Friday, 26 June 2009

Some great new Southern Rhone wines just arrived - La Ferme du Mont and Domaine Saint Etienne

I am very excited about some great new wines that have just arrived in stock, from two excellent (but very different) growers.

Michel Coullomb at Domaine Saint Etienne is a grower whose wines have featured on our list for 2 or 3 years now and the quality of the wines he produces is consistently high. He has some excellent terroir, with vineyards situated in rolling hills in the extreme south-west of the Cotes du Rhone appellation. The soil is loaded with the same type of stones ("galets roulés") found in the soil of Chateauneuf-du-Papes, about 15 miles up river. Moreover, I have rarely seen better-kept vines and healthier grapes. Monsieur Coullomb is a tall, gentle, hard-working man, who is passionately devoted to his vines and the art of fashioning honest-to-goodness wines that speak strongly of their Southern Rhone origins. And there is certainly no let-up in quality with these new wines, with 2 lovely 2008 reds and an absolutely delicious 2008 white (which went down very well at Nottingham Wine Circle the other evening).

Although the majority of the growers on our current list are there because I found them, a few are there because they found me. Stéphane Vedeau is based at La Ferme du Mont in Courthézon in the Southern Rhone, around which he farms in various appellations, from Cotes du Rhone through to Chateauneuf-du-Papes. He also has family winemaking connections in the Northern Rhone, as well as Provence, Languedoc and even Spain. So it seems perfectly natural that all of these family members should combine to offer a central point - or "point de collection" - from which their preferred market (i.e. small merchants like us) can choose from a large selection of wines from several different wine regions.

It is a slightly different take on the concept of the cooperative. Whilst old-style village cooperatives are built around the concept of buying grapes from many small farmers and producing wines at a central point, La Ferme du Mont's concept involves taking wines from various estates in different regions and marketing them all from a central point. Wine merchants like me generally have two ways of buying stock; (a) Buy wines from UK agents - whose often high margins make it difficult for merchants to make a decent margin themselves or (b) Buy direct from the grower - which is what I prefer to do. It ensures that I can offer quality wines at fair prices, whilst also ensuring that I'm not selling the same old stuff as every other merchant in the country.

I have only tasted some of the wines from La Ferme du Mont itself, plus a couple of the Northern Rhone reds. And they are almost all of a very high quality. So much so that I am very much looking forward to tasting some of the Provence and Languedoc wines in a week or two, when I visit La Ferme du Mont. For now, though, I cannot recommend the four wines I have selected from La Ferme du Mont highly enough - they are simply brilliant!

Full tasting notes of all the new wines are now loaded onto my website (use the links above to navigate to the individual grower pages).

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Neil Young Rocks!

Neil Young is one of those artists that has appeared on my radar from time to time, over the last 3 or more decades. Whilst I could never claim to have been an avid follower, his rich back catalogue of albums and stand-out songs have often provided much enjoyment. And he is definitely an artist worth revisiting (or rediscovering). With a career spanning well over 40 years, from Buffalo Springfield, through Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Crazy Horse, The Stills Young Band and goodness-knows-how-many reinventions of his solo persona, there is plenty to go at. From laid-back country/folk all the way through to heavy rock that could teach the young upstarts a thing or two (they don't call him the "Godfather of Grunge" for nothing) he has done it all.

So a chance to see Young perform in my home town was not to be missed - and boy, was I glad I didn't miss it. I'm certainly no music reviewer (I'm too much of a music lover to be too anal about such things) so I won't even try to do so. Suffice to say that this was right up there with some of the best gigs I have ever seen. Hardly a "greatest hits" set - he's never really done "hits" - but a liberal dose of some of his most classic songs, interspersed with a few that I was unfamiliar with. He began with an incredibly heavy (and incredibly loud) Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), followed by Mansion On The Hill. Later on came other rollicking rock classics such as Cinnamon Girl, Down By The River, and Rockin' In The Free World (which, with four or five "false" endings, must have been an attempt on the world record for the longest ending to a song!). Whilst no fretboard virtuoso, Young's guitar playing is gutsy and heart-felt, and totally unique. Brilliantly simple is a phrase that springs to mind.

It wasn't all heavy and grungy, though. Interspersed were some more of his laid back and thoughtful songs, such as Mother Earth (with Young playing harmonica and some sort of pump organ, to great effect), Heart Of Gold and Old Man. An encore of The Beatles' A Day In The Life was an unusual, but mightily impressive way to finish. For those that are interested, you can see the full set list on the Sugar Mountain website.

I would have liked to post an image or two, but I didn't take my camera with me - just my mobile phone, the camera of which proved not to be up to the job. Instead, here's a video I found on YouTube of Rockin' In The Free World, from the concert in Aberdeen, the following night. It gives a fair idea of what the Nottingham gig was like.........

Neil Young also happens to be the Friday headline act on the Pyramid Stage at this Year's Glastonbury Festival. That means tomorrow! I have a feeling his set will be very similar to the one he played in Nottingham. With a little luck, the BBC should give it some airtime on their (usually) extensive coverage. If I were you, I would try and catch the coverage - because Neil Young rocks!

Whilst writing this entry, my son came in and told me that Michael Jackson had died. A little shocking, yes (it always is when someone so famous dies relatively young) but surprising....? Not really. I was never a fan, though I admit to having bought "Off The Wall" when it was released (some excellent Rod Temperton songs and typically lush Quincy Jones production) and did recognise the fact that he was very talented. Indeed, as a youngster, his voice was almost (but not quite) a match for Stevie Wonder. But what a sad life he had thrust upon him. From a young age, it seemed he was groomed for stardom and pushed relentlessly by those around him.

I never quite saw the big attraction, but the millions who paid good money for his records and concert tickets must have seen something I didn't. To me, he came across as a deeply flawed and eccentric human being - someone who I could never identify with in a million years. He had it all - yet ultimately, he had nothing. I hardly have the proverbial two pennies to rub together, but I do have a lovely wife, two teenage boys that make me very proud (well, at least most of the time!) a close-knit family, good friends, a boring day job and a dream that one day I will have a thriving wine business. In other words, I have my feet planted firmly on the ground. And I wouldn't swap my existence for the one that Michael Jackson led for all the tea in China. Nevertheless, a very sad demise. R.I.P, Michael Jackson.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Two old favourites (and classics of their kind) - Musar and Thalabert

Much as I love them, even I don't want to drink Languedoc and Roussillon wines all of the time. So, for the last evening or two, it was time to revisit a couple of wines that really fired my imagination and got me totally (and irrevocably) hooked on good wine.........

Chateau Musar 2001 (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon) is light in colour, with a semi-transluscent blood red core leading to a wide tawny rim - as always, very evolved for a relatively young wine. The nose is very typical, on opening - screaming volatile acidity, oodles of forest fruits and myriad secondary aromas of spices, herbs, polished wood and rotting leaves. The palate is juicy and rich, yet wonderfully light on its feet. Genuinely sweet fruit flavours combine with that glorious volatile acidity, silky tannins and all of those woody, leafy, spicy flavours, in a wine that (for me) has it all. Everything about it is evolved, to the extent that a stranger to such a wine would think it fully mature and in desperate need of drinking. But it is just a baby, with years (perhaps even decades) ahead of it. Indeed, as I write this note, it is now almost 48 hours since opening, and the last few drops are even better than the first - a sure sign of a wine built to last. I guess the purists and the Claret police would argue that this wine is full of faults. But that is why I (and most other people who "get" Musar) love it so much. It is an almost unique wine style - and any so-called wine expert who couldn't nail it in a blind tasting is no expert! A classic wine - and a classic vintage. This 2001 vintage is the current release, and is widely available at around £16. The prices of recent vintages have crept up over recent years, but Musar is a truly world class wine, and still one of the great bargains. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan, by the way.

Paul Jaboulet Ainé Domaine de Thalabert 1997 Crozes Hermitage, on the other hand, is pure Northern Rhone Syrah. 1997 is by no means a classic vintage, and this was the last bottle from a case that I picked up for a song at auction, a couple of years ago - certainly way under a tenner a bottle. Results have been a little mixed, with one being totally oxidised and a couple being "marginal" for enjoyable drinking, though the rest have provided much pleasure. And this one (isn't it often the case?) is a cracker. Fully mature, in both appearance and on the nose, this is again a trademark example of its kind. The nose is all about secondary aromas - decaying red and black fruits, forest floor, hints of exotic spices, leather, lilies of the valley, black olives and a strong whiff of meat. The palate is meaty, too, but still with enough in the way of fruit to make this a real pleasure to drink - and a perfect partner for last night's rump steak. A lovely wine.

Now I'm off to see Neil Young at the Nottingham Arena. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow...........

Monday, 15 June 2009

Who needs F1? A Moto GP thriller - Rossi v Lorenzo

I have been a fan of motorcycle racing since the early 1970's, and have many happy memories of travelling to race meetings at various circuits around the country (Mallory Park, Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Silverstone etc) not to mention a memorable holiday one year, based around the Dutch TT at Assen and the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps. This was the heyday of many of my heroes such as (the late, great) Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read and many more. I saw many great races - too many to mention - during what was, for me, the golden age of Grand Prix motorcycle racing.

But few (if any) of them could surpass the amazing Moto GP de Catalunya yesterday, during which the lead changed many times, including at least 3 times on the last lap, with Valentino Rossi beating his Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo with the most audacious (not to mention brave) overtaking manouvre on the very last corner

Valentino Rossi trails team-mate Jorge Lorenzo - but not for long........
(Image courtesy of

What can I say about Valentino Rossi? Despite the fact that so many truly great riders were at the height of their powers in the 1970's and 1980's, Rossi is quite probably the greatest of them all. Let's face it - he isn't called the "GOAT" for nothing! If you want proof (and if you want to see why Moto GP makes Formula 1 look like a high-speed funeral procession) then I urge you to watch yesterday's race and see for yourself. It really was the most heart-stopping and exciting race I have ever seen - Rossi, at the height of his powers, seeing-off the young pretender Lorenzo (who may himself, one day, be counted amongst the greats).

You can see the race for the next 6 days or so on BBC iPlayer. Don't miss it!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Cult wines from Roussillon - Emperor's New Clothes?

There is an interesting thread currently running on the wine-pages forum about some of the more lauded wine growers in the Roussillon and how the wines (clearly) split the jury. The person who created the thread visited three growers; Domaine Treloar, Domaine Matassa and Domaine Olivier Pithon. The overall impression was that the wines from all three growers were good. I know the wines from Treloar are good, because I sell them and make a point of recommending them to every new customer who comes along looking for some guidance. Although not the cheapest on my list, they undoubtedly represent good value for money. And the top cuvées (Motus and Tahi, for example) are indeed world-class, and certainly very age-worthy (give 'em 5-10 years and I think you will be richly rewarded).

But many of the "cult" wines from the region certainly do not represent good value. You only have to look at the prices quoted for the Olivier Pithon wines and (especially) the Matassa wines. Their prices start at the price of Treloar's most expensive wine! I haven't tasted the Pithon wines, so I am not qualified to comment on whether or not they are of particularly good quality, or whether they represent value for money.

But I have tasted some of the Matassa wines and, in my opinion, they not only represent truly awful value for money, but they are also (again, in my opinion) pretty awful wines. And that opinion was echoed by most (or all) of those present at the tasting I attended- and there are some pretty serious palates in that tasting group, I can tell you! In fact, I would take their opinion(s) over most wine journalists I know of. Of course, the great and the good of the wine media (or, at least, the ones who can be bothered with tasting Roussillon wines - or perhaps have some sort of vested interest) will tell it differently. They tend to use terms such as "quirky", "interesting", "made in an oxidative style", "age-worthy" and "world-class". In fact, they tell you that these wines must be aged, in order to get the best out of them. Perhaps they know something I don't - that these ugly ducklings will eventually turn into beautiful swans. All I can say is that the wines I tasted were reductive, over-oaked, over-sulphured, over-acidic and under-fruited.

I would jump at the chance to taste these very same wines again in (say) 5 years and see how they develop. Even though the "experts" say they will age and evolve to (near) perfection, I cannot see it happening. But I would love to be proved wrong - especially as many people who hold the journalists' words in high esteem have presumably bought them for that very purpose.

One of my most important mantras in choosing wines from Languedoc and Roussillon (or any other wines, for that matter) is that if they smell and taste nice when they are young, they will smell and taste even nicer when they reach their optimum age. But it also works the other way round - if they smell and taste faulty when they are young, then they ain't going to age.

Jonathan Hesford - owner and winemaker of Domaine Treloar

I will be visiting my friend Jonathan Hesford (owner and winemaker of Domaine Treloar) in a few weeks' time and we may well decide to visit some of the other "cult" growers in Roussillon, to taste some of their wines and see whether the fuss is merited. I will go with an open mind, but will make my judgements using Jon's wines (and others in my Roussillon portfolio) as a benchmark. Watch this space.........

Monday, 8 June 2009

Blowing my own trumpet - a cracking Languedoc Syrah

Diane and I tend to drink quite a few of "our" wines at home. We don't have a whole lot of disposable income (well bugger all actually!) so a large percentage of the wines we drink Chez Stolarski are either well-chosen bargains from auctions and bin-end sales, or wines from our own stocks. After all, what is the point of being a wine merchant if you can't enjoy a few perks of the trade every now and then? All in the name of evaluation, of course - a merchant needs to know how the wines are drinking, at various stages though their development!

So tonight I thought I would crack a bottle of Neffies Cuvée Baltazar 2004 Coteaux du Languedoc and see how it is doing. After all, I haven't tasted it since it first arrived in October 2008. And neither, frankly, have many other people - for some reason, it doesn't seem to be figuring in many of our customers' order selections up to now.

Anyway, I popped it and poured a reasonable measure into a nice big Riedel Syrah glass - and the rest went into the ship's decanter to get plenty of air and open-out. Though approaching 5 years old, it still has the look of a young(ish) wine, with a deep, blood red core, though with quite a wide ruby/cherry rim. It isn't the clearest wine you'll ever see, but that is only to be expected with this level of extraction. But it certainly isn't overdone - yes, it is big and concentrated, but there is an unmistakeable streak of elegance running right through its middle. Huge wafts of black tapenade, violets and schiste/minerals (classic Languedoc Syrah characteristics) mingle with bramble, dark cherry, plum and all sorts of dark fruit aromas. There is no oak-ageing with this wine - and it is all the better for it. Pure, intense fruit flavours are this wine's strong point, along with those tapenade/olive notes and some fine, if slightly dusty tannins (just give it time) and a truly mouth-watering layer of almost citrus-like acidity. It is one of those wines that bears many similarities with Northern Rhone Syrah, but bolstered by the extra southern warmth and sun. This wine is so drinkable now, but I get the feeling this will get better still over the next 3 to 5 years.

This is what I call a result. I really wasn't expecting the wine to have developed so beautifully in the space of just 8 months (since I last tasted it) but it has. And if you haven't tried it yet, I suggest you do so pretty damn quick - before I drink it all!

So I am happy to give it a shameless plug (it's my Blog, after all)! An absolute steal at £11.25 at Leon Stolarski Fine Wines.
Leon Stolarski

Friday, 5 June 2009

Something other than wine - a wonderful afternoon's tennis. Go Federer!

Life isn't just about wine - honestly! And so I have just enjoyed a somewhat leisurely Friday afternoon and early evening watching two thrilling men's semi-finals in the French Open Tennis. And fuelled by nothing stronger than a few cups of tea, I might add. ;-)) Firstly, a cracking match between Sweden's Robin Soderling and Fernando Gonzalez of Chile ended in Soderling winning a close 5-set match, 6-4 in the final set. Then, Roger Federer simply wore-down Juan Martin del Potro in another fantastic 5-setter, again winning 6-4 in the final set.

To be honest, Roger Federer may not be quite the player he once was, but he is (in my humble opinion) the greatest tennis player of all time - or, as multiple Moto GP world champion Valentino Rossi is known in his sport, the "GOAT". Federer's extra stamina and his sheer will to win was simply marvellous to see. In some ways, it was reminiscent of the Borg v McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final, where Borg got absolutely pasted to begin with before slowly but surely clawing his way into the match. The difference was that Borg eventually mastered McEnroe's game, whereas Federer simply hung-in and waited for del Potro to tire. Ali v Foreman, in the "Rumble In The Jungle" is a similar analogy.

What is really great to see is that the men's game is as healthy now as it has ever been, at least in terms of competition at the top. Nadal got beat fair and square and so did Murray, in losing to Gonzalez. Del Potro beat some excellent players on the way, and Soderling beat some even better ones. That is a good half dozen players that will make for some really exciting tennis Grand Slam tournaments over the next few years, and I honesstly can't see any one of them dominating in the way that Federer and (latterly) Nadal have done in recent years - which can only be good for the sport.

For now, though, I'd love to see The Fed win that elusive French Open to complete his set and to cement his position as the undisputed "GOAT" in tennis. At least then he can either quit whilst he is ahead, or try and add another couple of Slams before retiring. And I think he will win it...... but not without having to perhaps play another epic match against Soderling. In the end, though, I think his experience will get him through.

Wimbledon should be even better. What odds on a Murray victory, I wonder?

Now. back to the wine....................

Leon Stolarski

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A long lunch (and lots of lovely Languedoc and Roussillon wines) at The Ledbury in London

I could type for England about what a great time I had in London last Thursday, at an event organised by my new friend Don Reid of the wine-pages forum, being the latest instalment of what has become known on wine-pages as WIMPS lunches. I'm still a little unsure as to the origin of the term (or even if it is some sort of acronym) but I think it was coined by another friend and fellow wine-pages "forumite" Keith Prothero, as a description of anybody incapable of imbibing copious amounts of wine of a lunchtime. Anyway, as he knows I am a devotee of Languedoc and Roussillon wines, Don pulled out all the stops to organise this lunch on a date that was suitable for me. Luckily (though for a totally different reason - of which I will post more tomorrow) I was due in London that day. So many thanks to "The Don" for extending the invitation and for making me feel so welcome.

The Michelin-starred Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill was the venue and it was a cracking experience all round. A bargain £50 a head secured a brilliant 4-course meal, coffee, gratuities, corkage (we all took our own wines) and the almost undivided attention of sommelier Manu Barnay, whose unenviable task it was to serve around 35 different bottles of wine to 24 people seated at 3 large tables. Everything went smoothly (despite there being around 80 large wine glasses on each table, by the end! A wonderful time was had by all, and the standard of the food was very high. I also had the pleasure of dining with some lovely people, including owner Nigel Platts-Martin. For a man who owns 5 of London's best restaurants (4 of which are Michelin-starred) he came across as a thoroughly nice guy and very down to earth. He was also very complimentary about my wine contributions. Perhaps I ought to try and persuade him to list some of them in his restaurants! ;-)

I'll post a few pictures in due course, plus some notes about the food. Meanwhile, here are my notes on the wines that were served on our table.

Réserve Les Bastides d’Alquier 1997 Faugeres
I still have around 12 of these left (from my original 18) and the ones I have drunk have ranged from sublime to corked (at least 2 out of 6), which is why I brought a Maison Jaune 1993 as a back-up. Thankfully, the 1997 I brought was in pretty good shape. A touch high-toned and less Syrah-dominated than some I have drunk, but still very good. Elegant, soft, secondary fruit flavours, decent concentration, resolved tannins and lovely acidity. Got better with time in the glass. A good, if not great bottle.

As a postscript, I opened another bottle of this wine the day after – and it was a real step up in quality, displaying that almost northern Rhone-like Syrah quality that I find in the best examples of this wine. A fabulously herb and mineral-laden nose, with hints of lilies, smoky bacon, chocolate, spice, southern warmth and an attractive (i.e. very subtle) hint of brett. In other words, everything that this wine is capable of. I only wish we’d had this bottle yesterday. Incidentally, I have absolutely no “connection” with this wine – Richards Walford are the agents, I believe. And if it were not for the marked bottle variation (at least in this vintage) I would be sorely tempted to add current vintage(s) to my list. I have never had a Faugeres that comes close to it, and it is (IMHO) potentially one of the great Languedoc wines/growers. It just needs to be consistent.

Domaine La Combe Blanche La Chandeliere 2001 Minervois La Liviniere
I also brought this wine - and it was really singing. Full of rich bramble and plum fruit, dark chocolate, garrigue herbs and spice, and the oak is starting to integrate nicely. Long, too. I have to say, it punched well above its weight and is drinking beautifully, yet still with a great deal of development left in it over the next 5 years or more. A wine and a grower that I am very proud of.

Coume del Mas Les Schistes 2007 Collioure
Very, very young, but lovely and drinkable already. This is what appeals to me about these regions – so many wines are drinkable in their youth – and I don’t mean (just) “drinkable”, I mean attractive and approachable. Rich bramble and blackcurrant fruit, but with a lightness of touch reminiscent of strawberries – yet stamped with the trademark Collioure salty savouriness. This needs a couple of years to really integrate, but all the components are there.

Mas de Daumas Gassac 1993 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault
I couldn’t get over the notion that this was very slightly corked. Or was it just that the fruit had faded of its own accord? There was definitely some enjoyment, but there was also some sort of dirty wood (or TCA?) note and something was definitely missing.

Mas de Daumas Gassac 1998 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault
This is much more like it. Tight as a tight thing in tight trousers, tannic, but showing some class. Still quite light (amazing for the vintage) but elegant and long and lovely. It just needs time. The first Daumas Gassac to ever truly impress me.

Mas de Daumas Gassac 1995 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault
This is similar in structure to the 1993 (but cleaner) and still slightly austere and backward (as so many vintages are, in my opinion). But there is a really good wine lurking in there somewhere. Tobacco, vanilla and blackcurrant are predominant and it is still quite tannic. Will the fruit outlast the tannins. Perhaps, but personally I would drink it now.

Mas de Daumas Gassac 1990 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault
This is the real deal – the first Daumas Gassac to ever really blow me away. Really complex, with loads of secondary fruit aromas and flavours, earthy, tobacco and spice-scented. A rich, warming palate, but balanced and truly elegant, with lovely acidity and fully resolved tannins. A complete (and completely) lovely wine. So Daumas Gassac can live up to the hype! But perhaps only in great vintages…...

Domaine Treloar Motus 2006 Cotes du Roussillon
Another wine brought by me, and I thought it showed very well, if not quite as well as it did at a tasting 2 or 3 weeks ago. Was it a root day? Still lovely, with great acidity, supple tannins and immense depth of Mourvedre fruit – savoury, sweet, rich, leathery, yet always in balance and so clean. This is a baby and has 5-10 years left to develop.

Domaine Pietri-Geraud Cuvée Méditerranée 2003 Banyuls
I love this – well, I would, wouldn’t I? After all, it is another of my wines! Strawberries and cream, chocolate, toffee, orange zest, blackberry jam, prunes and a gentle whiff of eau de vie. Wonderfully complex and yummy. This (and the Rivesaltes which followed) were served distinctly chilled and too cold for my liking. They both showed much better when they warmed up.

Rivesaltes 1949 (sorry, didn’t get the grower)
Mid-amber/brown, reaking of dried oranges, marmalade, burnt toffee, roses and sweaty cheese – quite a combination, and very nice. For me, Rivesaltes is best when it is really old and madeirised, like this, although the fact that it tends towards the spirity makes it an entirely different animal. Shame there were no cigars on offer to accompany this!

Leon Stolarski