Friday, 31 December 2010

NYE - a round up of the last ten days in the Vaucluse

What a place to spend Christmas and New Year in! We came with friends who have returned to London for New Year and the only disappointment has been the lack of snow on Mont Ventoux on Christmas Day. Never mind; a delicious capon and all the trimmings that all four adults demanded from their own childhoods made up for this. The weather has been reasonably kind too - whereas it is barely above freezing at home, we have seen temperatures of up to 17 degrees (although it was minus seven on the mountain so, perhaps, not such a bad thing there was no snow).

The wines I have tasted from 2009 have been exceptionally good. I don't remember 2007 being any better. Critics who have suggested this is, perhaps, only a four star vintage compared with the 2007's five stars may be right of course. I can only judge it by what has passed my lips and, given the quality of the estates I have been fortunate enough to befriend over the years, I won't be passing these up either personally or professionally.

A few highlights from the last week or so (estates are listed alphabetically; see individual blog entries):

Domaine des Anges, Ventoux 2009 "Seraphim" is an exciting new wine from Ciaran Rooney and his 2010 Viognier is going to be lovely this summer.

Domaine Bressy-Masson, CDR 2009 punches well above its weight (but wait a couple of years and Paul-Emile will sky-rocket).

Domaine Brusset, CDRV Cairanne 2009 "Les Chabriles" continues to be a perennial favourite (but the CDR is a superb bargain) and, of course, the Gigondas should sell themselves.

Domaine de la Charite: Christophe Coste's Chateau Capucine Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2009 is a star in the making but I was extremely impressed with some really fabulous 2008s and the excellent 2007 "Les Ombres" Syrah.

Domaine des Coteaux des Travers, Rasteau 2009 "Prestige" and Cairanne were both irresistible.

Domaine de Cristia's old vine Grenache CDR is packed with potential and as for the Chateauneufs...

Domaine Grand Veneur, Lirac 2009 "Clos des Sixte" (all the red wines, really, and the old vine Roussanne)

Domaine de Mourchon's Grande Reserve (in two or three years time) should be as good as the 2007.

Raymond Usseglio's 2009 Part des Anges is simply stunning, one of my wines of the vintage, but the Imperiale is rather special too (and the regular Chateauneuf and Cotes du Rhone are rather good too!)

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Domaine Bressy-Masson - the end of a long, hard week!

My final professional stop of the trip, Domaine Bressy-Masson is one of the superstar estates in Rasteau (the others are Soumade and Coteaux des Travers). Marie-France Masson is handing over the winemaking to her son, Paul-Emile but still likes to welcome visitors. Not many wines to taste today as only one Rasteau made in 2008 (Souco d'Or) and too little Gloire in 2009 to be worth tempting me with apparently (a shame as this is one of my favourite Rasteau wines).

We started with a wine I have rarely considered properly. A CDR at more or less the same price as Christophe Coste's excellent Domaine de la Charite would be, at best, duplication in most vintages. However, Marie-France's 2009 Cotes du Rhone, a blend of 70% Grenache with 20% Carignan and 10% Syrah and no oak has a strong, fruity nose, good body and structure with a long finish. More Rasteau than CDR and very full for the appellation. This will be a lovely wine to enjoy over the next three or four years.

The 2008 CDR Village Rasteau "Souco D'Or" is a good achievement for the vintage. As there was no "Paul-Emile", this includes all the old vine grapes normally destined for that wine and, as such, is probably the best "Souco" I have tasted. 65% Grenache, 25% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre with 12 months in oak. Spicy/peppery with some oak evident but pretty fruit. A little lacking in the mid-palate, perhaps, but decent enough depth and length. One to drink soon-ish. In Burgundy terms, if "Paul-Emile" is like a Grand Cru (as it often is), this is a decent Villages.

Inevitably, the 2009 Rasteau "Paul-Emile" is head and shoulders above the "Souco". Made from the grapes of the same 90-year-old vine Grenache (60%), Syrah (30%) and Mourvedre (10%) as much of the older wine, this was only bottled on 15th October after its elevage en foudre. Very closed now but the red cherry fruit can't be prevented from coming through on the nose and (massive) palate which has lots of body and matter. Excellent potential, when the spicy tannins resolve themselves, and a long finish. Hold for two or three years at least.

We finished with a quick round-off of the VDNs, first the regular Rasteau VDN from 100% Grenache, a rose wine which is all honeyed/stoned fruits with just a hint of oxidation and quite complex, very much like Robert Charavin's "Dore". The Rasteau Rancio VDN is in a different class with its deliberate oxidative style and oak ageing. Rich, very complex and fascinating. Rather like just about every wine that has been put before me over the last week or so.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Domaine de la Charite and Chateau Capucine

Christophe Coste was barely 20 when we first met. He had recently taken over his grandfather's estate, Domaine de la Charite, in Saze, to the west of Avignon where he made some good wines from the Cotes du Rhone and Villages appellations. Now, his village, Signargues, has been promoted to a named village, he is president of the sydicate, he is married to Sandrine with whom he has two young daughters and he now makes a dozen or so wines including one from a recently acquired hectare of old-vine Grenache in the Gallimardes sector of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Not a bad decade!

If all that isn't enough, Christophe made the only wines outside Chateauneuf in 2008 which I can honestly say I would be happy to stack my own cellar with. His 2008 CDR Villages Signargues "Bastien" is packed with kirsch and garrigues, very full with great texture and length. A superb wine for the difficult vintage.

Even better, the 2008 CDR Villages Signargues "Cayenne" is more or less the same with a lovely, gentle veneer of oakiness. Excellent balance without any of the hint of bitterness which some other wines of the vintage have displayed.

We discussed why his wines were so much better than most others. Christophe joked that it was his winemaking and, of course, that has much to do with it. The weather was, perhaps, a little kinder to him than to producers in the eastern Vaucluse (Signargues is in the Gard) but Christophe has acquired various bits of kit including top of the range sorting tables which can pick out only the very ripest of grapes. A shrewd investment for vintages such as this.

The one wine he has still from 2007 was always going to be a winner. I have a case at home already and was pleased to taste it again at the estate to see how it is developing. Now drinkable (although with much further to go), the 2007 Cotes du Rhone "Ombres" is Christophe's way of putting top Northern Rhone Syrah or good, cool-climate New World Syrah in its place. Elegant and long with lots of black fruit, a whiff of mint and wrapped in a little new oak, this is simply gorgeous.

Finally, we tasted the 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Chateau Capucine named after Christophe's oldest daughter. This is going to be an excellent wine and, with Christophe's skills, an estate to follow. He is clearly going for the prestige end of the market quality wise but, knowing Christophe, it will be priced extremely competitively (around £220 per dozen in bond). At first tasting, this pure Grenache wine is quite tannic with rich cherry fruit but, warming it up in the glass a little reveals all sorts of nuances including liquorice, garrigue herbs and spices but, as with all great wines, it is the texture that is the key to its quality. The oak used is second hand so imparts little if any flavour but assists in the textural development. Give it a couple of years to develop further and enjoy it over the next five years although it will, no doubt, go on much longer. A star is born!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Back in Rasteau: Domaine des Coteaux des Travers

Robert Charavin of Domaine des Coteaux des Travers is one of the people I have been working with since I started up and we have got to know each other quite well in that time with only one thing getting in the way: his non-existent English/my lousy French. This time, I met with his new assistant Lucie who does speak English (although she charmingly pronounces grapes as "grap").

Two big developments: first, Rasteau is now a Cru alongside Gigondas, Chateauneuf etc so it no longer needs to include Cotes du Rhone Villages on the labels. An interesting development because (a) Cairanne still can't do this even though it has a longer history of top tier wineries (apparently it has missed the boat and won't be able to apply now for a couple of years) and (b) there will, inevitably, be some confusion with the vins doux naturels which are also simply AOC Rasteau. The sensible thing will be for VDN producers to mark this clearly on the bottles but, as I undestand it, there is no compulsion to do this (I hope I am wrong and, if not, that the authorities will soon bring this in).

I knew Robert was going over to organic viticulture (the estate will be fully Ecocert from 2010) but Lucie told me he is following biodynamic principles, not something commonly found in this region. He has only recently started with this so we will see what impact it has on the wines.

For now, we had to make do with the 2009 vintage, so not too much of a disappointment then. Beginning with the generally excellent white, the 2009 Rasteau Blanc "Marine", a blend of equal parts Grenache, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier which sees a little oak in the upbringing of the Roussanne. The nose has a pugency about it which is probably from the recent bottling because the flavours on the palate are lovely: all honeysuckle, apricots etc, everything you would want from a blend dominated (in terms of the flavours) by Viognier and Roussanne, the region's two star white grapes. The mouthfeel is superb, quite fat but with decent acidity. All in all, another strong performance from this wine.

The 2009 CDR Villages Cairanne has very pure, spicy (peppery) fruit with lots of cherry and raspberry character (60% Grenache with 30% Mourvedre and 10% Syrah), well rounded with excellent balance. One to start drinking now despite the high Mourvedre content!

It seems I usually have a strong preference for either the Cairanne or Rasteau (in 2008 the Rasteau was very good, the Cairanne not) because I found the 2009 Rasteau a little hard and short on the finish. Essentially a good wine which will probably come together well (I had similar concerns about the 2007 two years ago; now it is drinking extremely well), it has a rich, deep nose and rounder, less peppery fruit than the Cairanne although it seems to be a bigger wine. Give it a couple of years and it will probably be every bit as good.

The last of the reds is the 2009 Rasteau "Prestige" which is very full with an intense, sweet, rich nose of red berry fruits and a hint of oak. The attack is gorgeous, full of sweet, spicy cherry fruit, very concentrated with excellent balance and a long, long finish. Drinkable now, it seems, although I would leave it to develop a couple of years or so. I still have recollections of the 2005 which at only four years had developed into a magnificent wine. Sadly, my recent  cataloguing of my own cellar has revealed not a single bottle of this - I'll just have to wait for the 2007 and, now, 2009!

We finished off with the VDNs, three of them now with a 2009 Rasteau VDN Blanc a recent addition. Not as interesting, perhaps, as the other VDNs but probably more commercial. Very sweet, quite citrus. A good dessert wine with lots of possible food pairings: Lucie suggested tarte tatin which felt like a good match.

The 2008 Rasteau VDN Dore tastes of caramelised sultanas. Quite full and sweet, almost rancio in style but not quite: that is not a style Robert wants to achieve clearly. Complex, interesting and probably impossible to sell in the UK market!

The 2009 Rasteau VDN Rouge is, like its 2007 counterpart, very young still but with good potential to develop into a Rhone version of an aged tawny port. Will be good.

After a break, Domaine de Cristia

Arriving at Domaine de Cristia this afternoon, Dominique called to say she had a stinking cold and would not be able to see me which was a great shame as meeting up with her is one of the highlights of my visits. Baptiste was there though and his cousin Emmanuel (which gave me an opportunity to speak French even though it became apparent he spoke very good English). Not many wines from 2009 to taste as virtually everything has been sold now and the 2010s are mostly still fermenting. However, there were wines to taste and what wines!

We began with the 2009 Cotes du Rhone Vielles Vignes "Les Garrigues", a big brother to the Vieilles Vignes VDP Grenache I enthused about last Easter. This also is pure Grenache from a new vineyard (for Cristia; it is planted with 50-year-old vines) so, whereas the rest of the Cristia production is now certified organic, this wine has just started the conversion process. Bottled in September, it has a youthful nose with some oak evident but less than the VDP wine. The palate is sweet with some of the oak creeping in alongside the spicy, cherry and garrigue flavours. Some tannin is noticeable but the mouthfeel is quite creamy and fairly full and the finish long. Young but filled with potential. A great value wine.

Then came the Chateauneufs - wow! The 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge has a classic Cristia nose and palate, quite chewy at present with excellent Grenache (over 90% of the blend), big and rich, sweet fruit and no evident oak (I don't think this wine sees any oak). Very full, long, classic. Give it a couple years and drink it over the next five to eight.

2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Renaissance" was presented next (60% Grenache, 40% Mourvedre from very old vines, 100+ years). The nose is quite oaky and there is gorgeous rich, sweet peppery fruit intertwined with Asian spices and some animal notes (the Mourvedre) and the toasty oak. Pretty close to perfection, the wine needs three or four years for those Mourvedre tannins to melt and the oak to give way to the fruit. Very long. Baptiste said he had intended this to be the power house of the vintage and the Vieilles Vignes to be more feminine but, in the end, things turned out the other way. However, as always, I enjoyed the complexity of the Renaissance blend.

Finally, the 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Vieilles Vignes", 100% Grenache from 85-year-old vines planted at the Cristia lieu-dit which is adjacent to Rayas. Despite all the new oak thrown at this cuvee, it is barely noticeable because of the fullness of the sweet, pure Grenache fruit. Very rich and full-bodied with considerable weight and perfectly rounded for drinking over the course of the decade (although, if recent tastings of earlier vintages are anything to go by, expect it to close down at around five years for a couple of years or so).

Most years I have a strong preference for the Renaissance over the Vieilles Vignes. This year it's too close to call.

Baptiste then brought out another barrel sample, this time the very young 2010 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge from grapes harvested exactly three months earlier. Packed with fruit and remarkably similar to the 2009, this is clearly going to be another good year at Cristia with superb balance although quantities are down 25%.

On leaving, Baptiste gave me some 2006 Chateauneuf "Vieilles Vignes" in magnum - looking forward to Christmas now!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Domaine de Mourchon: 2008 and 2009

To round off the day, I went up the hill to visit Walter McKinlay at Domaine de Mourchon. The 2009s are not being bottled until March or April but we went down to the cave after tasting the wines that are in the bottle. Beginning with the 2008 CDRV Seguret Tradition, this is fresh on the palate with good depth of fruit. No Grande Reserve was made this year so the grapes that would normally be used in this cuvee were downgraded to the Tradition (and some of the grapes that usually go into that wine went into a Cotes du Rhone). A good bistro wine.

Perhaps not the usual order but we then tasted the 2008 Cotes du Rhone which I have had in stock for about a year now. This has really come on. It is quite mineral and fresh and has spicy Syrah/Grenache fruit. A good quaffing wine for a very fair price and comparitively low alcohol (12%) for the region.

As I mentioned earlier, no Grande Reserve was made in 2008 but the estate has perservered with the Family Reserve wines debuted in 2006. The barrel-aged 2008 CDRV Seguret "Family Reserve" Syrah has a classic Syrah nose of toasty black fruit which follows through on the palate combined with a pleasant freshness. A wine that can only be made from low yields in a vintage like this.

The 2008 CDRV Seguret "Family Reserve" Grenache is more unsettled at present with a more woody but less toasty nose and palate although it does open up well after a minute in the glass.  Both these wines were produced from 60-year-old vines harvested at 15 hl/ha and fermented in open barrels, a technique that seems to be gaining in popularity (I came across this quite a lot in SW France in the summer, notably at Chateau du Cedre for the GC cuvee and Domaine Rotier for L'Ame).

Inevitably, the younger vintage provided more excitement. The 2009 CDRV Seguret "Tradition" is around 2/3 Grenache, 25% Syrah with Carignan making up the balance. It is a spicy, young wine that needs a couple of years to develop its big, black cherry character.

The 2009 CDRV Seguret "Grande Reserve" is, typically, excellent with a good ten years in it. It is rich and sweet fruited - cherry liqueur, blackberries etc - and very long. Surely one of the better wines outside Chateauneuf and Gigondas?

Day one, third visit: Laurent Brusset

Laurent was in the cellars when I arrived at Domaine Brusset's Cairanne home but he soon emerged smiling: pleased with his 2009s, hopeful for his 2010s too. We skipped the whites (the Viognier is sold out in any case) which we tasted together at Easter. As always, these are very good but, as with most estates outside Chateauneuf, it is the reds that shine.

His 2009 Cotes du Rhone "Laurent B" is probably the most hedonistic example of this wine I have encountered. Pure, simple enjoyment: the wine has a sweet Grenache nose which follows through to the palate which is spicy, slightly smokey, deep fruited but medium bodied and not overly tannic. One to enjoy in the near term.

A step up to Cairanne: 2009 CDR Villages Cairanne "Les Travers" seemed slightly muted on the nose compared with the CDR but I have enjoyed several bottles of this at home so know this is not really the case. The palate is silkier with more refined tannins but lots of peppery spice and garrigue herbs with red/black fruits. On this tasting, I would leave it a year or two to come round but previous bottles have been enjoyed. Perhaps it has closed up a little. An excuse to crack open another bottle when I get home.

A long-standing favourite of ours is the prestige Cairanne - we first came across this with the 1997 vintage which was excellent here. No surprises that the 2009 CDR Villages Cairanne "Les Chabriles" is the best so far then. More blackberry Syrah character on the nose and palate and some of the oak (from the Syrah's upbringing) comes through. Plenty going on here - best in another two or three years and over the following five years or so.

Of course, the Brusset's are best known for their Gigondas wines. The first cuvee, sometimes referred to as "Tradition" is 2009 Gigondas "Le Grand Montmirail" (LGM), a blend of 70% Grenache with Cinsault, Mourvedre and Syrah, partly aged (around a quarter) in barrels, the rest in cement. This is refined, elegant, long and complex with massive potential. Bottled in July so it has had some time to settle down and develop in the bottle. A very enjoyable Gigondas and worthy successor to the ever-popular 2007.

The star of the show is, however, the 2009 Gigondas "Les Hauts de Montmirail" (HDM). 50% Grenache, the rest Syrah and Mourvedre in equal parts with these last two aged in a mixture of new and used barrels. More used than in the old days if tasting is anything to go by (I recall a tasting with Daniel Brusset several years ago where he leaped from one barrel to another demonstrating the effect of different woods and different toasts on the wine; recent cuvees have, perhaps, been better and certainly more accessible for the lower use of new oak). A big wine, certainly, but fresh and characterful. Interestingly, Laurent had another bottle which had been open for eight days which showed some of the wine's potential evolution and remarkably little oxidation. A big and long future for this wine.

Next stop: Raymond Usseglio

Actually, it is Raymond's son, Stef, whom I see these days on my visits to Domaine Raymond Usseglio, in my experience the best of the Usseglio estates in Chateauneuf today (Raymond's father, Francis, built up the estate after his arrival from Piedmont in the thirties; he had three sons each of whom has an estate bearing his name). Winemaker here for the last decade, Stef has lifted the estate into the top tier of Chateauneuf and is a perennial favourite of consumers who, like me, don't always want blockbuster wines. That isn't to say his wines are light; rather they are elegant and stylish. His "Cuvee Imperiale" is one of the more Burgundian wines I have tasted from the appellation with seamless, pure fruit that is pure hedonism without knocking your head off!

Stef's 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, made from Grenache, Roussanne, Clairette and Bourboulenc, is very correct with good flavours of fruit and flowers and with fresh acidity. A nice wine but not in the same league as his 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc "Rousanne Pur" aged in a mix of new and used barrels. I obviously have a thing for these old-vine, barrel-aged Roussannes because I can't get enough of a wine like this. It is exquisite now and, from experience (the 2005 has turned a corner into a magnificent bottle), will age exceptionally well over the next few years. The wine is all honeysuckle and melon with some garrigue and spice notes with an exquisite waxy texture. Very long.

We tasted the 2009 Cotes du Rhone, the only wine in the portfolio not a Chateauneuf. This is a GSM blend from sandy soils just outside the appellation and, as with others can be said to represent one of the region's great bargains even at around a tenner a bottle in the UK. Now it has good Grenache red/black fruit and Provencal herbs, evolving well if a little short on the finish at present but it is very much its more prestigious counterpart's little brother and, if past vintages are anything to go on, will develop into a wine far better than many other Chateauneufs in time.

The 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge is the same blend as in recent years (a dollop of Counoise has crept in which gives the wine a real lift) and has the classic Usseglio nose of herbs and cherry liqueur, a lovely mouthfeel which is not overdone and lashings of red/black fruit (sorry, I have been reading Famour Five books to my younger children). The tannins are fine and well balanced and the wine is clearly going to develop well over the decade and, perhaps, beyond.

As indicated above, the prestige cuvee has long been a favourite and the 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Imperiale is no exception. Made almost entirely from Grenache planted at La Crau in 1902, with just a dash of other varieties (principally Cinsault, Counoise and Muscardin) to add seasoning, this is more intense on the nose with deeper, richer, blacker fruit. It has more body too, balanced tannins and acidity and a structure to age well (the 2001, tasted recently, is still very youthful).

I enjoyed the 2007 debut of a Mourvedre-based wine produced by Stef but, if anything, find the 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape La Part des Anges even better at this stage. This is exceptionally ripe Mourvedre (which forms 70% of the wine along with 20% Grenache and 10% Syrah): intense black fruit and whiffs of new oak which follows through to the palate. It will undoubtedly need time although I have enjoyed a bottle of the 2007 after 3-4 hours in a jug to soften the tannins. Exceptional.

2009 tastings in Chateauneuf - first stop: Grand Veneur

Day one proper of my from-the-bottle tastings in the Southern Rhone this season. With mixed reviews - is the 2009 excellent as my earlier impressions have suggested or merely extremely good as Parker has suggested - what will today bring? To be fair, I am not giving the region an even covering: in Chateauneuf I will be visiting Domaines Grand Veneur and Raymond Usseglio, Domaine Brusset in Cairanne and Domaine de Mourchon in Seguret. All, arguably, among the very best and certainly most consistent in these villages.

First stop, I met Christophe Jaume at Domaine Grand Veneur. Christophe is very tall, young and smiles a lot (he's the one in the middle of the photograph). He speaks excellent English so, whilst this visit didn't provide me with much opportunity to practise my French, at least I understood all the subtle nuances of the vintage! After we had said our hellos, we began with the tasting, starting with the whites in the relative warmth of the tasting room.

2010 CDR Blanc: a blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Clairette, bottled only three days before. In any case, it is fresh, flowery with some apricot character. Quite light and pretty on the palate and fresh acidity. An easy, pleasant drink. This was followed by the 2010 CDR Viognier which has an extremely youthful, almost musky nose with overtures of New Zealand Sauvignon (Christophe agreed with this suggestion). On the palate, this gives way to sweet Viognier fruit, quite full with some fat and good body. Nonetheless the wine is fresh with good length.

2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is a relatively light (these days) wine at 14% ABV. A blend of Roussanne and Clairette, it has deeper, richer fruit on the nose than the CDRs and more body but with a well balanced palate of fat and acidity. No oak used, even for the Roussanne so plenty of primary fruit characters coming to the fore, notably pineapple with hints of grapefruit and honey and soft flower aromas. Certainly a far more serious wine than the earlier ones but, as so often is the case, I think standard cuvees of white CDP don't offer the best value for money.

Far superior, and worth every penny, is the 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc "La Fontaine", a pure Roussanne wine aged in demi-muids. This has a powerful Roussanne nose (lots of citrus, honeysuckle, apricot etc) with some oak showing through and hints of the liquorice that will eventually come (anyone who has tried the fabulous 2002 vintage of this wine will know what I mean - 2002 was by no means a bad year for whites!). The nose carries through to the palate which is rich with the oak lending texture but not flavour. A very long wine to drink now or through the next six years in Christophe's view although my recent experience of the 2002 suggests longer, perhaps. Interestingly, we tasted the 2008 after this which is a much less forthright but fresher, more mineral wine. Apparently some prefer it - I can see why but for me the 2009 would win hands down every time.

After this, we tasted the 2009 Cotes du Rhone Reserve Rouge, a young, slightly hot wine which is decent enough but, I suspect, more tannic than most. A bistro wine, perhaps. Given what was to follow, not much point in dwelling here.

2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge is a GSM blend (70/20/10). I tasted VAT 64 which was instantly recognisable as a Grand Veneur Chateauneuf. A big cherry wine but no jamminess whatsoever, a cross between 2007 and 2003 perhaps but without the OTT characters of the earlier vintage. Grapes stayed on the vines two weeks longer than in 2007 (which explains why some other wines from the vintage were jammy and hot) and for the better estates this was advantageous as it gave maturity to the grapes and, consequently, to the wines. It must be stressed, however, that many estates were unable to take proper advantage of this condition. The barrel samples tasted were similarly recognisable as Chateauneuf with big, fleshy, rounded, sweet fruit. This wine is going to be very accessible from a young age although the Mourvedre, whilst more accessible than the Lirac Mourvedre (tasted before this, see below) is more muted now, providing body and structure to the wine.

Jumping about, we next tasted some Grenache which will form a part of the 2009 CDR Villages "Champauvins". A pretty nose, sweet fruit with noticeably less body than the CDP but big, nonetheless for a Cotes du Rhone. A second vat showed similar fruit but with sweetness and instensity at different levels. The Syrah is quite restrained at first, very black and tannic. Ageworthy. The raw materials of this yet-to-be-blended wine are extremely promising.

The 2009 Gigondas "Terrasses de Montmirail", a negociant wine is stunning: 85% Grenache about to be bottled. It has an intense nose of sweet dark fruits with savory notes, quite spicy with more grip than the other wines. It will age well.

The 2009 Vacqueyras seemed more refined than the Gigondas, more feminine somehow but with more wood showing at this stage and more tannin. For me, this was the only wine which showed any hint of jam but very enjoyable in any case.

I have become a big fan of the Jaume's excellent Lirac (I bought several cases of the 2007 for my own cellar whilst I was there). the 2009 Lirac "Clos des Sixte" Grenache is incredibly rich with sweet fruit but no jam despite its 15% alcohol. A little later we tasted the Syrah, first from the vat (a little of the same wine is oak aged) which would be a fabulous wine if bottled on its own. Rich and chewy, the barrel-aged version is stunning, almost the wine version of blackcurrant fruit pastilles, sweet and black with hints of vanilla. Almost drinkable now, perfect Southern Rhone Syrah! The Mourvedre for this wine is less forward on the nose at present and more structured with spicy, peppery characters. It is clearly a very long wine.

Lastly, the two prestige Chateauneufs: 2009 Origines is very refined and long with pure, sweet fruit. It has more Mourvedre than other wines so will benefit from longer ageing to let this shine. Quite a lot of black fruit here with good minerality too. It is at least as good as the 2007 at this stage.

The 2009 Vieilles Vignes has an unmistakable Chateauneuf nose. Wonderful barrel-aged Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah aged in new oak but you wouldn't know it, the fruit is so intense. The wine has a very smooth and rich palate, some cherry liqueur and liquorice coming through. A slow burner but a hedonistic wine so the only question is whether the bottles will survive into maturity.

A great start!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Tasting in the Ventoux: Domaine des Anges

My first day of tastings was at Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux. Most of the wines tasted were from the 2010 vintage (which is looking pretty good already if these are anything to go by).

At Domaine des Anges, Ciaran showed me his 2010 Ventoux Blanc which was typically fresh and fruity, a good everyday bottle for those who like a bit of flavour and varietal character in their whites (Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and a little Roussanne make up the backbone of this wine). Next up was a first taste of a new wine for this estate: pure Viognier. From the tank, it had an almost New World Sauvignon intensity but around 25% of this wine will have seen some wood which fleshes it out beautifully. Put together, this will be gorgeous; it's only a pity there is so little of it.

The only 2009 I tasted - also from the tank - was a pure Grenache cuvee which Ciaran describes as his Chateauneuf. Certainly the wine has depth and length  and plenty of structure. Time will tell whether it will fool tasters into thinking it is from the more heralded appellation but in any case it will be a lovely wine for those who can get hold if it.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Why I work in the wine trade

This email came in today - very nice to receive something like this! 


I am brand new to your site, having found it whilst looking for something else: and I must say that it is one of the best wine websites I've come across so far.

There is an excellent selection of wines of a type that you just don't see in the supermarkets and at competitive prices to boot!

I just like the layout and the user-friendly way it works, plus you give more in-depth details about each wine. 

Well done, I am already telling my friends about you.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

By Appointment Wine Dinner last night

Started with Michel Rocourt's superb Premier Cru Champagne which was extremely well received. The extra bottle age (over most NV Champagnes available) contributes to the wine's complexity and the softness of the mousse, it was generally agreed.

With the goats cheese starter, Jonathan Maltus' "Pezat" Blanc seemed an obvious choice with its Sauvignon lemony zing and was a far better food match (though not necessarily a better wine, of course) than the Givry Blanc from Michel Sarrazin, a far softer wine with its subtle oak ageing.

The main course of lamb was the time to bring out the big guns: first a 2004 Rioja "Amenital" from Miguel Angel Muro (Oz Clarke has just rated it his 9th best wine for 2011) which has lovely forward fruit and good acidity and tannins so very much a wine for food.

I was slightly nervous about the 2004 Cahors "Le Cedre" from Chateau du Cedre, thinking it would be far too young still. In the end it was a fairly unanimous wine of the night thanks to its intense, rich fruit complemented by a superb structure of acidity and tannins balanced by just enough alcohol. A magnificent wine.

The pear and apple tarte tatin was paired with two very different wines: Domaine Rotier's "Renaissance" Doux from Gaillac and Bressy-Masson's Rasteau Rancio. The first is a deliciously sweet, late-harvest white from the Loin de l'Oeil variety (not one you see every day!) with around 150 grams/litre residual sugar. Always a winner, my only concern is how well the wine ages as it is never around long enough to find out.

The Rasteau Rancio is a wine whose ageworthiness is never a concern: its Rancio character means there is no harm in letting this age further. All that will happen is that the Rancio effect will be exacerbated. A slightly nutty character came though with the food at least. Some preferred this to the Rotier; others enjoyed the Gaillac more. I didn't hear anyone say they didn't like either though!

A good tasting dinner (and a good dinner!) - now I have to prepare for this afternoon's walkabout tasting here!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Italian wines

For some reason, all orders received today have been for Italian wines. Very strange. All the reds have sold one way or another and I even had an enquiry about a wine I haven't stocked for some time. Having tasted most of the Italian range quite recently, I realised there was one I hadn't: Marco Maci's Copertino 2001 "Duca d'Antene". A recent bottle of the 2004 "Fra Diavolo" was big with sweet, slightly raisined fruit, exactly what I want from a Primitivo (or, come to that, a Zinfandel) but the 100% Negroamaro "Duca" should offer something quite different. Time to pull the cork? Actually it's only ten past five so I am getting ahead of myself! In the words of an indifferent Hollywood actor, I'll be back.

Pre-Christmas Wine Tasting Evening at By Appointment, Norwich

... on Friday 19th November 2010

'This is going to be an informative as well as a very enjoyable fun evening where you will get the chance to try some lovely wines and indulge in some delicious food'

James Bercovici from the Big Red Wine Company based in Mildenhall, has very kindly agreed to come and show us some fabulous Big Red Wines from the Rhone as well as a selection of white and red Bordeaux / Burgundy and Rhone wines.  To accompany these spectacular French wines there will be a delicious three course dinner, cheese and coffee.  

This evening is priced at £59.95 per head and includes everything.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A bottle of Mourchon

I really can't see the 2005 Grande Reserve from Domaine de Mourchon getting any better than it is now. The tannins have fully integrated and the wine is now like a thick, plush velvet chocolate bar only better because it's wine, not chocolate. It wasn't really the right wine to go with the Thai curry I had made but it went surprisingly well. That said, the rest of the bottle, enjoyed after the meal showed what this wine really can do.

2005 was undoubtedly a great vintage but some of the wines were quite hard initially and I would include the Mourchon wines in this group - the 2005 Tradition seemed almost impenetrable until it was about four years old (then it all sold out, of course!). The oak ageing of the Grande Reserve always helps to make it a little more accessible in its first flush of youth but this wine shut down to the point where, at a two day tasting this time last year, it wasn't until day two that I was happy showing this to anyone. I think you have to be interested enough in wine to be reading blogs like this to have the appreciation and understanding of wine's ability to develop with age. I suspect that, for many, this is just an urban legend. Before I get slapped on the wrist for this, the facts bear me out with the vast majority of wines being consumed within eight hours of being purchased (or is this just another urban legend?)

This wine is now appearing at Cafe 103 in Norwich - or you can still buy it here!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Cheap, everyday Italian wine

Asked recently about the development of Marco Maci's IGT Salento "Luce Barocca" from the 2007 vintage, I realised I hadn't tasted this wine recently although I have had both the "Fra Diavolo" 2004 (Primitivo) and the Copertino "Duca d'Antene" 2001 (Negroamaro) from this estate in recent weeks and was impressed by both. The Fra is getting more interesting every time I taste it with its sweet, brambly fruit and underlying tar. The Duca is one of the best straight Negroamaros I have had at this price point, very stylish, sweet and sour and no hard edges at all.

So, what about the Barocca? The issue raised concerned a slight spritz in the glass when it was first released. Maybe, but (a) that is a sign of low sulphur use (unless, of course, the wine is refermenting which certainly is not the case here) and (b) that was two years ago so, surely, it has gone by now? The only way to answer the question is to crack open a bottle, of course.

Well, no complaints here. For a sub-£6 bottle of southern Italian magic, this is really very good. Remarkably fresh for such an inexpensive wine - really, I could see myself enjoying this in another five years, maybe more. The tell-tale fruit of the Negroamaro/Malvasia blend presents itself extremely well but, as always, it is the depth of the wine that never ceases to amaze me. At this price, most French wines would be too thin, Spanish wines too clumsy, Australian wines too blowsy and Chilean wines just plain nasty (I have been tasting a lot of cheaper wines recently!) but this pitches itself perfectly for a simple pizza or pasta dish.

Now to try the Rioja again...

Friday, 8 October 2010

Oz Clarke's 250 Best Wines, 2011 edition

Four in this year! Oz clearly has good taste (especially bearing in mind the majority of the 250 is reserved for wines available from supermarkets and multiples). Two in the top 100 and two in the specialist sections.

At Number 9 in Oz's Top 100 is Miguel Angel Muro's 2004 Rioja 'Amenital'. He writes "2004 is a classic vintage for Rioja: dark, ripe, rather closed in, promising long life. Well, this is dark but it isn't brooding and introspective. The fruit's darkness is the darkness of real ripeness, so ripe that a heady plum blossom scent shimmers on the surface of the wine. It does have some tannic toughness but not nearly enough to interfere with the pleasure and it's the fruit acidity that provides the backbone to the wine. You don't usually get that tingling acidity in modern Rioja but here they've used 20% of the Graciano grape in the blend (along with the traditional Tempranillo) to provide vivacity and verve. The acidity keeps the wine fresh while the waxy texture and mellow vanilla warmth wrap around the fruit and ooze over your palate".

Domaine des Anges' 2007 Côtes du Ventoux Rouge is at Number 90 on the list, "ripe and full but seductively scented with cool orchard air and the dark red fruit of cherries and strawberries flows effortlessly through the local landscape of rocks and herbs". At £7.65 it is listed as one of the very cheapest wines in the Top 100 but in fact we have been able to drop the price to £7.35 thanks to the improved exchange rate.

Jonathan Maltus' 2008 Bordeaux Blanc 'Pezat' also makes an appearance in the Keeping It Light section.

Finally, the superb 2007 Gaillac Doux 'Renaissance' from Domaine Rotier is "rich and fat, not hysterically sweet but waxy and dripping with quince, fresh figs and honey, with a funky mix of melon, pineapple chunks and marrow jam unexpectedly appearing on your tongue just before the wine drifts off into a delightful aftertaste of strawberry and honey". 

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Chateau du Cedre 2009 - tasting from the barrel with Pascal Verhaeghe

The day of the 25th Fete des Vins at Puy l'Eveque in the heart of Cahors, a wine fair which has never impressed me as much as it should so I am off to Chateau du Cedre, one of the region's greatest estates and one which I am very proud to work with.

This morning saw my second visit to Chateau du Cedre for a meeting with Pascal Verhaeghe, winemaker extraordinaire. Pascal is extremely charming and clearly loves his work; it was a joy to be in his company, even more so because we had some truly great wines to taste. I came away wondering why anyone would want to spend £180 on a dozen bottles of, say, Chateau Le Crock, when the same money will buy "Le Cedre", let alone over £700 on, for example, Rauzan-Segla when "GC" costs under £400. No accounting for taste it seems, unless depth of pocket has anything to do with it, of course.

It was a fascinating tasting: the regular cuvee is superb with the 5% each of Merlot and Tannat contributing well without detracting from the overall impression of the Malbec as Merlot, in particular, can. 

My memory of the other two wines is extremely clear:"Le  Cedre" is stored as "LC1" and "LC2" from different plots and stored in a mixture of barrels from Burgundy and around the Cognac region. Some barrels are 225 litres but Pascal, clearly aware of some of the criticisms from the international press, has moved towards using more 500 litre barrels. The differences were surprisingly marked with LC2 more pronounced and LC1 giving a touch more acidity and tannin. Pascal also has a new large foudre which he is very pleased with - the wine from here is slightly reductive so more muted at this time with some CO2 but, obviously, this will come together soon enough and, for now at least, this wine forms only a small part of the whole. Pascal hopes to install more of these foudres in years to come which will further reduce the oak flavour in the finished wine.
"GC" is similar in style (there is clearly a house style: very ripe, sweet fruit but not over-extracted, approachable relatively young but with plenty of life ahead - in other words, everything you would want from a top winemaker working with a superb terroir in a profound vintage). It is fermented in open-top barrels which are then sealed for the storage. Pascal enthusiasm for this was very apparent, so much so that it was difficult to understand exactly what is the benefit of this method. I assume, having tasted the wines, that it helps extract the fruit over and above the tannins as the wine is already very smooth. I regretted having to spit!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

"For something very unusual with your dessert, a Rasteau Rancio, a Madeira-like, fortified Vin du Naturel made from 100% Grenache, deliberately oxidised to give it a nutty character, fabulous stuff, available at The Big Red Wine Company at £14.95. Would pour nicely over a vanilla ice cream. Happy summer drinking!"

From The Whistler blog

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Wine Merchant of the Month - again!

Wine Behind The Label has decided to make us Wine Merchant of the Month again! That's two months in a row.

Wine Behind The Label is one of the most complete guides to wines and winemakers produced in the UK. Regions are introduced and estates are rated along with their wines with a brief overview. You can be fairly sure that any wine in the publication is worth checking out and, conversely, that any winery not included has been omitted for a reason. Needless to say, almost all the people we work with are in the book. If you want to join and get 10% off, click here.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2008: a mini-horizontal

With some in the press talking the vintage down, what is 2008 really like?

Sandwiched between the glorious 2007 and possibly even better 2009 vintages, 2008 was always the ugly duckling but are comparisons with 2002 justified? Not at all if this trio is anything to go by. All three were tasted separately at the domaines around Easter but I wanted to compare them and only a mini-horizontal tasting would achieve this. One thing about all these wines: in top vintages, all these estates make prestige cuvees; in 2008 they started to make these wines but decided the economy and the reputation of the vintage rendered this self-defeating so blended them back into the "Tradition" cuvees. This gives the wine the potential to be much better than it would otherwise be.

With no other criteria to go by, the wines were tasted according to alcohol strength so at 14%, Raymond Usseglio was first up. This wine has changed the blend over the last few years from a straightforward GSM blend (75% Grenache) to a slightly different mix of 80% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, 6% Syrah and 2% each of Cinsault and Counoise. This last variety has, I think, really lifted the wine even with such a small amount of it. It adds some lovely black fruit pepperiness and a little more zing to the wine.

On the nose, a whiff of smoke but black cherry dominates. A touch of sourness, perhaps because the fruit was less ripe this year. Some oak comes through (from the aborted cuvee "Imperiale", presumably) and the wine has big, chewy tannins although these are well balanced with the acidity and alcohol. There is a touch of rawness at this stage but in another six months to a year it will smooth out well. Probably best drunk by the middle of the decade.

Domaine Grand Veneur's 2008 weighs in at 14.5% ABV and has a smoother but less pronounced nose with oak quite evident alongside the black cherry. The palate is much oakier than the Usseglio and, consequently, the fruit profile much sweeter and softer/smoother. Much more drinkable than the Usseglio at this stage although it is less obvious where this is heading.

When I visited Domaine de Cristia, Dominique Grangeon was cross that Parker had awarded them only 87 points for the 2008 and, tasting the wine, I can see why she thinks he was wrong. I would put it at 89+ (in Parker terms), the wine just falling short of the magic 90 but only just. It's the strongest of the line-up at 15% and is made from a similar blend as Stef Usseglio's wine except that it is just GSM with the latter two accounting for 10% of the total. The fruit is more evolved here than in either of the other two wines, richer and sweeter than the Grand Veneur although this could be down to the different use of oak at this estate. The wine was more full-bodied and rounded than the other two.

On the night, the wine that slipped down most easily was probably the Grand Veneur although I preferred the Cristia for its more subtle use of oak. However, the Usseglio has, I think, more potential to evolve. The only question is whether anyone will be interested in monitoring the evolution of a 2008 when they could (and will) be saving up for the 2009s. The only reason for stocking up on these wines is if you have to wait for other vintages; 2008 will be a superb stop-gap.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Wines with spit-roasted lamb

Saturday started as a baking hot day in the high twenties - not ideal for the morning after the night before, especially when the party hasn't even started yet! A very leisurely walk around the Barton Mills Scarecrow Festival for the benefit of the children who had spied opportunities for us to part with some cash in the ice-cream vans and bouncy castleswas followed by an ever more relaxed afternoon with the fire being lit around 1.30pm.

The lamb was stuffed with different marinades and put on the spit around 2pm being turned diligently by college friends Saki and Adam under my insistent but only occasional supervision whilst others turned up from time to time and needed help erecting tents. Beer was the drink of choice at this point.

We did eventually - inevitably - move onto wine as the evening approached with the first glasses being filled with Domaine de Cristia's VDP Grenache from 2009 but tasting so advanced for a wine only seven months old. This wine astounds me - it sells for only £7.50 but has so much going on and really incredible depth. For the meal itself, I found a jeroboam of Chianti I had been given a couple of years earlier. Not a bad wine but slightly diluted compared with the Cristia. Adam has long been a Fleurie fan so I brought out a magnum of Domaine de la Madone's 2002 Vieilles Vignes which Jean-Marc gave me a few years ago as well as a magnum of Cristia's 2003 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Another friend, Chae, had brought a rather decent Rioja from the 2001 vintage, much more interesting fruit than the 2003 Ribera del Duero I received a few days earlier and with oak that was very much present but not bullying the fruit into submission.

By this time the meal was over and the fire rebuilt so, gradually, everyone moved over to find a spot from which they would not move for the next several hours. The Vieilles Vignes Grenache from Domaine de Cristia had a lovely lightness of touch without being a lightweight wine at all but after the CDP and Rioja, a different dimension was required. However, it was straight back onto a Rhone retrospective with the next two wines from Raymond Usseglio: the 2007 Cotes du Rhone and 2006 Chateauneuf both excellent with the former showing the qualities of this vintage (superb fruit but, perhaps, just a touch too much alcohol) and the latter showing the class of the appellation (2006 is particularly forward for this wine).

I did notice an opened bottle of Mordoree's Reine des Bois Lirac from 2001 when I came downstairs this morning but I had gone to bed before this cork was pulled!


Monday, 24 May 2010

Organic wine from Domaine de Cristia

Domaine de Cristia has gone entirely organic - almost!

There are some new vineyards which are "in conversion" (it takes three years of bureaucracy to gain Ecocert status) including the plot of old-vine Grenache that goes into the incredible Vieilles Vignes Grenache, a vin de pays, that would put many Chateauneufs to shame. This wine was first produced in 2009 from 60-year-old vines so, when I tasted it only four days after the bottling, the grapes had only been off the vine for around six months. Quite incredible.

There are two other notable exceptions to the organic range from Cristia: the Cristia Collection range of negociant wines which are adequate but not in the same league as the estate wines and, more lamentably, the red Chateauneuf itself. The failure of this wine to be classed as organic is purely down to bureaucracy: when Dominique and Baptiste applied to Ecocert, they had to provide all the plot numbers they wished to convert to organic status. They asked their dad to help identify all the relevant plots and, by oversight, the Mourvedre in their Chateauneuf vineyards was omitted. This means that any CDP wine containing Mourvedre cannot - yet - be Ecocert (indeed, official conversion for this started only when they realised this early in 2009) so the 2008 is not organic. 2009, however, will be as all the Mourvedre will go into the "Renaissance" wine. The 2009 Vieilles Vignes (CDP) will also be organic. 2010 and 2011 may revert back to non-organic, of course, depending on whether or not there are multiple cuvees. Confused?

One estate wine that is Ecocert is the VDP Grenache (not the same cuvee as the Vieilles Vignes VDP Grenache - now, come on, you must admit this is confusing: the only way to work it out properly is to buy a mixed case and see which bottles go where in the jigsaw!) which I will be opening this evening. When last tasted, the fruit was surprisingly deep for such a nominally simple wine. The only downside was that, three days after bottling, there was still quite a lot of residual carbon dioxide from the bottling. Fingers crossed that has gone now!

Usseglio mini-vertical

Having tried the 2005 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Raymond Usseglio with the Canterbury Wine Tasting Society recently, I wanted to have a proper taste so opened a bottle on Sunday night. It seemed much less evolved than the Canterbury bottle - the only explanation I could think of was that, whereas the Canterbury bottle came from stock, this was one Stef gave me when I visited him at the domaine a few years ago. A different batch, perhaps?

As a comparison, I nervously opened the 2006 last night - if the 2005 was a little too youthful, how would the 2006 come across? Nothing to worry about: this was Usseglio at its most glorious best. Looking back at my notes for the 2006 on the website, they still ring true:

"One of the most impressive young wines I have ever tasted, Stéphane showed this to me alongside his superb 2005. It is even better! The depth and purity of fruit is incredible. The wine is very concentrated with a nose that draws you in for more. Tasted alongside the very good 2005, the 2006 shone out. Probably the best standard wine produced at this estate – and one of the very best wines of the vintage."

I couldn't put it any better now after another two years!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Beaucastel 1997 - my last bottle

Jill has a ridiculous idea that we should refrain from wine this week - she clearly has not thought this out properly (the London Wine Trade Fair is this week!) - so something special is required: in this case my last '97 Beaucastel. This was prompted in part by several comments about the current "difficult" phase of the 1998.

Brick red tones and fading a little towards the rim. The nose is surprisingly fresh though although secondary fruit is emerging, quite earthy with plenty of spice. Drinking well now but I really don't think there's any hurry to finish this one.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Election 2010: what has our world come to?

So, after nearly a week of blissful limbo, we have a government, the first Conservative lead one for thirteen years and the first coalition since the second World War. Gladstone must be turning in his grave.

Without wishing to be partisan, I have some serious misgivings about this coalition. There are some very obvious problems with the new power-sharing agreement:

First, the provision for the LibDems to abstain on budget - and some other - resolutions leaves the Tories with 308 out of 593 voting MPs (ie. 650 less the Libs), a majority of 23.

Second, the 55% of MPs required to dissolve Parliament before the end of the proposed five year fixed term requires 358 to vote for it but there are only 342 non-Tories, 16 short of the 55% needed.

Just a couple of examples of a mathematical stitch-up.

So, if the LibDems abstain from voting on something they disagree with, the Tories still get their way. This smacks of un-democracy. I gather this also applies to all things nuclear. This means the LibDems can stand up and say "we didn't vote for it" but, really, they will have done just that since, without their votes against, the opposition cannot win and, similarly, with their abstention, the Government cannot lose. Something wrong here.

On the second point, the LibDems cannot, if they fall out of bed with the Tories, help to bring down an unelected Government (and, for all Hague's nonsense about Brown being unelected, what exactly is Cameron's majority again?) even with a combined 53% of MPs. It has always been a simple majority and should stay that way. The other side of the coin, of course, is that the Tories cannot simply resign when the going gets tough but, somehow, I doubt they would do that anyway.

Elsewhere, I wonder why Clegg has gone for the prestige of DPM rather than having a portfolio and being able to make a real difference. He may say he has more influence this way but the first time he and Cameron disagree, well, no prizes for guessing who is going to get his way.
Similarly, Vince Cable ("InVinceCable": almost a super-hero but not quite) may be nominally in charge of banking reform but does anyone seriously think Osborne is going to let him do anything that might upset the Tory paymasters? OK, so the LibDems have Scotland but only because the Scots have roundly rejected the Tories who therefore want as little to do with them as possible.

It is very disappointing that we were promised a new kind of government yet, when you read the text and, no doubt, listen to what the players themselves will have to say over the coming days and weeks, what we have is a minority Conservative government which has successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of the LibDem leaders to give them exactly what they - and only just over a third of those electors who chose to vote  (or about 22% of the elctorate) - want.

This is in no way democracy.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Cahors 2009: how en primeur should be done

What is EP all about? One of two things: buying wines which will be sold out if you don't get in early OR buying wines at prices which will only head skywards once in the bottle.

Last year was Rhone 2007's turn: plenty of excellent wines to choose from but buyers went for the limited production cuvees from CDP, Gigondas etc and left the "Tradition" wines alone in the main. Why? Simply because they thought - rightly - these wines would still be available when they are ready to drink. Prices will increase a little to take account of storage charges but, otherwise, they will still be around.

So, with 2009 Bordeaux etc now on the market, what should we be buying? If you have the budget for first growths, my guess is you are not reading this. If you are a mere mortal, however, I would look for the bargains which are few and far between in Bordeaux these days.

This is why I was so excited when I received an email from Pascal Verhaeghe of Chateau du Cedre in Cahors offering his top wines and that of Chateau Haut-Monplaisir en primeur. For once, great wines are offered at bargain prices. I am stocking up for myself. The rest of you can form an orderly queue!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The impact of prestige wines in the Southern Rhone

Several comments/enquiries about the impact of luxury cuvees on the quality of standard wines have been received. There are debates about this very thing with Rhone wines. My own feeling is that it can certainly be true that prestige wines are made to the detriment of the regular bottling, it is not always so. 

Before elaborating, the other way to approach multiple cuvees is that used by most Bordelais: the best grapes make the main wine; anything deemed not quite up to standard goes into a second wine and so on. The Rhone works the other way round (although it must be said that inferior grapes are sold off to cooperatives, negociants or turned into industrial alcohol, at least they are if they come from any self respecting grower!).

For example, in a vintage such as 2002, Rhone wines were not all good (an understatement in many cases). However, when I visited Raymond Usseglio, all ready to tell him that I would see him the following year without placing an order for the 2002s, he produced two cuvees, one early bottled for the American market (before Parker released his verdict?) and one later bottled including the old vine grapes that usually go into "Imperiale". The difference was phenomenal - the second wine really was very good, not just for the vintage although it was difficult to assess whether this was the result of the later bottling or the inclusion of old vine Grenache (rather unfortunate in this particular case since the vines had been planted in 1902 so this would have been it centinary year). That is an example of prestige wines potentially detracting from the standard bottle although not in actual fact (although there are some estates who still made prestige wines in 2002). 

However, the flip side can be (but not necessarily is) that prestige wines are often produced in such small quantities that they would have little effect on the standard wine. Usseglio's 2007s could be cited here as the quality of the regular wine is so high that the grapes included in the prestige wines would have little effect. Indeed, the main difference between the wines is stylistic rather than qualitative. 

Another example is Domaine de Mourchon which has made the Family Reserve wines in 2008 but not the Grande Reserve simply because there was a big enough harvest of first class grapes to warrant micro-cuvees of the FR wines with no apparent impact on the Tradition but to produce the GR would be to reduce the quality of the Trad. Sadly, not enough producers here (or anywhere else) have this level of integrity.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Cahors terroirs

I am told that, far from being three distinct terroirs, the alluvial zones of Cahors are now classified by as defined by Ferme Experimental Anglars Juillac as:

T1 - 1st terrace
T2 - 2nd terrace
T3 - 3rd terrace
T4 - limestone scree
T5 - limestone covered slopes: limestone slope
T6 - upper quartenary
T7 - limestone plateau: siderolitic
T8 - white marly-limestone
T9 - limestone plateau

Does it matter to us as consumers? The answer is almost certainly "no". Most estates claim to be in T1-3 (made up of alluvial deposits from the Massif Central) or on the causse. Altitude and soil testing are the only ways of knowing precisely where they lie. It has long been understood that the lower terraces close to the river produce supple, fruity, easy-drinking wines. The medium ones produce fleshier wines. Somewhat inevitably, higher terraces have better drainage and it is here where the soil is made of limestone scree from the plateau that the richest, most ageworthy wines are made. This is T4.

Some vineyards are planted on the surrounding slopes and limestone plateaux of the quaternary era consisting of alluvial soil deposits covering the rocks and resisting erosion: these are much rarer, but they also produce very renowned wines. This is T6!

Paul Strang (in his excellent book South-West France) admits to many different terroirs but goes on to say that it is difficult to differentiate between Malbec grown on different soils here and, further, Malbecs grown on the same soils can be quite different from one another.

Indeed, often the best Cahors wines are those blended from different terroirs. In which case, the differences matter to growers certainly - they need to ensure they have the best range of soils - but for most of us, all we need to know is what is in the bottle.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Chateauneuf bottles

One question I am sometimes asked concerns the embossed logos on Chateauneuf bottles. There are several of these. As Chateauneuf is the birthplace of the appellation system, it is no great surprise that the community has developed other ways of guaranteeing the wines. If the appellation system guarantees where the wine comes from, the different bottles are used to indicate whether the wine is estate bottled, negociant bottled within the region or bottled anywhere else in the world (please avoid this last category at all costs!)

First, and most simply, if there is no logo at all, it probably (but not definitely!) means the wine has been bottled outside the region, possibly by a negociant (but possibly a bottling company or similar). Many such wines are made from grapes or wines from estates that do not deem them to be of high enough quality to include them in their estate bottlings. These are the wines of supermarket own labels and the like.

The traditional embossed coat of arms - the large crossed keys under the bishop's mitre with the wording round the outside - can only be used by a grower, or proprietaire recoltant, and in case there is any doubt, the label will state mis en bouteille au domaine or chateau. This is the bottle used by estates such as Raymond Usseglio and Domaine de Cristia

The crossed keys represent the keys of the kingdom of heaven entrusted to St Peter. The mitre, or triple crown (tiara), representents the pope's three functions as "supreme pastor", "supreme teacher" and "supreme priest".

Some producers (including Domaine Grand Veneur) have started to use an updated version of this with a larger mitre embossed on the bottle. Again, this is an indication of the wine's pedigree.

The other main bottle used is like the second (the tradional crossed keys) but the keys are much smaller. These are wines bottled within the appellation by negociants. Some may be OK but the question remains, why take the risk when there are some good estate-bottled wines for little more outlay?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Decanter's 2007 Chateauneuf tasting

The March issue has just landed through my letterbox with the results of a tasting of 2007 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. An overhyped vintage which deserves such a lukewarm reception?

I should start by stating that I find these things interesting reading. Some panellists really know their stuff and there is something to be said for a horizontal tasting on a large scale. But ...

I am interested to read the views of John Livingstone-Learmonth as he probably knows more about Rhone wines than just about anyone else in the UK and those of Steven Spurrier who has an excellent palate and an open mind but, frankly, some panellists at this and other tastings should be disregarded. I mean this with complete respect but, let's face it, who would be impressed to read my opinions in such a tasting when I have a vested interest in several of the wines? Even tasted blind, I should be able to recognise these wines and I cannot entirely trust myself to be unbiased so how can I trust others?

I would expect to recognise the wines I import in a blind tasting (although I still think I would be on the floor before I got to them if they were between 100 and 200 in the tasting order). Even if I didn't identify the precise wines, it would be reasonably to assume that, since I have put my money where my mouth (palate?) lies, I would prefer these styles of wines and mark them up.

I did attend a tasting like this many years ago and was led to believe that my own comments and notes on wines I imported would be disregarded. However, that does not get past the point that I am still likely to mark up all wines made in certain styles.

So, even if I am not lacking in integrity, my marks would be biased.

My view is that this tasting is fairly irrelevant really (as is any tasting by a panel representing different interests). Over 200 wines were tasted apparently (some boast!), many of which were never going to be top tier anyway; there are, perhaps, 60 or so estates in Chateauneuf making consistently world class wines. Even in a vintage such as 2007, there will still be a good number of the remaining 250-odd who won't make wine I would want to drink.

There is also the, perhaps more important, issue of development of the wines. Of the "Tradition" cuvees I import, Domaine de Cristia has real purity of fruit in 2007, almost Burgundian in style and very different from previous vintages. It desperately needs another three years to knit together. Domaine Raymond Usseglio manages to combine finesse and concentration but, true to form, has a lightness of touch about it which could be viewed as dilution now but will undoubtedly grow and be superb in another five years. Both these wines got very good reviews in the tasting but both were marked down for drinking from 2010. No-one in their right mind (and certainly neither JLL nor SS, I am certain) would contemplate them just yet.

Surely comparative tastings are always a waste of time. One of the more interesting articles in this month's Decanter was a profile of Haut Brion. Prince Robert of Luxembourg was emphatic that the wines don't perform well in such an environment (so he doesn't enter them) and few here would disagree that he makes extremely fine wines.

Similarly, you can't expect to taste over 200 wines from anywhere and get any consistency. Some wines won't show as well because, like Haut Brion, they just don't, others because they are simply not showing as well at the moment or because the bottle is not in A1 condition. Another possibility (probability) is that with so many wines to get through, no-one can remember what the first few were like once they've hit 50/100/200 wines (depending on palate fatigue levels of tasters).

A lot of consumers buy wines in exactly the same way as I do for myself or for BRW: they visit estates and taste wines in situ. They buy a case (or more) of wines they like and sit on them for a number of years before trying them out when they are ready to drink. At that point they may compare CDP1 with CDP2 but even then they are presumably looking less for qualitative differences than the panel tasters given that they already made the qualitative choice to buy the wine in the first place. Surely the best way to buy wines is to taste in a relaxed environment or, failing that, to buy from a trusted source - ie. a merchant with whom your palate coincides. A group of 8 or 10 different palates is not going to give a cohesive result so I suggest take them with a pinch of salt. (No doubt I will still include the reviews in my publicity though).

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Raymond Usseglio's "Part des Anges" 2007 - Part 2

The wine has been opened. The colour is a deep cherry red, very bright. There is more sediment than I expected but since that is (generally) no bad thing and I have a suitable funnel with a mesh to catch it, I have poured the wine into the jug to let it open up over the next several hours. At this stage the nose is more profound than I recall it being a couple of months ago - black fruit and earth dominating - but it is early so I'm going to (try to) resist temptation for a little while at least!

7pm - giving myself a pat on the back for waiting so long. One sip reveals so much about this wine: it is packed with potential. The fruit is concentrated but not too big or sweet - there is much to be gained from ten years in the bottle. There is some oak which glosses over things; I would like to see this fade away a little which, of course, it will. This will let the fruit sing out a little more on its own. But the main thing that stands out about this wine for me at this time is its texture. People sometimes refer to a wine having a texture of liquid velvet and this wine reveals why. It has body, not too heavy though but it's not just about glycerin (think Australian wine in particular but a lot of CDP too); there's something else here, something more real, more substantial. Maybe the clue is on those fine tannins that I filtered out earlier. The wine was clear after this but there was a slight "creamed potato" quality to the texture which, to me at least, rendered it as near to perfection as possible. I will be looking out for this a lot more.

Raymond Usseglio's "Part des Anges" 2007 - Part 1

"La Part des Anges" (the angel's share) is the winemaker's term for the wine that evaporates out of the barrel during the elevage. It has little to do with this wine though as there is plenty left for us here. Instead, Stef Usseglio has named the wine to highlight that this really is the very best his vineyard has to offer. Too much for some, perhaps, although in true Raymond Usseglio style, it is in no way overblown.

I first tasted this at the estate from barrel and was overawed by the wine. Towards the end of last year, we finally shipped the wine with the rest of the estate's 2007s. Whilst most of this cuvee (and all the "Imperiale") was pre-sold, I was pleased to have a few cases spare of this wine to play around with.

I opened a bottle soon after it arrived - I know it was wrong but I just couldn't wait! My first reaction was to kick myself for being too hasty. The wine was completely closed. All I got was a mass of tannins masking a bit of background fruit. Poured into an open jug and left for three hours, though, and it completely transformed. Massive black fruit character with superb structure, the oak at last showing through (but not too much). In other words, the baby had become an adolescent.

Now, having given the wine a suitable amount of time to rest after its journey, and with several people suggesting that 2007s are drinking well already (that's another blog!) I am succumbing to it again. This time I am opening the wine now (11am) and it will have up to 8 hours in the jug. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

2008 en primeur - Southern Rhone

The 2007 campaign was the most successful to date but should you buy the less successful 2008 vintage?

White wines are often very good indeed so, if you like white Rhones don't dismiss them at all. Reds from better producers are decent enough but why bother? Don't forget that next year there will be the fabulous 2009s to buy and there are still some (not many) superb 2007s available, some even at sensible prices (especially standard cuvees from CDP growers - the luxury cuvees are, by and large, all gone now).

There are some very good wines from including Beaucastel and, a perennial favourite, Raymond Usseglio (exceptions to the "why bother" question). My point is really that most 2008s will still be around when they are ready to drink so, whilst as an importer of these wines, I should be pushing them, as a consumer/wine lover first and foremost, I would recommend people not to buy them except for "allocated" wines. If you like Beaucastel then you do need to get it now, I guess.

Domaine de Mourchon did not produce a Grande Reserve in 2008 as it was felt the grapes were not good enough and they wanted to ensure the Tradition was up to standard. That said, they have creamed off the very best for their micro-cuvees, the "Family Reserve" wines (don't believe everything Parker writes, by the way; there are two cuvees of this: one Grenache and one Syrah). However, Mourchon also downgraded some of the CDRV grapes to produce a decent CDR in 2008 which is quite admirable.

The question about whether wines benefit from the grapes normally destined for luxury cuvees is interesting. The answer should be "yes" (assuming they are of higher quality even in the poor vintages) although the impact can be quite small when you consider the miniscule quantities produced of such wines.

However, when I visited Raymond Usseglio to taste his 2002s, I was prepared to say "thanks but I'll see you next year" (in French, of course: neither Raymond nor son Stef speak much, if any, English). We tasted the red which displayed all the characteristics of a bad vintage of Bordeaux (lean, unripe, herbaceous, stalky etc) and Raymond looked at me in agreement. He told me it had been bottled early for the American importer (presumably trying to sell it before Mr P released his verdict) but there was another, later bottling which also included the grapes normally destined for the "Cuvee Imperiale". This was probably the best 2002 CDP I tasted, a little lighter than usual but it still had some depth and good CDP character. I supported him in that vintage and my customers knew I would not sell them a bad wine so they, in turn, supported me. Everyone seemed quite happy with the results.

Whilst we must demand certain minimum quality levels, we cannot cherry pick all the time if we want the high quality in the top vintages at reasonable prices.

So, what will I be offering in 2008? All depends on what I taste when I visit later in the spring. If wines are good enough, then it doesn't matter that they come from a supposedly inferior vintage. If not, I will work with the estates to put together an attractive offer in any case. As always, I will not recommend (much less, buy) wines I would not like to drink myself.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Cahors wines and oak

In discussion with someone about the various levels of Cahors wines, I maintain the standard cuvees are always going to have more typicity at an early stage. But the prestige wines are more concentrated and absolutely pure Malbec which is, perhaps, why they sometimes come across as atypical. Give them time!

The "Le Cedre" (and I would guess prestige cuvees from other estates, certainly Lamartine's "Expression" and Haut-Monplaisir's "Pur Plaisir") wines are typically more concentrated and oakier than their junior counterparts although, for example, the 04 is more classic than the 05. Even then, I decanted a bottle of the '04 at lunchtime (a few days ago) and by 6.30 it wasn't exactly ready (still very much enjoyed though) so don't rush into any of these prestige cuvees.

The oak question seems to be quite divisive. As far as I can see, the oak barrel is a traditional means of ageing wine before bottling/consumption but in the modern era when there are other alternatives for the elevage, there are certainly too many using oak as a flavour component which, I agree, should be avoided. However, like any really good wine, oak is used in Le Cedre, for example, to assist with the elevage and contribute to the textural profile. If aged sufficiently, there will be little or no oak influence on the flavour of the wine but you will notice the leap in quality between, for example, Cedre's "Prestige" (now renamed simply "Chateau du Cedre") and "Le Cedre". A bottle of Lamartine's "Expression" in 2002 or 2004 has no discernible oak on the nose, only when it hits your mouth is it at all apparent and then only in the texture.

So, whilst I agree that oak is too often over-used, it does have its place.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Mas de Daumas Gassac

Having read numerous posts on a wine forum about this wine (in particular the 2000 vintage which I have been enjoying recently), I am curious to hear your views about it - no need to post if you don't want to.

The 2000 has good colour for a Cabernet-based wine, just beginning to show signs of maturity. The nose is quite Cabernet too (you'd hope so, given it's 80%) with a little extra sweetness to the black and blue berries (rather than currants) and mint with some hints of the forest. Altogether a decent variation on the Bordeaux theme, clearly a quality wine and one that can be enjoyed now (as I have been) or, being quite firm and tannic still, kept a few more years.

The 2001 was always an advanced wine although, as this was the first year they made the special "Emmanuel Peynaud" bottling, I have always wondered what impact this would have on the regular wine. Probably very little as quantities of the Peynaud were relatively small so, even though all the best grapes went into that, there was plenty of good wine left for the straight "Mas".

Anyway, a cork was pulled last night revealing another classic Daumas Gassac. Not a "wow" wine but very solid. Similar to the 2000 but, possibly, slightly more forward and with more orange peel on the nose and, I thought, gentler tannins. Bearing in mind my ambivalence towards much Bordeaux, this went down without any complaints.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Happy New Year

No posts in December (except a brief one to praise Paul Strang's book on South West France which has had the inevitable effect of making me want to return this summer to check out all things I missed last year). Things got hectic - as always - and I thought people would prefer to receive their wines than read my rants.

Most things went OK. There was the odd wrong delivery, of course, and always the ones that are most difficult to put right (a case of Monte Rosola's "Crescendo" delivered to Ireland in place of their "Corpo Notte" was by far the worst example) but I think (hope) everyone had the wines they wanted on their table over the holiday season. We did!

We have been drinking through some of the more mature wines on the list and in our own cellar such as Raymond Usseglio's superb 2000 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This is everything I want a Chateauneuf to be: spicy but smooth, rich and complex but not so heavy I need a knife to slice it with. On NYE, we opened (from the same vintage) a magnum of Pegau and bottles of Beaucastel and Vieux Telegraphe. The Beaucastel showed extremely well (as it has from a relatively young age) although I would like to see what it is going to be like at the next decade's end; the Pegau classic. VT was, as I too often find, a big disappointment with a little too much oxidation (the last bottle of 2003 was so ghastly that I am finding it difficult to open another!). Raymond - or, rather, Stef - Usseglio's wine held up extremely well in this exalted company. I wouldn't particularly rank them as they are quite different; only the VT was below par.

For Christmas Day, with twelve at the table (OK, so four of them were under 12 years old), I decided against the very best (apart from anything else, some of them might not know a decent wine if it bit them) but still had to have something good enough for us to enjoy. The day started early: our oldest woke up at 3.15 although it was three hours later when we said they could all come through to show us what was in their stockings. By 11am, the first family members arrived so we cracked open a Rasteau Rancio from Domaine Bressy-Masson which struck me as a very sophisticated way to get into the day: sweet but with a dryness about it that left you searching for the bowl of nuts that we had overlooked.

A bottle or two from Champagne Michel Rocourt for those who don't like Buck's Fizz (personally I prefer their music, and that's really saying something!) with the traditional brunch then a break before lunch where the wine choice was Pascal Perrier's Domaine de Gachon 1999 St Joseph. This wine has been sitting around for seven years and has finally come together. Almost Burgundian in its finesse but with classic mature Northern Rhone Syrah fruit including a whiff of the bacon fat associated with Cote Rotie. Several bottles later, we completely forgot about pudding wines although this was more than remedied on NYE with a bottle of Domaine Bernardins' Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise "Hommage", a Rancio of sorts which tastes more like Christmas than some of the mince pies pushed my way over the last few weeks. Actually, as someone who usually finds Muscat rather insipid, I have to confess a liking for their regular Muscat. I only hope some of the people who bought this by the case recently will let a few bottles mature (don't let anyone tell you that fortified Muscats don't age; it's a lie to keep you off track and keep all the best wines for the person giving you this misinformation!)

Happy New Year - and I will try to be more observant about posting this year (note, this is not a resolution).