Sunday, 28 February 2010

Vinisud report, part 2 - Dégustation Melting Potes

The location for "Dégustation Melting Potes" was Domaine de Lezigno, an ancient wine cellar on the outskirts of Béziers, which has been transformed into an urban architecture workshop and artistic space. We arrived at around 5pm, which allowed us around 75 minutes of pretty intensive tasting ,before we needed to head off to Marseillan to check into our hotel. This was an extremely well organised (and well-attended) event, for which the organisers had thoughtfully produced a hand-sized, ring-bound booklet with a page for each grower's details and plenty of room for jotting down tasting notes. The tasting glasses were also excellent - if i remember correctly, medium-sized Schott Swiesel goblets which were perfect for the job.

First up - and one of our main reasons for wanting to be at this tasting - was Champagne Henri Giraud. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never even heard of this grower. As it turns out, they supply wines for Coutts (the bank) and also Selfridges own-label Champagnes. As far as I am aware, they are otherwise fairly rare in the UK.

We started with Esprit de Giraud Rosé NV, a blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 22% Chardonnay, with the addition of 8% red wine from Ay. A lovely onion skin colour, with aromas of bread, smoke, red fruits and stewed apples. The palate is full of tangy red fruit flavours, with nice persistence. I liked it a lot.

Next was Esprit de Giraud Brut NV, a blend of 70% Pinot and 30% Chardonnay. Persistent mousse, rich in the mouth, with lemon and mineral flavours. Long, too.

Esprit de Giraud Blanc de Blancs NV is 100% Chardonnay. Again, there are aromas and flavours of lemon and mineral, this time even richer, with notes of brioche. Hugely complex and very long. A very classy wine and one which I would love to have in my cellar.

The prestige cuvée Code Noir Rosé is all Pinot, with the addition of 10% Ay red wine for the colour. It is rich and intense, strong even, with quite a lot of oak and, for my money, less elegant - at least for now. It may well age into something really intersting, though. 

Grand Cru 2000 Fut de Chene is a quite deep yellow/amber colour. 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot, aged for 12 months in oak barrels. With the aromatic and taste profile of a fine Puligny-Montrachet, this is quite a wine. It has a creamy mousse, with myriad flavours, even a hint of orange, still quite oaky, but beautifully judged, and oh-so elegant and long. A very fine wine indeed.

Finally, a curio, in the Coteaux Champenois Blanc Ay Grand Cru. I'm not sure of the grape(s) but I presume Chardonnay. This is effectively a still Champagne. Again, quite oaky, but elegant with it. Quite austere and firm, but lovely and quite complex - this again is akin to a white Burgundy, such is its weight and structure. Needs food, or age - or both.

All-in-all, a brilliant range of wines, from a grower who I would dearly like to have on my list one day. For a relative Champagne "non-aficianado" such as myself, these are the sort of wines that could give Champagne a good name! ;-))
Champagne Henri Giraud - Bernard (on the right) looking stunned by the quality!

Then to a handful of wines from Clos du Gravillas, made by American John Bojanowski and his wife Nicole, up in the hills of St-Jean de Minervois. I was impressed by the wines of this estate, when I tasted them at another Vinisud fringe event few years ago, and they were impressive this time, too. l'Inattendu 2007 is a white blend of Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Macabeu and Terret. Aromas and flavours of honey, grape, tangerine, lemon and a touch of oak. Nicely balanced. A really good wine. l'Inattendu 2008 has honey and fennel aromas, with an excellent level of fruit. Long and quite complex, but needs a little time to come together. Sous Les Cailloux Grillons (I didn't note the vintage) is a red blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan and is very fruity and fresh. Lo Vielh 2006 is a pure Carignan, aged in large oak barrels for 14 months. It is rich, wild and complex, with notes of briary, tar and tobacco and a backbone of minerality and firm tannins. Give it 3 to 5 years and it will really sing.

I then tasted  a trio of wines from Domaine Roc des Anges, the first two of which didn't particularly impress. The Blanc 2008 was rich and hot, whilst the 2009 Blanc was very similar, though possessed of a bit more fruit, but still overly rich and alcoholic. A 2009 Grenache Gris and Macabeu blend was much better, and much more in balance - grapey, winey and quite complex.

And then it was time for the first real revelation of the trip. That's not to say that the Champagnes of Henri Giraud weren't of the highest class - indeed they were, but Bernard and I had already tried one of those in Nottingham a couple of weeks before, so we were fairly confident that the rest were probably going to be great as well.

But Mas Foulaquier is a Pic Saint-Loup grower that has gone completely under my radar - at least, until now. Foulaquier is a fairly young estate, which winemaker Pierre Jéquier (pictured right), a native of Switzerland and formerly an architect, discovered in 1998 after a long search for his dream wine domaine. When Pierre bought the estate (situated in the most northerly corner of Languedoc's most northerly appellation) the eight hectares of existing vines were just 8 years old, but happened to be planted on some great terroir. Now, at 20 years of age - and with the estate now also fully certified biodynamic - those vines are the source of  some stunning wines. His associate and fellow winemaker Blandine Chauchet joined the team in 2003, bringing with her the ownership of 3 hectares of 50 year-old Grenache and Carignan vines in the "Tonillieres" vineyard in Claret. No sulphites or added yeasts are used in the winemaking process and only the tiniest amount of SO2 (between 10 and 30 mg) is added at the bottling stage. Pierre Jéquier talked us through the wines as we tasted.

Les Tonillieres 2008 Pic Saint-Loup - A 50/50 blend of Carignan and Syrah, aged 9 months in vat. Notes of cherries, bramble and tar, with distinct floral notes (particularly Parma violets). A truly elegant wine.

L'Orfée 2008 Pic Saint-Loup - 50/50 Syrah and Grenache, aged for a year in vat. Flowers again, along with crystallised fruits and a whiff of eau de vie, fine tannins and great balance. Another excellent and very elegant wine.

Les Calades 2006 Pic Saint-Loup - 60% Syrah, 40% Grenache, aged for 24 months (half in concrete vats, half in barrels and demi-muids of between 3 and 10 years old). My note is not particularly specific in its descriptors. All I wrote was "Heady, rich, winey and sooooo complex - this is wonderful!" Enough said.

Gran Tonillieres 2006 Pic Saint-Loup - 50/50 Grenache and Carignan, aged for 24 months (half in barrel, half in vat). Again, heady and rich, with intense fruit flavours, but not obvious. Another very complex and delicious wine.

Gran Tonillieres 2007 Pic Saint-Loup - Rich and explosive - a riot of blackcurrant pastille, bramble and tar. At the moment, I marginally prefer the 2006, but this is also seriously good and seriously ageworthy.

We also tasted a new wine (not yet bottled or labelled, and I didn't catch the grape mix) which displayed aromas and flavours of red and black fruits, liquorice and fennel. That's all I wrote, but it sounds like a promising tasting note to me(!)

The purity of the fruit and clean structure is what struck me about these wines. Is it down to biodynamic farming practices, or is is simply a testament to brilliant winemaking? In my experience, the two are often inextricably linked. Whether you believe in biodynamics or not (extreme organics, or just whacky mumbo-jumbo?) those very principles go pretty much hand-in-hand with a love for the land and a fastidious approach to winemaking. I should mention, of course, that these wines possess a great deal of Pic Saint-Loup "typicity", albeit at a level I have never encountered before in this appellation - and there is some serious competition, believe me. In a nutshell, these are superb wines, and ones which I would very much like to import. If all goes to plan, that could well happen within the next month or two. Watch this space.

Tomorrow, I'll talk briefly about Marseillan, Vinifilles and the first morning of Vinisud.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Vinisud report - the first instalment

Right then - I've had a couple of days to recover, so here goes with the first instalment (of how many, I do not know) of reports from my trip to Vinisud. Joining me for the trip was my good friend and soon-to-be-a-wine-merchant-again, Bernard Caille. As well as being excellent company, being a native Frenchman, Bernard also came in very useful as an occasional interpretor. Alright, more than occasional, since my mastery of the French language leaves much to be desired.

Anyway, we'll start at the beginning, with what turned out to be a rather frustrating outward journey. It all went very well for a while, with a very easy drive to Manchester airport in the early hours of Sunday morning, arriving well in advance of the check-in time for our 6.25am flight to Toulouse. Unfortunately, almost as soon as we arrived it started to snow. By the time we boarded the plane, a full-blown blizzard was in progress. I won't bore you with the details, except to say that we were stuck on the plane for a further three-and-a-half hours before the snow relented enough for the runway to be cleared and deemed safe enough for departures to recommence. I hate flying at the best of times, so the delay just made things a whole lot more difficult to bear. Not that I (or anybody else on the aircraft) could do much about it, as there was never any chance that they would let us get off until we reached our destination!

A murky photo of the (second) defrosting of the plane, taken on my mobile phone.

Still, I guess it could have been worse. If the snow had really set in for the day, we may never have got to France at all. We finally got into the air just after 10am, arriving in Toulouse two hours later - 1pm French time. We had been looking forward to a leisurely lunch in a Saint-Chinian restaurant with my friend Peter Gorley, which was out of the question, of course, since Saint-Chinian was around 120 miles away. So we drove straight to Peter's house in nearby Assignan, where he had a lunch ready and waiting for us. After the day Bernard and I had endured (by this time we had been on the go for more than 12 hours) Toulouse sausages, poached eggs, ultra-fresh pain de campagne and a glass of local rosé couldn't have tasted better.

Peter and his wife bought their house in Assignan around 25 years ago and have been dividing their time between there and London ever since. It is a very old property, occupying a prime spot in the centre of the village, and has been lovingly restored. The roof terrace offers wonderful views of the Haut Languedoc to the north, the Minervois vineyards and the Montagne Noir to the west and the Canigou to the south-west. It is a view I could look at for hours. But time was of the essence, since we had a tasting event to go to on the outskirts of Béziers.

The tower in the centre of Assignan, viewed from Peter's roof terrace - note the flag of the Languedoc Cross, pretty much ripped to shreds by the bitter winter winds!

Peter and Bernard on the roof terrace, looking south-west towards Minervois.

Peter led the way to Béziers, along the winding roads through Saint-Chinian and Faugeres - driving in Languedoc is rarely a chore when you are constantly surrounded by such beautiful countryside. The location for "Dégustation Melting Potes" was Domaine de Lezigno, an ancient wine cellar which has been transformed into an urban architecture workshop and artistic space. Bernard and I were particularly keen to taste the full range of Champagnes from Henri Giraud, plus a few selected growers from Languedoc. And we weren't disappointed - the Champagnes were utterly brilliant, as were some of the Languedoc wines, not least of which was a range of red wines from a Pic Saint Loup grower which has (until now) gone under my radar. Not for much longer, though, as I am very keen to import them as soon as possible.

I'll post some tasting notes from Degustation Melting Potes tomorrow (including those wonderful Champagnes and Pic Saint Loups) along with some brief impressions of the launch party for a new association of Languedoc and Roussillon lady wine growers, called "Vinifilles".

Friday, 26 February 2010

Back from Vinisud..... and a truly fine Carignan

Just a quick post to say that I'm back in the UK after an extremely enjoyable trip to southern France for Vinisud. For 4 days I immersed myself in joys of being in the wine business (and, of course, being in a place that I love to be) and nothing else mattered. Unfortunately, I'm now fully integrated back into the daily grind and catching up on all the things that have been left unattended during that time. I'll be posting lots of entries over the next few days about the experiences of Vinisud and various related events, the people, and of course the wines. Meanwhile, here's a note on a lovely wine we opened last night, from one of the growers I met at Vinisud and hope to be working with in the near future.

Domaine de La Marfée Les Vignes Qu'on Abat 1999 Coteaux du Languedoc
I bought a few bottles of this wine a year or two ago, purely for my own enjoyment, and still have one or two left. Still deep purple in colour, with just the slightest tell-tale hint of lightness on the narrow rim. The nose offers some wonderful secondary notes of tobacco and polished wood, but still has the sort of dense crystallised blackcurrant and bramble fruit aromas that appear to be the hallmark of all Marfée's wines. Background notes of garrigue herbs and leather add yet more complexity. At over 10 years old, the palate is really just beginning to get into its stride, with luscious yet mouth-watering flavours of cassis, bramble, herbs and spices, wrapped around a backbone of juicy acidity and remarkably fine tannins. The finish is long and warming, but so fresh and juicy. It is truly a joy to drink now, but I would say it will stay on its plateau for at least another 5 to 8 years.
A glorious expression of (100%) Carignan!

Do keep checking back over the next few days, as I'll be posting lots of interesting stuff every day for a while (including some brief notes on the current range of wines from Domaine de La Marfée).

Thursday, 18 February 2010

A lovely 20 year-old Minervois

Domaine La Combe Blanche Minervois 1989
Never let it be said that I prefer my wines young. To be honest, the older they are, the more I tend to enjoy them - just as long as they are still alive and kicking, of course! I bought around 15 bottles of this wine from my winemaker friend Guy Vanlancker, when I paid him a quick visit in La Liviniere last July. He had brought a bottle of it to Nottingham a year or two back, which went down really well at a tasting we presented together. He said he had one or two cases tucked away in his cellar, so I asked him to fish a few bottles out for me. After all, there was nothing to be gained from keeping them too much longer. And I guess that, for this quintessential struggling Languedoc winemaker, the thought of 10 Euros per bottle tucked away in his back pocket was not to be sniffed at.

The wine has a lovely colour - a deep, blood red core, fading to a relatively narrow mahogany rim. There's a fair amount of suspended sediment in there, but that is more because it wasn't stood up for that long before I opened it. The nose takes a little while to develop, but within an hour it really starts to open out. Not that there is too much in the way of primary fruit left, but there is plenty of interest in the secondary and tertiary aromas - forest floor, tobacco, cedarwood, leather and beef gravy. Later though, some attractive dried/crystallised black fruits come to the fore, along with hints of peppermint, dried herbs and a suggestion of citrus peel. The palate also develops over time, beginnining a little dry and austere, but filling out later, to reveal hidden depths of fruit, combined with just the right amount of savoury, herb and spice, and that all-important mouth-watering acidity.

This is not a wine that would necessarily show well in comparison to wines from more elevated appellations, designed specifically to age for 20-plus years, but its supposedly lowly origin shouldn't be forgotten. And on that basis, it is still performing remarkably well, and was a joy to drink without the pressure of competition. It has a slight rusticity that will never go away, but it also has a fair degree of restrained elegance and charm - something that cannot often be said for many of today's silky, modern, alcoholic fruit bombs. It is a wine of real character, which demands contemplation - and it is also a beautiful food wine. And that was a bit of a tough ask, tonight, as it ended up being paired with a (admittedly, fairly mild) chilli con carne(!) It sounds like a terrible match, but the wine performed admirably. Which is a testament to my friend Guy's enduring talent for fashioning beautiful, characterful, terroir-laden and long-lived wines.

Read more about the wines of Domaine La Combe Blanche.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Another day, another year gone by

Well, that's it then - I won't see 48 again, since today is my 49th birthday. No special celebrations for this one (I guess next year may be a bit more of a milestone) but after taking the afternoon off from the day job, I spent a nice afternoon with the lovely Diane (TLD) and opened lots of lovely presents (CD's, DVD's, books, smells, other bits and bobs).

I'm just typing this up whilst TLD prepares us a nice meal of pan-fried duck breast, Dauphinoise potatoes, sweet and sour red cabbage, glazed carrots and mushrooms. And all finished off with a lovely sauce made from home-made chicken stock and red wine vinegar, a large slug of vintage red Banyuls, brown sugar and (dare I say it?) some grated zest and juice of an orange. Very 70's, I know, but it is a real winner with duck, if it is done properly. TLD is pictured on the left, slaving away in the kitchen.

As for the wine, we'll be enjoying a bottle of Paul Jaboulet Ainé Domaine de Thalabert 1983 Crozes-Hermitage. Actually, we're already enjoying it, so I hope there will still be some left by the time we sit down to eat(!) We've had a few bottles of this vintage before - we also have some 1988 and 1990 tucked away - and still have a few left. Although this one probably isn't the best bottle of '83 we've had, it is still a really enjoyable drop. A lovely colour - still very bright and crystal clear, blood red, with shades of amber and a brick. The nose was a bit dumb to start with, but it has opened-out nicely into red fruits (raspberry and redcurrant and cranberry), citrus peel, mineral , with gamey hints, smoked bacon and lilies. Ideally, I'd like a bit more in the way of fruit and flowers, but it is still a lovely nose, given that it is now almost 27 years old. The fruit is also fading a bit on the palate, but there is still enough to make it a joy to drink, with hints of savoury and mineral and cracking acidity - the hallmark of a great (or at least very good) old Northern Rhone Syrah. Perhaps this particular bottle is a year or two past its absolute peak, but I'm still enjoying it immensely. Right - I'm off to eat!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

A couple of nice wines and a(nother) bit of a rant about screwcaps

I was at my wine store the other day, putting together some orders, one of which included a couple of bottles of Domaine La Colombette Chardonnay Demi-Muid 2006 Vin de Pays des Coteaux du Libron. There was a box already open, with three of the six bottles left in the bottom of the box. I took a couple out, only to find that one of them had (for want of a better expression) sprung a leak. What you see in the picture on the left is how the bottle looked. You can see from the level that there was a good 2 or 3 centimetres of ullage - not something you expect to see in a 3 year-old screwcapped bottle of wine. More importantly, some of the wine that had leaked out was still trapped inbetween the metal and the plastic "tamper-proof" covering. The dark brown colour, the sticky texture and the burnt toffee smell would suggest that the wine had been seeping out of the bottle for a good while - possibly since bottling, but certainly since it was shipped (around a year ago). Suffice to say that such a bottle was unsaleable, so I had little option but to take it home and drink it myself - or more likely, I thought, use it in cooking or pour it down the sink. Which was more than a little annoying, because this is a situation I have been faced with on several occasions in the past. Not just with this particular wine, but others, too.

The picture on the right was taken after I had removed the plastic covering and removed and cleaned the cap. There were actually three dints on the top of the cap (you can see two on the photo) and these were obviously more than enough enough to break the seal between the glass and the cap. I'm not sure how there came to be three dints, but the bottle had obviously been subjected to a some knocks. The fact that this particular wine is shipped in "laying down" boxes probably doesn't help, since the sides of the boxes are much more prone to knocks than the top. And as screwcapped wines (even those designed for extended ageing) don't actually need to be laid down, then why not just box them in the upright position? Frankly, I'm a bit fed up with having to write-off so many bottles of wine in this way - I'm trying to make money selling the stuff! Suffice to say that I will be having words with the growers when I meet up with them in just over a week's time. Since the alternative closures they offer are those bloody awful, rock-hard plastic "corks", I will be asking them to either consider DIAM closures (see my 29/12/2008 entry below) or to ship their screwcapped wines upright.

Anyway, this particular story had an unusually happy ending. Far form being spoilt (as was my experience on couple of previous occasions) the wine was in remarkably good condition - in fact, it was absolutely delicious, and probably still with a few years of ageworthiness left in it. Mid-gold and very clear and bright, it was full of ripe stone fruit aromas and flavours, with notes of honey, lemon and beautifully-judged oak. And beautifully poised, too, combining a certain richness with fresh mineral flavours, ample acidity and a fair length on the finish. I still haven't changed my opinion that this wine (and not just based on the evidence of this vintage, but earlier ones, too) is the best Chardonnay I have tasted from the Languedoc. I think I shall set a few bottles aside, to enjoy over the next 5 or so years, as it will be interesting to see how it develops. It really is cracking stuff, and I'm actually quite pleased that I was "forced" to drink it!

I have just taken delivery of a top-up order from Domaine Treloar (same wines as before, but new vintages will be arriving in a month or two) and now have Domaine Treloar Motus 2006 Cotes du Roussillon back in stock, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to enjoy a bottle to see how it is developing. And the answer is..... very nicely indeed. Although still quite primary on opening (sweet bramble and blackcurrant fruit, juicy acidity and firm but fine tannins) it is starting to shed some of its puppy fat and is developing some interesting secondary aromas. The notes of volatile acidity have receded and the fruit has started to eat away at the charred oak, with some nice earthy/undergrowth and cedarwood notes developing. It is very concentrated, but balanced and elegant at the same time - in fact, it is becoming more and more like a great Bandol, though somewhat easier to drink at this relatively early stage in its development. If you have some, don't be afraid to crack a bottle or two now - but then again, don't be afraid to tuck some away for another 5 or 10 years. It is a real stunner!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A rant about Foreign Exchange providers

I haven't had a real rant on my Blog for ages, so here's one about an issue that has been getting me mightily het up recently (I'd prefer to use language a bit more colourful, but this Blog is in the public domain)....... Bloody foreign exchange providers! Grrrr!!

The life of a wine importer presents many obstacles (not least of which for me is my poor mastery of the French language - a not inconsiderable problem, seeing as I import wines from France). An even bigger problem, though, is the process of paying for the wines. As what can best be described as a small-scale importer, I like to think I have nurtured good relationships with most - if not all - of my numerous suppliers, and one of the things I pride myself on is paying them on time. Although one or two of the more highbrow growers seem to have an inherent distrust of wine merchants (and especially small, relatively unknown ones like me) and demand payment for their wines before they are shipped, most of my growers give very generous payment terms. Some give 30 days, many give 60, and some even give 90 days - 3 months, for goodness' sake! So the very least I can do is to pay them on time. In actual fact, one of my growers (who, without giving too much away, also happens to be English) goes as far as telling me that I am one of the few merchants he enjoys dealing with - because I am one of the few who does pay on time!

The idea of paying my creditors is certainly not a problem for me. But the process of actually getting the money paid into their accounts has become somewhat of a recurring nightmare. In my time in the wine business (6 years and counting) I must have used the services of getting on for 7 or 8 different foreign exchange providers (once I learned that dear old Barclays Bank were only ever out to fleece their customers for as much commission as they could get - and a rubbish exchange rate). One thing I could say about Barclays, though, is that they were reliable - if I made a Euro payment, it got paid on time. But using specialist foreign exchange providers (or ForEx traders, as they are known) has just as many pitfalls. In the current economic climate, there is no absolute guarantee that the money you pay them will actually reach its intended destination.

But the current economic climate also dictates that they are all desperate for business, even from relative small fry like me. When I receive their cold calls, they all tell me that they can offer the keenest deals on the prevailing exchange rates (very important, when making payments of thousands of Euros, and vital in keeping my retail prices down) and that - having given me what is often a pretty good deal - the next time will be just as good. Problem is, with each successive deal, the rate gets worse and worse. I won't name names (I'm sure these people wouldn't take too kindly to bad publicity) but the last-but-one ForEx provider I used offered me pretty much the going rate - i.e. not too much worse than the official exchange rate at any given time - for my first transactions(s). But with each subsequent transaction, the rate got steadily worse. My patience snapped the last time I called them, when the published rate was around 1.15 Euros to the Pound, and they offered me around 1.13. "Thanks, but no thanks" was my answer. So I found another provider, who offered me a reasonable (though far from ideal) deal on some relatively small payments that I needed to make to three different growers. That was on 22 January. Job done...... or so I thought.

Fast forward to around 4.30 pm this afternoon, when I received an email, informing me that the payments had just been made...... over two-and-a-half weeks late. "Should you have any queries regarding your payment please do not hesitate to contact us", the email said. "I certainly do have a query", went my reply. "....can you please explain why it has taken almost 3 weeks to make the payments to my suppliers?"

Back came the reply "I am very sorry for the late payment. I must be honest and admit fault – ****** did forward me your instructions on the 22nd January but I for some reason missed them and didn’t print them off. This has never happened in the past and I feel very embarrassed that it has. I am more than happy to contact your suppliers and explain what happened and apologise to them. Again I am very sorry and would like to say that this in no way reflects the way our company operates and I promise you that it will never ever happen again. Please don’t let this error effect (sic) the relationship. I hope you will continue to use us. Kind Regards" (name witheld, for obvious reasons).

Needless to say, I shall contact my growers personally, in order to apologise for the fact that (through no fault of my own) they have not been paid on time - and hope that our relationships have not been soured by the situation. And needless to say, I will not be using the "services" of this particular ForEx provider again. Onto the next one, I guess.....

So if anybody reading this has any recommendations for reliable (and reasonable) ForEx providers, who are looking to build long-term relationships with small merchants like me, please do let me know. Little acorns, and all that......

Monday, 8 February 2010

A few highlights from recent tastings - plus one real shocker

Whilst I certainly don't want to fall into the trap of posting endless tasting notes, at the expense of other more topical (and hopefully interesting) content, I do seem to go through periods where I attend a lot of tastings - and boy, do we get to taste a wide range of stuff! So I think it is always useful to post notes on selected highlights, if only to give them their due, ahead of the also-rans, as it were. Here are just a few of the more interesting ones from the past few weeks. The notes are pretty much as I wrote them at the time - I do get fed up with constantly re-arranging ad-hoc notes into something more fluent!

Henri Giraud Hommage a Francois Hemart Ay Grand Cru Champagne NV
70% Pinot Noir, 30 % Chardonnay. Limes, mandarins, brioche and butter, coffee - and fruit! Rich, intense, fruity and very glycerous. Very long and very lovely. This is the sort of wine that (for this doubter) give Champagne a good name. One of the finest Champagnes I have ever tasted. Not, as far as I know, available in the UK. Though I might be tempted!

Comtes Lafon Clos de Four 2006 Macon-Milly Lamartine
Smoky, oaky, minerally - sort of like a really good Meursault. Rich stone fruit and honey aromas and something a touch tropical. Rich, quite full-bodied and hedonistic, with fabulous weight and structure. I love it now, but it could turn into something really sensational.

Domaine Fichet Terroir La Cra Macon-Ige 2006(?)
A huge, heavy bottle, with a punt you could almost hide a hand in. Why do some growers use these bloody things? Nevertheless, the wine is a cracker. A lot of oak, but with the fruit to stand up to it. Lemon pie, cheese, lanolin, even some vegetable notes - a real 3-course meal in a glass. Richly structured, with flavours of lemon oil, honey, exotic fruit - almost Californian, but in a cool-climate sort of way. Not typical Burgundy, but spectacularly good.

Domaine Guillot-Broux La Myotte 2007 Bourgogne Rouge
Earthy, secondary aromas in perfect harmony with the fruit - classic Burgundy. Tarry, earthy flavours, but again lots of fruit, along with white pepper and spring flowers. Lovely, sexy wine.

Jean Thévenet Domaine Emilian Gillet Quintaen 2000 Macon-Villages
Apples, quices and caramel on the nose - late harvested, I guess (Thévenet is a whacky grower). Very richwith some noticeable residual sugar, almost like a Vouvray demi-sec in style. Disticnt flavours of toffee apple, countered by lovely acidity. A style of wine that really appeals to me.

Auguste Clape Cornas 1991
My friend David Bennett said about this wine "Proper Syrah. Lilies and violets in spades, delicious, mouth-filling, round wine with seamless integrated tannins. Everlasting length and poise given to it by such lovely acid balance." In the absence of my own note (though I tasted it along with David) I can confirm that he is spot on - for once!

Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Chardonnay 1991 Russian River Valley
Will I ever taste a Swan wine that is anything less than utterly lovely? At 19 years of age, this smelled and tasted like a young-to-middled-aged 1er Cru Burgundy. So fresh, pure, rich, yet delicate and complex - and very long. God, these Swan wines are good!

Domaine Alquier Reserve Les Bastides d'Alquier 1997 Faugeres
Woodsmoke, bramble and plums, violets and lilies, pepper, a lick of brett and a good dose of schiste minerality. Still a bit of a baby, with lovely weight of bramble and redcurrant fruit and a touch of bitter chocolate, slightly rustic tannins and lovely acidity. Come to think of it, it is even a touch reminiscent of Bordeaux. Then again, no - there's just too much flavour and fruit! And with such depth of fruit, it will certainly go for another 5+ years. Lovely wine - and it cost me all of £7.50 at auction! ;-))

And here's a real disappointment;

Penfolds Yattarna Bin 144 Chardonnay 1999 South Australia
Banoffee pie in a bottle - not my idea of a good Chardonnay. Seems to have been made in a slightly oxidative style, perhaps due to the obviously lengthy stay in new oak - or perhaps it is just not lasting the distance. Not much in the way of fruit, and completely lacking in complexity. This may be the "white Grange", but - let's face it - to a lover of traditional wines like me, Grange is nothing to write home about either. In fact, the more icon wines I taste, the more I realise that the success of so many of them is down to marketing and reputation.

And finally, a monumentally spoofy (and monumentally expensive) wine. There are an awful lot of "Emperor's New Clothes" wines out there, and seemingly plenty of people with more money than sense, who are happy to perpetuate the myths. But of all the over-oaked, under-wined, over-hyped and over-priced "wines" I have ever tasted.........

Guigal La Mouline 1997 Côte-Rôtie
........was perhaps the worst of the lot. My first ever "La-La". It smelled and tasted of oak, more oak, and yet more oak. I'm sure there was some really good fruit in there somewhere, but I couldn't get to it. At almost 13 years of age, any decent Côte-Rôtie would at least be starting to shake off the puppy fat and be showing off those classic lily, smoke, violet and red fruit aromas. But this was more akin to a Barossa oak bomb - but without the fruit. In fact, it was so woody, I'm sure I must still have some splinters in my mouth. I'm prepared to accept the claim of Guigal officianados that these wines need 20 years to shake off the oak and blossom - but they always seem to add the rider "in great vintages". Trouble is, I'd never be prepared to spend the money to find out. At £200-plus a bottle, I'd rather give it a wide berth. 1997 was a decent vintage, but far from a great one, so why bother giving what (at best) would have been an average wine the full treatment? An absolutely rubbish wine, which - in my humble opinion - does nothing for the reputation of the Côte-Rôtie appellation. For the price of one bottle, you can buy a full case of proper Côte-Rôtie.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Plans taking shape for Vinisud, plus a couple of cracking Rhone wines

Plans are slowly taking shape for my trip to Vinisud in a couple of weeks' time. My friend Bernard and I will be landing in Toulouse Fairly early on the Sunday morning, which leaves us virtually the whole day to do more or less what we want, before the actual event begins on the Monday. So I've arranged for us to join up with my wine-writer friend Peter Gorley at his home in Assignan (near Saint-Chinian), before heading off for lunch at a restaurant in nearby Berlou. From there, we will head for Béziers, for a tasting event entitled "Melting Potes 2", which will have some very interesting growers (including a brilliant Champagne grower Bernard discovered recently). From there, it will be a quick visit to Marseillan, to check into our hotel, before heading to Montpellier for the evening, for the lauch party of a new organisation called Vinifilles. As the name suggests, Vinifilles is an association of lady winemakers from Languedoc and Roussillon. A couple of my growers (Laeticia Pietri of Domaine Pietri-Geraud and Veronique Etienne of Chateau La Dournie) will be there, but it will also be nice to discover wines from some of the other growers. Monday and Tuesday will be pretty much all Vinisud, and Monday night will include a soirée with Jon and Rachel Hesford of Domaine Treloar, at an apartment they have rented for the duration in Montpellier. So, a very busy schedule, but I can't wait!

Meanwhile, I've just about loaded all the new wines onto my website, with just a couple of grower profiles to work on. Here's a couple of tasting notes on those northern Rhone reds I mentioned in my previous post;

Noel Verset Cornas 2004
100% Syrah. This has a semi-transluscent crimson red core, fading gently to a pink rim with amber glints. The nose is so evocative and elegant already, with classic smoked bacon and lily aromas mingled with fresh summer fruits, spices, leather and parma violets. The palate is also truly elegant, with none of the tannic rusticity one might expect from a relatively young Cornas. It is full of ripe blackcurrant, raspberry and cherry flavours, with savoury and floral nuances, fine tannins and a simply mouth-watering backbone of acidity. In fact, one could almost be in Hermitage with this one. Knowing Noel Verset's reputation for making traditional Cornas that needs fairly lengthy ageing to show its best, this is a remarkably accessible wine and really delicious to drink right now, although there is still plenty of scope for development with further ageing over the next 5 years or more.

Noel Verset produced his first vintage in 1943 and finally retired after the 2006 vintage, at the ripe old age of 87. Which is a shame, because his wines were always of top quality and always true to the Cornas appellation and I would have loved to think I could have featured more of his vintages (the 2005 and 2006 allocations sold out before I could get any). But all good things must come to an end. And fortunately, Noel's famous old vines are now in the capable hands of Alain Verset and Thierry Allemand

Gilles Barge Cuvée du Plessy 2006 Côte-Rôtie
95% Syrah and 5% Viognier. Dark purple core, semi-opaque, with a narrow crimson rim. When first opened, it is quite reticent on the nose, but begins to open up with exposure to the air, with notes of bramble, blackcurrant and perhaps raspberry and orange peel, mingled with cinnamon and clove, cedar, leather and tobacco. With a little coaxing, those classic Côte-Rôtie notes of lilies and smoke begin to peep through. The palate also opens up nicely after a while and, whilst the tannins are still a little young, they are ripe and spicy and there is a wonderful core of red and black fruits and spice just waiting to burst through. This isn't one of those rich, modern wines that promise much without actually delivering - this is traditional Côte-Rôtie, which demands contemplation. Tightly structured, pure and focused, with great balance and mouth-watering acidity, it has all of the ingredients necessary to evolve into a real beauty of a wine. Indeed, the remains of my bottle were still going strong a full two days after opening, and had really opened out. Whilst this wine can be drunk now with pleasure, it is only just beginning to hint at its potential and I think it is going to be an absolute classic. Wonderful stuff.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

News about some new wines, plus detailed notes on the Joseph Swan wines

Despite my renewed intention to post more often, I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front over the last few days. I've probably mentioned this before, but the numerous tasks involved in adding a dozen or so new wines to my portfolio is not to be underestimated (though I always seem to do just that). Logging the stock, preparing tasting notes (enjoyable, of course, but a lengthy process) and grower notes, photographs, at-a-glance lists, downloadable lists all have to be done. All very laborious and time-consuming, but if a job is worth doing, then it is worth doing well. You can never have too much information, as far as I am concerned. And if you are trying to sell wine via the sometimes sterile medium of the Internet, then it is - in my opinion - essential to convey one's enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject. If I can engage my customers (and potential customers) with a well-written and enthusiastic tasting note, then then I'm half way there. Of course, the wines need to be good - as President Obama once said, "you can't put lipstick on a pig"! And if you try and do that, you'll soon get found out.

Anyway, the latest additions to my list are somewhat of a departure, in more ways than one. Despite my desire to largely list wines that I have discovered myself and import myself, it is simply not possible to grow the list (and, consequently, my business) as fast I want to by sticking rigidly to such a policy. And much as I hate the concept of wine agencies, with their rather protectionist demands for exclusivity on their growers'  wines, they do serve a useful purpose for merchants like me. For instance, although I have tasted a good many Alsace wines in my time, I have yet to actually visit the region and taste extensively. I've been to Burgundy on a handful of occasions, but usually only briefly. I have also made brief visits to the northern Rhone, but its total production is relatively small and most (if not all) of the best growers have already been discovered - and are mostly tied-up with the agency importers. I have yet to visit America, and the idea of importing wines from there would, for me, be a logistical nightmare, not to mention a very expensive risk - I simply don't have the customer base to guarantee beinbg able to sell them in any great quantity.

And so I have taken the (for me) radical step of introducing some wines to my list that I haven't actually imported myself. That isn't to say that these additions are a stab in the dark. It has taken me a long time to make this leap of faith, so I've been very careful to choose wines that I myself love and can have complete confidence in recommending to my customers. I'll tell you more about the Burgs, the Alsace and the Rhones in a day or two. For now, here are my thoughts on those fantastic wines from California grower Joseph Swan Vineyards that I mentioned last week.

Joseph Swan Vineyards Trenton Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2007 Russian River Valley
This is made from a very small plot of Chardonnay vines, with only 2 barrels made per year (around 50 cases). Seductive aromas dominated by fruit - both fresh and crystallised - together with notes of honey, flowers, lime and orange peel, with the sort of stoney, flinty minerality you might expect in a top notch white Burgundy. The palate offers richness and elegance in equal measures - complex and concentrated, with fabulous acidity and an impressive length of flavour. It is undoubtedly up there with the very finest new world Chardonnays. Indeed, if you added it as a "ringer" to a line-up of 1er or even Grand Cru Burgundies, you might just pick it out as the imposter - but then again, you might not. Stylistically, think Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault, with a touch of new world richness - though you would never guess that it is 14.5% abv, such is it's elegance. A magnificent wine. £21.50

Joseph Swan Vineyards Cuvée de Trois Pinot Noir 2006 Russian River Valley
This is so pale, it isn't much darker than a rosé. But don't let that fool you. An initial whiff of American oak vanillin gives way to red berries and currants and cherries, with gentle balsamic and volatile notes - intense and very expressive. As it opens out with air, it reveals further notes of undergrowth, roses and tar. The palate is richly fruity and earthy at the same time, with notes of creamy vanilla, tar and spice, with the sweet fruit being offset by ample acidity and fine tannins. The finish is long and spicy. A full 2 days after opening, the remains of my bottle had developed extra layers of complexity, with distinct aromas of crystallised red fruits and rosewater, whilst the palate was still fresh and vibrant - quite wonderful, in fact! This is a wine which can be drunk with pleasure now, but has so much more to give over the next 5 to 10 years. £21.50

Joseph Swan Vineyards Cuvée de Trois Pinot Noir 2007 Russian River Valley
Another deceptively light-coloured wine - raspberry red at the core, fading to a pink rim. The nose suggests ripe summer fruits, exotic mixed spices, leather and forest floor. The entry is soft, velvety and full of sweet, succulent fruit, with gentle tannins and perfect acidity making for a supremely balanced wine. There is little or no oak influence - this is a wine dominated by fruit, with flavours of raspberries, strawberries and cream, with a distinct cranberry tanginess. It is relatively primary at the moment, and shows enormous potential for development over the next decade or so. But my goodness, it is so lovely to drink now! It is even better the next day, and the nose is just stunning - like smelling a bunch of roses! Very hedonistic, very California and very, very lovely. £22.95

Joseph Swan Vineyards Trenton Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Russian River Valley
At just 12.9% abv, this is no new-world bruiser. Again, the colour is light by Cabernet standards and semi-transluscent. The nose offers aromas of raspberry and cherry, polished leather and cedarwood, a trademark (for Swan, that is) dollop of refreshing volatile acidity and an interesting note of beetroot. The red fruits are augmented by blackcurrant notes on the palate - but tangy and almost citrussy, rather than sweet, with delicious acidity - no chance of this Cali Cab being fat or blowsy! It is also quite atypical for the grape, with none of the green notes you would associate with Bordeaux and none of the sometimes overpowering intensity of many new world Cabernets. In fact, it really is quite elegant. The tannins are fine and almost resolved, which makes this wine very easy to drink, although the makers say it is a style that can also age very well for a decade or two. But why wait, when it is drinking so well already? £18.95

Joseph Swan Vineyards Lone Redwood Ranch Zinfandel 2001 Russian River Valley
This, on the other hand, comes in at a whopping 15.3% abv - but you'd never think so. The nose is quite intense, with rich, brambly fruits mingled with aromas of herbs and spices along with a whiff of eau de vie. A refreshing hint of volatile acidity adds yet more interest. The palate is also rich and warming, and yet possessed of amazingly fresh fruit flavours and lip-smacking acidity. It is a big wine, but not a bruiser - rather, it is surprisingly elegant and light on its feet. And it certainly belies that 15.3%, but is nevertheless long and warming. It is yet another classic "next day" wine, with earthy, bramble and raspberry flavours combining seamlessly with grippy (but fine) tannins and that mouth-watering acidity. A cracking wine to enjoy now, or to age for a few more years.

I love the wines of Joseph Swan - they are never boring, and almost invariably lovely. Those price tags aren't cheap by European standards, of course. But, compared to most other iconic wines from California, they actually offer remarkably good value. Try them. But be careful - you may just get hooked!

Joseph Swan Vineyards has a really excellent website, where you can read all about its history, its philosophy, its winemaker and its wines. It's a great read.