. They are lighter than elsewhere and fresher, reflecting the terroir (though not to the extent that the sangiovese does.)
The sun was sinking fast and we had to take to the road again for our final appointment of the day at Giovanni Manetti’s Fontodi estate in Panzano. It wasn’t too far away, but the roads were going to be wiggly!
Fontodi’s Giovanni Manetti – a fellow trailblazer for Chianti Classico
Like Paolo de Marchi, Manetti is one of the heroes of modern-day Chianti. His vineyards are in a prime location in the conca d’oro (golden shell) of Panzano – a south-facing natural amphitheatre in a relatively high-altitude location for Chianti (400m above sea level).
It’s because of this higher position that they were still picking at Fontodi, the cellar hands were still scrubbing and washing down the grape reception area when we got there ready for the next day, which Giovanni said would be the end of the harvest. We worried that he’d had rain all day as we had in Montalcino, but he said that it had been fine here – a special spot indeed!
For someone who had been harvesting for weeks now, he still looked remarkably fresh and took off at a brisk pace to show us as much as he could of the winery in the fast-dying light.
He showed us the amphitheatre of vines stretched out below the village on the hill to the right and explained how he had gradually persuaded all his neighbours to follow his example and convert to organic farming (well, all but one neighbour, apparently!) We asked how he had managed to do this and he said that it was largely a question of demonstrating how much healthier the soil and therefor the grapes were. I imagine Giovanni’s charm worked a treat too. He is now using most of the principles of biodynamic viticulture too.
In the winery, there’s very much a hands-off approach too. Everything is designed to make the most of nature – the cellars built so that gravity can be used to move the wine from place to place (rather than being pumped). Giovanni said that he leaves the grapes sealed for 24 hours and lets fermentation start naturally, ‘last night it was so cold however that we had to heat up some of the vats!’ he revealed. When the sun went down it was decidedly chilly up here.
I couldn’t hear much of what was said on our tour of the winery as it was still very much a place of action even this late into the evening. One thing that did surprise me on our tour of the cellars was the number and variety of sizes of clay amphorae clearly being used for winemaking. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise as the Manetti family have been manufacturers of fine clay amphorae for centuries. Giovanni’s brother is in charge of that side of the business and apparently there is a boom in demand for amphorae for the wine trade with orders coming in from across the globe.
‘It’s a natural fit for our family,’ Giovanni explained. ‘We started experimenting with using the amphorae and we really like the results… there’s a degree of porosity which seems to work well with the wine.’ They certainly look impressive too and a great showroom for the terracotta side of the family business!
But it isn’t just terracotta that Giovanni is experimenting with. He proudly showed off his latest acquisition, a newly delivered huge wooden vat in the traditional botti style but made in Burgundy from French oak. We put our heads inside to breathe in the heady vanillin aromas. Giovanni wanted to see what the toasty oak character would give to the wine in this large format… interesting.
Time to taste Fontodi
It was quickly down to tasting through the range of wines before heading off to Giovanni’s local trattoria for dinner; we certainly didn’t want him to have a late night before the final push!
The first wine was a new project, from an historic vineyard high up behind Panzano in the village of Lamole owned by the Manetti’s cousins. Giovanni explained that the family had stopped bottling the wine in the 1970s as the high production costs made it unworkable. Now the two families are working together, the wine is fermented up in the village then brought down to Fontodi. Very different in style from the other Fontodi wines, Filetta di Lamole Chianti Classico 2014 is not a ‘big’ wine but it has structure and Giovanni says it can age well. It is very typical of the classic Chianti style, a little bit astringent and sinewy but with attractive fruit character and delicate aroma.
Fontodi Chianti Classico 2013 was next up (Sebastian said we had just shipped this wine to Stevenage). Giovanni explained that for him this wine represents their house style, a sort of vinous business card made from a blend of wines from different vineyards on the estate. I thought it had lovely brambly, bosky flavours with great depth and subtlety, and an exuberant freshness to the finish.
Next came a sneak peak at the 2015 vintage – a stunning vintage here as almost everywhere in Europe and certainly in Italy. Not yet in bottle, this was incredibly rich and full; Sebastian revealed that he had agreed to buy some from Giovanni for a special bottling for members to be released in several years’ time.
Fontodi’s Gran Selezzione wine, Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico, came next from the unusual 2012 vintage. The wine comes from a single vineyard – one of the most beautiful on the property with vines with an average age of 40-50 years. Made from 100% sangiovese, this weighs in at a powerful 15% alcohol, but it wears its power lightly, feeling quite gentle on the palate with distinctive notes of roses, herbs, tea and cherries vying for attention. Giovanni said it would keep 20 years at least.
The Fontodi Supertuscan, Flaccianello della Pieve, was to be our treat over dinner. No time to waste! We were ushered into a flotilla of waiting Land Rovers and whisked down to Giovanni’s fantastic local for dinner.
The journey back to Siena was a very sleepy one filled with wakeful dreams of fabulous food and wine, inspirational winemakers and beautiful scenery. Tomorrow would be our last day in this Tuscan paradise, but we were going to squeeze in a trip to Villa di Cappezana, north of Florence and en route to the airport.
Tenuta di Cappezana – a taste of history in Carmignano
This part of Tuscany, to the north of Florence, used to be a favourite spot for the Medici and other wealthy Florentines to take refuge at the height of summer. They built fine manor houses here and had hunting lodges and parks and of course, grapes and olives were grown. It is quite low-lying here compared to Chianti but although it is hot in summer, there’s a wonderful refreshing breeze that comes down from the Appenines.
Carmignano only has 12 producers in the consorzio and Cappezana is the oldest and largest – in fact, you could say that the DOC (and now DOCG) was created almost for this estate alone. What’s the main difference between Carmignano and Chianti? The biggest difference is that the wine must contain cabernet sauvignon. But this non-native is no newcomer here: it is thought that the Medicis brought it here and that the vines planted at Cappezana by ancestors of the Bonacossi family brought cuttings from Château Lafite, no less.
Today this large property is still in the hands of the Contini Bonacossi family. Bernadetta is in charge of the wine and her brother Vittorio, the olive oil. Several generations of the family are employed in the business and it was a niece, Sabrina, who met us and showed us round.
The first thing that struck us as we got off our coach was the heady scent of fresh olive oil. How exciting! They had started to pick the olives and we were to see the pressing of the olives first hand. Apart from the deafening noise of the press, the most surprising aspect of olive-oil production is the incredible luminous green colour of the new oil as it oozes out of the machinery.
We could hardly believe our eyes. Then we were treated to the sight of more ancient amphorae, some dating back as far as 1881! These beautiful old glass-lined pots are filled with the new oil where it stays for several weeks to allow the sediment to fall out.
If it wasn’t for the incredible smell you’d almost believe you were looking into large vats of Swarfega!
We risked sensory overload when we were taken into the lofts where the Capezzana Vin Santo was ageing gracefully. We went from room to room and saw tiny vat after tiny vat of cherry and chestnut wood in a variety of different sizes.
The grapes (mainly trebbiano) are dried on cane mats until January after harvest then fermented very slowly in these casks, caratelli, for four or five years. Yields are tiny and get less by the year, but the final product was amazing. Our guide explained that her aunty was passionate about these wines and thought they should be enjoyed on their own as meditation wines not spoiled by pairing with dessert.
Time was tight so we sat down to a light bite (four-course Tuscan traditional menu) before racing off to the airport. The house rosé, Vin Ruspo 2015, came first with fresh toasted bread and the new extra virgin olive oil. I think I would have been happy to stop there! Then came a fresh pasta and home grown baby Savoy cabbage sauce with Barco Reale di Carmignano 2014. This is the equivalent to Montalcino’s Rosso and is made from 70% sangiovese, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 10% canaiolo and 5% cabernet franc. It had a lovely ruby colour and smooth tannins accompanied by cherry/plum fruit.
Next with a traditional beef stew came two vintages of Carmignano Villa di Capezanna – the 2013 followed by the 2006. The wine is a standard mix of 80% sangiovese with the balance cabernet sauvignon and sees 12 months in new oak. The fruit is very perfumed and the wine shows real elegance; the 2006 was particularly soft and perfumed.
With the main course there followed the Riserva wine which they call Trefiano DOCG from the 2010 vintage. This is made from 80% sangiovese and 10% each of cabernet sauvignon and canaiolo. Refined, elegant and sophisticated, it was rich and chocolatey but yet with freshness still. Ghiaie della Furba IGT is their Supertuscan. Also from the 2010 vintage, it is made from grapes grown in the alluvial soils of the Furba River valley (ghiaie are pebbles). It is made from 50% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot and 20% syrah and given 15 months in oak. Less overtly fruity than the previous wines and quite savoury in character, it possibly still needs time. Finally a pear and raisin cake (which seemed quite British in style) came with a glass of 2009 Vin Santo Riserva.
It couldn’t have been a more perfect way to complete this Tuscan tour.
News & Content Editor
Many thanks to the estates who hosted us and to Peter Cox for some great photos.
In October four lucky members and their guests made a ‘trip of a lifetime’ to visit some of our favourite Tuscan producers in the company of Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW. Here’s a behind-the-scenes write-up of the delights and discoveries made along the way by Societynews editor Joanna Goodman.
I’m not sure that any of us, the four winning members and their guests, or the members of staff asked to accompany them, could quite believe our luck at being picked to take part in a four-day tour of Tuscany’s top wineries.
All the prize winners had to do was propose someone for membership of The Society back in the spring of this year. My job was to help make sure everyone had a good time, along with my colleague Emma Dorahy from Buying, who had arranged the tour, and buyer Sebastian Payne MW, who proved to be quite the composite tour guide! Oh, and to be tour scribe… we packed in quite lot to our three days and learned an awful lot too, so I wanted to share some of that here.
We were based in Siena for the duration of the trip and had dinner on our first evening at the Osteria Le Logge, close to the Piazza del Campo and set up by Brunello producer Gianni Brunelli. Widely regarded as one of the best trattorias in Siena, appreciated by tourists and locals alike, the restaurant specialises in typical Tuscan dishes given a modern twist. The dining room used to be a pharmacy and still retains the old shop-fittings making for an atmospheric setting in which to enjoy the food and, of course, excellent wine.
After dinner we were asked if we wanted to see the cellar. All of us thought this a little strange, not appreciating the significance until we got there. One of the waiters accompanied us through the winding streets to a small locked door which opened into a tiny bar area and café, and small stage used for occasional jazz nights, we were told. But what lay underneath was astonishing!
As we burrowed deeper beneath the streets of Siena we came upon room after room of amazing bottles from around the world and from top vintages too, each individually wrapped in cling-film to protect the label from the damp. We had fun wondering around, famous-label spotting, calling out when we found something of note, in a sort of vinous version of ‘Top Trumps’!
‘I’ve found some Pétrus!’…’There’s some amazing Penfolds over here’…
We could have stayed for hours, but the waiter needed to get back and we needed to get some rest ahead of our busy schedule the next day, which would include a visit to Laura Brunelli’s estate in Montalcino. So we’d get a chance to pass on our compliments for the meal and ask her more about her new cellar venture.
Brunello di Montalcino
We woke to a rather grey, cold morning, with temperatures down considerably on the previous day; not typical of the weather here, we were to learn from talking to winemakers later on. Yes, Tuscany gets pretty cold in winter, but to have such a rapid change in temperature is not usual, they said. Thank goodness, everyone had pretty much finished harvesting!
No trip is complete without a talk from your tour-guide, so on the road out to Montalcino (20 miles south of Siena), buyer Sebastian Payne MW took to the in-coach microphone to give everyone the low-down on the properties we were to visit and explain a bit about the region.
A bit of geography…
Further south than the Chianti Classico vineyards, those of Brunello di Montalcino, enjoy a warmer more Mediterranean climate (the sea is just 20 miles away); the countryside is more open here, with cereal and other crops sharing land with the vine. (Chianti Classico is more hilly and wooded). Vines around the picturesque hilltop town of Montalcino itself enjoy an elevation of around 600m above sea level, which gives a pleasing freshness to the wines and off-sets the summer heat.
…and some history…
Sebastian surprised us by saying that Brunello di Montalcino is a relatively modern wine, first appearing around 1870, and was practically invented by one man, a certain Ferruccio Biondi-Santi. Biondi-Santi took a scientific approach to winemaking, taking care to plant vines in the right place and carrying out experiments in the winery to establish the ideal methods of production. Significantly, he fermented his grapes separately. At the time it was standard practice to co-ferment, not just different varieties, but red and white grapes too. He also matured his pure-tasting, high-quality sangioveses in cask, a radical new step at the time
The other key differentiator of the wines of Montalcino identified by Biondi-Santi was the type of sangiovese grape grown here, the sangiovese grosso clone, known locally as brunello, which gave its name to the wine. It gained DOC status in the 1960s (upgraded to DOCG in 1980 – one of Italy’s first).
Of course, microclimates and different soil types are usually key in producing subtle nuances of flavour in single-varietal wines and the best producers have vineyards in a variety of expositions, as we were to learn from the charming Francesco Ripaccioli at our first-stop, Canalicchio di Sopra.
Canalicchio di Sopra – one of the founders of the Montalcino consorzio
After a very warm welcome from the winery cat (makes a change from the more habitual wine dog), who made a point of greeting each of us in turn, we were given a brief overview of Francesco’s family’s property and an explanation of the importance of terroir for their wines.
Francesco explained that Canalicchio is a sub-zone of the Montalcino region (‘sopra’ means higher), and that the family has vineyards here on the northern side of the town and in another important ‘cru’ of the region, Le Gode di Montosoli. The soils of the former are richer and mainly clay and give and opulence and silkiness to the tannin in the wine. Soils on the slopes of Montosoli are more stony marl and limestone, giving a minerality and freshness to the wine.
Francesco said that the first ever producers of Montalcino in the 1870s were from the Montosoli area and his family, originally farmers rather than winemakers, were one of the 12 producers to form the consorzio helping the wine to gain its DOC status in 1962. They are obviously proud of their heritage and significant role in the development of the wine, particularly as founders of the DOC who also have vines in the original area of production. The label they use celebrates this heritage depicting the bell tower in Montalcino harking back to the original label design used on all Montalcino (they were given special dispensation to use it).
Above the roof of the winery loomed the most enormous crane and Francesco called us over to look at the huge clay pit that had been dug out behind their house for a new cellar, which they hoped to have ready for next year’s vintage. It was also a way of showing us the different types of clay in the vineyard. Looking down into the vast abyss, it was hard to picture it covered over and primed ready to receive next year’s grapes. But Francesco is full of energy and dynamism, so I’m sure he’ll make it happen.
Talking of vintages, it was time to go and taste.
Would the real sangiovese please stand up!
But before we got down to business, there was one more important lesson; one which we would hear over and over again during our four-day trip and which was key to understanding what makes Tuscany one of the great classic wine regions.
Sebastian was explaining to us that in terms of style, Canalicchio di Sopra’s wines have something in common with red Burgundy – elegant, with a lightness of touch, not over-blown or over-extracted (a criticism that can be levelled at a good deal of Brunello!).
Admitting to being a big Burgundy fan, Francesco took up the point being made suggesting that three of the world’s best red wines (in his opinion) are made from three of the most problematic grape varieties – pinot noir, nebbiolo and sangiovese.
‘Because the grapes are not constant you get a greater variety. The grapes are more fickle and susceptible to their terroir and to weather conditions so they give a greater expression of where they are grown.’
Aha! I had never thought about wines in this way, but it made total sense and gave a whole new perspective for me at least – a light-bulb moment in my 26-year wine vocation!
The desire to let the terroir be expressed through the wine had led to a change in the way they make their wine, Francesco went on to explain. Now, the aim is for more purity of fruit and cleanliness in the wines, changing barrels more frequently, controlling temperatures during fermentation. ‘Classic, rather than super-traditional’ was how he summed up their approach.
We started with the 2014 Rosso de Montalcino. The Rosso is usually declassified Brunello di Montalcino, often made from young vines and should be a producer’s calling card, says Francesco. 2014 was a tricky vintage throughout Italy, but Francesco’s Rosso, though lighter in colour than it would perhaps usually be, had a lovely red-fruit character and definite elegance.
Moving on to the 2011 Rosso di Montalcino, we were treated to something of the ‘balsamico’ character that Francesco had said was a hallmark of his wines. By balsamico, he means a savoury character to the fruit, nothing to do with the vinegar of the same name! A very different vintage for this area produced a lovely pruney, meaty wine with a lot more chocolatey richness and a hint of coffee on the finish. The 2011 Brunello di Montalcino was still a little closed at this stage but with big, rich, powerful fruit, eliciting a few oohs and ahhs from the team!
2012 – an extreme vintage
Next came the 2012 vintage, described as ‘extreme’ by Francesco…’nothing was normal; everything was irregular!’ The winter was warm with no days below 0?C (they usually get around 30 days below zero), then in the middle of February they had lots of snow. They were concerned they might lose their olive trees. Then there were five months without rain and they thought they’d lose everything. Vines went into survival mode, all the energy going into the plant rather than the grapes. At the end of August came a couple days of rain which woke up the vines, then September was perfect. Phew!
Francesco said that 70% of the quality of a vintage is made in September, so there were sighs of relief all round.
So what was the final result of this crazy vintage? Francesco said that as a young winemaker (his first vintage was 2007), there was no precedent for these kind of conditions. With the help of the winery’s consultant they managed to make a good wine which, though a rather tough at first, is now opening out and showing great balance. It was an important lesson and a vintage that they will learn from as there are likely to be more extreme vintages in the future.
The 2012 Brunello di Montalcino had the aroma of a hot vintage but the balance of a more even year on the palate; ripe, full-on fruit with a savoury character and spicy finish showing just a hint of liquorice, it was showing well.
The 2016 vintage – early insights
Before leaving and a quick tour of the cellar, Francesco rushed off to get a sample of the still fermenting 2016 wine, still on its skins 18 days after picking. I was impressed with the members’ enthusiasm to try wine in its early raw state… this lot were keen! Francesco advised not swallowing as fermenting wine can give you an upset tummy and we were only on our first visit of the day!
And how was the 2016 vintage? Well, obviously, these are early days, but Francesco, like many of the winemakers we were to chat to over the coming days, was pretty pleased with the wine. It isn’t going to be the block-buster that 2015 was, and quantities are reduced a little, but all seemed pretty happy with the outcome.
Gianni Brunelli – a local hero
Onwards and upwards. We wound our way up to the hilltop town of Montalcino and on to the charmingly positioned property of Gianni Brunelli on a ridge looking out towards Monte Amiata in the south.
There are two vineyards: the original one is on the north side of Montalcino (where we’d just come from) at Le Chuise di Sotto. This plot of land was once owned by Gianni Brunelli’s father a share-cropper who was forced to leave his land and find work in the city of Siena in post-war times of hardship. Whenever he could, Gianni’s father, Dino, would come home to tend his vines, but when he died, Gianni’s mother was forced to sell the land. Gianni vowed that one day he’d buy back his father’s couple of hectares of vines. This he and his Sardinian wife, Laura managed to do in 1987.
A tale of passion and determination
Gianni and Laura had met in Siena, she was studying at the university and he worked for Ignis. His dream, though, was to open an old-fashioned inn. He was evidently quite a charismatic man persuading two old shop-keepers on via del Porrione in Siena to let him give it a go in their empty premises just of the main square. With his mother in the kitchen and Laura at his side, the Osteria delle Logge took off and was such a success that the couple were able to fulfil the dream of buying back the family plot in Montalcino. Later they bought the property the second property at Il Podernovone, with its four vineyards, Olmo, Oliva, Quercia and Gelso, all with very different aspects and soils, and with a tumble-down farmhouse which they repaired and made into a charming place to receive visitors.
Sadly, in 2008, Gianni died, leaving Laura heartbroken but determined to carry on realising their shared dream, something she has done with enormous zeal and passion, recently constructing a new winery at Podernovono, built tastefully and sympathetically into the hillside.
When we arrive at the farmhouse, Laura and her winemaker, Adriano, a cousin of Gianni, meet us. Ignoring the now distinctly British-style drizzle, they walk us over to the edge of the ridge to get the lie of the land and view the vines. Even if you knew nothing about winemaking, you’d be able to tell that this is a special spot. But lovely though it is, we were quite pleased to get out of the cold and into the cellar – toasty warm with the heat of the fermenting wine!
Adriano and two young interns took us from vat to barrel to taste the new 2016 wine and then last year’s wines, still in the huge wooden barrels (botti) – it was fascinating to try the wines from the separate vineyards and have the subtle differences pointed out to us, then to taste the young Brunellos made from a blend of these constituent parts. (We have just shipped the 2015 Rosso di Montalcino, Gianni Brunelli, which is superb, by the way!).
Now with our understanding of Brunello di Montalcino firmly established it was time to head back to Laura’s house for a light lunch Italian-style, prepared by Laura’s octogenarian Sardinian mother and friend. Plates of local cured meats and cheeses with wonderful salads of beans and tomatoes, all beautifully enhanced by the estate’s olive oil, were handed around by Laura and Adriano. We were made to feel completely at home and thoroughly spoiled and Laura clearly enjoyed sharing her wine and food with an appreciative, and by now, slightly noisy, crowd – once a restaurateur, always a restaurateur!
Before we left, Laura was keen to know what we’d thought of her new venture – the wine cellar that we’d ogled the night before. It is quite an investment for her, but she explained that she wanted the restaurant to become a venue known not just for its great food and local wines but a place where you could enjoy some of the finest bottles from around the world. Something appreciated by many local winemakers we were to find out, who regularly visit and meet up there.
Fèlsina Berardenga – Chianti on the edge
Our last port of call for the day took us back over the Chianti Classico border; just.
Fèlsina is located in the most southerly part of the Chianti Classico region: a geological ‘frontier land’, situated between the last hills of Chianti Classico and the Crete Senesi. Some of the vineyards here (this is a big estate – 600 hectares, 95 under vine) don’t even fall into the Chianti appellation. But there’s a huge mix of soil types and the southerly position is crucial to the character of the wines which are big, full and rich. Such is the variety of soils and aspects here that the estate bottles a number of single-vineyard wines as part of its portfolio.
We were greeted by Giuseppe Mazzocolin who has been in charge of the family property since the 1970s. Sebastian hadn’t expected to see him, thinking that he may have stepped back from duties, but both men were clearly delighted to see each other, which was rather touching. Giuseppe was once a teacher of Latin and history, he is softly spoken, inherently wise and everything he says is delivered like a line of poetry or philosophy. We were all smitten by the end of our tour!
Jumping back into our coach, we took to the hills, quite literally, climbing up the steep vineyard track so that Giuseppe could give us both a history and geography lesson (or, with hindsight, perhaps it was more like a philosophy lesson!) Fèlsina is an ancient property and Giuseppe wanted to explain its past and how it fits in with the story of this area.
While the heart of Chianti Classico is a wild, forested landscape, here, Giuseppe explained, you see the start of the Crete di Senesi – the low-lying clay hills better known for rolling fields of wheat and a truffles, rather than wine. He said that up here too you get the sea breezes and feel more of a connection with Montalcino than Chianti.
As well as being able to feel the sea breezes, Giuseppe said that he could also feel nature working around him up here: ‘the vines are not passive, I can feel them ‘working’ around me, interacting with the sun and the wind, and all the other elements that surround them…..’
Next we were taken into the historic Rancia farmhouse, which gives its name to the neighbouring vineyard and the wine made from it. Giuseppe explained how the building had once been a Benedictine monastery and that it was sited on an old Franciscan road, a path trodden by pilgrims in the middle ages on their way to Jerusalem or Santiago di Compostela. At one time, as often was the case with monasteries, the building became not just a hostel but a hospital – according to ancient documents, one of the first in Europe.
Giuseppe explained how Rancia is derived from the same word as ‘grange’ with its associations with both granaries and Granges (places to stay). But also, this land was traditionally share-cropped and agricultural land was organised into different ‘grangia’ or units. This was the way the land was worked for centuries up until comparatively recently.
Indeed, the war and post-war periods of poverty hit rural communities hard, but it was the terrible frosts of 1957 which killed off the olive groves that was the final nail in the coffin. At the time, olive oil was more important commercially than wine, in fact wine wasn’t commercialised as such but was produced for home consumption. Even without the devastating frosts, olive oil could not sustain the communities so this was a period of mass emigration both to the cities and abroad.
In 1966 Giuseppe’s father-in-law Domenico Poggiali took the brave step of buying the estate in a period when agriculture was really struggling. Domenico had made his money in logging and sheep-farming, but this new project was by no means one of vanity, he was determined to make great wine and olive oil with a focus on quality from the start. He employed a young team and later, some of the country’s top oenological consultants and his son-in-law, Giuseppe would come at the weekends before giving up teaching Latin and Greek to move here permanently in the late 1970s.
He spent time talking to some of the old farmers that were still around, learning his craft and finding out about the land from the people who had worked it for centuries.
One of the most important things they recognised was the rich diversity of different clones of sangiovese they had across their vineyards. They set about preserving these, identifying the best for propagating using massale selection and establishing the best sites for each type of plant. The work carries on; the attention to detail and respect for the land shines through in the wines as we would see later.
Pioneers of olive oil production
Making our way back down to Fèlsina’s ancient cellars we passed through an avenue of olive trees. Giuseppe explained that the property has more than 8,000 trees and that they were one of the first to identify different varieties and to bottle these separately. Since 2002 they have worked hard to establish the best sites for each variety (Italy has more than 600 different varieties!).
If Giuseppe had been passionate about wine and the vineyards, when he started to talk about olive oil he became even more animated, declaring that this was going to be his focus from now on. ‘There is still so much work to be done here,’ he declared, ‘we’ve barely scratched the surface; olive oil is what connects us to our past, it has been produced for millennia.’
We asked when they would be harvesting the olives, noticing that some of the fruit was black and some still green. Giuseppe explained that the best time to pick the olives is when they are just changing colour, ‘this is when the polyphenols are at their highest, making a product that tastes great and is also good you.’
But he went on to say that the most crucial aspect of olive oil production is getting the olives to the mill immediately, saying that ‘the best olive oil is on the tree!’
We had a quick tour of the ancient winery and ageing cellar (it was built around the middle ages, but they don’t know exactly when – there’s no documentation about it) with its rather incongruous modern art installation (not sure Giuseppe approved!) and steeply sloping floor down which to roll the barrels. Then we were a little relieved to go indoors out of the drizzle to taste, not just the wine, but the amazing olive oil too.
Single-varietal olive oils
This was a first for us all and Giuseppe guided us through the best way to taste the oils, each laid out in tiny polystyrene lidded cups before us. He told us to lift the lid, poke our noses in and inhale deeply to get the aromas before finally tasting (I found this easier when bread appeared to dip into the oils).
Pendolino – one of the most widely planted varieties in Italy, this is one of the most delicate too. Gentle, slightly sweetish flavour and delicate nutty character – good with fish or white meat, Guisseppe told us.
Leccino – also widely grown and quite delicate with more herbal notes, this too is ideal with chicken or veal dishes but also great on salads and with poached fish dishes.
Moraiolo – very common in Tuscany, this is quite a peppery olive oil; the classic choice for drizzling over a plate of mixed Tuscan starters or grilled meat.
Raggiolo – this ancient Tuscan variety has a fiery kick – a little like biting into rocket leaves and would be lovely drizzled over grilled vegetables, meat or fish or as an accompaniment to typically Mediterranean cooking.
As the first company to bottle single varietal olive oils, Fèlsina are certainly at the vanguard of top-quality olive oil production, but Giuseppe thinks there is still vast untapped potential in this area and now wants to dedicate the rest of his days to realising this. If this is a foretaste of what’s to come, it is going to be very exciting to see what he can achieve.
The Fèlsina wines
Next we were on to the wines, starting with the estate’s IGT Toscana chardonnay, I Sistri, in the 2014 vintage. This, their only white, is made from French clones of chardonnay fermented in barrel and given batonnage (lees stiring) and bottle age before release. It’s creamy apricot and melon flavours are topped off with a lick of lime and tangy, salty finish. It went down well with the team.
When one of us asked Giuseppe about the name, he said that he said that the Sistri were ancient instruments dedicated to the Isis, goddess of agriculture, fertility and rebirth, but also that it was a nod to a line of poetry by Giovanni Pascoli where he describes the sound of the wind blowing through a field of wheat; something which seem particularly apt for this vineyard which is surrounded by wheat fields.
Next came the estate’s Chianti Classico Fèlsina Berardenga 2014 DOCG (we currently list the 2013). Despite the tricky weather in 2014, the wine showed really well, demonstrating admirably some true Chianti characteristics; aromas of roses and redcurrants with a slight herbaceous edge.
We followed this with the single-vineyard Rancia Chianti Classico Riserva 2013 DOCG. The fruit for this wine had come from the vineyard we had driven up to earlier and was a notable step up from the straight Chianti and from a riper vintage too. Full, powerful with silky tannins and a long finish, it put smiles on our faces!
Fontalloro 2013 IGP Toscana came next and is from vineyards straddling the Chianti Classico and the Chianti Colli Senesi denomination and as such is highly representative of what it is that makes the Fèlsina wines distinctive; sangiovese ‘on the edge’! It displayed earthy, truffley flavours and spice on the finish – a wine to cellar and enjoy with rich dishes.
The next wine was the estate’s Gran Selezione Chianti Classico Colonia 2013. Having spent 30 months in new oak, this is smooth yet full-bodied with full-throttle delicious red cherry fruit. We were starting to get hungry!
Before we left, Giuseppe pulled out a 2005 Rancia Chianti Classico to show us how these wines develop. It was a real revelation and a great demonstration to the members who hadn’t tried Chianti with age before – smoky, meaty with hints of star anise and black pepper, it was a real treat.
Totally besotted with the poetic and lyrical Giuseppe and the equally evocative Fèlsina wines and olive oils, we took our leave and headed back to the coach, Siena-bound. After all this wine tasting we had worked up quite an appetite. We were all looking forward to walking into town for our dinner.
Tomorrow is another day and for us it would entail heading into the heart of Chianti Classico, to visit Castello di Brolio, where modern-day Chianti was born, Isole e Olena and the always fascinating Paolo de Marchi and Fontodi, who we had learned were still picking!
News & Content Editor
Part two will follow soon. In the meantime, if you enjoy finding out what goes on behind the scenes on our wine buyers’ visits to our winemakers, visit the Travels in Wine™ pages on our website.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
It was a wonderful start to our Douro trip. Thank you, Taylor’s!
Recruitment & Retention Manager
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
What 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.
‘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.
Our 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.
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
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.’
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.
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.
To 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…
The pristine and stylish new winery built in 1986…
…and ultra traditional ageing in the vast cellars, which contain no less than 20,000 barrels of wine (the equivalent of 6 million bottles!).
The barrel ageing is followed by bottle ageing before release. The Gran Reserva 904 ages in bottle for over 5 years.
Tasting, including a special preview of the new 2004 vintage of Ardanza (not yet released).
Next stop: Bodegas Muga, with Jorge Muga.
Admiring the vineyards by the River Ebro in the heart of Rioja.
A light tipple and bite to eat ? Muga?s refreshing Rosado (drunk in the traditional el porron and vineyard-grilled Chorizo.
Back to the winery for a tour and lesson on barrel making.
Finally, a wonderful local Rioja lunch with some delicious wines.
Until tomorrow, Salud!
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).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.
BollingerWhat 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.
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.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.
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.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.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…