Thursday, 31 December 2009

The final day of 2009 - a frantic day to end a sometimes difficult year. But finishing on a high note with some lovely bubbly!

Having sent out an email to my customers yesterday afternoon, with some rather tasty sale and bin-end offers, I have been rather inundated with orders today. So I've spent virtually the whole day (and half the evening) at the computer and on the phone. Not that I'm complaining, of course, as it all helps to boost the Company funds and ensure that there is enough money to pay for all of the new wines I've had in recently and also to cover yet more purchases in the early part of 2010. But to deal with what amounts to 5% of a year's turnover in one day has certainly left me feeling exhausted and in need of a drink(!)

It has been a difficult year, in many ways, since the recession continues to bite hard. It really isn't an ideal climate in which to be trying to build a wine business - or any other business, for that matter. Having said that, we have almost (though not quite) equalled last year's turnover, for which we actually managed (for the first time ever) to record a tiny profit. Not that I was particularly full of joy, though, when writing out the cheque for Chancellor Darling's 21% share - that was a wrench, I can tell you. Bloody Government - they want a piece of everything! Who knows....... one of these days, we might actually start selling enough wine for me to give up the day job. Let's hope that 2010 sees a return to growth and prosperity and a little light at the end of the tunnel. Anyway, enough about that - let's talk about wine.

Having spent much of the last week drinking coffe, tea and soft drinks, it was time to shake off the cobwebs by cracking open a bottle or two of fizz.

First up was a lovely bottle of Domaine Rosier Brut NV Blanquette de Limoux. This is from my recent batch of deliveries and (although a non-vintage wine) I needed to write a more up-to-date and comprehensive tasting note. It is a lovely, bright, pale gold colour with green tinges. The mousse is very fine, lively and long-lived, whilst the nose is considerably complex for a young, recently-disgorged sparkler. The nose offers aromas of lemon and lime, apple, spring flowers, freshly baked brioche and a suggestion of mixed spice. The palate is essentially bone dry, with mouth-watering, lemony acidity, but also a touch of fruity richness and impressive intensity of flavour - and an equally impressive length on the finish. Blanquette really doesn't get much better than this and, at £10.50 a bottle (guess where!) it knocks spots off most Champagnes at twice the price.

By way of comparison, I opened a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut Divin Blanc de Blancs NV Champagne. Well, it is New Year, so I have a right to indulge a little! As we all know, Champagne comes at a (rather inflated) price. I guess the normal market price for a bottle of this would be in the £20-£25 range, although I got it for considerably less....... I do have my sources! Nevertheless, it still cost me a lot more than the Limoux. But I have to say it is rather lovely and every bit as good as the Limoux, in a more evolved, mature sort of way. It is quite a deep gold colour and the fine mousse calms down rather quickly, suggesting quite a lot of bottle age. But there are still plenty of tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the glass and it is a really fragrant, wine - apples, lemons and pears, with buttery, biscuity notes in the background. The palate is bright and fruity, with intense lemon/lime, almost zesty flavours, along with lots of secondary flavours adding complexity. There are also hints of toffee apple, biscuit and mineral, with quite a rich mouthfeel, but laser-like acidity and a dry finish. It really is rather elegant and lovely - and proves my theory that the only good Champagne is a mature one!

I'm off now to indulge myself even further with a medium-rare steak and a bottle of something old and red. I may even enjoy a glass of vintage Banyuls or Tokaji afterwards, before seeing in the New Year with another glass of bubbly.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Another minor chapter in the cork/screwcap debate

I didn’t mention in my post below about our pre-Christmas tasting, but a bottle of Chateau d’Estoublon Red 2006 also went down very well. A bottle of 2007 white from the same grower, however, was strangely muted, and certainly not a patch on the bottle I drank whilst preparing the tasting note for my website (see my 14 December entry below). Turns out that it was mildly corked – but corked, nevertheless. Which got me thinking that I’ve had a bit of a bad run with corked or faulty bottles at tastings, in the last couple of months.

Natural corks - good ones, of course!

I should state here and now that I hate screwcaps on wine - I really hate them. Admittedly, it is partly a romantic/traditional thing, but it is also down to the fact that screwcaps (a) have a long way to go before their long-term usefulness is proven and (b) are prone to their own set of problems. But that is a whole different debate. It has to be said, of course, that the problems with cork are well-documented and manifold. Chateau d’Estoublon clearly buy the most expensive (and supposedly the best) corks, as do their neighbours, Domaine de Trévallon – indeed, I believe that these corks are priced not in cents, but Euros (2 or 3 per cork, actually!) and therefore add considerably to the basic cost of the bottled wine. But in my experience, that doesn't seem to give them a significant advantage over other (usually much less expensive) corks used by many of my other growers. I've been in the business long enough now to gather a good deal of anecdotal evidence about which growers have the least problems with corked wines - and, unfortunately, neither of these growers are top of the list, expensive corks or not.

I had cause to contact Domaine de Trévallon recently (a bottle of 1999 without a label, would you believe!) and I took the opportunity to tell them about a couple of problem bottles I'd had some time ago. I visited in August 2007 (before I started to sell their wines) and bought one bottle each of the 1999, 2000 and 2001 red, which were put into a 3-bottle wood presentation box. In 2008, when I was preparing for a spectacular Trévallon vertical tasting in Nottingham, I opened the 2001 and 2000 and both were badly affected by TCA (I haven't yet opened the 1999 from the same box). I mentioned that it is very unusual for 2 out of 3 bottles of wine to be "corked" and maybe it was just a very unfortunate coincidence. Or, I wondered, is it possible for TCA to be transmitted from the pine box (or for the other bottles to be affected by 1 bad bottle in the box)? This is, to a certain extent, a rhetorical question and I guess there is not much more a grower can do than to use the most expensive (best?) corks available to them – other than move to an alternative closure method. That said, a good bottle of Trévallon (or Estoublon, for that matter) is still one of the world’s great wine experiences. And (as a friend of mine recently remarked) every single one of my greatest and most sublime wine experiences have come from bottles sealed under cork. However, as long as natural cork closures are still around, TCA will remain a problem for the wine drinker. But there may be a happy medium…………….

DIAM corks - are these the answer?

Personally, I think the answer to the TCA problem lies with DIAM (pictured above) each one of which is made up of thousands of tiny granules of natural cork. During the manufacturing process, the granules are treated and cleaned, which ensures that any traces of TCA (and any other undesirable compounds the cork may be harbouring) are eradicated. The granules are then bound together to form a closure that is as close as possible to the shape, feel and texture of a single-piece natural cork - and they are guaranteed TCA-free.  A couple of my growers already use DIAM corks for all of their wines, notably Domaine de Montesquiou in Jurancon. And the results seem to be very promising indeed - i.e. I have no faulty or corked bottles to report so far. And these are wines which certainly rely on their vitality and fruit to show their best and every bottle I have tasted since they moved to DIAM has been spot-on and fresh as can be. The only thing that has still to be proven with DIAM closures is how well the wines will age over the longer term. Are they good for 5 years, 10 years, 20, more? Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure – unless the producers of natural, single-piece corks eradicate the TCA problem pretty damn quick, their days are numbered.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Christmas - has it really been and gone already?!

I’ve suddenly realised that it is almost two weeks since I last blogged. And frankly, I’m wondering where the time has gone. The fact is, it has taken me all that time to start feeling human again, following that fiendish cold/virus I picked up in mid-December. Who knows, I might even feel like drinking a glass or two of wine, this evening. Which will be something of a novelty, because all that has passed my lips over the last week has been the odd buck's fizz, a glass or two of de Bortoli Show Muscat (rich, sweet and warming – and Australian!) plus copious amounts of bitter lemon, tea and coffee.

I’m not sure if it was mind over matter, or a genuine (but temporary) break in my illness, but I did manage to feel well enough to attend the Christmas edition of our monthly wine group at Le Mistral in Nottingham last Tuesday. To be honest, I wouldn’t miss one of these for the world, so it was probably the former, rather than the latter. Nevertheless, it was another enjoyable night, with a decent spread of wines from the old world and the new.

Although I couldn’t be bothered to take notes (or even write down a full list of the wines) the highlights included a lovely Domaine de La Janasse Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2008, a weird and whacky Dario Princic Pinot Grigio Blush/Rosé 2006 (natural winemaking at its most extreme), a lovely Chateau Simone 1988 Palette (one of the great estates of Provence) and an absolutely spot-on Paul Jaboulet Aine Domaine de Thalabert 1988 Crozes-Hermitages. There were also a couple of decent red Burgundies from Domaine Tollot-Beaut (I can’t remember the appellation or year) and a Grands Échezaux 2000 from René Engel. The former was full of flavour and a certain rustic charm, whilst the latter was elegant and smooth, without setting the world on fire. A fine 1993 Chateau Dereszla Tokaji Aszú 4 Puttonyos was a nice way to finish the evening.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

A rotten day........ ending with a lovely pick-me-up

No - for once I'm not talking about wine. Or at least not one I'm drinking myself. Frankly, I really don't feel like drinking wine, since this wretched cold I've picked up has got me well and truly licked for the time being. I've spent the day coughing, sniffing, blowing, sneezing and generally choking half to death. I've got sore ribs and a head stuffier than a really stuffy thing. I've tried smoking more fags, but even that doesn't seem to help me feel better...... only joking, of course! Still, I guess I'd rather get it out of the way before the festivities begin - hopefully, I'll be feeling a lot healthier by the time next Tuesday's "bash" at Le Mistral in Nottingham comes around. Meanwhile, the only thing I feel like drinking at the moment is tea - and lots of it, although, without a single lemon in the house, I'm having to add a dash of orange juice to make it palatable(!)

Anyway, despite the day I've had, I felt a whole lot more chipper following an email I received this evening from a new(ish) customer. And, with his permission, I am reproducing it here;

"Hi Leon

Just a quick note to say thanks for your excellent service with my order - everything arrived safely today.

I know you're not exactly what you might call a "conventional" merchant, which perhaps gives you an advantage, but your service; the speed with which you dealt with my email asking for advice, your personal touch and the delivery of my carefully packed order before some merchants would even have responded to my initial email is an example to all, from the big boys to local independents.

I'm currently sipping, probably unwisely, one of your recommendations - the Combe Blanche Tempranillo - and despite its recent travels it's proving to be just the sort of thing I love: a lovely fruit (I hate to copy your tasting note, but definitely plum) coupled with just the right amount of acidity and tannin. I was going to write that it's not the most sophisticated of wines, but actually it depends what you're comparing it to: on reflection it's pretty darned good for the price.

Best of luck for the continuing development of your business. Based on your wines, prices and service you deserve it to be a roaring success.

Once again many thanks.


Now excuse me for appearing to blow my own trumpet (wasn't it ever thus....) but isn't that lovely? Of course, I do get other emails and notes of praise from time to time. And, come to think of it, nobody has ever felt compelled to write and tell me how rubbish my wines are(!) But when people say or write things like this, it helps me to remember why I put myself through the not inconsiderable trials and tribulations of trying to build a successful wine business. Of course, I'm not there yet (as evidenced by my continuing "day job", courtesy of HM Land Registry). But it is the little things like this that provide me with just the spur I need to keep at it until it all really kicks off.

So many thanks for taking the time to write to me, Richard - and I hope you keep enjoying the wines. And feel free to spread the word, too! ;-)

For the curious, the wine Richard is enjoying so much this evening is Domaine La Combe Blanche Calamiac Terroir Tempranillo 2007 - Vin de Pays des Cotes du Brian

Now I'm off to get some dinner, followed by a very long lie down in a dark room.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Some more new wines

Although I have developed a horrible cold (and an even worse tickly, chesty cough) over the last couple of days, it is only now that my ability to taste and assess wines has started to become affected. Which is just as well, because I've had a few to get through. I hate seeing the words "tasting note to follow" next to any wine on my website, because I pride myself on having personally tasted and enjoyed and drank every single wine I sell - and how many wine merchants can truly say that? Anyway, I have a handful more to get through before too long, but I guess they'll have to wait for a few days - after all, who feels like drinking when they have a cold? Meanwhile though, here's a few I've drank - and thoroughly enjoyed - over the last 4 days.

I tasted this in winemaker Guy Vanlancker's cellar back in July, but I'd forgotten just how lovely it was. It is very unusual to find a varietal (i.e. 100%) Cinsault, since it is usually considered to be more suitable as a blending component in red (and more often rosé) wines from Languedoc and the southern Rhône. But this one is certainly a worthy example of its kind. The nose is an uncomplicated riot of brambly fruit, with some spicy, herby notes lurking in the background. And the palate is also packed with bramble and cherry fruit, making for a ripe, generous and very juicy mouthful. Relatively soft tannins and mouth-watering acidity, combined with a dollop of southern warmth and spice, all adds up to a lovely drop - which really hits the spot on a cold winter's evening! 13.5% abv.

Made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre,  this one offers aromas of the warm south - spiced red and black fruits, polished wood, undergrowth, garrigue herbs and a hint of garam masala. Give it a good swirl and you might even detect a hint of ripe peaches - for a "jeunes vignes" (from young vines) there is surprising complexity. The palate is rich and concentrated, with a huge core of ripe fruit, but never blowsy or overpowering. There is a cherry skin element to it, which gives it lift, with a decent level of acidity and fine tannins adding grip and definition. As with all the Estoublon reds, it manages to combine rich, ripe flavours with juicy/tangy acidity and spicy warmth, without ever suggesting heat. If I were tasting this blind, I might think I was drinking an unusually subtle (and really very good) Gigondas. Another lovely wine. 13.6% abv.

80% Syrah, 20% Grenache. Fresh plums, bramble and black cherries abound, along hallmark Saint-Chinian terroir - garrigue herbs, violets, black olives and a strong mineral influence from the schistous soils on which it is grown. Hints of tobacco, leather and brioche add even more interest. The palate is concentrated and balanced, with rich, spicy (but not too sweet) bramble and cherry fruit wrapped in a blanket of fine, silky tannins and mouth-watering acidity and a long, spicy finish. Those ultra-fine tannins make for a wine that is already a joy to drink, but this is another beautifully structured wine from Chateau La Dournie, with a great future. A conservative estimate would be 5 to 8 years before maturity and a 10 to 15 year life span.

Domaine d'Estoublon Blanc 2007 Vin de Pays des Alpilles
The colour is a bright yellow gold. The nose is uber complex - notes of quince, apricot, primrose, spices (fennel and clove spring to mind), with subtle hints of lemon, honey and clarified butter. The oak-ageing is subtle, too, with just a touch of vanillin. And the palate is as fresh as a daisy, with flavours of apricot and peach, quince and lemon zest. There is also honeyed, nutty richness that coats the mouth, whilst at the same time being beautifully dry and focused. Restrained power is the order of the day - the sort that manifests itself in a long, mouth-watering finish. In fact, this is a wine that seems effortlessly to combine richness of flavour with supreme elegance. Which marks it out as a great wine, in my book - and I have a cold! White Chateauneuf? White Hermitage? Even white Trévallon? This comes pretty close - it is an absolute star of a wine, from an undoubted future star estate of Provençal winemaking.

That's it for now - I feel like death warmed up, so I'm off to bed!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A hard day on the road, collecting my new wines - and a wonderful way to wind down, with a bottle of stunning Provençal wine

It has been a tough week - in fact, it's been a tough few weeks, with many nights spent working until 2, 3, even 4 o'clock in the morning. And the lack of sleep is really beginning to wear me down - I am desperately tired and really can't wait for the weekend. The work that goes into the selecting, purchasing and shipping of wines is not to be underestimated. But the work involved in preparing tasting notes, adding website entries, writing lists, taking photos and so on is much, much harder and much more time-consuming. If I didn't have a day job to contend with, it might all seem just a little bit easier. But I do - the mortgage needs to be paid and hungry mouths need to be fed. So until the wine business can begin to pay me a half-decent salary and support a family, the day job is a necessary evil.

Days like today, though, are hardest of all. I had 2 pallets of wine delivered yesterday, to the bonded warehouse I use in Rotherham. One pallet from Languedoc, one from Roussillon - over 1200 bottles of wine, from no less than 7 different growers. Rotherham is 40 miles away from Nottingham, and the trip up the M1 is no fun, especially since roadworks mean a 50mph speed limit for about half of the way. So I try and avoid going too often - only as and when my "local" stocks of certain wines need replenishing - or when I have had lots of new wines delivered. The lack of a van means that my trusty Ford Mondeo has to do a lot of work carrying wines - and with a bit of imagination, it is possible to carry 300 or even 400 bottles of wine in a single journey. But today, I was removing no less than 650 bottles from bond - some of them new, some existing stock - so it meant I had to endure the return journey twice. To cut a long story short, I started at around 12.30 pm and finished my second return journey at around 5.15 pm. Then I had the not inconsiderable task of lugging all of those 650 bottles from the loading bay into my store room. By closing time (7 pm) I still hadn't finished - so its back to it tomorrow afternoon.

I did, howver, have the great pleasure (which never fails to excite me) of taking home some wines to taste. One of the "golden rules" of being a wine merchant is not to buy a wine you haven't yet tasted. But if I were to adhere to that, I'd never get much new stuff listed, since I don't get to France anywhere near as often as I would like, and I can't always ask for my growers to keep sending me samples - it is just too expensive. But another thing I have learned in my 6 years in the wine business is to trust my growers' ability to keep making lovely wines, year-in, year-out - and they rarely let me down.

So tonight, I have had the great pleasure of tasting and writing a note on a bottle (a 50cl sample bottle, actually) of Chateau d'Estoublon 2006 Les Baux de Provence. And it is quite simply stunning - and just what I needed after a long, hard day on the road. If you want to read my tasting note, then you'll have to have a look at my website (using the above link). And if you want to buy some, then you'd better snap it up soon, because - as with many of my wines-  I import it only in relatively small quantities. It's not that I won't be able to get any more (this is the current release) but it certainly won't be for a few months yet.

So now it is back to the grind - a quick meal and then back to preparing a mail shot to go out to my customers and subscribers tomorrow, with details of all those lovely new wines!

More tasting notes to follow on the blog (and my website) over the next few days.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

An evening of great food and fine wines at Harts restaurant in Nottingham

It has been a year since the last wine-pages "Offline" in Nottingham. Basically, a load of wine geeks (who collectively spend more time than is healthy posting on a public wine forum) get together to enjoy good company, good food and (above all) good wine. Of course, it is possible to enjoy great wine in the comfort of one's own home, but there is something special about meeting with lots of like-minded people and sharing lots of great bottles. The theme of the tasting was "Terroir wines" - wines which were to express their origins in no uncertain terms. And, in the main, they did just that. I've included a few photos of some of the wines, but no food photos - great though the food was, I always think "serving suggestion" when I see them!

Vilmart Grand Cellier d'Or 2001 Champagne
Smoky, lemon meringue nose and a light-ish lemon sherbert palate. I enjoyed this very much, but others didn't. We were also using glasses kindly provided by Harts and some people complained that the mousse disappeared quickly, whilst mine lasted a lot longer. Perhaps some sort of residue in the glasses - or perhaps my mousse simply has more staying power! :D

Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée 2000 Champagne
Much richer than the previous Champagne, with a lovely, creamy, almost caramelly palate, balanced by lemony acidity. Well-judged oak gives it real elegance.

Domaine de Montesquiou Cuvade Préciouse 2007 Jurançon Sec
I brought this (and indeed list it) and it was really well received. Lemon and apple aromas, mingled with a touch of vanilla, clove, star anise and freshly-baked bread. Hallmark Jurançon flavours of lemon, lime and apple, with considerable richness and minerality. A fabulous, thrilling wine - I love it!

Dr Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2005 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer paired with Dr Loosen Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2005 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
I think I did have a glass problem, here, because the Erdener Treppchen tasted a bit blowsy and even a bit sugary and nondescript (although I tasted some from Diane's glass and it was much better). Nevertheless, the Ürziger Würzgarten won by a mile - petrolly (already) but oh-so perfumed. Slate/mineral, lemon, lime zest, laser-like precision. Lovely stuff and everything that a really good MSR Riesling should be. (Apologies if I got these the wrong way round - they went round as a pair, but were not individually identified).

Stéphan Maroslavac-Tremeau La Tennelotte 1991 Meursault-Blagny 1er Cru
This was quite heavily oxidised, but not entirely undrinkable (though I couldn't drink more than half a glass!).

Firesteed Pinot Noir 2004 Willamette Valley, Oregon
Nice. Rich cherry and strawberry nose. The palate is slightly chewy and slightly tannic, but with lots of cherry kernel fruit and ample acidity. For me, it was lovely when first poured. To its credit, I was positive it was a young Burgundy.

Querciabella 1995 Chianti Classico
A touch bretty and farmyardy, with notes of liquorice, tar, polished wood and green pepper - a bit like a nice right-bank Claret. Nice acidity, but lemon rather than cherry. For me, it doesn't scream Chianti, but it knocks spots off your average cru bourgeois Claret.

Denis Mortet Gevrey-Chambertin 2000
My note for this is ultra brief, because I was too busy enjoying it to bother writing. All I wrote was "Wow! - exquisitely perfumed and elegant." Which sums this wine up nicely. Although "only" a village wine, this was very definitely of 1er Cru standard.

O. Fournier Alfa Cruz 2001 Valle de Uco, Argentina
Well, if this was mostly Tempranillo, it certainly seemed dominated by Malbec. Was there any Malbec in it? Whatever, it was clearly Argentinian, and actually very nice, with some promise of development. A match for a good modern Cahors.

Domaine de Pegau Cuvée Réserve 1994 Châteauneuf-du-Pape paired with Domaine de Pegau Cuvée Laurence 1994 Châteauneuf-du-Pape
By this time, my notes were almost non-existent, but these were clearly Châteauneuf - and therefore passed the "Terroir" test with flying colours. I do recall enjoying the Réserve a lot (I thought it was Vieux Télégraphe), whilst finding the Laurence a bit OTT and inelegant. Why leave a wine to stew in oak (however old) for two years longer than necessary? These two wines were [b]totally[/b] different, and the Réserve won by a country mile.

Château Pradeaux 1999 Bandol
Well, embarrasingly (since I am in the process of importing some wines from this very grower) I was totally flummoxed by this one! When first poured, it seemed a bit past it, but it opened-up quickly to reveal a really drinkable and rather complex wine. Smoky and tarry, with lots of tertiary aromas and flavours and really quite "winey". Although Richard (whose wine it was) gave me a hint, the relatively soft tannins took me to the wrong end of the Mediterranean. And I plumped for Grenache, although a little voice in my head was shouting Mourvedre. Perhaps a little atypical for Chateau Pradeaux, in that it seems to be at its peak already, but a very nice wine nevertheless.

Marc Sorrel Hermitage 1999
This was lovely, but I had the Devil's own job in identifying its origins. In fact, I thought it might have been a really fine Loire Cab Franc (I'm nothing, if not honest). I then headed to the southern Rhône, as I sometimes get the two mixed up (this had shades of carbonic maceration - though I doubt it was the case). Somebody then suggested St. Joseph, then a few other northern Rhône appellations, until we got to Hermitage. To be honest, it was most un-Hermitage-like. So, despite the fact that it was a very nice wine, it failed the "Terroir" test.

Domaine deTrévallon 1999 Vin de Pays des Bouches du Rhône
My word, this split the jury, and those that liked it (including me) seemed to be in a minority. When I opened it at around 4 o'clock, there was a touch of brett and even a bit of VA, but all of those lovely Trévallon aromas and flavours were present and correct. By the time we drank it, I thought it was really singing. Lovely, ripe, rich fruit and fabulous acidity. I didn't get any of that green pepper that my friend Andy Leslie referred to. Rarely, if ever, does one grape variety dominate the other in Trévallon - and this one (for me) was no different. It isn't a great Trévallon, but it is a very good one, in my opinion.

Mastroberadino 1997 Taurasi Radici Riserva
I made no note whatsoever for this wine, but it was clearly identifiable as southern Italian (well, I guessed Sicily, actually). It was a big, rich bruiser of a wine, but certainly not without some complexity.

Château La Dournie Elise 2000 Saint-Chinian
I served this wine "double-blind". It is sold in a Bordeaux bottle, but, such is the northern Rhône-like quality of great Saint-Chinian, I decided to decant it into a Rhône/Burgundy bottle (inside a sock, of course). And I think I am safe in saying that everybody was in northern Rhône territory. I didn't write a note, but then again I know this wine very well and - on this showing - it just gets better and better with age. Violets and white lilies, red and black fruits, garrigue herbs and black olives. Andy remarked that he couldn't get the "terroir" - but that was because he is (perhaps almost completely) unfamiliar with Saint-Chinian. But, for me, great Saint-Chinian has, without doubt, the most recognisable characteristics of any appellation in Languedoc. It is probably bad form to say it, but this was my WOTN. By sheer coincidence, the 2005 vintage of this wine will shortly be available at Leon Stolarski Fine Wines (!)

Domaine Cady Les Bruandières Grains Nobles 1997 Côteaux du Layon Saint Aubin
This smelled and tasted like a really good SGN, but I thought it was an Alsace Pinot Gris. To be fair, others said Chenin. On its own, it seemed to lack a bit of acidity, but paired with a lovely tarte tatin, it made a beautiful match.

Despite the relative paucity of wines (14 people would normally mean at least 25 wines at a Nottingham Offline!) this was another very enjoyable evening. And the food was much better than a year ago. My game terrine was gorgeous (and beautifully-presented) and the duck was tender and delicious. Tarte tatin was to die for - although it could have done with being a bit more generous in size. A special mention for the bread - I have never seen so much bread (and it was wonderful) passed around. The waiter must have circled the table on at least 5 different occasions, with 2 or 3 different types of bread! Oh, and that waiter deserves special credit, as he was extremely attentive and efficient, but stayed very much in the background until needed. Really great service.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Another rant about wine books

Talk is rife in the wine world at the moment, about how Jamie Oliver's head of wine, Matt Skinner, has admitted to not tasting several wines that he recommends in his latest book, The Juice 2010 (published by Mitchell Beazley). You can read all about the scandal on the Decanter website, along with numerous comments from disgruntled readers. All I can say is, why bother publishing an annual wine guide which simply re-hashes tasting notes from previous vintages numerous wines, whilst brazenly attributing them to the latest (un-tasted) vintage? I'm not sure if it breaks any laws, but it is dishonest in the extreme, and really does bring the world of wine writing (not to mention UK wine book publishers) into disrepute.

On a related note, my friend Peter Gorley is still searching for a publisher for the second edition of his book, Gorley's Guide To The Wines Of Languedoc And Roussillon. Although the book is still intended to focus predominantly on the wines and winemakers of Languedoc and Roussillon (around 250 different growers) for this edition, he has also got together with Anthony Peregrine, who will contribute sections on tourism, history and food. After much effort (and time) they've had no luck with UK or French publishers. A meeting with the powers that be in L/R (including the President himself, Georges Freche) resulted in the offer of one sixth of the 60,000 Euros or so that he would need, in order to publish the book himself. The rest he would need to borrow - which is a route Peter is reluctant to go down, at his time of life. I am still exasperated that the Maison du Languedoc-Roussillon did not see fit to invest such a relatively small sum, at a time when their wine industry could really do with a helping hand to compete with the likes of the Australian Wine Board, who have a seemingly bottomless pit of money to promote their wines.

Anyway, at my suggestion, Peter contacted the University of California Press and recently had a meeting with their wine book editor which, although not entirely unproductive, didn't result in a publishing deal. I'm sure Peter won't mind me relating what he recently told me;

"......If Anthony and I rework our concept....more depth, more history, more culture...then he'd be happy to have another look at it. He's a serious late 30's Senior Editor with an archeological bent, and I feel that our fun but not frivolous (popular?) approach isn't the tone he's looking for. UCPress is of course academically inclined."

I don't have a copy of Peter's first book, but he did send me a bound copy of a special mini-edition, containing 3 of the 12 "routes" from the original book. I have to say that it is far from frivolous - indeed, it is an impressive piece of writing, with excellent photos and maps, plus in-depth profiles of the growers and their wines. There are also a couple of very enthusiastic reviews by Jancis Robinson and Kermit Lynch.

What a shame that such a talented and knowledgeable writer continues to encounter such apathy to a most worthwhile project. All I can say is shame on the UK's main wine book publishers for not getting their hands dirty with real wine books, instead of continuing their policy of churning out re-hashed and regurgitated updates of generic "annual" wine guides.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Highlights from a recent tasting

This week was Le Mistral week, when (as with every last Tuesday in each month) a bunch of wine nuts gathered at Le Mistral restaurant in central Nottingham, for some good food and lots of good wines. And this one was a bit of a cracker, with some really good stuff, all tasted blind. I didn't take notes on all of the wines, but here are some of my favourites.

Billaud-Simon 2000 Chablis 1er Cru Mont de Milieu
Struck match, lemon and ice cream, but little oak influence. The palate is generous for a Chablis, but supremely balanced – lovely, minerally fruit and fabulous acidity. Praise be – a Chablis that actually floats my boat!

Chateau Musar 2001 Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
My work colleague Richard Mitson brought this. As we were tasting blind, my first thoughts were either white Graves or a traditional white Rioja such as Tondonia, with lots of weird and whacky things going on. Toasty, oaky, struck match aromas and a rich, lemony, minerally palate, with just a hint of tropical fruit. When Richard was asked if it was new world or old world, he wasn’t quite sure how to describe it – which led me straight to Musar. I love this wine, and should certainly drink more of it.

Frank Cornelissen Munjebel 4 2006/7 Etna, Sicilia
This is called ‘4’ because it is the 4th release of this cuvée. It is, strictly speaking, a non-vintage wine, since it is made from grapes from two vintages, although the years 2006 and 2007 are prominent on the label - stretching the rules a bit, perhaps? Made from 100% Nerello Mascalese, it is a fine example of what tends to be called "extreme natural winemaking", with the absolute minimum (in most cases zero) intervention in the winemaking process, followed by ageing in large amphorae and bottling without the addition of sulphur. The result is a wine which is indeed natural in the extreme, with lots of volatility, but also incredible fragrance, freshness and not a little complexity. The nose offers complex aromas of cherry, strawberry, acetone, beetroot, farmyard and baked red cabbage (the sort that is adorned with apples, onions and mixed spice). Some of these descriptors perhaps don't sound too inviting on their own, but - when they are all smelt together - they are delicious. Importantly, the main impression is of fruit - and lots of it. The palate has Parma violets, cherry kernel, red berries, lemon sherbert, Oriental spices and a refreshing hint of spritz. All-in-all, this was a truly delicious wine. Andy Leslie (who I think brought it) noted that it started to fall apart rather quickly in the glass (and I would venture that it is not a wine to keep) but it is utterly delicious stuff, to drink right now. Not cheap, at approaching 20 quid, but definitely worth it, in my opinion.

Domaine du Fogolar Collet de Bovis 2005 Bellet
This wine was a bit of a revelation for me. I'd read about the wines of Bellet (a tiny appellation on the fringes of Nice) and assumed that they were nothing special. Not that I'd ever tasted one - until now. This is a beautiful, clear, light ruby red colour. As we were tasting blind, I guessed that it might be a Pinot Noir (and a really good one) with a touch of richness and warmth suggesting southern France. In fact, the grape varieties are two local varieties, Folle Noir and Braquet, together with Grenache and Cinsault. The wine has delicious Pinot-like aromas of roses, wild strawberries and forest floor, with hints of spices and herbs thrown in for good measure. Above all, it is very fragrant, very elegant and very complex. The palate is so silky and lusciously fruity, but with spicy notes, decent tannins and stunning, mouth-watering acidity. A hint of saline (no doubt from the proximity of the sea) adds an interesting savouriness to the red fruit flavours. At 4 years of age, it seems to be drinking really well, but I suspect it has the structure to age nicely for a good few years (as does Chateau Simone, another Provencal wine, to which I would compare this wine most closely). A fabulous wine - ultra clean and ultra lovely!

That's it for today - Match Of The Day is on!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

A weekend sampling exercise - a lovely Minervois

It's been a busy couple of days for me - lots of emailing and faxing and transferring of money (plenty of new wines to import ready for the busy Christmas period). So to help me wind down I thought I'd try a second sample bottle of a new vintage I am shortly to receive from my friend Guy Vanlancker in La Liviniere.

Domaine La Combe Blanche La Chandeliere 2004 Minervois La Liviniere
75% Syrah, with the remaining 25% made up of Grenache and Carignan. This has a lovely, deep, blood red core, with a 1cm ruby/pink rim. The nose offers aromas of rich black fruits, herbs, spices and Christmas cake, with subtle notes of cedar and leather. After some time in the glass, some attractive undergrowth aromas begin to appear. The palate is packed full of rich, sweet, spicy bramble fruit flavours, earthy but soft tannins and dark chocolate, and is given extra lift by a note of bitter cherry kernel. A backbone of very decent, ever-so-slightly-volatile acidity and a long, tangy, warm finish complete the package. Whilst alcohol levels seem to be inexorably on the rise in the south of France (not to mention most other regions, of course) this wine, even at 14.5%, manages to retain a good degree of balance. Whilst there is a touch of alcohol in Guy Vanlancker's La Liviniere wines (the basic Minervois wines achieve closer to 13.5%) they manage to be both voluptuous and elegant at the same time - warming, rather than overpowering. And the result is a wine which, at 5 years of age, is well out of its first flush of youth, whilst still offering lots of scope for development. My impression is of a wine that is really lovely now, but will evolve nicely for a good few years. Top notch Minervois, with a nod towards Gigondas.

The fact that Guy still finds it hard to shift his wines in an increasingly difficult market (not helped by the prevailing economic climate, of course) means that this is his current release of this particular cuvée - his skills lie in making great wines, rather than in marketing them. And as his flagship wine - at a projected price of around £13 - it is a real bargain.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Wilco - the greatest rock band in the world

I went to Leeds a couple of weeks ago to see my favourite band, Wilco. Most of you will probably never even heard of this Chicago-based band, but I genuinely feel that they are the finest rock band in the world - bar none. I meant to post a few lines about this fantastic gig (my third time seeing the band) but just never found the time. I've sure been wearing out my CD collection (and my reasonably extensive collection of concert recordings) since then, though. Meanwhile, one fan's comment about the Leeds show on the Via Chicago forum just about sums it up, when they say "How many bands can go from pretty acoustic folk to Krautrock wig outs to gospel tinged bluesy rock to straight-ahead rock or pop and remain incredibly on and unified throughout the whole show? Amazing musicians, fantastically varied and melodic songs and a great dolefully funny front man in Jeff Tweedy."

If you love great rock music (and just about every other shade of music) then check them out. In fact, here are links to a couple of great videos of live songs, which I found via the excellent website (no need to wait for the whole thing to load - just click play);

"Impossible Germany" from the "Sky Blue Sky" album.

"Monday" from the "Being There" album.

Oh, and just in case you like what you see/hear, you can catch a live live webcast of their show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam tonight (16 November) at 7.45pm (8.45 Central European time). I'll certainly be tuning in!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

More from Chateau Pradeaux - 2001 and 2004 reds

I posted last week (see my Tuesday 3 November entry) about the delicious 2008 Chateau Pradeaux Rosé. Since then, I have tasted my way through the 3 red vintages available to me, and they were all pretty damn good, if rather young. Even the 2003 red was lovely when first opened, with lots of fruit but none of the overtly baked richness and green tannins of many wines from that very hot year. In fact, it was glorious! Unfortunately, those green tannins did appear a couple of hours after opening and I (and my trusty tasting buddies) came to the conclusion that they wouldn't help the wine to age gracefully. So that one is a miss. However, the 2001 and 2004 are winners (for quite different reasons)..........

Chateau Pradeaux 2001 Bandol
A medium-dark blood red core, leading to a slightly amber/orange rim, with all sorts of shades inbetween. Despite its 14.5% abv, it is relatively light in texture. The nose is initially a little dumb and monolithic, but it then begins to open up and become much more expressive, with notes of black cherry and bramble, dark chocolate, cedar, tobacco and undergrowth. There are also some nice herby notes, particularly oregano and thyme, and a warming whiff of eau de vie. The palate has flavours of bramble fruits and christmas cake, with background notes of chocolate and red meat, herbs and spice. It is full of richness and fruit, but possesses ample acidity and a healthy backbone of ripe tannin. This is a wine which can be enjoyed now, as long as it is accompanied by a rich, meaty dish, but will reward cellaring for another 5 to 10 years. Bordeaux meets Chateauneuf, perhaps? A potentially great wine, from a great vintage.

Chateau Pradeaux 2004 Bandol
This one is from a much more "normal" vintage, as the 13.5% abv proves. Deepish blood red in colour, semi-transluscent. On opening, there is a whiff of farmyard (at first, I thought brett) but this blows off very quickly to reveal some quite Chateauneuf-like aromas of red and black fruits, garrigue herbs and red meat, with further notes of undergrowth, crystallised fruits, vanilla, sandalwood and leather. The palate is packed full of fruit, although - having only just been bottled after 4 years in large (old) oak foudres - the tannins are still very prominent. This is countered by a herby, mineral quality and fabulous acidity. In other words, a beautifully balanced and fresh wine. Again, this can be drunk now, but needs hearty food to show its best. This is excellent, traditional Bandol (from one of the oldest and most traditional estates) which needs time, but will be perfect after 10 to 15 years of ageing.

The projected prices for the 2001 and 2004 will be £25.75 and £19.75, respectively. The 2008 Rosé will be £14.95. I have them on order now (along with new vintages of my other Provence growers, Domaine de Trévallon and Chateau d'Estoublon) and can't wait to get them listed and unleash them on my customers!

Friday, 13 November 2009

Friday night - a decent Champagne and a top Chateau Musar

I'm not sure how, but Diane and I have virtually polished off the Champagne before dinner (a lovely rib steak), so the Musar 2002 that has been winking at me from the kitchen worktop for the last few days has got its comeuppance!

Piper-Heidsieck Brut Divin Blanc de Blancs NV Champagne
This clearly has some age, as it is quite a deep gold colour. A decent-ish mousse, though not particularly fine, and the nose and palate were a little harsh and unforgiving at first. But with a little air, it really did soften out and become quite delicious and moreish. Bready and biscuity on the nose, with limes and apples and some attractive slatey minerality, like a decent white Burgundy with fizz (am I allowed to say that?). Tastes like one, too - nicely aged Chardonnay flavours, some richness countered by lovely acidity and a very decent finish. A nice way to start the evening and pave the way for some proper wine.........

Chateau Musar 2002 Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Darker in colour than your average Musar - half way between a young Burgundy and an aged Claret - with a deep-ish (but still semi-transluscent) core, fading gradually to a wide, slightly amber rim. The trademark VA is there, but masked by quite a lot of oak - somewhat more than usual, at this stage. Perhaps this was given more "treatment" (or more new oak) than usual. And I can see why, because this is bordering on full-bodied and rich, and built to last - clearly a very substantial vintage.

All the components are there - sweet, rich, slightly raisiny fruit, ripe, soft (but ample) tannins and acidity to die for. It isn't all about richness, though, as there are some lovely strawberry/raspberry, even lemony aromas and flavours, along with herbs, spices, leather and cedar - and oak, presently. Of course, it wouldn't be Musar without that delicious acetone and raspberry vinegar-style VA, and there is plenty of that to see it though to maturity - which may be anywhere between the next 5 and 20 years.

Is Cabernet ever more comely than this (softened by some Carignan and Cinsault)? Personally, I don't think so. This Musar is undeniably young and primary, but utterly delicious - and a very good (potentially top) vintage. Just give it a few years and it will really start to sing.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Domaine des Baumard - a tasting of recent vintages, plus a few older ones

This tasting was presented last week by my friend and fellow Nottingham Wine Circle member Roger Halfpenny, who also happens to be the importer for Domaine des Baumard. I've been meaning to type the notes up for a few days now, but (as usual) there just never seem to be enough hours in a day! However, such a fine tasting of both dry and sweet wines should not pass without mention. Don't expect cohesion, though - the notes remain exactly as I wrote them on the night. We started with a couple of Crémant de Loire.......

Crémant de Loire 2004
One third each of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. Bready, yeasty, scents of strawberry and cream. Quite young, but already lovely, with notes of apple, lemon and red fruits on the palate. Nicely rich and satisfying.

Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé NV
100% Cabernet Franc, 18 months on the lees. Lovely pale onion skin colour. Notes of strawberry and apple. Less complex than the 2004, but drier and more focussed, with a lemon sherbert finish. Nice, but quite simple.

Clos Saint Yves 2001 Savennieres
Glycerous and perfumed - quince, lanolin and creamy cheese - smells almost sweet. Palate is almost bone dry - again with a lanolin richness, but steely minerality. Long.

Clos Saint Yves 2005 Savennieres
Lemony and still somewhat oaky. Dry n the palate, but quite resiny as well. Warmer and richer than the 2001 (more alcohol?) but still needs time to get into its stride.

Clos de Papillon 2006 Savennieres
This is really classic Savennieres. Wet dog, mineral, orange marmalade. The palate is intensely mineral and laden with zesty lime flavours. Still painfully young and even austere, but with an underlying richness and notes of anise and liquorice. Cracking wine.

Clos de Papillon 2005 Savennieres
Apples and wet wool, wet stones, flowers and cut grass. The palate is very definitely off-dry - a warmer year, so some residual sugar. Rich and honeyed, with a hint of cider. Less minerality, more texture and fruit. Lovely wine, if a little atypical.

Clos de Papillon 2001 Savennieres
Quince jelly, honey, cheese, mushroom, lanolin, apple pie and vanilla custard - a stunning nose! The palate is a riot of lemon and tart apple. Very minerally, too. Ultra-dry and classic.

Clos de Papillon 2000 Savennieres
Not very much on the nose at all. Hints of swimming pool, old wood and sous-bois - but no fruit or minerality. Not much on the palate, either. A bit of lemon, but strangely short on acidity and really quite flabby. Lacks depth. Not a good Papillon.

Trie Spéciale 2007
Andrew Jefford describes Trie Spéciale as "the apotheosis of Chenin Blanc, and unquestionably a wine to rival Corton-Charlemagne and Montrachet" and it is easy to see why. This 2007 has a stunning nose of caramelised tarte tatin, mineral, mixed spice, honey and cream. The oak is judicious and very subtle. Very much in the mould of a GC Burgundy - and the flavour profile is also very much like one, as well, with incredible richness and texture. Creamy, almost caramelly, honeyed, with spiced fruit nuances. Huge length and fantastic wine, though painfully young. Give it 5 to 10 years.

Then it was onto the sweet wines.........

Cuvée Le Paon 2005 Coteaux du Layon
A nose full of minerality and wet wool. The palate is rich and intensely sweet, but beautifully balanced by ample acidity. Barley sugar and creamy apples - Sussex pond pudding! Lovely stuff.

Cuvée Le Paon 2003 Coteaux du Layon
A bit dumb on the nose, though it smells dry. Hints of stone and apple, but not much else. Actually, there are some nice apple and barley sugar flavours, but it is less balanced (and actually less powerful) than the 2005. Perhaps it is just less "ripe", in the phenolic sense. A product of the year. If you have some, drink it sooner rather than later.

Clos de Sainte Catherine 2007 – Coteaux du Layon
My goodness this is fantastic! Cheesy, minerally, lots of lemon and apple/quince aromas. But that hardly prepares you for the palate, which is simply amazing. Intense flavours of lime and lemon marmalade, apples and pears, lemon meringue pie and sherbert dip - trust me, it's all in there!Sweetness to die for, but the acidity is just mouth-watering. But where does that sweetness come from, when the acidity is so intense? Yes, it is sweet but certainly not sugary, caramelly but not burnt. Luscious but tangy, this stuff really makes your tabs laugh. A stunning, complex, glorious wine. Truly great, and will last for absolutely decades - but why wait? Having said that, it will only get better - if such a thing is possible. I believe some or other American writer rated this 97/100, but that only serves to heighten my feeling that points cannot do justice to great wine. And 97 points is surely being mean, because this wine is bordering on perfection.

Clos de Sainte Catherine 2004 Coteaux du Layon
Well - talk about after the Lord Mayor's Show! Closed, dumb, shut. Most of us found this impossible to assess, especially after the 2007. There's probably a lovely wine in there somewhere, but it is just not in a good place at the moment.

Quarts de Chaume 2006
Mineral, herb, stone. Huge acidity and an amazing concentration of quince and apple fruit sweetness. Superbly balanced. But this is so young and needs 10 years to shed the puppy fat and soften some of that super-intense minerality that I sometimes find almost too much in Baumard's Quarts de Chaume.

Quarts de Chaume 1996
Much darker in colour and much more aromatic, with notes of quince, nuts, slate, lime marmalade, lychee, cheese, honey and mushroom - as I said before, it's all there! Huge concentration, with all of those aromas manifesting themselves on the palate, in a wine that is uber-complex and very definitely coming into its drinking window - and will stay there for many a year. Cracking wine, which is almost as good as the Clos de Sainte Catherine 2007........ but not quite!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A very classy rosé wine - Chateau Pradeaux Rosé 2008 Bandol

2 years ago, I visited Chateau Pradeaux, one of the most traditional and famous estates in Bandol. I was impressed with the wines and with the estate itself and, since that visit, Pradeaux has featured very high on the list of growers I would like to have in my portfolio. And yesterday I finally received some sample bottles (3 red vintages and the latest rosé), which I intend to assess over the coming days, before making a decision on which ones to take. Although I usually like to wait a few days for the wines to get over their arduous journey, I have no time to lose, if I am to get some of these wines listed before Christmas. First up was the rosé.

Made from 55% Mourvedre and 45% Cinsault, this rosé has an amazing onion skin/blood orange colour – really beautiful to look at. It is a vin de pressurage, meaning that it is made from a direct pressing of the grapes, rather than the usual saignée (free-run juice) method. The nose has aromas of wild strawberries, orange zest, apples and rose petals, with forest floor, hedgerow and garrigue notes lurking in the background. A hint of pear drops falls away with some air, to be replaced by a nice creaminess, and the aromas begin to meld together into a beautifully clean, complex whole. The palate offers a combination of ripe red fruits and zesty orange and lemon flavours, with a decent amount of acidity and what I can only describe as a minerally, almost tannic backbone, which adds grip and texture. It develops even further after a period of several hours in the decanter, with the aromas and flavours becoming more integrated and intense. Nevertheless, this is a wine that tends towards elegance, rather than power, yet it has a very impressive finish - those tangy, zesty, herby, almost spicy flavours linger for a very long time on the palate.

The problem with many (if not most) rosés is that, in trying to combine flavours at both the red and white ends of the spectrum, they end up being somewhat confected. This one definitely majors on the white fruits, whilst displaying hints of fresh, tangy red fruits, redolent of a light Burgundy – a very successful balancing act. Rosé wines are also normally made in a style that requires fairly early drinking, but Bandol rosés are renowned for their ability to age for a few years. And I think this one will age and improve for a good few years yet – whilst already starting from a very high level indeed. A superb rosé wine, that can only get better.

The only question is, can I sell a rosé at a projected £15.95 per bottle? Well, only time will tell. The Domaine Tempier and Domaine Ott 2008 rosés are both approaching the £20 mark - and Chateau Pradeaux 2008 is more than a match for the rosés I have tasted from those growers.

Monday, 2 November 2009

GrapesTALK - the official ASDW magazine - Issue 10 out now

GrapesTALK is the official quarterly magazine of the Association of Small Direct Wine Merchants (ASDW). as well as being a founder member and former Secretary and Chairman of ASDW, I am also a regular contributor to GrapesTalk. The latest issue (subtitled "Focus on France") features a full-length article by me on one of my favourite growers, Domaine Treloar, together with an up-to-date report on the 2009 vintage in Roussillon by winemaker Jonathan Hesford.

Most of France's wine regions are covered in this issue, including major articles on Beaujolais, Rhone, Burgundy etc, plus lesser-known regions such as Jura and South-West France. There are also (amongst other things) book reviews, restaurant reviews and recipes. There is also an article on Chateauneuf-du-Pape by Harry Karis, plus a review on Harry's new book "The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book", by no less than Robert M Parker Jr himself!

GrapesTALK is available as a free download.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

An evening of lovely wines to celebrate a friend's 60th birthday

Around 24 members of Nottingham Wine Circle gathered at The Pretty Orchid restaurant on Friday evening, to celebrate the 60th birthday of our friend and fellow member, Mieke Hudson (centre of the photo). As ever, the standard of the wines was very high - as I've said before, these people are never less than extremely generous in sharing the fruits of their cellars. I was a little late in arriving (why do most of the problems with the tram system seem to coincide with my trips into Nottingham?) so I actually missed the first few wines. Nevertheless, I was able to sample at least 22 different wines - and, apart from a few uninspiring Bordeaux (and we are talking classed-growths, here!) there was hardly a dud amongst them. Because we were also busy eating, my notes are necessarily brief.........

Chateau de La Roche-aux-Moines Clos de La Coulée de Serrant 1986 - Savennieres Coulée de Serrant was first up and was bang on form, being an early contender for white wine of the night. All nettles, wet wool, lemony fruit and minerality on the nose, still tight and delineated on the palate - long and oh-so complex. I'm pleased that I still have around a dozen bottles left, to enjoy over the next 10 or 20 years.

Francois Cotat Le Grande Cote 2000 Sancerre was lovely stuff - dry, fruity and with nice balance and super length. Perhaps a touch of bitterness on the finish, but (even at 9 years old) with a lot of development left in it.

Willi Brundlemeyer Zobinger Heilingenstein Riesling 1997 was delicious - aromatic, very minerally, packed with flavours of citrus fruit, herbs and spices and huge length. Superb.

Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Spatlese 1997 was textbook stuff. Tightly-structured, but with some generous fruit and a touch of residual sugar providing a counter to the mouth-watering acidity and steely minerality. A cracking wine.

I didn't manage to take a note on the Zind-Humbrecht Clos Hauserer Riesling 2002 Alsace, but recall that it was somewhat lighter (and less alcoholic) than most Z-H wines tend to be - and all the more enjoyable for it.

Vincent Lumpp La Grande Berge 2007 Givry 1er Cru was on great form, with vibrant fruit, minerality and nicely-integrated oak providing a glimpse of how good Cote Chalonnaise Burgundy can be. Not that I brought it (the 1986 Coulée de Serrant was my white contribution) but you can buy this wine from my website, at the bargain price of just £14.95.

Again, I didn't take a note on the Jean Pascal Puligny-Montrachet 2007, but it was enjoyable village Burgundy, although consumed far too early in its evolution.

Onto the reds, and Chateau Fombrage 1988 St. Emilion was the ideal wine - if only to get it out of the way as early as possible! For me, it was dry, austere and totally lacking in charm.

Domaine Bachelot Vieilles Vignes 1997 Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru, on the other hand, was proper wine. Amazingly perfumed, combining notes of flowers, fruit, savoury (notably beef) and chocolate. The palate was already soft and silky and approaching maturity. If I'm being hyper-critical, it was perhaps just a touch light (but I'm being picky). A delightful wine.

Torres Gran Coronas Reserva 1985 Penedes was my wine. On opening this, I was somewhat unimpressed, thinking it was a bit dried-out and past its drinking plateau (so much so that I brought another red wine with me). How wrong I was - it is indeed a fading old dame of a wine, but it grew in the glass, revealing some nice secondary fruit flavours, a touch of savouriness and notes of sous-bois and tea. Not a great wine, but a very very good one - and so much more enjoyable and elegant than the other Cabernet-based (i.e. Bordeaux) wines on show. As 1985 was the year Diane and I got married, I am pleased to still have 2 or 3 bottles left for our 25th anniversary celebration next year.

Torres Mas La Plana Gran Coronas 1994 Penedes provided an interesting comparison, if only to further highlight how well the 1985 had evolved. I may be wrong, but I'm not sure there is any mileage left in the 1994, which was still quite tannic, but lacking in fruit and charm.

Next up was another Bordeaux, Chateau Cos d'Estournel 1989 Saint Estephe - and another disappointing wine. There was plenty of the classic cedar and graphite stuff going on with the nose, but the palate was dry, austere and lacking in fruit. Considering this is a Second Growth, it really was not a great advert for expensive Bordeaux.

Chateau La Lagune 1985 Haut Médoc had much more in the way of fruit, along with notes of green pepper, cedar and spice. It has stood the test of time much better than the 1989 Cos, but it is (for me at least) a bit boring.

Chateau Grand Puy Ducasse 1995 Paulliac was next up. What can I say? Basically, it was like sucking on a band aid plaster. Fruitless, joyless and pretty pointless. Which only served to confirm my opinion that 90% of Bordeaux wines (including the classed growths) are Emperor's New Clothes.

And so back to proper wine, with Noel Verset Cornas 1996. An incredible bouquet (almost in the literal sense) of violets, lilies and roses. The palate didn't quite live up to the nose, being a touch on the light side, but there was still plenty of interest, with classic Syrah fruit profile, resolved tannins, minerality and juicy acidity. Not a great Verset Cornas, but a good one, which is drinking perfectly right now.

Les Cailloux 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape is also drinking beautifully. A touch stinky/farmyardy, and with a touch of acetone - perhaps a sign of the hot year. Packed full of warm, juicy, mouth-filling southern Rhone fruit and spice. Long, warming and open for business - and one of the best 1998 Chateauneufs.

J L Chave Hermitage 1995 was, of course, a real treat. The 1982 and 1983, tasted a couple of years back, rank amongst the greatest wines I have ever had the privilege of tasting - and this 1995 has the potential to rank right up there with them. It took a little time to really open up (it is still on the young side, after all) but it is already soft and seductive, with true complexity and balance. A perfect marriage of fruit, tannin and acidity, with a touch of peppery spice and classic northern Rhone florality. Young, but poised, yet with years of development left in it. A potentially great wine, and I hope I am lucky enough to taste another one some day.

Domaine du Vieux Télégraph 1993 Chateauneuf-du-Pape was my own final contribution and showed really well in such esteemed company. Although not from a great year in Chateauneuf, it is full of fruit, complex and balanced - a touch rustic in comparison to the Chave Hermitage, but what wine wouldn't be? And at 16 years old, it too still has some way to go before it reaches its peak.

Croft 1977 Vintage Port was light, elegant, well-balanced and warm without being hot or spiritous. I'm not a great fan of Port, but this was really nice.

Cockburns 1983 Vintage Port was also quite decent, though a bit clumsy in comparison. A bit young, perhaps, but will never be great.

Finally, Domaine des Baumard Clos Ste. Catherine 1989 Coteaux du Layon. I've enjoyed various vintages of this wine and rarely have they failed to excite the senses. And this one was no different, with an amazing nose - a riot of sweet-smelling fruit, with sweaty cheese and savoury nuances. The palate is unctiously sweet and mouth-coating, but it is held in check by wonderful acidity and classic Chenin Blanc minerality. And at 20 years old, it has literally decades of development left in it. In my opinion, this is Baumard's best sweet cuvée, with slightly less intensity than the Quarts de Chaume, but more elegance. A lovely wine to finish a lovely evening. Happy 60th, Mieke!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A tasting of 1998 Southern Rhones - on this evidence, drink up (quickly)!

1998 was universally touted, by trade and media alike, as a great (and potentially long-lived) vintage in the Rhone. Or, at least, it was when the wines were first released. And many of them were indeed deliciously drinkable, at the time, albeit in a typical hot-vintage, rich, baked fruit sort of way. Over the last few years, however, many of those crystal ball commentators have been steadily revising their opinions, given that so many of the very wines have begun to show worrying signs of fatigue. And if tonight's tasting of 1998 Rhones at the Nottingham Wine Circle was any sort of indicator, they are going nowhere fast - apart from downhill. These are my own tasting notes and opinions, although I must say that the rest of the room seemed broadly in agreement.

1. Domaine du Vieux Chene 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages
Muted nose. Hints of raspberry, tobacco, sous bois. On the palate, the fruit is hanging on - but only just. A bit austere and lacks charm.

2. Domaine Saint Anne 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages St. Gervais
A touch more expressive on the nose - a mix of bramble and bovril. The palate is a touch confected, with some unresolved tannins and a fair amount of heat. Baked and soupy, almost "pastilley", in a non-fruity sort of way. Needs food.

3. Clos du Caillou Bouquet des Garrigues 1998 Cotes du Rhone
This one has a lovely nose, and it certainly lives up to its name. A mélange of garrigue herbs, polished leather and warm southern Rhone fruit. The tannins are still evident, but there is plenty of fruit and juicy acidity to keep it nicely balanced. A nice wine.

4. Chateau du Grand Moulas 1998 Cotes du Rhone
This smells a bit weird. Volatile and slightly dirty on the nose, with a hint of pastilley fruit, offset by burnt tar. The palate is metallic/ferrous and tart, but not exactly acidic. This is way past its prime, and not pleasant to drink.

5. Chateau de Grand Moulas Cuvée de l'Ecu 1998 Cotes du Rhone
A touch more elegant on the nose than number 4, with hints of Syrah, but I'm trying to be kind to it. Little in the way of discernible fruit aromas or interest. There is actually something of the cheap Bordeaux about it, with notes of green capsicum, tobacco, tannin - and no fruit. Another rather unpleasant wine, which (I hope) has seen better days.

6. Chateau du Trignon La Ramillade 1998 Gigondas
A "negociant" wine, from bought-in fruit. This is yet another baked, rustic, hot-year wine. A bit dirty, a bit rustic, a bit charmless. It was also a bit corked, which at least added a bit of interest(!)

7. Chateau du Trignon 1998 Gigondas
This is the "Chateau" wine, made from fruit from the estate's own vineyards, and is markedly better than number 6. Not a lot going on on the nose, but plenty of sweet fruit and spice on the palate, with slightly rustic tannins balanced by decent acidity and even a bit of elegance. A nice(ish) wine.

8. Cros de La Mure 1998 Gigondas
A distinctly alcoholic nose, with notes of tobacco, coffee and spice. Tastes alcoholic, too. There is a little fruit, but mostly of a secondary nature. And the abundance of alcohol, combined with low acidity, simply renders it completely unbalanced.

9. Domaine Le Clos de Cazeaux Cuvée de La Tour Sarrazin 1998 Gigondas
This shows signs of a rich, substantial wine, which may have been rather nice, about 5 years ago. As it is, though, it is muddy and rustic - and has very definitely fallen off its perch.

10. Chateau Redortier 1998 Gigondas
This one is still a bit of a bruiser. Quite tannic and alcoholic. Still a bit of fruit peeping through, but very definitely in its secondary phase, with additional notes of tar and liquorice. Yet another wine that simply hasn't lasted the course. It would be OK as a winter warmer, with some hearty food, but needs drinking very soon.

11. Domaine Santa Duc 1998 Gigondas
At last, a wine that offers some real enjoyment. A lovely nose of fresh fruit, spices and well-judged oak. Ample red and black fruit flavours, resolved tannins and excellent balancing acidity. Elegant, even. I really liked this one.

12. Domaine Santa Duc Les Haut Garrigues 1998 Gigondas
This cuvée has a more serious, yet less expressive nose. The palate has more oak and more body, and perhaps more complex, in a savoury (rather than fruity) way. A very interesting and well-made wine, and a nice contrast to number 11. Whilst 11 is drinking beautifully now, this one probably needs a few more years. But will it last? As someone else commented, it is impressive, rather than enjoyable.

12a. Clos des Papes Blanc 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
(an un-announced extra)
Calvados and rotting apples on the nose, with hints of marzipan, toffee and anise. A bit oxidised, perhaps? The palate is a bit bland, for my liking, and definitely lacking in acidity, which means it may never blossom into anything special.

13. Domaine de Marcoux 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Ooh.... this is both perfumed and meaty - and very substantial. A heady mix of aromas, including flowers, fresh fruits, tobacco and spice. Sweet fruit on the palate, augmented by meat, leather, spiced fruit and cloves. It evolves beautifully in the glass and is a classic Chateauneuf - and a really good effort, for the vintage.

14. Les Cailloux 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (André Brunel)
Damn - corked! Which really is unfortunate, because there is a really excellent wine lurking beneath the TCA. In fact, it is quite the most fragrant of corked wines! A real shame, as I was looking forward to this wine.

15. Pere Caboche Cuvée Elisabeth Chambellan 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Light-bodied and simple, with a bitter cherry kernel palate. Not obviously faulty, but completely lacking in substance or charm.

15a. Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
(another un-announced extra)
Note that this was a 1999, not 1998. And boy, did it show. Just by the nose, I could tell this was going to be the Wine of the Night. It is oh-so complex. A heady mix of fruit and flowers, herbs, spices, meat, vegetables and marmite. The sheer array of enticing aromas is wonderful to behold. If I were asked to give an ideal description of the word "wine", it might well be this one - it really does tick all the boxes. And the palate certainly delivers on the promise of the nose. Fruit in abundance, together with just the right amount of savouriness. A hugely complex wine, with flavours of spiced fruits, garrigue, roasted meat, tobacco and sous-bois. Soft tannins, ample acidity, long, complex - and not even a hint of alcoholic heat. This is probably the finest VT I have ever had the pleasure of tasting - and is definitely in my top three Chateauneufs ever. It may not quite reach the heights of the best that Cote Rotie or Hermitage have to offer - but it runs them pretty damn close. I don't do scores but, if I did, this would be a 95+ on the Parker scale. And it will undoubtedly get better. A glorious wine, and a triumphant end to a rather disappointing tasting.

OK, so this was (apart from the 1999 VT) a far from a stellar line-up, but there were a good few wines on show from growers whose wines would (in other vintages) provide plenty of enjoyment and would be expected to show well at 11 years of age. But few of these 1998's did show well. And, in my opinion, there is only one way they can go from here - and that is downhill. So if you have any 1998 southern Rhones, my advice would be to drink up - but don't expect great things.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

A bunch of lovely wines enjoyed recently, chez Stolarski

Because my house does not have a cellar, my home "stocks" have to be stored in various cupboards in the hallway, under the stairs and even under the kitchen units. With a little imagination, it is possible to store a very decent amount of wine in this way. Nevertheless, my supplies had dwindled a little, recently, to the point where I needed to bring a few mixed cases home from my store. Which has given me the opportunity to open a few old favourites and a few new ones. Here are my notes on a handful that have stood out, for one reason or another, over the past couple of weeks.

Vinedos Organicos Emiliana Coyam 2001 – Central Valley, Chile
I bought half a dozen bottles of this biodynamic wine 2 or 3 years back, when they were on offer for around £8 a bottle at Asda. I loved it then, and it is still very enjoyable now, though I can’t help but feel my tastes have moved on since then. It is certainly not a style I would choose to drink too often, these days, but it did seem to hit the spot on this occasion. The nose is quite bretty and a bit monolithic to begin with, although it does eventually open out to reveal subtle notes of bramble, cedar, undergrowth and eau de vie. The palate is rich, dense and bramble-packed, but with some savoury elements too, notably herbs, meat, leather and dark chocolate. In fact, there is an awful lot going on here, though the softening tannins and a decent amount of acidity just manage to keep the richness in check. I’m not sure what it is trying to be, though. Claret with attitude? Almost, although large doses of Mourvedre and Syrah give it extra dimensions. Perhaps a better description might be California meets Barossa meets Languedoc meets Bordeaux. In other words, an enjoyable wine, with a bit of an identity crisis!

Domaine de Montcalmes 2004 - Coteaux du Languedoc
This is a really delicious Syrah-dominated wine, with myriad fruit aromas including raspberry, bramble and cranberry, along with notes of tobacco, herbs, spice and schiste. It isn’t overly cheap, at around £15 a bottle, but is very elegant and classy, with soft tannins, cracking acidity and complex primary and secondary fruit flavours, augmented by touches of herby garrigue and warm-climate savouriness. It is a bit of a cliché, I know, but this wine is almost Burgundian in style, but with more than a nod towards the northern Rhone, too. Complex stuff, and well worth checking out if you can find it.

Joao Pato Vinho de Mesa 1990 – Bairrada region, Portugal
This is a wine composed of 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 75% of the quaintly-named Baga. And what a lovely Baga it is! A lovely pale/medium mahogany core, fading to an even paler orange rim, with some fine sediment floating about - which never bothers me. Squished plum and cherry aromas, cedar, butter cream, crushed pepper and herbs, with some old (but clean) wood and a hint of tar. Hardly "primary fruit", but all in all a quite delightful nose, worthy of contemplation. And for a 16 year old wine - from what I assume is a quite lowly denomination – it never fails to offer enjoyment. The palate is beautifully mellow, with plenty of aged red and black fruit flavours - still with a beautiful sweet core - with soft tannins, a lovely, fresh, acidic backbone and spicy finish. I bought my first lot of this wine 3 years ago, from a well-known auction house, since when it has cropped up with great regularity at nearly every subsequent auction. In fact, it has pretty much become my “house” wine. By my estimation, some merchant or other has drip-fed at least 100 cases of this wine through various auction houses, and the supply doesn’t seem to have dried up yet! And at the going rate of around £5 a bottle, it really is a serious bargain. In fact, if I had paid that price on release (15 years ago?) I would not have been disappointed at how it turned out. And it certainly has a good few years of life left in it. Which is just as well, because I still have a case or two left – and will buy more, given the chance. A remarkable wine for the money. Yum!

J.M. Alquier Reserve Les Bastides d’Alquier 1997 - Faugeres
This is another wine I picked up at auction, around a year ago, for £7.50 a bottle – which is about half the price that the current vintage retails for! It has a deep, dark ruby/blood red core, which belies its age, with only a tiny, slightly bricking rim to give it away. The nose offers up great wafts of woodsmoke, bramble and plums, with all sorts of other things going on - notably violets and lilies, sichuan peppercorn, a lick of brett and a good dose of schiste minerality. Oh so complex and still a relative baby, with lovely weight of bramble and redcurrant fruit and a touch of bitter chocolate. With slightly rustic tannins, lovely acidity and gently warming alcohol (14.0%) this is a wine that manages to be both mouth-puckering and mouth-watering at the same time. Although possessing some nice Grenache notes, this really is all about the Syrah - sort of Cornas-meets-Languedoc. It is a complex and compelling wine, and with such depth of fruit, it will certainly go for another 5+ years before peaking. But it is so lovely, I will find it hard to resist drinking my remaining bottles before then.

Chateau Musar 1996 – Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
I wasn’t sure what I should open to accompany roast pork last weekend. OK, so roast pork can be matched with so many wines (of all colours) but I have just brought home from my store a few boxes of mixed wines, since my choices for “drinking” wines were starting to get a bit limited. However, a thread on the wine-pages forum about 2001 Chateau Musar pretty much made my mind up for me. I am a big fan of Musar, so a rather lukewarm note about the (very young) 2001 current release got me thinking about the so-called lesser vintages of this wine, especially as a few other Musar fans were adding their two penn’orth to the debate. All I can say is that “Musar heads” really should know better than to judge or dismiss an 8 year-old vintage, so early on in its development. I have heard/read this sort of snap judgement so many times that it has become a bit of a bugbear of mine. Suffice to say that I have already tried the 2001 (and have a few more bottles tucked away) and would say that it should be kept for at least another 3-5 years before making a more reasoned assessment.

For example, the 1996 vintage has often been dismissed as weak. Nevertheless, I bought a case at auction 2 or 3 years ago and have been enjoying the occasional bottle ever since. I have around half a dozen left, and it seems to get better with every one I open. So, prompted by the forum discussion, I opened another one. Now admittedly, 1996 is a fairly "light" vintage by Musar standards, but it also happens to be one of the cleanest and most elegant vintages I have ever tasted. In fact, if I were tasting this bottle blind, I might even mistake it for a very (very) good 1er Cru Burgundy - it is that good.

I am very much looking forward to enjoying my remaining bottles of 1996 Musar over the next 5 to 10 years, whilst occasionally dipping into the remainder of my stash of the brilliant and classic (i.e. much faultier!) 1991. The 2001 might be a little bit sleepy, at the moment, but its time will undoubtedly come. Patience is the watchword!