As the market for wine in the UK and Ireland continues to grow, so does the number of discriminating consumers who demand more than the pedestrian offerings of the big brands or those producers whose greatest skill appears to lie in cutting corners to meet low price points, with the inevitable loss in quality that entails. For us, the most intriguing aspect of good wine is its potential for originality and we still think of interesting wine as an artisanal rather than an industrial product. As such we are committed 'terroiristes', secure in the belief that a wine's uniqueness ultimately results from its place of origin and the joint influences of climate and soil when properly harnessed to good vineyard management. The voice of a given 'terroir' is thus the expression of a proper wine's own sense of place.
Furthermore, we recognise too that this voice is a quiet one, a subtle sound that is easily drowned by winemakers who interfere too much. We therefore look for intelligent and sensitive wine producers who allow this voice to be heard, who recognise that the old-fashioned virtues of elegance, balance and restraint are those that stand the test of time and who share our view that delicacy is a more difficult, but ultimately more satisfying result than sheer power. The overextracted designer blockbuster is the arch enemy of the drinker who wishes his wine to be refined and refreshing.
Our independence ensures that we buy on the basis of our own experience and conviction rather than that of other wine critics, however well respected. We are unimpressed by claims to be ‘award-winning’ or ‘world class’ and we are not interested in scores, since they so often reflect levels of concentration rather than finesse, two concepts that should never be confused.
The growers in our stable are selected by us because they share that belief in what is essential to real wine as opposed to the brain-dead brand. They want their wines to be individual, unique expressions and they have the intelligence, the expertise and the magic ingredient of intuition required to achieve that goal. In the words of Jean-Claude Berrouet, the winemaking hand behind Chateau Petrus for many years.
“Wine has the capacity to tell a story – of its soil, its origin, of the weather when it was made. My obsession is that any wine I make should be authentic and original. The winemaker should be humble. Wines should not express the character of the person who makes them. They are the story of a piece of ground, a region and a year.” True, but we must not forget that the ‘genius loci’ can only be released through human intervention, so we should pay tribute to our great small growers by recalling the words of the wise Professor Peynaud “Le vin est le reflet de ce qui sait le proprietaire.”
I have revised some of my previous perceptions concerning Champagne in recent years and taken a closer look at smaller growers. The Champagne industry is somewhat bizarre in that around 80% of the grapes are grown by people who have no say in selling the wine from which those grapes are made, and 80% of the wine is sold by people who have little direct control over the grapes responsible. This is a potentially dangerous recipe for it makes it likely that corners will be cut on the path to quality and that greed will determine the priorities of those in positions of responsibility. Consequently it may come as little surprise that the standard of vineyard management in much of the region leaves a great deal to be desired and in many instances the maximum permitted yields have been scandalously abused.
Cheap Champagne can be achieved by a variety of undesirable methods, to wit the use of over-pressed grapes of low quality and wine that is released too soon, with its character dominated by raw acidity and an indigestible gassiness. Sadly the powerful image of the mere word Champagne on the label allows producers to get away with it.
No less an authority that Christian Pol Roger once told me that his favourite source of chardonnay grapes for Champagne was the ‘grand cru’ classified village of Cramant – ‘a diamond’ was how he put it. And indeed, as Michael Edwards says in his most authoritative guide to the finest wines of Champagne, “In the perfectionist, uncompromising hands of the Lilberts, the wines have the purity and hardness of a diamond when young, but given enough time they are revealed as exquisite, crystalline expressions of great Chardonnay.” He goes on to say that the “dynamic, racy Champagnes of the hilltop village of Cramant have no finer exponent than the Lilbert family.” This corroborates my own view that it is the chardonnay grape that contributes the greatest degree of finesse to Champagne.
Bertrand Lilbert gets the best out of their small holding of just 3.5 well sited hectares of vines with an average age of 40 years. No excessive yields here then, just expertise and minute attention to detail in order to realise the true potential of the grapes with wines of magnificent purity. Since we are asked to pay too high a price for the big names, we therefore need to seek out those which are less familiar and to try and identify small producers who have vines that are both well situated and properly looked after.
NV BRUT Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
Saint Emilion & Bourg-sur-Sironde
My happy collaboration with this charming genius dates from his debut at Tertre Roteboeuf in the late ‘70s and I have been richly rewarded with an unbroken succession of over 30 vintages, each of them a perfect expression of both the vineyard and the vintage. There are no secrets to his success beyond the minute attention to detail at every stage and a willingness to devote more man hours per vine than any other Bordeaux vineyard I know in order to produce fruit with perfect physiological maturity by the time of harvest. His obvious passion is backed up by his profound understanding of his own ‘terroir’ and the ‘savoir faire’ needed to realise its full potential. I have learnt more from him than anyone about the things that can turn a good wine into a great one.
Most importantly, in his efforts to exagerate the character of the vineyard and the individual vintage, he manages to achieve spectacularly successful results without recourse to the fashion for overextraction that has in my view blighted so much modern winemaking by destroying the subtle nuances of character that distinguish the wine of one ‘cru’ from another. As a result his wines never lose their sense of originality and they have the balance and structure that allow them proper longevity. He appears to me to be particularly adept at dealing with the more difficult vintages and it is often in such years that his wine stands out from the field. 1997 is a special favourite of mine and I think that 2007 will prove even better.
An accurate tasting note from Michael Schuster for the 2005 vintage of Tertre Roteboeuf sums up the wine very well, and not just in that vintage when even the less talented producers had to be seriously incompetent not to succeed.
“…complex, refined, ripe and subtle nose; very rich and concentrated, but exceptionally silky in texture – nothing to “get in the way” of the drinker’s pleasure. Long, sweetly ripe, intensely flavoured, all the while remaining graceful and fresh; a wine of great purity, racy complexity, mouth-coating scent and splendid length. For all its intensity and presence, this impresses with a feeling of being absolutely “natural”. Wonderful. First Growth quality.”
As for his other vineyard on the finest ‘terroir’ of Bourg, Roc de Cambes, and its somewhat lighter sibling vineyard at the foot of the slope, Domaine de Cambes, this has set a new standard for the Cotes de Bourg appellation during the 20 years of the Mitjavile ownership and the wine fully merits comparison with the greatest growths of the Bordeaux winefield. As such it still represents something of a bargain for the true enthusiast.
These wines are offered ‘en primeur’ each year in the spring following the vintage and our generous allocation is usually oversubscribed. We keep a small library of back vintages in order to be able to offer small quantities of these wines after bottling. If you are interested, please ask for details of prices and availability.
DOMAINE DE CAMBES Bordeaux
ROC DE CAMBES Cotes de Bourg
TERTRE ROTEBOEUF St Emilion
St. georges st emilion
Pascal is one of my oldest and wisest winemaking friends in the Bordeaux region. At a remarkably young age he was appointed as winemaker at Chateau Ausone by Madame Dubois-Challon and after Alain Vauthier took control of the chateau, Pascal continued as manager and then proprietor of Chateau Belair, immediately next door, which was left to him by Madame Dubois-Challon in her will, an obvious tribute to his skill and integrity.
Philosophical purists like Pascal are a relatively rare breed, disinterested by the impatient pursuit of image and status. He makes wines that are a true expression of their Bordeaux ‘terroirs’ rather than an over exaggerated travesty of them and as such they sometimes demand a little patience from the buyer. That patience is always rewarded.
At a recent lunch at which I served a succession of rather grand wines to a discriminating group of friends, the 1979 Chateau Ausone made by Pascal Delbeck was arguably the finest wine of the day, but it has taken 3 decades to achieve its potential. As a young wine it would no doubt have received a relatively modest score from the most celebrated commentators.
I am however happy to report that his 2007 Tour du Pas St Georges does not demand to be laid down for decades, since it is a fine example of right bank claret in a charming and relatively precocious vintage, harvested after the long growing season of a cool summer followed by a perfect autumn. The price is as modest as the wine’s creator.
CHATEAU TOUR DU PAS ST GEORGES - St Georges St Emilion
Chateau guillot clauzel
A strong arm could throw a stone from this vineyard into its illustrious, and infinitely more expensive neighbour across the way, Le Pin, and at barely more than one hectare it is currently the second smallest vineyard in the world that features in my selections. An average annual production fills about 15 casks, and I do my best to get myname on a couple of them, the equivalent of just about 50 dozen bottles. Since its reputation can still be regarded as confidential rather than overinflated, the price does not yet make me wince when it is announced and the quality is an example of the good value that can still occasionally be found in Bordeaux if you are lucky. The wine shows that generous depth of colour that is typical of Pomerol, with lovely classic plummy merlot fruit on the nose and palate and no horrid jammy overconcentration. With rather more clay in the soil here than at Le Pin next door, there is less of the kind of drought stress that wrecked much Pomerol in the heat wave of 2003.
“Some real nerve and minerality here. Really interesting and, most unusually in 2009, there is a lovely length to this wine. Really pretty, nice and complex.”
(Jancis Robinson- 17 marks out of a possible 20)
CHATEAU GUILLOT CLAUZEL
Martet lies in a pretty position just south of the Dordogne between Castillon-le-Bataille and St Foy-La-Grande, with some 25 hectares of vines on well drained slopes. The vineyard was purchased about 20 years ago by Patrick de Coninck, a most amiable and intelligent Belgian wine merchant who had the good sense to hire Louis Mitjavile (son of Francois of Tertre Roteboeuf in St Emilion) as consultant and undertook radical restructuring of the vineyard, replacing the unsuitable late ripening cabernets with merlot, trained low at a density of 5500 plants to the hectare. There are 3 hectares of white varieties, sauvignon, semillon and muscadelle, which produce an excellent fresh and fruity dry white wine at an attractive price. Meticulous attention to detail in both vineyard and cellar is clearly evident and accounts for a final quality that is far superior to the normal standard in this area.
The red wines are made from 100% merlot, the fruit from the young vines being destined to produce the precocious second wine, while the ‘Reserve’ wine undergoes an elevage in new oak which gives it the structure for a long age in bottle. It is, in fact, a wine that boxes well above the weight of its modest appellation.
CHATEAU MARTET Blanc
LES HAUTS DE MARTET
CHATEAU MARTET ‘Reserve de la Famille’
Chateau puy castera
I have followed the progress of this family owned and managed estate for almost 30 years now and it has been a reliable source of that increasingly rare item, decent claret at a modest price.
Alix Mares, as capable as she is obliging, shows that it is still possible to find a chateau in the Haut Medoc that is not suffering from an obsession with its image and status in the hierarchy and as a result of this rare instance of sanity it is happy to produce precociously charming wine at an equally attractive price. Not surprisingly the wine has developed a loyal following and it is not unheard of for even private customers to order a dozen cases of each vintage. This is not the sort of claret that demands a decade or two in the bottle before it becomes drinkable. The fruit is always on top of the structure and is never burdened with an excess of tannin or new oak.
Situated close to the boundaries of Pauillac and St Estephe, this ‘cru bourgeois’ property derives its name from two ancient words, ‘Puy’ meaning ‘tertre’or hillock, and ‘Castera’ as in ‘castrum’, the latin word for a camp or fort. The 28 hectares of vineyard are planted with the traditional Medocain mix of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. The consulting oenologist is M. Boissenot, the most discreet and distinguished advisor to many, if not, most of the top chateaux in the Medoc, so you will not see anything flashy or exaggerated in these wines. They are made with drinkers in mind, rather than investors.
PUY CASTERA Cru Bourgeois Haut-Medoc
A wine that is frequently superior to several of the classed growths of Margaux, Monbrison consistently produces wines with elegance, the classic attribute of this commune. Laurent Vonderheyden has proved himself a very capable successor to his brother Jean-Luc who was in charge here when I first visited the property over 20 years ago, prior to his untimely death from leukaemia. Their mother Elisabeth Davis, once released an anti-hail rocket into a threatening cloud and inadvertently hit an aircraft that had just taken off from Bordeaux’s Merignac airport. Hail can indeed be a serious problem in this part of the Medoc.
In addition to the occasional purchaser of the ‘grand vin’ here, I also buy the excellent declassified ‘Margaux de Monbrison’. This wine shows the soft feminine elegance of textbook Margaux, and has a soft price to match and a style that is perfect for immediate drinking.
It may only be classed as a ‘generic’Margaux, but at least we know it is the produce of a single ‘terroir’ rather than some anonymous blend.
MARGAUX DE MONBRISON
Domaine De Chevalier
This estate remains an oasis of sanity in the Bordeaux market place, secure in the knowledge that it has a loyal following among enthusiasts who continue to prefer their claret to be elegant rather than point-scoring. The vineyard itself lies tucked away just to the southwest of Léognan, bordered by the pine forests of the Landes. Of its 42 or so hectares, just 5 produce grapes for their celebrated white wine (about 70% sauvignon to 30% semillon), with the rest being devoted to red grapes (64% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 3% cabernet, 3% petit verdot), planted very dense at 10,000 to the hectare and trained extremely close to the dark gravelly soil. Frost can be a serious problem here, as it was in 1982.
There has been a comforting continuity of management here, for a long time under the careful stewardship of the civilised Claude Ricard who inherited it in 1948 at the age of 21, and then seamlessly under Olivier Bernard who took over the reins in 1983 at the age of 23, most ably assisted today by Remi Edange. This is an estate that one can follow with supreme confidence, in the knowledge that the less fashionable vintages (e.g. 2002, 2007) will be every bit as rewarding as the so-called ‘grandes années.’
DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER Rouge
DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER Blanc
Chateau Phelan Segur
It has often been said that the best vineyards in the Medoc can see the estuary of the Gironde, in which case Phelan certainly qualifies, lying on gentle slopes of pebbles and gravel with sandy clay, underpinned by a marine sediment known as ‘St Estephe chalk’. Under the ownership and hands on management of Thierry Gardinier, no expense has been spared to realise the proper potential of the vineyard. The wine offers classic St Estephe character and excellent quality at a much more sensible price than that which now prevails at its three most famous neighbours in the commune. Every January I take part in a blind tasting of all the better known Bordeaux wines from a single vintage a year and a bit on from the bottling. In the 2005 I noted with pleasure that my high score for Phelan Segur was within half a point of that for Lafite Rothschild which sells for at least 20 times a much.
CHATEAU PHELAN SEGUR
Domaine des Terres Dorees
This small, but very dynamic grower’s star has been one of the relatively few bright lights in the Beaujolais firmament during the past two decades, for he set himself standards far above those which had been allowed to prevail in the wake of the craze for Beaujolais Nouveau and which contributed to a decline in quality, reputation and popularity for this region.
Knowledgeable drinkers will know that good Beaujolais is one of the most satisfying and easily affordable wines on the planet, the perfect ‘jug’ wine if you like, ideal for uncomplicated refreshment. No other region in the world seems to be bothered to try and excel with the gamay grape, and yet a good gamay wine is in my view a much better bet than an ordinary and more expensive pinot noir. I hope that Jean-Paul’s wines will show why we think so. His rather restless, inquisitive, demanding nature has made him a maverick thorn in the flesh of the ‘gratte-papiers’ at the Institut National d’Appellation Controlée and their subsidiary fraud squad by whom he is regularly persecuted on the grounds of making wine that is ‘atypique’ for the region. It is of course precisely because his wines are so much better than what has become typical that we admire them so much and have bought them with such enthusiasm for nearly twenty vintages.
The ‘Cuvée Première’ made from the younger vines is made in a traditional light Beaujolais style designed to emphasise the appeal of the youthful primary fruit, with modest alcohol and fresh natural acidity. It is mercifully unmarked by the horrid signature of the commercial yeast strains that have reduced so much industrial Beaujolais to that crude ‘bananas and bubblegum’ style which makes it rather hard to imagine that the wine was even made from grapes. Drink this young and slightly cool to show the wine at its best. The slightly more serious ‘Cuvée L’Ancien’ is vinified in a more northern Burgundian manner, with some pre-fermentation cold-soaking of the grapes and a light ‘pigeage’ to extract extra colour, flavour and structure from the skins. The wine is bottled some months later than the previous wine and has much better potential for interesting development in bottle. It can sometimes rival a pinot noir wine after a few years in bottle and I like to buy it in magnums when I can.
Not only does Jean-Paul excel with the gamay grape, but his efforts with chardonnay rival those of many a more prestigious Burgundian appellation. His basic unoaked Beaujolais Blanc is a match for the best Macon Villages while the Cuvée ‘En Fut’ can stand in for a modest Meursault, but at half the price of that more famous wine.
BEAUJOLAIS BLANC Chardonnay
BEAUJOLAIS BLANC En Fut
BEAUJOLAIS Cuvée Premiére
COTE DE BROUILLY
BOURGOGNE PINOT NOIR
The deep soils and the very old vines, some centenarian, make for wines of profound depth and potential longevity here, illustrating the particular character of the wines of this ‘cru’ which with age often begin to resemble more prestigious pinot noir burgundies from further north. Top class ‘cru’ Beaujolais gets my vote for the best value red wine from France today.
This important domaine of 26 hectares provides the quintessential expression of gamay grapes grown on decomposed granite soils and steep slopes at a higher altitude than that of the other top ten Beaujolais ‘crus. The hallmarks are a very fruity perfume, light tannin and alcohol, and great elegance. Usually drunk within a year or two of the vintage, the wines nevertheless have the capacity to age well for several years, depending on the character of the vintage. Jean-Pierre Large who manages the domaine confidently expects the wonderful 2009 to last for 20 years! The problem is that it is already utterly irresistible.
Clos de la roilette
Alain Coudert adores good burgundy and is proud when the wine from his old gamay vines here merits comparison with wines from more famous Cote d’Or villages to the north, as they very frequently do when allowed a decade or so in bottle. How much better it is to have gamay rather than poor pinot. These vines are sited below the village and close to the boundary with Moulin-a-Vent, with whose wines they may invite close comparison so do not be surprised if you find a much darker colour here than in what may be regarded as more typical Fleurie wines, many of which come from much cooler sites at higher altitudes resulting in a style that is closer to Chiroubles. Roilette Fleurie is robust and generous rather than pale and weedy.
This is a small domaineof some 6.5 hectares that only appeared recently on my radar when Madame Fornerot took the trouble to contact me. I went to visit them one November at rather short notice and with more hope than expectation. To say that I was pleasantly surprised would be something of an understatement for I was immediately struck by the purity and precision of the fruit and formed a firm impression that these were extremely honest and natural expressions of their individual ‘terroirs’ with nothing forced about them. They have not hitherto been imported by a UK merchant so it gives me great pleasure to be able to introduce them. Not being a big name, the prices are extremely modest for the quality on offer.
BOURGOGNE PINOT NOIR Vieilles Vignes
COTE DE BEAUNE VILLAGES
SANTENAY Saint Jean
SANTENAY 1er cru Beauregard
This domaine tends to release its wines a year or two later than most do today, allowing for a longer ‘elevage’ before bottling. This patience pays dividends and rewards the drinker with increased flavour, texture, vitality and longevity.
Les Temps Perdus
If you prefer wines where the fruit is not allowed to be obscured by oak, then you should try the wines of Clotilde Davenne, since she avoids the use of wood completely in her cellar, thus allowing the wines a better chance of reflecting their individual ‘terroirs’. These are wines of real purity and precision, untramelled by any artifices of cosmetic winemaking, realised by the hand of a skilled and sensitive ‘vigneronne’.
Her small cellar is tucked away in the hamlet of Prehy, the southernmost of the Chablis communes. After 17 years as oenologist at the much larger cellars of Jean-Marc Brocard, she has proved herself more than capable of launching out on her own, exploiting a growing domaine of her own and buying in grapes from other selected vineyards when the opportunity arises.
She herself confesses to a ‘faiblesse’ for sauvignon blanc and has a particular ‘penchant’ for her St Bris, truly a match for a good Sancerre of Pouilly Fumé, for a reminder that the berries of a sauvignon vine, with their notes of redcurrant and gooseberry, have much more flavour than those of the chardonnay. Her aligoté is from 75 year old vines near St Bris, while the Bourgogne Blanc is from vines that grow on Kimmeridge soils just a farm track’s width outside the officially delineated zone of Chablis.
Red grapes are in a small minority in this northern outpost of Burgundy, but can be fascinatingand I am personally a fan of the renowned wines of Irancy, where the pinot noir produces wines with a tart cherry character that is intriguing and refreshing. They demand a year or three in bottle in order to show their best. I am equally fond of Clotilde’s straight Bourgogne Rouge Cotes d’Auxerre with its light colour and rather peppery fruit character with a hint of grapefruit which reminds me of Ruchottes-Chambertain. It comes from 50 year old vines grown in the ‘lieu-dit’ of Les Rosiers, a south facing slope parallel to Irancy itself.
SAINT BRIS (Sauvignon)
CHABLIS 1er Cru Montmains
CHABLIS Grand Cru
BOURGOGNE ROUGE Cotes d’Auxerre
The wines of Champy continue to improve and impress me. Their own vineyard domaine is now a significant one of 27 hectares and they have close management control over the fruit from the vines that they do not own themselves. They are currently going through the process of organic certification. Dimitri Bazas is a winemaker who inspires confidence and has an ever surer touch with the fruit at his disposal.
BOURGOGNE CHARDONNAY ‘Signature’
SAINT AUBIN 1er Cru ‘Les Castets’
CHASSAGNE MONTRACHET 1er Cru ‘Les Chenevottes’
BOURGOGNE PINOT NOIR ‘Signature’
BEAUNE 1er Cru ‘Les Champs Pimonts’
GEVREY CHAMBERTIN ‘Vieilles Vignes’
POMMARD 1er Cru ‘Les Grands Epenots’
Claudie’s roots as a Burgundian ‘vigneronne’ go deep. She is the 8th generation of her family to exploit their domaine and the daughter of Laurence Jobard, for many years responsible for the high quality of the wines at the prestigious Beaune firm of Joseph Drouhin.
The village of Rully is a reliable source of good and affordable Burgundy, both red and white, and Claudie’s wines are better than exemplary. The Rully Blanc ‘La Folie’ is delicately floral and delicious to drink in its youth. Her Rully ‘La Chaume’ Rouge is instantly appealing, with pinot perfumes of pretty ‘fruits rouges’ and a classy elegance – a seductive ‘must buy’ in my book with more finesse than one normally expects from this appellation. It offers tremendous value.
RULLY BLANC Montagne La Folie
RULLY ROUGE La Chaume
Domaine de mourchon
I must admit to a degree of bias here, tinged with some sense of responsibility, for when Walter MacKinlay asked me to help him find a good vineyard back in the 80’s this was the place that I eventually urged him to purchase. It is a tribute to his drive and determination that the vineyard is now realising its true potential, something that had never been possible to achieve under its previous ownership. Naturally enough I am keen to come and interfere whenever I have a chance.
My opinion was that this parcel of vineyard, situated on the high ground of the Seguret appellation rather than the lower sandy soils adjacent to the plain below, had the potential to rival the wine of Gigondas. I believe that this has now been proved with the release of the excellent 2007 vintage wines here.Both grenache and syrah thrive here, as one might expect, making wines with plenty of flavour and deep structure. The basic ‘Tradition’ provides satisfying drinking even when young, while the ‘Reserve’ wines reward those with greater patience. The 2010 vintage here is shaping up to be the finest so far.
COTES DU RHONE BLANC La Source
COTES DU RHONE VILLAGES ROSE Loubié
COTES DU RHONE Seguret
COTES DU RHONE VILLAGES Grande Reserve
Domaine st amant
Perched at 500 metres altitude with a fine view of Mont Ventoux to the east and over the jagged peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail to the south, this small vineyard has the most beautiful location of any that I know in France. Well above the scorching heat of the Rhone valley plains below, the vines here produce wines of delicacy rather than weight and they dance off the palate with a display of natural vitality and the aromatic freshness that one expects from a cool site. At this altitude, full maturity becomes a marginal business. The domaine was bought by Jacques Wallut when he retired and is now managed with great charm by his daughter Camille.
LA BORRY Viognier
LES CLAPAS Cotes du Rhone
If you are looking for Rhone wine that is consistently good and sensibly priced, then you are likely to find satisfaction with the wines of Dominique Ay. As an appellation, Gigondas is far from stylistically homogeneous. There are over 70 different producers and all have their own approach. Raspail-Ay falls into the traditional camp, their wines being aged in large old oak ‘foudres’ for up to 24 months. The dominant variety of Gigondas is always grenache, an excellent variety when properly managed, and the backbone and mainstay of the majority of red wines in the southern Rhone valley. Generous is the adjective that always springs to my mind. It makes up 80% of the red wine here, with some mourvedre and syrah being included to improve the overall balance and add a little more complexity. The wines are perfectly approachable soon after bottling, but these are wines that can generally be expected to improve for up to a further decade and often a good deal longer.
The region of the Dentelles de Montmirail remains one of my most favourite in the whole of France and I have never wanted to be without good Gigondas since the first sample that I bought from the local co-operative in the 1970 vintage.
The octogenarian M. Besinet continues to keep a paternal eye on the management of this domaine, or rather combination of three family estates that use the same facilities here on the edge of Vias, a short drive from the old port of Agde, a Mediterranean fishing and trading post no doubt well known to the peripatetic Phoenicians to whom we owe the introduction of the grapevine to southern France in the early part of the first millennium B.C.
For many years these volcanic soils and the wide variety of grape types grown on them have provided us with our most regular source of consistently satisfying wine. The make-up of our ‘cuvée’ may vary slightly from one vintage to the next according to the success of the different varieties available, but the result is always what we are looking for, a wine that will provide regular refreshment without having the hand of a dominant personality that may become irritating when overfamiliar.
The key is to have balance and restraint, never letting any individual variety have too much say but achieving harmony by judicious blending. We are not, for once, looking for individual vineyard expression, or the signature of a single vintage, but for something less assertive, less demanding.
There is a very useful and important place for undemanding wine that asks no questions and does not aspire to be memorable or important. Finding someone capable of producing it consistently for us is difficult, or certainly would be if we did not know about Pierre Besinet. If you are looking for a good ‘house’ wine, you need look no further, unless of course you buy on price rather than quality. The wines are available under a different label if preferred.
THE OX HOUSE Red Vin de Pays d’Oc
THE OX HOUSE White
THE OX HOUSE Rosé
I am a great fan of the grenache grape, and that includes not only the widely planted ‘noir’ version, but also the very much rarer ’blanc’ and ‘gris’ mutations. Grenache is indeed one of the most versatile varieties on the planet, by its nature generous and satisfying, always provided that it is being properly managed of course. It can play the role of both work horse and wonder horse. On the one hand it provides the basis of the majority of French red wine grown in the southern Rhone and the vast swathe of the Languedoc-Roussillon region giving vinosity and flavour and providing a perfect platform for the judicious addition of other varieties that can add further character and complexity, such as syrah or mourvedre, to name but two of the many options available. It reaches perhaps its zenith however when given a Rolls-Royce treatment as a mono-varietal wine in its own right, as illustrated by the extraordinary wine of Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape. In general, grenache does not achieve the reputation it can deserve, no doubt because it is so widely planted and usually lost in a choir rather allowed to sing as a soloist.
It thrives in the foothills of the Pyrenees, both in France and over the border in Spain, and centenarian vines are by no means a rarity. Here at Mont Tauch, even their ‘reserve’ wines, the top of the range which we select, is still firmly in the price category of everyday drinking. The red wine is approachable even when still very young, but usually works best with food rather than as a drink on its own. The white version is as satisfying as many a basic but more expensive white Burgundy, unencumbered by any unnecessary use of oak, and the ‘gris’, or rosé, shows a delicate salmon pink colour with a dry flavour and finish. I can see no good reason, incidentally, for restricting one’s rosé drinking to the so-called summer months, and this wine is a useful candidate for year round refreshment at a friendlier price than many rather overvalued Provençal rosés.
LES GARRIGUES ‘Grande Reserve’ Grenache Noir
LES GARRIGUES ‘Grande Reserve’ Grenache Blanc
LES GARRIGUES ‘Grande Reserve’ Grenache Gris
If you like Sancerre, but find a price tag around £15 higher than you want for regular drinking, then the answer lies in this consistently excellent sauvignon from the Michauds. It has been one of our best selling wines during the past five years or so, showing the most appealing aspects of the grape, with its hints of redcurrant and gooseberry, and avoiding the downside of aggressive grassiness that characterises the majority of central Loire sauvignons. There is still a nice desirable thirst quenching ‘cut’ of acidity however, something that is often lacking in the rather blander mass-produced examples emanating from large scale producers in Chile or South Africa. Nor does it suffer from the somewhat fatiguing intensity, residual sweetness, and occasionally high alcohol of the much praised New Zealand versions of the variety. The Michaud wine, in short, is a wonderfully refreshing wine at all times, delightful as an aperitif by itself with its hints of fresh hedgerows and spring flowers, but versatile also with food. We would not want to be without it at any time of year.
This famous and ancient family domaine is situated in Chavignol, celebrated home also of the goat cheese ‘crottin de chavignol’, (with which their wine goes so well incidentally). It extends over some 24 hectares with 34 different parcels of vineyard, predominantly south facing, with an average age of over 35 years, half growing on flint soils and the other half on rocky limestone. They adhere strictly to the principle of ‘lutte raisonnée’ or sustainable viticulture with regard to the management of their vineyard. No less an authority than our friend Steven Spurrier was bold enough to give them his ‘Best Old World White’ award in Decanter magazine. In our view, it does what great Sancerre ought to do, a wine that transcends the simple nature of the sauvignon blanc grape by turning it into a proper expression of a unique terroir’
Domaine de l’alliance
Daniel Alibrand took over some 5 hectares of vines in the good Sauternes commune of Fargues in 2005, has extended to 7.5 hectares and has shown himself well capable of producing great wines to rival many of the more famous and expensive ‘crus’ in the region. The first vintage I bought was the superb 2007 and that has now been followed, we might even say trumped, by the magnificent 2009 and 2010 vintages. In a blind tasting of all the well known Sauternes of the 2007 vintage in which I participated in January 201l, this wine emerged as the top wine in what we might call the second division, ahead of such excellent wines as Doisy Daene and Nairac which we also rate very highly and frequently purchase. Furthermore, it achieved the same result in January 2012 with the more difficult 2008.
My annual visits to this tiny cellar always demand more time than one might expect for Daniel insists that every single cask is inspected, since they are indeed so individually different, one may be pure sauvignon, another pure semillon, a third pure muscadelle, all with varying degrees of residual sweetness and levels of vibrantly essential acidity, with the final blend always promising to be more than just the sum of its various parts.
Eventually we repair to the kitchen where his wife Valerie shows that she as talented in the kitchen as her husband is in the vineyard and the cellar. And last time there was a 3 month old addition to the Alibrand Family, resting serenely in a cot improvised neatly from an old ‘barrique’ that had previously done service housing the 2005 vintage of Yquem and the 2007 vintage of L’Alliance! Make no mistake, L’Alliance is a new star in the Sauternes firmament and is currently available for a much sweeter price than any of its better known peers.
DOMAINE DE L’ALLIANCE
L’ESQUISSE DE L’ALLIANCE
This leading wine from the Bandol appellation has long held a special place in my cellar and my affections for I have tasted every vintage bottled here since the first one in 1951 and I have probably bought most vintages since about 1970. I begin to feel that I understand the wine, though I am still frequently mystified and intrigued by it and its marvellous potential to outlive even the good wines of Bordeaux.
The rosé wine here has become something of a cult wine, thanks in no small part I suspect to the fanatical enthusiasm shown by Alice Waters’ celebrated restaurant “Chez Panisse” in Berkeley, California, which as a state could certainly swallow the entire annual production. Our own allocation is pathetically small and its devotees are swift to reserve a case most years in advance of its arrival in early summer. We are therefore likely to be out of stock of the rosé for much of the year.
As for the important red wines here, they are all strongly marked by the signature of the mourvedre grape that informs this small appellation and which must by law make up not less than 50% of the wine. The mourvedre is uncompromising, a wine of great structure from both tannin and acidity, rather reductive by nature in contrast to the much more oxidative grenache with which it therefore combines so well to achieve good balance. It was the late Lucien Peyraud here who properly recognised the virtues of this demanding often difficult, but excellent grape and he championed its cause to the lasting benefit of the whole appellation which was under serious threat of extinction in the face of developers and the growing demand for second holiday homes in this sunny Mediterranean corner of France. Vineyard owners could easily see much easier and more profitable returns from the sale of vineyard land to property speculators.
Fortunately however, the growing reputation of Bandol wines, thanks in large part to the courage, skill, determination and charm of the Peyraud family and their exemplary wines, has encouraged other owners to persevere. At Tempier the quality of the wines is arguably even better and more consistently fine under the very capable present direction of Daniel Ravier and we continue to flush out small quantities of the various different cuvées, from the regular red ‘Classique’ to the more individual single vineyard wines from the sites of Le Migoua and La Tourtine. These wines deserve to be regarded as among the great wines of France, bursting with originality and the longevity that comes from their undeniable structure. They can be enjoyed when young, but the real rewards come with full maturity after many years.
BANDOL La Migoua
BANDOL La Tourtine
BANDOL Le Cabassaou
Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella
The fact that this is the first time that I have imported a wine from Valpolicella in over 35 years of wine buying should suggest that I have finally unearthed something of special merit. If the name Valpolicella is not synonymous with high quality in the UK market, that may be due to the offerings that appear on the lists of the less discriminating Italian restaurants, not just in the UK but in Italy itself. Exposure to the mediocrity of much Valpolicella and its neighbouring white wine counterpart Soave may have made many of us somewhat wary of the category. The true potential for good quality exists however in both appellations and it is simply a bit of a challenge to unearth. I cannot pretend that over the years I have made an enormous effort to do so, but I have nevertheless remained at least alert to the possibilities and have now at last found what I was always hoping to find.
Lucia Raimondi is the proud yet modest proprietor of the Villa Monteleone with its 10 hectares of vines at Sant’Ambrogio in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico zone that lies between Verona and Lake Garda. The grape varieties here are corvina and its cousin corvinone, rondinella, croatina and some old molinara.
The vines here, growing on south facing hillsides at 220m altitude have a plant density of some 2500 to the hectare and yield around 4 or 5 kilos per vine. New plantings will be denser and with still fewer kilos per vine. She aims to bottle up to 3000 cases from a normal crop, producing not only Valpolicella Classico, but also some Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto. For the time being I am perfectly content to focus on the basic Valpolicella which strikes me as the most useful wine for our general purposes. I think it is true to say that I have come across no more satisfactory red wine for the moneyanywhere during the past 12 months. Not only is the price extremely modest for the quality, but the style itself is utterly delightful, a reminder of the important virtues of honest simplicity and genuine refreshment. With its fresh acidity allied to pure ripe fruit, its overall delicacy and charm, I find myself wondering why one would ever ask for more from a red wine. If I sold wine by giving scores, how could I give it less than 20/20? It has the charm of the best Beaujolais, but with an immediate softness in contrast to the rather sharper cut of acidity given by gamay grapes growing on granite soils at a latitude north of Lyons.
It is the kind of totally satisfying red wine that I do not tire of drinking, not one of those that almost seem handicapped by the burden of their strong personality, but something that provides a perfect partner for almost any dish and is delightful and digestible as a refreshing drink on its own. It is to this that I turn when I feel like a change from my ‘Ox House’ red. Those of you who may have been disappointed by Valpolicella in the past should cast aside any prejudices and see what I am talking about. Good sommeliers quickly appreciate the advantage of a wine that sings in the glass the moment it is poured and will encourage diners to call for a second bottle. The wine itself is aged for 6 months in stainless steel followed by 6 months in bottle and is thus uncomplicated by any interference from oak.
VALPOLICELLA Classico Superiore D.O.C. ‘Campo Santa Lena’
Every once in a while, if you are looking in the right place, like an experienced truffle hunter, you realise that you have picked up the scent of a truly exceptional winegrower. When this happens there is no time to lose, lest the scent weakens, or a rival hunter gets to the liquid gold before you. It may be a case of careful courtship rather than a quick kill, for each side has some research to do about the other in advance of trying to finalise any partnership. The prospector needs to be sure that the jewel is not a mirage while its owner must be persuaded that his potential client is both professional and trustworthy as well as being philosophically on a compatible wavelength.
In Silvano Bolmida, I recognise a rare talent, exceptional even in a region that is blessed with many fine producers of genuine genius. The more that I talk to him, the more I am reminded of another exceptional talent, Francois Mitjavile of Tertre Roteboeuf in St Emilion, a vineyard of very similar size to that of Bolmida, whose 5 hectares are beautifully sited in the great Barolo commune of Monforte d’Alba. Both men driven by more than average intelligence and curiosity, and the result of such deeply enquiring minds is the development of a profound ‘savoir faire’, an ability to realise the full potential of their exceptionally fine ‘terroirs’.
Like Francois Mitjavile, Silvano Bolmida is a fast learner and it is his understanding of his vineyard that will prove the bedrock of his success. Never afraid to experiment in order to learn, he sees himself neither as a modernist nor a traditionalist, in this area where there has been fierce debate between the two schools of thought during the past three decades. His aim is to analyse in order to understand better, not to ignore the past, but to learn from it and improve on it if possible. He knows that he owes it to these prime-sited vines in the famous subzone of Bussia to ensure that the wines he produces are worthy of their origins and the results have been increasingly spectacular in the five vintages that I have now worked with him.
He produces six different wines with dolcetto, nebbiolo, the finest barbera I know, a proprietary blend of nebbiolo and barbera called Frales, and two fine Barolo wines from the individual and distinct ‘crus’ of Bussia and Vigna dei Fantini, the former being deeper, the latter more ethereal.
The Barolo wines undergo a very protracted fermentation, with up to 50 days on their skins, the effect of which paradoxically, is not the exaggeration of the somewhat fierce nebbiolo grape tannins but the greater refinement of them. As a result, his Barolo is ready to drink when it is released for sale a year after the bottling. The charming young nebbiolo wine spends just ten days on the skins typically, fermenting at a lower temperature to result in a wine of lighter extraction with great fragrance and delicacy. The Frales is also feminine in style rather than masculine, its 60% of nebbiolo mildly dominant over the 40% of barbera both vinified in the same barrel. The Barbera from the Conca del Grillo is simply magnificent, combining power with elegance, and proves that Barbera from a great vineyard can be a good as Barolo, at a significant price advantage for the consumer. All these wines are bottled without filtration.
For the time being these wines remain something of a bargain when compared to many wines of equal quality from top producers in the region. As the Bolmida reputation grows, and it surely will, so no doubt will the prices, so now is a good time to get on board and make room for them in your cellar or buy them in a good restaurant, if you are fortunate enough to find them. As with all great wines, these represent the identity of the vine, the area and the producer to a high level of perfection.
DOLCETTO d’ALBA Manescott
BARBERA d’ALBA Conca del Grillo
BAROLO Vigna dei Fantini
Prosecco has leapt from obscurity to general recognition in the space of about three years in this market. I knew it existed, but the average quality of the rather industrial brews on the market did not inspire us to get involved and it was a chance recommendation from a private client that put me on to the scent of this small family producer situated in the best zone of the region and making delightful fresh wines that are often more suitable to the occasion than even a good glass of champagne. Prosecco should not in fact be considered as a substitute for Champagne in the way a Spanish Cava may often be regarded. It is lighter and more refreshing, with a delicate whiff of fresh pear, and as such makes a brilliant aperitif, with or without a judicious addition of peach juice to turn it into a Bellini, as made famous by Harry’s Bar in Venice, where two rather small glasses will set you back over £30 incidentally. Make your own instead even if you do not have as fine a view as that of the Grand Canal. The pink version, made with marzemino, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, is also delicious, although it cannot legally be labelled Prosecco at present, though I see no good reason why we should not informally call it that for convenience.
PROSECCO Brut Spumante
TOFFOLI Rosé Spumante
It is rare to come across Ligurian wine in the UK, even in good Italian restaurants, for producers are small and their product is largely consumed within the locality, but these charming wines from the Mediterranean coast, crisp, light and deliciously refreshing deserve attention.
The white vermentino is made from the grape of that name, also known in France as rolle. The red is the intriguingly delightful Rossese di Dolceacqua, which has a refreshingly vibrant character that is missing from most if not all of the red wines grown a short distance away to the west over the border in the French Cotes de Provence. Those who enjoy good Beaujolais and our Valpolicella (q.v.) may find this wine also appeals. This small family enterprise with just 4 hectares of vineyard is managed by Fabiana Ramoino with her father Nico and help from her brother Fabrizio. Do not be surprised if you find that we are out of stock.
ROSSESE DI DOLCEACQUA
OLIO EXTRA VERGINE DI OLIVA DA OLIVE TAGGIASCA
GRAPPA DI VERMENTINO
If Piedmont can be said to be Italy’s counterpart to Burgundy, then Tuscany is its Bordeaux. This is not to suggest that the actual wines taste particularly similar, more a reflection of the scale of the vineyard holdings, for Piedmont is a patchwork of small parcels of family-owned vineyards while Tuscany is characterised by much larger and grander estates. If Piedmont is home to the small peasant farmer, Tuscany is the territory of the landed gentry. The English seem to have had a long standing affair with Tuscany, Chiantishire indeed, while remaining almost entirely unfamiliar with the former Duchy of Savoy in the northwest.
In Tuscany we find a level of self-confidence and just occasionally perhaps arrogance, though that is less obvious than in Bordeaux – we also find much wine that is rather too expensive for what it offers in my view. My own search was for something essentially simple and honest, as opposed to overworked, over-oaked and overvalued, and in the wines of Campriano, 17 km to the south of Siena, I have identified what I was looking for. Benedictine monks built the church that stands here before 1000AD and we can be sure that the presence of monks will have meant the planting of vines.
Ranuccio Neri is the very antithesis of arrogance and his wines are equally shy and somewhat self-effacing, without in any way being merely dull. They exude the gentle charm that is still possible to find in this celebrated part of Tuscany. Sensible is perhaps the word that springs to mind. We are happily a long way from the kind of designer-wine mentality that affects more than a few Italian producers.
If you are looking for fireworks, look elsewhere, but if you want a pleasant alternative to a decent claret, then these are wines to consider, especially if you want a wine that will help you dream quietly of vineyards and cypress trees and the extraordinary Tuscan light and landscape. On the farm of 350 hectares, just 15 are devoted to vineyard and 17.5 to olive trees.
CHIANTI Colli Senesi
CHIANTI Colli Senesi Riserva
VINSANTO del Chianti
OLIO EXTRAVERGINE DI OLIVO
Vina Santa Marina
This may be a young estate, but its roots can be traced back to Roman times as the vineyard lies just 8km south of Merida, the capital of the important Roman empire province of Lusitania. The attractive new bodega surrounded by some 59 hectares of vineyard, snuggles up against the granite mass of the Lamoneda mountain, home to a deep forest of holm oak, cork oak, wild olive and other native flora typical of this wild region of southwest Spain, mercifully ignored by the majority of British tourists, but deeply rewarding for any who might be interested in the real Spain rather than the artificiality of the ‘costas’.
As in much of north western Spain, the most important grape variety is the tempranillo, perfectly capable of standing alone to give finesse and delicacy, as illustrated by the young red wine Celtus. Also planted here are cabernet sauvignon to provide powerful fruit intensity and structure and syrah for extra aromatic complexity. An understated dry white wine, Altara is made largely from the montua grape.
Fernandez de Arcaya
This bodega is situated in Navarra, but very close to that province’s boundary with Rioja, a short drive north of Logroño. Though quite a large vineyard by our standards, approaching 100 hectares, this is still very much a family enterprise with many members of the family all mucking in at the various tasks, from driving tractors to keeping the books. The main grape variety planted is tempranillo, but there is also a significant quantity of cabernet sauvignon and it makes a very worthwhile contribution, enough to make valid comparisons with good Bordeaux after a year or so in bottle. In fact, if you are looking for claret but are put off by the price, this is an obvious and most satisfactory alternative, a reminder that is was to this part of Spain that the ‘savoir faire’ of Bordeaux removed itself in the immediate aftermath of the phylloxera epidemic.
VINA PERGUITA Tinto
VINA PERGUITA Tinto Crianza
VINA PERGUITA Tinto Reserva
FERNANDEZ DE ARCAYA Tinto Reserva
Lopez de Heredia
If this magically time-warped bodega did not already exist in today’s winemaking world it would never be invented. The art of controlled oxidative winemaking on this scale has all but vanished in the face of technology and temperature control and a whole style of wine would be lost with it were it not for the stubborn resistance to change that is courageously, and most successfully perpetrated by ultra-traditionalists of this type, a rare, indeed almost extinct breed.
One gets the impression that virtually nothing has changed in winemaking technique since the bodega was first established 135 years ago in 1877 by Rafael Lopez de Heredia y Landera from Santiago in Chile. Their wines today are a glowing tribute to the virtues of patience, tradition and family loyalty, driven not as one might suppose by some sleepy, out of touch dinosaurs, but by the dynamism of the great-grand daughters of the founder, Mercedes and Maria-Jose Lopez de Heredia. The contrast of their vitality and charm with the cobwebs of the cavernous old cellars never ceases to surprise those who visit and the impression left is always indelible, often one of sheer astonishment, so refreshing and refined is the character of the old gran reservas that mature here. Most graduates of modern wine schools would simply be left scratching their heads in disbelief.
Consumers whose experience of wine has been restricted to drinking young fruity wines that are usually little more than facile expressions of a single grape variety may initially be taken aback by wines that display such a different character as these products of extended barrel ageing where the rough young tannins have been polished by maturation in old oak casks and the wines have developed the level of refined aromas and flavours that are only achieved by this type of ‘elevage’. Paradoxically perhaps, the long time spent in wood results in wines that taste much less of oak than younger wines that may have spent only 12 months in a new oak cask. In any case the result here is much sweeter than that of the more brutally obvious oak flavours that so frequently overpower the fruit of many modern wines. Lopez de Heredia wines are an object lesson in the harmonious relationship that can be achieved between wine and wood when it is done with experience. It is indeed an expertise of a very special sort that is practised to perfection at this bodega and no great private wine cellar or good restaurant list should ignore them.
VINA GRAVONIA Blanco
VINA CUBILLO Tinto Crianza
VINA BOSCONIA Tinto Reserva
VINA TONDONIA Tinto Reserva
VINA TONDONIA Gran Reserva
Weingut j. wegeler
The noble riesling grape arguably achieves its purest expression in the cool northern vineyards of Germany, and for those of us who prize the virtues of crisp acidity in perfect fusion with residual sweetness, the Mosel and its Saar and Ruwer tributaries provide the happiest hunting ground of all.
We are talking here about wine for wine’s sake rather its compatibility with food. This is the traditional Germanic approach, rather than the modernist attempt towards drier wines, a movement that still leaves this writer generally unconvinced. Since my early immersion in the wines of the great 1971 vintage in Germany, when my mentor was none other than Dr Otto Loeb of Trier, I have always had a soft spot for great Mosel wines and regarded them as among the most refined and rewarding pleasures in the world of wine. It is therefore rather puzzling to me that these exquisite wines have become so overlooked by the majority of consumers in Britain today. Of course such individual wines, the fruit of great labour and expertise on the world’s steepest vineyard sites, can never be cheap, but in comparison with increasingly standardised and overvalued classed growths from Bordeaux today they seem a remarkable bargain.
Two of the greatest vineyard sites in Germany are unquestionably those of the Sonnenuhr of Wehlen and the Doktor in Bernkastel. The long established Wegeler estate has important holdings in both. For those who want some of their style but at a more modest price there is the Wegeler estate Riesling, a wine that could easily be considered to be of Wehlen quality.
WEGELER ESTATE Mosel Riesling
WEHLENER SONNENUHR Riesling Kabinett
WEHLENER SONNENUHR Riesling Spatlese
BERNKASTELER BADSTUBE Riesling Spatlese
BERNKASTELER DOKTOR Riesling Spatlese
BERNKASTELER DOKTOR Riesling Auslese
While the delicate raciness of fine Mosels are perfect for quiet contemplative sipping on a summer evening, the advent of autumn demands a drink with a little more fire in its belly perhaps. The wines of Franconia fit the bill perfectly, offering fruit with finesse and an earthy spiciness with a healthy level of natural alcohol that makes them well suited to drinking with food. Hardly known in the UK, they invariably prove to be a revelation to consumers who may have formed an idea that German wines are not for them somehow.
The Juliusspital is the most important wine estate in this region. An institution established along the same lines as the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy. It remains a charitable hospital to this day, supported by an estate of 170 hectares of the finest vineyard land in Franconia, the most easterly of Germany’s important wine regions, and consequently the one with the most continental climate, which explains the higher level of natural alcohol and the wines’ greater suitability with food.
It is in Franconia too that we find the world’s finest expression of the silvaner grape, proof that it is capable of true excellence when it is treated with proper respect and planted on the best sites. It gives wine of great character, ripe and spicy with a sweet/sour twist, proper acidity and surprising length of flavours on the palette. The riesling shows the nobility of expression that we expect from the grape, with purity and perfect balance.
If you are not yet aware of the excellence of these wines, we can only urge you to waste no time in seeing why we agree with the comments of Jancis Robinson in the ‘Financial Times’:
“the region that thrilled me most of all in their top quality dry white idiom was Franken….with really convincing, racy, super-clean fruit, a nice touch of earthiness and great balance. It is a shame that so few of these wines manage to escape Germany and find their way on to wine lists abroad, for they make great wines to drink with food. The Franken producer that shone head and shoulders above the others for the vibrancy of its wines was Juliusspital”.
WURZBURGER ABSTLEITE Silvaner Kabinett
WURZBURGER STEIN Riesling Kabinett
Not content with a conversion to biodynamism in the vineyards, which he reports is already proving effective against disease and drought and also forsugar balance and therefore alcohol, Bernhard has fulfilled a dream to make wine with minimal intervention by returning to the roots of European wine culture by using amphoras bought all the way from Georgia. These are filled with freshly harvested grapes, de-stemmed, sealed and buried in the earth of the cellar. Some five months later the amphoras are reopened to reveal the clear finished wine inside, a modern expression of a very ancient technique. So much for control freaks! The result is the Qvevre wine now listed here.
GRUNER VELTLINER Am Berg
GRUNER VELTLINER Fass 4
GRUNER VELTLINER Der Ott
GRUNER VELTLINER Spiegel
GRUNER VELTLINER Stein
GRUNER VELTLINER Rosenberg
GRUNER VELTLINER Qvevre
A speciality of this family estate of 8 hectares is the intriguing roter veltliner grape, surely of interest to lovers of the esoteric who may now consider that grüner veltliner has become too mainstream!
Their 2008 Eisenhut pinot noir has an elegant perfume and a gentle structure, more reminiscent perhaps of some Saintsbury bottlings from Carneros, Napa Valley, rather than Cote d’Or. 20 months in oak have refined rather than obscured the fruit.
ROTER VELTLINER Altweingarten
PINOT NOIR Eisenhut
Franz josef gritsch
This 8 hectare estate has vines in some of the finest sites in the Wachau, Austria’s most prestigious region for white wines. I suspect that under Franz Josef Gritsch, with his wife Maria and his parents and sisters, the quality has never been higher in the 800 years of wine production here at the Mauritiushof. The house and cellar date from the 13th century and have been in the Gritsch family since 1799. The wines seem to get better with every vintage that passes, showing a purity of expression that we expect from these old rocky Danube gorge soils, where gneiss, quartz, sand andloamprovide potential for raciness and complexity through the medium of riesling and grüner veltliner, delicious in their youth and arguably even finer with many years of bottle age.
GRUNER VELTLINER Axpoint
GRUNER VELTLINER Steinporz
GRUNER VELTLINER Loibenberg
GRUNER VELTLINER Singerriedel
RIESLING 1000 – Eimerberg
RIESLING Durnsteiner Burg
Falstaff magazine “Vintner of the Year” back in 2003, Heidi Schrӧck cultivates some ten hectares and a dozen or so different grape varieties with consummate skill and more than a little charisma. Her wines are models of polite refinement and delicacy, never vulgar or flashy, and inspire deep loyalty among her clients. I have even found bottles of her wine in a liquor store in Walla Walla, out in a far flung corner of Washington State in the wilds of the USA’s Northwest, surprising indeed given the paucity of her production. When a great dessert wine is called for my thoughts turn quickly to her Ruster Ausbruch “Auf den Flugeln der Morgenrӧte” (on the Wings of the Dawn), a sublime elixir with a perfect fusion of intense sweetness and bracing acidity. On the dry wine front, we find a crisp weissburgunder (aka pinot blanc) and a pretty red blaufrӓnkisch, lighter and more delicately refreshing than the others I know.
In some vintages we also manage to squeeze a few cases of delectably dry furmint out of her, with its subtle scent of quinces and its rather edgy rapier like acidity.
RUSTER AUSBRUCH “Auf den Flügeln der Morgenrӧte”
Erwin is the leading small grower in Eisenstadt, Burgenland, seat of the Esterhazy family and their court composer Joseph Haydn for some 27 years. He has vines on the Feuersteig, the town’s finest vineyard site, and his tiny cellar turns out a superb spectrum of individual wines, using long established varieties in preference to more international names. Thus we find delicate and refreshing pinot blanc and neuburger, spicily rich blaufrӓnkisch, and exquisite dessert beerenauslese wines. The Leithaberg red and white wines both spend time in wood and have structure to allow for extended life in bottle.
Now in its fifth generation, the Krutzler estate is the leading wine estate down here in the south eastern corner of Burgenland, a short walk from the Hungarian border. They have taken the blaufrӓnkisch grape to new heights of excellence after identifying the best clones and the finest sites, and then kept a firm focus on vineyard health with an integrated plant protection policy of technical, physical, biological and hygienic control without herbicides or pesticides.
Their 10 hectares are devoted almost exclusively to blaufrӓnkisch and three very different bottlings are produced, from the basic fruity version that sees no wood and can be consumed with pleasure within a year or two of the harvest, through to the blaufrӓnkisch Reserve, a wine that may spend up to 5 weeks on the skins and 17 months in old barriques, showing perfectly how small barrels should be used in order to refine a young wine, softening the tannins without adding to them or crushing the character of the fruit with too much toast and vanilla from the oak. Thus, if the basic blaufrӓnkisch bottling serves the same purpose as a good ‘cru’ Beaujolais, the Reserve wine is, given time, a match in class for a decent Bordeaux.
Their ‘flagship’ wine Perwolff, a collector’s item in Austria for many years now, enjoys an ‘elevage’ in new oak casks from a Burgundian cooper and would not lose face if set beside a classed growth claret. All the wines are illustrations of polished, confident winemaking under Rheinhold Krutzler and I have followed them with pleasure since they first hit my radar in the 1980’s.
When you taste a wine with the extraordinary individuality and quiet authority of the Lapis vineyard furmint made by Zoltan Demeter, you are immediately under an obligation to visit the vineyard, cellar and producer so that you can try to get inside the skin of the wine and start to understand what makes it so special. I cannot think of any other dry white wine tasted in the past year that made a greater impression on me. My impatience to meet the man responsible for it was richly rewarded by a six hour interview on a dark December day following an early start and a long foggy drive from Slovenia almost to Ukraine. Demeter is generally regarded in the region as the most exceptional winemaking talent in Tokaj today. After working with other leading cellars in the area, in 1996 he decided to devote his full attention to his own vines and wines. He currently farms some 7 hectares of the 4500 in the Tokaj region comprising 9 different ‘terroirs’. His policy in general is to buy vineyards over 40 years old which he can cut right back and retrain. He is firmly of the opinion that Tokaj is one of the world’s greatest wine regions, and this is not a man who has never travelled beyond his native confines. He has indeed worked even for Warren Winiarski, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Napa Valley, whose wines I used to export to the UK some years ago. He exhibits the same kind of ruthless and inquisitive genius that I see in both Francois Mitjavile in Bordeaux and Silvano Bolmida in Piedmont, so I am more than mildly excited by the prospect and challenge of introducing these wines to our market.
The fame of Tokaj as a region has been based on its sweet wines, the legendary aszu and essencia, but the occasions for drinking an expensive dessert wine are naturally rarer than for drinking dry wine, so Zoltan Demeter shows commercial astuteness in aiming to make 75% of his wine dry. Of the remaining 20%, interestingly he expects to produce 15% as Fӧbӧr and only 5% as Aszu. His Fӧbӧr is another late harvest dessert wine that is made from a single pressing of very sweet, but not necessarily botrytised grapes, a practice that he regards as less contrived and artificial than that required for Aszu. The quality of the Fӧbӧr is clearly higher in his opinionand I am in agreement. For the highest category of Aszu, 6-puttonyos, the minimum residual sugar requirement is 150 grammes per litre. Demeter’s 2008 Fӧbӧr has 198 grammes.
The grape varieties responsible for these extraordinary wines are the wellknown furmint and the equally interesting and indigenous harslevelü. Also permitted is the muscat lunel. The soils in these Zemplen foothills of the Carpathian Mountains are largely volcanic rock with some loess in places, both very propitious for high quality wine. No self-respecting wine enthusiast should be ignorant of these remarkable expressions of grape and place.
PEZSGO Methode Traditionelle
The sight of a 400 year old vine in the centre of the town of Maribor, supposedly the oldest vine in the world (vitis vinifera sativa if you are interested), is a reminder that the culture of the vine is no recent phenomenon in this part of Europe, wedged in between Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy.
Dveri-Pax (=Door of Peace) is a 57-hectare vineyard owned by the Benedictine monastery of Admont in Austria, who founded it back in 1239 A.D. Confiscated by the Nazis in 1941, it was briefly handed back in 1945 prior to finding itself nationalized by the Communist government, before being finally restored to its original ownership in 1996, after a few years in the hands of the Bishopric of Maribor following the end of the Communist era. We first shipped a little wine from here several years ago, since when there has been significant investment in new equipment and both the style of the wine and the packaging have been radically improved. Our enthusiasm for the wines has increased correspondingly and we think that they will soon develop much more than mere curiosity value in our list. These are racy, sophisticated wines for the 21st century wine consumer and will partner a wide variety of food dishes perfectly.
The vineyards, many on awesomely steep slopes, have been largely replanted in recent years and the 2007 vintage, examples of which I was able to taste on the last day of October, was vinified with brand new, state of the art equipment, allowing for the sort of fingertip control that is so desirable for white winemaking in particular. Indeed all the tanks can be temperature controlled and monitored from one laptop. The alcohol levels are mercifully restrained, so the wines are beautifully refreshing, polite rather than aggressive, and very versatile as wines for drinking either alone or with food. There is life after Lutomer riesling after all.
This vineyard is also the winner of the 2011 Decanter World Wine Award International Trophy for Sweet Wines over £10 for its 2009 SIPON-SLAMNATO, a ‘straw’ wine made from grapes allowed to dry and concentratenaturally in the attic of the winery before undergoing an extremely slow fermentation in the winemaker’s office – the main cellar is too cold. Just 100 litres were extracted from 2 tonnes of grapes, with 214g of residual sugar nicely balanced by the high natural acidity of the sipon (aka furmint) grape.
SIVI PINOT (Pinot Gris)
CHARDONNAY Vajgen Vineyard
SIPON ILOVCI VINEYARD (Furmint)
SIPON-SLAMNATO (Straw Wine)
Vriesenhof’s wines have been at the top of my South African wine ‘wishlist’ since my earliest visits to the Cape over 20 years ago. It remains the estate that I think most obviously compatible with the wavelength of a Savage Selection catalogue, not simply in terms of the way that the wines actually taste, but also in the manner in which the grapes are farmed and the wine made, and last but not least in the general attitude and philosophy of the producer himself, the modest genius of Springbok rugby legend Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee, proprietor of this homely estate in the Paradyskloof valley, a stone’s throw to the south of Stellenbosch. This is an ego-free zone, an oasis without pretentions, a farm with an innate respect for nature in general and its rich shale soils in particular, where wines are made with minimal intervention and the goal of individuality. “Wine is not about the winemaker” comments Jan, though it has to be said that it is his spirit that provides the inspiration for the excellence of these wines. Both the Vriesenhof label and that of the ‘second’ wine Paradyskloof, are reflections of his passion and dedication in that they remain uncomplicated and natural expressions of grape and place rather than fussily over manipulated artefacts designed for the catwalk rather than the kitchen.
The Vriesenhof vineyards produce restrained, unique personalities: a chardonnay with subtlety and length that will richly reward those who are patient enough to allow it extra bottle age; an excellent pinot noir made by a passionate pinotphile, an excellent fleshy pinotage; age worthy and elegant Bordeaux like reds; and more recently the addition of exciting grenache, a grape dear to my own heart by virtue of its generosity. It has been interesting to watch the progress of this estate, established over 30 years ago in 1980. The wines speak with the voice of experience.
For over 30 years now I have had a special place in my heart for the wines of Oregon and in particular for those from The Eyrie Vineyard, established with great vision and courage by David and Diana Lett in 1965. It was David’s predilection for pinot vines that gave the fledgling Oregon wine industry its sense of direction and the track record of his own wines has been extraordinary.
It was a mark of his determination that he so firmly resisted the temptation to be blown off course by the siren winds of fashion with their call for wines of dark colour, tannic extraction, new oak and high alcohol, all the things that David loathed most in pinot noir. Evidence of his wisdom and vision was most apparent in a series of three extraordinary vertical tastings staged by The Eyrie Vineyard in recent years in which I have been privileged to review their wines going back as far as their inaugural vintage in 1970.
In 2008, 3 months before David Lett passed away, a vertical tasting of every vintage of pinot noir back to 1970 was staged as a tribute to his achievement. A year later we reviewed 38 vintages of the chardonnay, a tasting every bit as remarkable as its predecessor, convincing proof of the unusual longevity of their chardonnay wines, so different in character from those of any other US, or indeed New World expression of that grape. In 2011 another tour de force was staged, with a tasting of 29 vintages of Pinot Noir Reserve uniquely from the South Block planted in 1968. This included the legendary 1975, the wine that caused such a stir at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad in Paris in 1979 when it effectively catapulted Oregon on to the international wine stage. This wine, a model of restrained elegance rather than exaggerated bluster, continues to display remarkable stamina and rather disproves the theory that young vines are incapable of achieving such quality.
Eyrie wines are now conducted by the winemaking baton of David Lett’s son Jason, who is building on his father’s reputation with wines that seem even more consistently excellent, remaining entirely faithful to the Eyrie style, one of ethereal grace and weightless energy, the antithesis in fact of the vulgar ‘show’ wine. I can think of growers in Chambolle Musigny who might recognise its style of feminine elegance rather than masculine power.
David Lett’s desired expression of Oregon Pinot cannot be considered typical today, for there are many new producers who prefer to ape California with a much bolder style. Like David himself however, I went north from California in order to escape such a style and it is for that reason that we remain convinced of the superiority of The Eyrie Vineyard model.
PINOT NOIR Reserve
If The Eyrie Vineyard drew inspiration from Burgundy, with Abacela the empathy lies firmly with Spain. Earl and Hilda Jones, confirmed Hispanophiles, have pursued a very different vision of viticulture to that of David and Diana Lett in Dundee, wisely so, given that their vineyards lie as far south of Oregon’s pinot heartland as the French Midi is from Burgundy.
Different grape varieties are called for in this more Mediterranean climate and Earl has been a tireless and enthusiastic experimenter with a wide variety of options in the 76 or so acres that he has planted in the Umpqua Valley south of Roseburg since 1992. If the flagship variety is the tempranillo, growing here at the same latitude as Spain’s Ribera del Duero, honourable mention may be made for a number of his other choices, including albariño, dolcetto, syrah and garnacha, to name only a few of the dozen and more varieties that now exist here. The geological makeup of the actual vineyard is not uninteresting, lying as it does exactly on the fault line caused by the collision of the Klamath Mountains and the Oregon Coast Range. There are micro climate and ‘terroir’ differences here taking place within a few hundred yards of each other.
Abacela certainly meets our criteria for wines of genuine originality and it is now also one of the most professionally run vineyards in the state of Oregon. Our confidence in its wines can only grow.
There is no escaping the fact that Idaho is more famous for potatoes than for wine. Nonetheless, my dogged pursuit of the obscure and the original has been rewarded with some surprisingly fine expressions of both chardonnay and pinot noir from this unlikely quarter. The vines have to adapt to an extreme climate, with hot summers and cold winters. The high altitude at around 2800 feet above sea level makes for marginal rather than automatic ripening and that is often a good sign for those in search of interesting wine.
Kerby Vickers has 5 acres of chardonnay planted next to his house overlooking the Snake River Valley and I think I have tasted most if not all of the vintages that he has produced there during the past couple of decades. The Vintage variation is considerable and the harvest date can vary from mid September to late October. On my last visit, we reviewed seven vintages between 2008 and 1998, with the latter, picked on 17th October, rather reminding me uncannily of a good Chassagne Montrachet from Domaine Ramonet. It appears to be reaching its peak now and Kerby considers it the most original wine he has ever produced. The 2008 was the product of another cold year and we expect it to keep and improve for more than a decade. I feel that my curiosity has been well rewarded as a result of Kerby’s most meticulous winemaking.
VICKERS VINEYARD CHARDONNAY
In the 1980’s I was a regular visitor to California and imported quite significant quantities of excellent wines, but for a variety of reasons, not least increasing prices, I became somewhat more interested by the vineyards of the northwest states of Oregon, Washington and even Idaho. So it has needed the discovery of something quite special to get me back down to Napa and Sonoma again.
When Stephen Singer contacted me about his wines, I probably exuded a level of enthusiasm that would not have given him great encouragement as to his prospects of persuading me to buy them, but I did at least agree to drive down from Oregon and have a look. It was certainly worth the drive!
The moment I got out of the car at 10am in Sebastopol I realised that the temperature was at least 10 degrees cooler that where I had been earlier in Napa. As I write it looks as if the 2011 harvest will be unlikely to startbefore October. This boded well for the pinot noir and syrah that I had come to inspect and I was not disappointed. These pinots have perfume and elegance with depth and when I tasted the syrah wines, I simply could not get thoughts of Cote Rotie, St Joseph and Hermitage out of my head.
Much New World syrah leaves me with a suspicion that the vineyard site concerned is too hot for the variety, just as was the case in the scorching heat of the 2003 summer in the southern Rhone. Good syrah is too tender for such conditions and the best results in my book come from cooler locations and climates. These examples will prove delicious complements to fine cuisine, gentle enough not to over-dominate. Production is extremely limited of all these wines, just a few hundred cases of each, so I am delighted to have acquired a little so that we can prove what can be done in California with these varieties when you find a suitably marginal climate and the right vineyard management to go with it. I was delighted that any scepticism on my part prior to my visit proved unfounded.
PINOT NOIR Sonoma Coast
PINOT NOIR Ramondo Vineyard
SYRAH Sonoma Coast
When Michael Savage (no relation), the Englishman who owns this small vineyard in the Napa Valley, first made contact with me to see if we might be interested in buying a small amount of his wine, my first reaction was somewhat lukewarm, to the point of being discouraging. I pointed out that, after many years of buying wine in California between about 1978-1992, I had become rather disenchanted, reluctantly forced to the conclusion that too many of the wines had become bloated in both style and price. My personal centre of gravity in USA wine buying had moved further north, to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, in search of more delicacy. I did not hold out much prospect of my being seduced by a vineyard lying close to Highway 29 outside Calistoga at the warm northern end of the Napa Valley. Furthermore I said that if I ever bought the wine it would be in spite of rather than because of the name!
Despite my rather obvious lack of enthusiasm, Michael nonetheless kindly offered to send me a bottle of his 2004 cabernet to try. The sample was duly opened, handicapped as it was by my preconception that I might not fully appreciate its charms. However, I was in for a pleasant surprise. Instead of filling the glass with Stygian darkness, here was a wine that was actually red rather than fashionably black, the sort of bright ruby gleam that I look to find in Margaux or Graves wines of the old school. No sign of over extraction so far then, and my initial relief was further confirmed by an aroma marked by the vitality of fresh fruit, with the sort of delicate perfume one expects from a pinot noir wine more than from a cabernet sauvignon one. It had more than a single, simple dimension. The grape variety signature was not boringly obvious. As for the actual flavour, there was further encouragement to come, for it revealed real length, the sort of thing that you only get with perfect balance. The wine had the kind of subtlety that makes the drinker want to keep returning for another sip. By now I was becoming converted to the possibility that I might dare to buy another wine from the Napa Valley. I reported in glowing detail to Michael therefore and passed on my sincere congratulations to his vineyard manager and winemaker for producing such a charming, elegant and refreshing wine.
The Savage Estate is small even by the standard of typical ‘Savage Selection’ wine producers, with 1528 vines on 0.84 of an acre situated between the Palisades vineyard of Clos Pegase and the Estate cabernet vineyard of Chateau Montelena, a few cases of whose famous wine I managed to buy in the late ‘70s, when along with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, it triumphed at the famous ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting that did so much to bring serious Californian wine to the attention of connoisseurs and the international market. The 2004 vintage was bottled with a modest 13.1% alcohol and is delicious to drink now, while retaining the usual good prospects for extended cellaring if required. So much then for the trumpeted claims of extended ‘hang time’, for here is a wine made from grapes that were picked a shade earlier than most, with the result not of green tannins or physiological immaturity, but of lighter alcohol, better natural acidity and consequent freshness in the fruit flavours.
I consider that the wine merits favourable comparison with many more expensive wines from Bordeaux and I look forward to comparing it soon alongside such elegant clarets as Domaine de Chevalier or Brane Cantenac.
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