Thursday, 21 May 2009

When Chateauneuf gets tired

Clos des Brusquieres' owner Claude Courthil sold everything off to negociants until the 1996 vintage, the first to be estate bottled. We began buying the wines with the 1998 vintage, followed by the 2001.

Claude is something of a loner, spending most of his time quietly in the fields or at the winery, gradually improving the quality of his small production. Most of his eight and a half hectares is to the north of the village on stony soil. An indication of Claude's reserve, we learnt after we had already purchased a parcel of his 1998 wines that Claude's uncle - and mentor - is the legendary Henri Bonneau, one of the most revered winemakers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Whilst Claude would not suggest that his wines are in the same league as those of Oncle Henri, they are good examples of the traditional style of wines from the region which is fast becoming history in the pursuit of Parker points and other trophies.

One problem - for me - with this style of wine is that bottling is very late. Some estates (Clos du Mont Olivet is a good example that springs to mind) traditionally bottled as and when orders came in so some wines could remain in the big old foudres for years. I once visited Les Reflets, the bottling and distribution plant for the Sabons, to be given the opportunity of tasting some wines which were between 15 and 20 years old. Normally that would be a wonderful experience; it was not. The wines had grown tired in the barrel rather in the way that a Tawny Port ages (but in that case the nuances it develops are welcome).

The very last bottle of Clos des Brusquieres 2001 in my cellar was uncorked last night and, sadly, was a perfect example of a wine that had remained in barrel for too long for my taste. When first bottled it was fine but after only three or four years, the extended barrel aging showed through with very muted secondary fruit character. There was still some fruit but the wine was just unexciting and uninteresting to me. Oh well, lesson learnt I hope.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Vintages - a lesson in words

Tonight, a bottle of Domaine Peysson's 2007 Vinsobres (they have a 20€ bottle called "La Grande Chloe" which is very good but the regular bottling is far better value at 7.2€ from the cellar door). The fruit is young but approachable with a very attractive perfume, contributed by the oak which smells and tastes quite new. A lot for the money!

I was talking with Xavier Vignon a couple of weeks ago (he of "Debut" fame). As oenologist to several hundred estates in the region, he knows the area better than anyone (even Mr Parker!) so it's always worth paying attention when he talks. I had said that I thought there are some superb values in Vinsobres which, although it had recently been elevated to Cru status, prices have not caught up yet. Xavier agreed but then went on to tell me how truly awful many of the 2008s are going to be. Apparently this area of the valley was worst hit by the rains in the run up to the harvest.

This just goes to show that whilst I have always (rightly, I believe) considered the name of the producer to be the most important words on any wine label, vintage is next, far ahead of appellation.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Wine Anorak's Jamie Goode praises Domaine de Mourchon's 2007 Tradition

Walter McKinlay gets 10/10 for good publicity. One wonders if he has enough bottles left to sell after all the samples tasted (and clearly enjoyed) by the press. Already this year I have encountered dozens of reviews of his wines all heaping praise on the wines made at his southern Rhone estate. Today it is Jamie Goode's turn to enthuse about the 2007 CDR Villages Seguret from Domaine de Mourchon

"A beautiful expression of the southern Rhone, this is a deep clooured wine with lovely sweet dark cherry, blackberry and plum fruit aromatics as well as hints of meat and spice. The palate shows lovely sweet vivid fruit but with added meat and pepper complexity adding a deliciously savoury counter to the ripe fruit. It's dense and well structured but lush and smooth at the same time. Really successful,: modern but interesting with plenty of non-fruit complexity." 91/100

Ariving soon!

Domaine de Mourchon in the Wine Spectator

James Molsworth of the Wine Spectator has been heaping praise on Walter McKinlay's 2006 and 2007 wines from his spectacularly situated estate - Domaine de Mourchon - in Seguret. I have tasted all these wines recently (at the Domaine at Christmas and Easter and on Wednesday at the LIWF - as well as the 2006 a couple of times in between) so it is interesting to know what others think after I have made up my own mind.

Top of the pile is the 2007 Family Reserve "G" (the pure Grenache cuvee) which scored 91 points with the words "Very enticing with blueberry, fig and boysonberry fruit laced with spice, fruitcake and melted liquorice notes. The long perfume- and graphite-filled finish is nicely rounded and plenry deep." 200 cases made. There are differences of opinion as to whether this wine should be enjoyed in its fruit-filled youth or held on to see how it develops. I think it has all the necessary ingredients and will certainly hold back a couple of bottles for the longer term but I have already been enjoying the 2006 so will probably do the same with this vintage.

Next the 2006 Grande Reserve also gained 91 points: "Very dark showing fig and currant paste notes but very racey with graphite, freshly drawn espresso, bittersweet cocoa and black tea notes helping to extend the long, alluring finish. Nice underlying grip." 3,000 cases made. This is classic Southern Rhone Grenache/Syrah aged in understated new oak (not all of it, probably around 40%), just beginning to come round to the drinking stage.

The 2007 Family Reserve "S" must feel like the poor relation with a mere 90 points! "Dark and broad with crushed plum, hoisin sauce and black liquorice snap and fruitcake notes backed by a fleshy, toasty finish. Racey and long, with lingering violet notes." 200 cases made. This is the essence of Southern Rhone Syrah with lots of peppery black fruit with more than a little crunchiness. Very good but I wonder if I prefer the blend?

Thursday, 14 May 2009

South West France at the London International Wine Fair - Part II: the health benefits

Dr Roger Corder of the William Harvey Research Institute followed Anthony Rose's guide to the wines with a fascinating lecture on his research into the health benefits of certain wines from south-west France - the so-called French Paradox - as discussed in his book "The Red Wine Diet".

The French Paradox concerns the lower number of coronary deaths in south-west France despite the fatty diet (think duck: foie gras, duck breast etc). The relationship with wine consumption came to the fore in 1991 when Professors Serge Reynaud and R Curtis Ellison suggested the link on 60 Minutes, sparking a surge in red wine consumption which continues today. Dr Corder showed a graph illustrating the very low number of deaths in high consumption countries such as Italy and, especially, France compared with the very low consumption countries with Scotland and Finland topping the list (of course, this doesn't make those places unhealthy to live in, just the typical diet and, perhaps, other lifestyles of the people in those countries).

He had found that between 0.25-0.5 litres of red wine (at 11-12% ABV) each and every day reduced the risk of coronary illness (but asserted that consumption in excess of 600ml per day increased the risk of other illnesses). Furthermore, the Lyon Diet Heart Study had found that up to 0.5 litres per day reduced by 50% the risk of a further vascular event (eg. heart attack or stroke) in patients who had already had one such event.

Dr Corder expanded on the science behind all of this - I am no chemist and would probably get most of it wrong (indeed, I had understood it was all to do with resveratrol but Dr Corder said we would need to consume 1000 litres of wine per day before the benefits of this ingredient were appreciated) so I would encourage anyone interested to read Dr Corder's book (as I will now!)

That said, my understanding is that our bodies need high levels of active polythenols to keep the levels of the amino acid Endothelin-1 appropriately low (we need this but high levels are dangerous). Wine polythenols include flavanoids and non-flavanoids (this group includes resveratrol); it is the pro-cyanidins which are the active component. Pro-cyanidins are found mainly in the seeds and, importantly, are extracted only when the ABV exceeds 6% so grape juice won't do.

The question then arises: does red wine increase longevity? Heart disease is more common in the beer drinking regions of norther France; correspondingly it is less common in the wine drinking south where people tend to live longer. Interestingly in 1933, the average life expectancy of a wine drinker was 65 compared with only 59 for water drinkers. At the same time, 87% of centenegerians were wine drinkers.

South-West France has the highest percentage of men over the age of 75 in all of France with the Gers having twice the number over the age of 90 of any other region in France. I find that a stunning and compelling statistic.

These are the wines of Madiran and of Saint Mont and Cotes du Brulhois in particular although a tasting at the end of the session of a Saint Mont, Cahors and Fronton showed them increasing in total phenolics and procyanidins with the Fronton having just about the highest level of procyanidins of any wine Dr Corder had tested - a staggering 2.5 grams/litre).

Essentially, it seems that any wine with procyanidins in excess of 1 gram/litre are extremely beneficial. Around 10% of red wines come into this category including 86% of all wines from Madiran and other wines such as Cahors are extremely good in this respect too. Don't expect to find this in the wines of Australia, for example, which hover around 0.25 g/l.

However, alcohol volumes are relevant too as the higher the ABV, the lower the procyanidins - 375ml of wine at 11-12% is good but more than 250ml of wine at 15% is definitely bad, it seems.

In conclusion then, it seems that a couple of glasses or so of any of the tannic brutes of South-West France will do us some good. When I asked Dr Corder more about this he said that any tannic red would be beneficial but that some varieties (he named Cabernet Franc as an example) would become less good with bottle aging as procyanidin levels decreased over time. He had not found this negative effect of aging in the Tannats, Malbecs and Negrettes of the South-West so we can continue to enjoy old-style and modern wines from this wonderful part of France, all being well until we have reached our centuries!

South West France at the London International Wine Fair - Part I: the tasting

This week is, of course, the most gruelling in the UK wine trade's calendar. The LIWF takes place over three days at Excel in east London. Each year I try to attend a special regional tasting or a seminar - this year it was a bit of both.

The session began with a tasting of nine very different wines from all over the South West of France which, when lumped together, is the fourth largest viticultural region in France (after Bordeaux, the Rhone and the Languedoc) with 18 distinct appellations, we were told by Anthony Rose who lead the tasting.

First was a white from Gaillac (Domaine Rotier), a blend of 50% Loin de l'Oeil and 50% Sauvignon Blanc. These were cropped low for concentration and partially oak fermented to reveal a wine with medium body and tangy, peachy, juicy fruit with a slightly herby finish. A revelation for me as my previous experiences have been of rather dilute wines from this region (except for Rotier's sweet wine).

Next, from Domaine des Cassagnoles, a 100% Gros Manseng wine which had all the characteristics I would normally associate with a New Zealand Sauvignon: musky aromas, zesty with grapefruit nuances. Not exactly my sort of thing (I do like the sweet wines from Petit Manseng though) but I can understand its popularity and this is clearly a good example.

The one pink wine came from Gaillac's Ch. Candastre to demonstrate the Duras grape which presented a fresh berry nose with bubblegum and raspberry/cranberry fruit on the palate in a refreshing, dry style.

The reds started with a 100% Fer Servadou wine known in the 180 ha appellation of Marcillac as Monsoir apparently. I didn't enjoy the stalky, herbacious nose but there was some good, fairly intense raspberry fruit which was pleasant although I found the wine slightly lacking in the mid-palate and on the finish of the "Lo Sang del Pais" from Domaine du Cros.

Negrette is one of the reasons I attended the session as it is the main grape in the wines of Fronton, just north of Toulouse. I started importing wines from Château Montauriol last year when I became facinated by the contrast between their mid range "Mons Aureolus" cropped at 40hl/ha and their top of the range "Caprice d'Adrien" cropped at only 28hl/ha. The first has much in common with a good Beaujolais as I discovered most of this appellation's wines do; the second wine could double up as a first growth Bordeaux!

Ch. Marguerite's wine which included some Syrah and Malbec was in the first camp: not too tannic, slightly rustic, bright and fresh with just a touch of oak. Very much a glugging wine - Anthony Rose suggested we needed some Toulouse sausages to really appreciate it.

Heading north to Cahors, another region whose wines I have begun to appreciate more since I started visiting the captivating Lot valley a couple of years ago and have imported the wines of Château Lamartine which surely must offer some of the appellation's best values. I also visited Ch. du Cedre and bought some of their superb 2005 "Le Cedre" so I was pleased to taste this again today. Whereas Malbec can be rustic, even astringent unless handled well in both vineyard and winery, there was none of this here. The wine has a deep colour and quite an oaky nose with lots of pure black fruit character. The superb ripeness all but masks the fact that this wine really needs another five years or more for the tannins to soften and will easily last through the next decade.

The final trio of wines all had Tannat in common. The first from Saint Mont, next to Madiran, a VDQS which has improved radically over the last several years but still has some way to go. The excellent cooperative produces some of the best wines (actually, I've never come across wines from this region made anywhere else!) and the "Monastere de St Mont" is a good example with a core of dark fruit and chocolate, savoury tannins and some astringency and vibrancy. Not at all bad. The Madiran from Ch. d'Arricau-Bordes was more to my liking with big, sweet black fruits (damson, mulberry) and a massive, chewy structure which desperately needs 3-5 years more to soften despite the fact it is almost certainly micro-oxygenated to help achieve this. Finally from the Basque country, the wine from Domaine Arretxea in the Irouleguy appellation had a herbacious Cabernet France character amid the intense red plum/black cherry fruit. Quite rustic and tannic, I think I'll stick with Madiran (and Cahors and, occasionally Fronton) based on this tasting.

Friday, 1 May 2009

A mixed dozen from the Rhone at Canterbury

Every year I am invited to show a selection of Rhone wines to the Canterbury Wine Tasting Society which meets at Christchurch College (it has probably changed its name in the years since I have been going along). Having just returned from the Rhone, it seemed a good opportunity to put some 2007s in front of this discerning crowd along with a selection of older wines.

Just a couple of white wines: to start with, Domaine des Anges' 2007 "L'Archange" Blanc from the recently renamed Ventoux appellation. This is Irish winemaker Ciaran Rooney's flagship pure Roussanne cuvee although, unless they have changed the rules, I should probably pretend it has some Marsanne mixed in (monovarietals are - or, at least, were - not permitted in the Ventoux). This is a wine still in the making although it is rather nice to drink now. I had my penultimate bottle of the inaugural vintage, 2004, quite recently: that has grown wonderfully fat with age and I can only dream of the direction this 2007, a better wine from a better vintage, is headed. Wonderfully aromatic with hints of citrus fruits - quite limey - and superb balance. The general consensus was that whilst the Beaucastel old-vine Roussanne may be a little better, at £11.25 this represents much better value.

Robert Charavin's white wine is one of the few made in Rasteau. His Domaine des Côteaux des Travers', Rasteau Cotes du Rhone Villages "Marine" 2007 is, as always, a blend of equal parts Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier and the first and last named varieties are, for me, the ones that really sing out. The Roussanne has aged in oak and has a lovely richness to it as well as the lime character noted in the DDA white above. The Viognier is well married to it, bringing apricot fruit to the party. The other varities do, of course, add to the flavour and textural profile but it would manage well without them it seems - perhaps. I think this is a glorious wine to drink on its own, well chilled of course, on a hot summer's afternoon whilst waiting for the barbecue to heat up. Not at all expensive for what it is at £11.50.

The first red was Domaine Grand Veneur's Cotes du Rhone Villages 2007 "Champauvins", one of the estate wines (they also have a decent range of negociant offerings; the estate wines are worth the extra pennies) which is Grenache-dominated from a vineyard adjacent to Beaucastel. The fruit is still a little fiery but the texture is magnificent for a wine from such lowly origins. The CDRs from some of the CDP producers really are the hidden values of the region. This will turn out more like a mini-Chateauneuf than anything from Cairanne, Rasteau or Seguret. £9.75 (£38/6 in bond).

The 2007s continued with Domaine des Côteaux des Travers'' CDRV Cairanne, maybe no Chateauneuf in the making but the perfume from this wine is truly intoxicating. The fruit is so packed in but there is structure too. Like the 2003s, these wines have so much fruit the tannins and other structural elements are almost hidden; unlike 2003, when they do emerge more obviously they will be in good balance. The relatively high alcohol level of this and other wines is not excessive when the wine is as harmonious as this. Another superb sub-£10 wine (£38/6 in bond).

Moving up a notch and over to Gigondas. Domaine Brusset's "Le Grand Montmirail" can be enjoyed already but will undoubtedly develop well over several years. The fruit has a maturity about it: already quite rich with black raspberries and cherries as well as some more savoury elements. The second year oak adds only a little to the flavour profile but fleshes the wine out well, perhaps contributing to its drinkability. £13.95 (£62/6 in bond)

The last of the en primeur wines tasted was from Domaine des Florets. Their prestige wine Gigondas "Saveur des Dentelles" is a steal even at £16.50 (£75/6 in bond). As with the Brusset wine, the oak helps to round out the wine but in this case the fruit has very great potential but is still a little youthful. Almost a rarity in this vintage where so many wines can be enjoyed immediately. That seems to be a plus point for this wine!

More notes from Canterbury to follow.