Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The 2009 vintage in Roussillon

It has been far too long since I last posted on anything significant, although there have been a few replies to my post from a few weeks back about the International Wine Challenge, including a couple from the founder himself, Robert Joseph. It all makes for an interesting discussion, and my compliments go to Robert for taking the time to present his side of the argument.

I have some notes from an interesting tasting of Amarone and sweet Sherry at the Nottingham Wine Circle last week, which I will post on later this week. Tonight is the monthly gathering of the "Tuesday Group" at Le Mistral in Nottingham, where I am sure we will (as always) taste an excellent and eclectic selection of wines, accompanied by some nice food. And tomorrow evening, I will be presenting a tasting of wines from South-West France to the Wine Circle. I hope also to post notes on these, within the next few days.

Meanwhile, my friend Jonathan Hesford at Domaine Treloar has sent me a report on the 2009 vintage, which looks extremely promising - at least for quality growers such as Treloar. Here is Jon's full report;

"2009 has been a wetter year than the last 2 in the Roussillon with heavy rainfalls and even snow in winter and frequent rains right through summer. The summer was heatwave hot and quite humid too. August had hot days and nights but in September the nights cooled off. There were a couple of rainstorms during harvest but well-organised growers (like me!) would have avoided these. However, the drought conditions of 07 and 08 mean that the water content of the soils was still low and so are yields.

There was more downy mildew than usual and those growers who could not keep it under control will have lost crop. It also kills off the leaves which can delay ripening.

There was poor weather during the Grenache flowering and my yields from that variety are particularly low, although the quality was almost perfect. The Syrah was perhaps the best I've seen. The Carignan is considerably more concentrated than last year and the Mourvedre is both higher in yield and of good flavour. I was very happy with the Macabeu and Grenache Gris for La Terre Promise but the Muscat is perhaps a little too concentrated - more tropical fruit than mineral / floral. I picked the younger Syrah at 12% to make a rose by direct pressing, the best method and stopped the fermentation at 6g residual sugar to give it a touch of sweetness. I'm sure it will be the best rose in the Roussillon!

In general I think picking dates were earlier than the last 2 years. However, phenolic ripeness didn't progress at the same rate as sugar ripeness and growers who rely only on sugar would have picked grapes with unripe flavours. I would guess this will apply to many Coops who were picking about 1 week before the independants.

Acidity has been, for me, very good this year with grapes keeping acidity during ripening so that we can have wines with good ripe tannins, good concentration and yet good acidity to balance them and allow them to age well.

I've not really tasted anybody else's wines but my conclusion from what I hear is that the quality of the wines are good but quantities are low. I think there will be plenty of variation from one producer to another and a lot will depend on when growers picked and how the dealt with an atypical vintage. Is that what they call a "winemakers vintage"? "

Sunday, 20 September 2009

A minor amendment to my Blog settings - spammers need not apply

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. Some idiot by the name of "Sue" (registered as a Blogger, but - surprise, surprise - without a public profile) posted replies to a good few of my recent Blog entries, all of which consisted of nothing more than coded links to some or other crappy website. Suffice to say I have no wish to give these parasites any room for manoeuvre, and managed to delete these "comments" within minutes of them appearing. This is one of the few downsides to what is otherwise one of the most brilliant inventions in modern history - the Internet. Therefore, I have had to resort very reluctantly to moderating all replies. It won't stop anybody posting replies to any of my posts - it simply means that I will have to approve them before they are published. I have no intention of blocking any replies, as long as the content is relevant to my posts (or my Blog in general) and contains no offensive material or spam.

Anecdotal evidence tells me that there are now a very healthy number of people following my Blog, be they customers, friends, acquaintances, other bloggers or even complete strangers. Most of them just read it, but some occasionally add comments, for which I am most grateful - it is always nice to know that people find the content worthwhile enough to post replies. So please keep the comments coming and I will try to ensure they are published as soon as possible after you post them - and I'll also try to keep posting interesting and thought-provoking content, of course!

Monday, 14 September 2009

A lovely surprise - Terre Inconnue "Les Bruyeres" Vin de Table de France (1999)

I use the brackets because the label of a "mere" Vin de Table is not, strictly speaking, allowed to display a vintage. I promise you that I wouldn't waste my time buying and drinking any old Vin de Table - a denomination normally reserved for France's most lowly (and, generally speaking, vile) wines. But my view is that any quality wine grower serious enough and determined enough (and some may say stupid enough) to eschew not just the local "Appellation d'Origine Controlée" (AOC) but even the local "Vin de Pays" denomination must be making some seriously interesting and quirky wines. And they usually tend to find a way of circumventing the rules by indicating the vintage somewhere on the label - in this case, with the none-too-subtle use of the code L : 1999 in the bottom right corner(!)
My friends Andy Leslie and Bernard Caille picked some of this wine up at a recent auction for an all-in price of £12 per bottle and I think my two bottles represent £24 well spent - especially if the second bottle is anywhere near as good as this one. A little research tells me that Les Bruyeres is the "basic" wine of this cult Languedoc grower, and tends to retail for somewhat less than a tenner (for the current vintage) although it is not currently available in the UK. But I'm happy to have paid a bit of a premium for a wine that has some decent bottle age and seems to me to be at the peak of its drinking window.
It was only after tasting this wine that I did any research, yet I sensed all the hallmarks of a weird and wonderful Carignan. And, indeed, that is exactly what it turns out to be - 100% Carignan, picked fairly late, I would guess, and made in quite a rich, baked style, with what seems like extended maturation before bottling. It is now almost tawny in colour, with a very pale amber/brick, almost onion skin rim - very light in colour. And it has the hallmark plummy, high-toned, almost beetrooty aroma of aged Carignan, with all sorts of other things going on, such as decaying leaves, cranberry, wild strawberry and hints of garrigue herbs and exotic spices - and a noticeable, though very pleasant, dose of volatile acidity (think nail polish remover). All-in-all, a very complex and quirky nose, not a million miles away from Chateau Musar in structure.
The palate is fruity, in a decaying sort of way, but there is still a fresh, sweet, almost fruit pastille quality about it. Add to that a refreshingly acidic backbone, almost fully-resolved tannins, herbs and spices and a long, warming finish and you have one very lovely and very intersting wine. Not one for the purists, perhaps, but hugely interesting. I have a feeling that this is not going to evolve further and perhaps needs drinking fairly soon. And indeed, the last glass, consumed 24 hours after opening, is a bit less voluptuous than last night. But what a lovely wine, while it lasted.
Since none of the wines of Terre Inconnue seem to be available in the UK at present, it may be that I should pay them a visit, next time I am in the region......... ;-)

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Chateauneuf-du-Pape - is it growing on me?

Following on from my tasting note on the lovely Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe 1994 (see Sunday 30 August below) we had an intersting tasting at the Nottingham Wine Circle this week, based on New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The less said about the Sauvignons, the better, as far as I am concerned. They ranged from pretty poor to fairly good, but that's about the long and the short of it. In fact, unless it is made by a good winemaker in the cooler climes of the Loire Valley (or by the odd quality grower in Languedoc - but I would say that!) it can be a pretty boring grape variety.

The Chateauneufs, on the other hand, ranged from reasonably good to excellent, so here are some thoughts on a few of the ones we tasted;

Domaine Chante Perdrix Selection Reflets 1986 was lovely, with a complex perfume of liqourice, rotting old fruit, forest floor and polished wood. No real fruit flavours left, just beautifully "winey", herby and spicey, in an old sort of way.

Clos de l'Oratoire des Papes 2001 was nice, if not top-notch. Relatively young, but nevertheless not as soft as some 2001's, though with a lot of character and some nice fruit and spicey warmth. Not a polished wine, but nicely rustic, and not bad for what I believe was a supermarket wine.

Clos des Papes 2000, on the other hand, was savoury, herby and meaty, but supremely elegant. It also has some of that classic baked fruit character, which can be too much in the clumsier Chateauneufs, but in the hands of a skilled and sympathetic winemaker can add depth and richness to an otherwise elegant wine. And this one - as with most vintages of Clos des Papes - was truly light on its feet. In fact, I know of no other Chateauneuf grower that produces such elegant wines. Very classy stuff, that will be even better in 10 years' time.

Mont Redon 1999 was light-ish and more like a good Cotes du Rhone than classic Chateauneuf - nice acidity, quite light and rustic, with a hint of stalkiness. Needs drinking fairly soon, though.

Domaine de Villeneuve 1998 was a bit soupy and, to be honest, a bit boring. In fact, it had what I call the "1998 disease" of bovril, meat, leather and the like - but little left in the way of fruit. So many Rhone wines - i.e. not just Chateauneuf - have, after a promising first few years (and some great reviews from those "expert" critics) lost most of their fruit and taste soupy and baked. This one may age a bit, but if there is little in the way of fruit now, then what would be the point? I say drink up.

Clos du Mont Olivet 1999 was also full of secondary aromas and flavours, but had much more in the way of fruit. An enjoyable wine, though my note is too sketchy to do it justice - I was finding it hard to retain my concentration and lucidity by the end!

Anyway, an enjoyable tasting - at least as far as the red wines were concerned - and perhaps confirmation that I am beginning to appreciate Chateauneuf-du-Pape a little more. Though it will never quite match the true elegance and excitement of the top wines of the Northern Rhone.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The International Wine Challenge - what is the point of it(?) and other rants!

It was during the late 1980's when I first set out on my journey of discovery of the great big world of wine. That was around the time that Diane and I began enjoying the odd bottle or two of Bulgarian Cabernet, Romanian Pinot, various Aussie blends and the like with our meals. Well, everybody has to start somewhere - and some of those wines were, I seem to recall, very enjoyable. But it wasn't until I began to discover such delights as Chateau Musar 1979 and Penfolds Bin 28 Shiraz 1987 that I began to suspect that there may be so much more out there to discover.

I can't remember who pointed me in the direction of Chateau Musar, but I am eternally grateful, because various vintages have given me so much pleasure over the years. And I still have a few 1991's, 1996's (much underrated, but gaining weight all the time) and 2001's tucked away. Not that Musar is cheap anymore (my first bottle cost around a fiver) but, at around £15 a bottle for the current vintage, it is still a relative bargain. As for Penfolds Bin 28, I can remember exactly where I first heard about it - from the results of the much-publicised International Wine Challenge (IWC), where it won a gold medal and was named "red wine of the year". And a beautiful wine it was too - so much so that it really fired my imagination and got me really interested in Aussie wines. Oh, how times have changed...... Is it my palate that has changed/evolved, or are Australian wines so different, these days? If truth be told, perhaps the answer is a little bit of both. However, I digress...........

Perhaps it was always the case that wines entered into the IWC were mainly from the supermarkets and high street chains such as Oddbins, Thresher/Wine Rack/Bottoms-Up and Majestic. But then again, 20 years ago, the supermarkets and the afore-mentioned high street chains genuinely were pushing the boundaries and unleashing countless interesting (and often brilliant) wines onto the market, thereby introducing a whole new audience to the delights of good wine.

But fast-forward 20 years, and the scene is much more depressing. Oddbins is a mere shadow of its former self (although some brave soul is attempting to revive its fortunes - with very mixed results, it would seem), whilst Thresher is reduced to selling predominantly "brand" wines at vastly over-inflated "normal" prices, but thinks it is clever to offer "buy 2 bottles and get a 3rd bottle free" - or (a variation on the same tired theme) "40% off", by way of cheap viral marketing. Perhaps they should stick to selling fags and Special Brew. Majestic is still trying (a bit) although its ever-increasing size means that more and more mass market wines are finding their way onto its shelves, at the expense of the more interesting wines from smaller, independent growers. I guess it won't be long before they are as "interesting" as the various arms of the giant Laithwaites empire. As for the supermarkets, they have mostly become deserts for thirsty wine drinkers on the lookout for interesting and unusual wines. In fact, the less said about them the better.

Which (finally!) brings me back to the International Wine Challenge. I had a look through some of the results yesterday and they made for depressing reading. Or, at least, the French ones did. Obviously, the first sections I headed for (using the "Find me an award winning wine" search facility, on the right hand side of the page) were red and white Languedoc and Roussillon and Vins de Pays. And virtually all I found were pages and pages of generic wines churned out mostly by village co-operatives, negociants and multi-national concerns - exactly the sort of boring stuff to be found on supermarket shelves. The odd "bronze", here and there - perhaps even a few "silver", but mostly just "commended". There even seemed to be several pages-worth of "awards" for the giant Skalli/Fortant de France outfit - they make a few decent(ish) and technically correct wines, but nothing to get excited about. I then headed to the Burgundy section and found much the same - mostly generic bottlings and wines from a few negociant firms and bottom-end growers (i.e. mostly supermarket wines again).

A quick look at the California section revealed yet more branded wines, along with, it has to be said, a few top-end and icon wines as well. What really caught my eye, though were the various Australian sections - countless pages of awarded wines, ranging from the usual generic stuff, through to some of the top icon wines, and all points inbeween. Which only serves to illustrate just how aggressive the Australian growers (or more likely their regional and national marketing boards) are in promoting their wines. It doesn't necessarily mean that Australian wines are better - although judging by the results of this competition, you'd think Australia was by far and away the greatest wine producing country in the world! Of course, you have to admire the Aussies for their marketing efforts. After all, they haven't become the number one exporter of wines to the UK market by sitting on their backsides and waiting for it to happen - which is what the French (or, at least, their regional maketing bodies) seem to do.

The problem is that France - as a whole - sees itself as the greatest wine-producing country in the world. Which, in my opinion (and, I would venture, that of a decent majority of the world's wine lovers) it is. But that is beside the point. The pre-eminence and reputation of the top wines from France's greatest regions means that they will always sell. But what of the thousands upon thousands of small, independent growers throughout the country who are producing brilliant wines, but struggle to find a market for them? Other than small merchants such as myself, together with the more adventurous agents/importers, there appear to be few routes into the main markets such as the UK, Europe, the Americas and the Far East.

It is easy for people like me to blame the French marketing boards for this (and I frequently do!) but there is another equally plausible explanation; that the sheer diversity of France's wine regions, styles and number of quality-minded growers - which is undoubtedly its greatest asset - also happens to be its greatest problem. Vive La France - Vive la Difference, as it were.

So what is the solution? I only wish I knew. Perhaps, in our world of homogenous products and homogenous food and wines, there is no big solution. But (and I know I've said this many times before, but I'm going to say it again) if a marketing body with the apparent clout of Les Maisons de la Régions Languedoc-Roussillon cannot even provide funding assistance for the publication of the first major book on the region's wines written in at least 6 or 7 years (by my friend Peter Gorley), then what hope is there?

I must say, this blog entry began as a bit of a rant about the futility of the International Wine Challenge and all it stands for. And don't get me started on the fact that it would cost me in the region of 100 quid (plus several sample bottles) simply to enter one single wine into this competition. If I wanted to enter (say) 20 of my wines, I would immediately be 2 Grand (plus goodness-knows-how-many cases of wine) worse off. And for what? I've seen more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that "serious" wine drinkers (the ones I want to drink my wines) are not the slightest bit interested in whether a wine has some or other award ticket draped around its neck. Call it snobbery, but I avoid such wines like the plague. Problem is, 95% of the UK's wine drinkers see an IWC medal on a bottle and immediately assume that it is better than all of the other bottles on the shelf.

So, to round off what has become a bit of a lengthy post(!) and to answer my own question; What is the IWC all about? Well its about marketing, of course. And on that score, the supermarkets (and the Australians) win hands down.