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).