Friday, 30 July 2010

Two lovely mature(ish) wines enjoyed over the last couple of nights - and some thoughts on the plight of a struggling Languedoc winemaker

Here a some thoughts on a couple of wines I have enjoyed over the last couple of evenings - both quite mature and both rather lovely. And there is a real story behind the second one, so please bear with me and you'll hopefully get an impression of how difficult life is for so many vignerons in the south of France - even some of the best.

I opened this last night, and what a lovely surprise - I expected it to be good, but not this good! Lledoner Pelut is said to be a "hairy-leafed" close relative of the Grenache variety - some say it is probably one and the same grape, but I doubt it, for this wine is more elegant and refined than just about any Grenache I have tasted. The colour is medium-deep carmine red at the core, leading to a wide, light ruby red rim, with subtle shades of amber – in other words, it is beginning to show some signs of maturity. The nose was a touch bretty/funky on first pouring, but there is a lovely core of ripe red and black fruits lurking in the background. And it doesn’t take long before most of the funkiness dissipates to reveal heady scents of damsons and wild strawberries, complemented by subtle notes of forest floor and very carefully judged oak. There is also a suggestion of cherry and orange peel. Add to that a mix of garrigue herbs and exotic spices, and what you get is a very alluring wine with more than a degree of complexity. And the palate certainly lives up to the promise of the nose – the fruit is a delightful combination of sweet and sour, with elegant flavours of raspberry and redcurrant, countered by a touch of spiced bramble richness. Fine tannins and a mouth-watering backbone of juicy acidity complete the package. Lledoner Pelut may well be a variation of Grenache – and it has certain similarities when young - but at almost 6 years of age, this wine has begun to take on more than a hint of Burgundian Pinot Noir character. It has turned into a wine of great elegance and finesse, and I suspect that it has the potential to develop even further over the next 5 years. Indeed, the last glass, consumed tonight, after the bottle had been open for 24 hours, was still lovely and fresh. This is a wine that has, for some reason, been very slow in selling and I was about to put my last 16 bottles or so into an up-coming bin-end sale. But I’ve now decided to keep a half dozen back for myself, to enjoy over the next few years – and leave the remaining bottles for eagle-eyed customers to fight over, at the regular price of £13.95. Which, on this showing, is an absolute bargain!

Domaine La Combe Blanche La Galine 2001 Minervois La Liviniere
I opened this wine tonight - and got just as much of a pleasant surprise as with the Lledoner Pelut. I'll tell you why, after I've told you how good it was. It is quite a mature colour, blood red at the core, with a wide, semi-transluscent ruby/amber rim. The nose has bramble, wild strawberry and orange peel, married to classy cigar box/polished wood aromas, not to mention garrigue herbs, cinnamon, cloves and eau de vie - imagine, if you will, a box of mixed fruits, herbs and exotic spices, left to infuse inside an old wardrobe(!) The palate is equally complex - rich and brambly, but imbued with a softness and lightness of touch borne of 9 years of maturity. It has all manner of crystallised fruit flavours, tea, orange, lovely acidity, fine tannins and a long, warm finish. Not that all those aged aromas and flavours mean that this is over the hill. Far from it - 2001 was one of the greatest Languedoc vintages in recent memory, and a wine as good as this certainly has the structure to go on for a number of years yet. It is just lovely, and reminds me yet again why Guy Vanlancker and his wines were so instrumental in me starting a wine business in the first place.

So why was this wine such a pleasant surprise? Because it is a sample bottle! Guy rarely does things the simple way, and this is a classic example of his somewhat eccentric way of doing things. La Galine is one of the wines Guy makes only in the better vintages. When I first started my business (in late 2003) the vintages available to me were the 1999 and 2000. I took the slightly more forward 2000 first, then eventually moved onto the later-maturing 1999. Next up was the 2003 vintage, which Guy only released for sale about a year ago. When I met up with him on my recent holiday, he gave me samples of most of his current releases, which included the 2007 La Galine..... and the 2001.

Which begs the question, where has this wine been for the last 9 years? Great winemaker that he is, Guy is (much like me) pretty useless as a businessman/salesman. And the sad fact is that he makes more wine than he can comfortably sell, especially in the better vintages, when he has (historically, at least) made more of his top cuvées. And as we all know, top cuvées cost more to make, take longer to reach the bottling stage and are more expensive/difficult to sell. And unsold wine means less cashflow. As a result, Guy has not bought any new barrels since 2001 - he simply can't afford them. All of the wines he makes now are aged either in vats or in barrels of around 10 vintages or more. And, last time I was there, his cramped winery in the village of La Liviniere was still crammed full of barrels, in some places from floor to ceiling.

With the spectacular 2001 vintage, Guy probably made more of his premium cuvées than ever. The brilliant La Chandeliere 2001 has long since sold out, and I also recently sold the last of my stocks of the (almost as good) Clos du Causse 2001. And I suspect that this La Galine 2001 has been sitting in vat or barrel(s) in some inaccessible corner of his cellar for all that time, waiting for the other 2001's to sell out. I am almost certain that it hasn't been in bottle for that long, because it is sealed under a different cork - Guy's corks used to be embossed with "La Combe Blanche", whereas they now just say "Mis en bouteille a la propriete" (after all, when every cent counts, extra frills mean unneccessary expenditure). And the label is of the more "modern" design that Guy introduced a few years back. Furthermore, winemakers must pay taxes on wines they hold in bottle, so it makes financial sense only to bottle a wine when it is actually released for sale. So what we have here is a brilliant, semi-mature wine, which is only now available not because of a deliberate marketing strategy, but because of stark financial reality. It is great for merchant and punter alike, to be able to obtain such mature wines at very reasonable prices, but it is bad for the winemaker - and only serves to highlight the perennial struggle that so many vignerons in Languedoc face, merely to keep their heads above the water.

To be honest, I don't know whether to feel happy or sad. I got into the wine business because I wanted to work alongside and with wonderful people like Guy Vanlancker. And it would give me almost as much pleasure to see Guy get that fancy house and winery up in the hills that he dreams of, as it would for me to see my own labours in the wine business finally bear fruit. The fact is, that is not likely to happen without some much-needed investment.

Tasting barrel samples in Guy Vanlancker's cellar in August 2003 - many of those barrels were fairly new at the time, but no new ones have been added since then.

Incidentally, I also opened my bottle of La Galine 2007 the other night, although I did so quite late in the evening, so wasn't really in the right frame of mind to give it the attention it deserved. Revisiting it now (a good 3 or 4 days after opening) I have to say it really is good. Whilst it lacks the sheer complexity of the brilliant 2001 (and, of course, has very little oak influence) it has a delicious core of both fresh and crystallised fruits, garrigue and spice, with some very faint cedary/sous bois notes. The palate is fresh and full of vitality and, despite the lack of any oak component, it has the structure in its own right to age nicely over the next 5 or more years. After all, great winemakers will make great wine, whatever the constraints placed upon them.
Look out for the 2001 when it arrives in stock at the end of the summer. At a guess, I would say the price will be no more than about £12.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The perfect summer white - a cracking Rheingau Riesling

I've always had a soft spot for German Riesling. In fact, it is far and away the most popular style of white wine in my house. Although many of these wines (which vary in style from dry and steely, through to fairly luscious and off-dry, or even semi-sweet) are absolutely perfect for summer drinking, they actually hit the spot for me, all year round. And when you get the taste for them, you never lose it. So when I got the chance the other day to snap-up a really good example, at an attractive price, I jumped at it - plenty for me, but plenty for my customers, too!

Prinz von Hessen Johannisberger Klaus Riesling Kabinett 2005 Rheingau
Clear, bright, limpid green/gold colour. The nose offers plenty in the way of fruit, with lime zest to the fore and notes of apricot, peach and dessert apples. There are also plenty of mineral/slate nuances and even a hint of wet wool, along with hints of toffee and white pepper. Every now and then you get a faint whiff of petrol - such an attractive attribute in fine Riesling. In normal vintages, a Kabinett might reach an alcohol level of 9% abv, but in the wonderful 2005 vintage, the grapes were so beautifully ripe that many of them were able to reach higher levels (in this case 11%) without sacrificing any of those delicate aromas and flavours. The palate has wonderful fruit/mineral/acid balance, with succulent stone fruit flavours married to racy, mouth-tingling lime and apple. There is still a healthy dose of residual sugar, but this is countered by thrilling lime acidity and even a hint of spritz, which carries right through to a long, luscious, mouth-watering finish. This wine will, in all probability, age nicely for a good 10 years or more, but it really is so good to drink right now, it is an absolute joy!
A bargain at £8.95, via the Leon Stolarski Fine Wines online shop.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Summertime - therefore, it must also be Beaujolais time!

Beaujolais is a wine style that seems to have virtually disappeared from many wine enthusiasts' radars, in recent years. And it had certainly not appeared on mine for a while - I can't remember having tasted (never mind drunk) more than a handful of examples in the last 2 or 3 years. Which is a shame, because I like the style, when it is done well. Indeed, I used to sell a few very decent Cru Beaujolais (Régnié, Fleurie, Morgon, Chénas, Moulin-a-Vent) on my website. Trouble is, despite the fact that it was good, hardly anybody bought the stuff. I'm not sure what the reasons were (the prices were eminently reasonable) but I do know that the annual Beaujolais Nouveau campaign did nothing to help the image of the region as a source of quality wine, especially in the eyes of the people gullible enough to buy the stuff. How could they possibly be encouraged to give "proper" Beaujolais a try, based on their experience of the dreaded Nouveau - i.e. generally thin, tart, bubble gum and pear drop-infused wines that no self-respecting wine lover would rinse their glass with? Of course, there are a few half-decent Nouveaus to be had, but even good growers can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

But wait! Is Beaujolais finally experiencing a bit of a long-overdue rennaissance? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it is - mainly from what I see on wine message boards, with plenty of people posting notes and observations on wines they have bought or tasted recently. And the vibes seem very positive, with some drinkers perhaps experiencing real Beaujolais for the first time, whilst others revisit the style and suddenly remember that they enjoyed the stuff all along. Of course, a great vintage helps to focus the attention and, by popular consensus, 2009 was one of the finest Beaujolais vintages in living memory. A long, dry and very warm (but not excessively hot) summer ensured perfect growing conditions - so perfect, in fact, that the Gamay grapes had no trouble in reaching optimum ripeness levels, even to the extent that the harvest began around a week earlier than normal. Beaujolais is rarely found lacking in the acidity stakes (except when clumsily chaptalised, which can result in wines which taste baked and sickly). But such perfect growing conditions rendered chaptalisation (basically, the addition of sugar to the grape must, designed to add balance and boost alcohol levels) totally unnecessary in 2009. So there you have it. Ripe, sweet fruit, inherantly soft/low tannins and naturally high acidity - the perfect recipe for juicy, fruity wines that are dangerously easy to drink.

So when my friend and fellow wine importer Peter Bamford asked if I would be interested in a couple of sample bottles from the 2009 Beaujolais vintage, I accepted them with relish. And, as it happened, I tasted them with relish, too.

Régnié 2009 Cave des Vignerons de Bel Air
Quite a deep colour, especially for what is normally the lightest Beaujolais Cru, being a semi-transluscent medium ruby/purple. The nose is an absolute riot of strawberry, raspberry, red cherry, apple and citrus fruits, with a hint of blackcurrant leaf. It smells ripe and forward, with an aromatic structure not too far removed from a fruity young Cotes du Rhone. The palate is even better, displaying a soft, seductive, strawberries and cream quality. It is voluptuous, even voluminous, with a depth of real fruit rarely found in the lighter Beaujolais Crus like Régnié, whilst offering all the mouth-watering acidity and freshness one could wish for. It isn't particularly complex, but who needs complexity in a wine so vibrant and fresh? It really is utterly lovely, in a drink-me-now sort of way.

Domaine De La Caleche Fleurie 2009 Cave des Vignerons de Bel Air
Again, quite a deep colour, with a narrow rim. This smells more serious than the Régnié, with some darker fruit notes (bramble and blackcurrant) mingled with the red fruits, and even a hint of orange peel. There are also some savoury, spicy nuances, even a touch of meatiness, whilst subtle notes of polished wood and vanillin suggest a little bit of ageing in older oak barrels. Half an hour after opening, there begin to emerge some very attractive notes of spring flowers and violets, together with white fruits such as apple and peach, suggesting hidden depths and a degree of complexity. The palate is more serious, too, with those savoury notes providing a counter to a core of rich dark cherry and raspberry fruit. There is even a touch of grip, courtesy of some fine, ripe tannins, not to mention of course a lovely backbone of juicy, orange-tinged acidity. Whilst it may not have the immediate "lovability" of the Régnié, this wine grew on me very quickly. Indeed, it is very hard to fault, and really gets into its stride after an hour or so in the decanter. Which tells me that, though delicious already, it will evolve beautifully in bottle over the next 2 or 3 years.

As you can probably tell, I was completely bowled-over by the quality of these 2 wines. And I am indeed left wondering why I have neglected Beaujolais for so long, even if only for my own drinking pleasure. I guess the answer is that, although they have often been good, they have rarely been this good. Will I be stocking them? You bet. Projected website prices will be around £8.75 for the Régnié and £11.25 for the Fleurie.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A few wines tasted recently

Over the last three weeks I seem to have gone from intensive holiday blogging to taking a complete holiday from blogging! To be honest, although I have been busy doing lots of other things, I've also been a bit lazy. When the sun is shining and the weather is hot (and we've at least had a decent amount of that, so far this summer) it can sometimes be a bit of an effort to make yourself do something that you know you really should do, but don't actually have to do. I've spent far too much time enjoying Le Tour de France, The Open Golf Championship and various other sporting extravaganzas - lazy, I know, but we all need to chill out occasionally. We have also been tasting through quite a few sample wines (of which more, in a future post) and enjoying the delights of our new gas barbecue - possibly the bargain of the year at £100, from wilkinsononline. It's brilliant - here's a photo of my new pride and joy......

Nevertheless, the longer I go without blogging, the more I feel I'm letting the side down - after all, I have millions (well, tens, at least!) of followers, hanging onto my every word! So I'd better get the ball rolling again. I'll start with a few thoughts on some nice wines tasted over the last couple of weeks at Nottingham Wine Circle....

Michel Lynch Reserve 2006 Graves
Glory be - a white Bordeaux that really hits the spot! Actually, I seem to have a better success rate with the whites from this region than the reds, 90% of which leave me wondering how on earth they gained the reputation they have (and I'm talking classed growths, as well as the lesser wines). Anyway, this had lovely aromas of licourice and fennel, cloves and woodsmoke, with lemony, minerally fruit and classy oak - a really complete nose.The palate was just as good - spicy, herby, rich and warming, with a core of citrus fruit, subtle oak and a backbone of minerally acidity. Lovely stuff, which makes me think I should explore white Bordeaux a little more.

Domaine du Closel "La Jalousie" 2000 Savennieres
Wet stone/slate, wool and herbs - a classic Chenin Blanc nose. Gently oxidative on the palate, with not a lot in the way of fruit flavours, but lots of complex mineral and secondary notes - stoney, cheesy, even sweaty. If you've never tasted lean, austere, steely Savennieres before, it probably sounds awful, but it isn't - it is wine for contemplation (and food). Austere, but classy.

Schug Chardonnay 2005 Carneros, California
Oaky, in a typically Californian style, but not big. Classy Chardonnay fruit and evident (but not clumsy) oak and deep, mineral flavours, like a weighty Meursault. Not exactly subtle, or even particularly complex, but an impressive, enjoyable wine.

Domaine Bachelot Vieille Vignes 1996 Gevrey-Chambertin
Boy, this was a stunner - rich and fruity, with a seductive lick of oak vanillin. The palate was amazingly bright, fruity, full of vitality and with a huge backbone of intense, mouth-watering acidity and intense fruit flavours, laced with cloves and flowers. Amazingly elegant and right at the peak of its drinking window (though it will hold for a good few years, I guess). A brilliant and beguiling wine, which probably wouldn't convert lovers of new world Pinot, but is a Burgundy lover's delight. Village Burg doesn't get much better!

Noel Verset 1996 Cornas
Oh my goodness, what a lovely wine! Aromas of lilies, bacon, herbs and spring flowers, with a waft of slate/schist minerality. The palate is savoury, but oh-so fruity, in a slightly rustic, tangy sort of way. Which is just how a great Cornas should be - at ease with its imperfections and effortlessly seductive. It has stunning acidity, with lovely, complex flavours of apple, bramble, cassis and spices, with just the right level of tannin to keep it all together. A gorgeous wine and a great match (and indeed the equal) of the Bachelot Gevrey.

Dr Hermann "H" Riesling 2009 QBA
This is the first Mosel Riesling from the 2009 vintage I have tasted and - for a humble QBA (in theory, the most basic level in the German wine hierarchy) it was brilliant, and easily a match for many a Kabinett and Auslese I have tasted. It is aromatic, slatey, orangey and even winey (in a primary, grapey sort of way). The palate is packed full of bright, minerally, lemon and apricot-tinged fruit, with fantastic acidity. It alsmost seems a shame to drink this at such a young age, because it will certainly improve and evolve with a few years in bottle, but it is just so lovely now. Young Riesling at its best.

Clemancey Freres 1984 Fixin-Les-Hervelots
26 years of age and still going strong - well, sorf of! It had a pungent, almost gassy (if you get my drift) sort of stink, when first poured, along with forest floor, old wood and decaying fruit. in other words, when the gassy notes "blew off"(!) it was a classic old Burgundy, and really quite alluring. Peppery, spicy, almost Syrah-like fruit, yet very light and even austere, with minerality and acidity to spare. Elegant, in a grand old dame sort of way.

Clos des Papes 1996 Chateauneuf du Pape
My note was rather brief, but you'll get the picture. Bretty and funky, but full of fruit. Fresh - even light - but hugely elegant, in the typically "Burgundian" Clos des Papes style, with lovely acidity (a rare treat in Chateauneuf), good balance and good length. Lovely to drink now, but will certainly keep a while. Does Clos des Papes ever make a bad wine? If they do, I've yet to taste one. Shame their prices are now heading for the 50 quid-a-bottle mark.

Over the next few posts, I'll tell you all about a couple more visits I made whilst on holiday in France, plus a trip to London, where I was on the judging panel of the Beziers White Wine Competition(!)

Thursday, 1 July 2010

A brilliant holiday, the wonderful French landscape and returning home

Well, that's it for another year then. Our traditional 2-week holiday in the south of France has come and gone, seemingly in the blink of an eye, and it is back to the grind. But what a wonderful holiday it was - perhaps the best ever. And, by all accounts, we did a good job of dodging the weather. I'd had reports that the spring had been very iffy, just about everywhere over the south of France. Summer must have arrived on the Cote d'Azur just about the same time as we did. And when we moved to Languedoc, the weather was still relatively cool and dull - but it got better almost as soon as we arrived, and was fantastic for the rest of the week.

Having previously holidayed in southern France at many different times of the year, from mid-May to late August and all points inbetween, I can now say with some certainty that late June will be our preferred time from hereon. Slightly too late for the spring flowers and some of the seasonal fruits, but the weather is generally more reliable. And, oh, the scenery! At most times of the year, the scenery in northern France cannot hold a candle to the middle and south. But this year, it looked a pretty picture from top to bottom. In fact, the traditionally long and sometimes tedious journey back to Calais was an absolute joy. Having departed Laurens at around 10 am, we headed to Pézenas to pick up a few bits and some provisions from the supermarket and fill-up with diesel. We then headed for a quick visit to Domaine d'Archimbaud in Saint-Saturnin (of which more in an upcoming post). Having originally hoped to hit Clermont Ferrand (200 miles up the A75 autoroute) by midday, we didn't actually leave Saint-Saturnin until 12.30, so we were already 3 hours behind schedule. Never mind - I had a cunning plan to avoid the nightmare of circumnavigating (or at least circumventing) Paris, despite the fact that TomTom always seems to send us that way. My plan was to set the destination as Rouen. You still get pretty close to Paris, but veer-off north-west at Versailles. The "normal" route takes you around (or very often, in our case, though) Paris, then on through the pretty boring Picardy and Pas de Calais countryside. The Rouen route is slightly further, but much quicker and much prettier.

As I say, France was wearing its prettiest clothes the day we returned. From the spectacular autoroute climb up the Pas d'Escalette and onto the Causse de Larzac, over the stunning Millau Viaduct, then uphill and down dale over the Massif Central to Clermont Ferrand, the weather and the scenery were stunning. If ever a motorway journey can be described as beautiful, the A75 is it. For around 180 miles, you climb as high as 1120 metres, and rarely get below 800 metres, through France's most remote and least-populated regions. One of these days, we will actually stop there to really explore this beautiful region, rather than drive straight across it.

The A75 autoroute climbs through the Tunnel de Pas d'Escalette - almost a kilometre long

Driving over the magnificent Viaduc de Millau -
- one of a select few man-made structures which actually enhance the landscape
(no, it isn't completely an illusion - it really does slope a little from one end to the other)

From Clermont Ferrand, you can see the volcanoes of the Auvergne in the distance. Then the roads flatten-out a little, and it is rolling countryside and vast open fields for the next 2 or 3 hundred miles. We hit Rouen just as the sun was beginning to set over the River Seine, which was a pretty sight. An hour or so later, as the last rays of daylight disappeared, we stopped at a service station for a comfort break - which is when I took this photo..........

A spectacular full moon rising over central Normandy, at the end of a long, hot, sunny day

Then it was a straight drive towards Calais, with the autoroutes by now virtually deserted (although the traffic had been relatively light and extremely fluid for the whole journey). We made our scheduled 00.50 ferry with almost an hour to spare - 730 miles in under 14 hours, including a supermarket visit, a wine tasting, a picnic lunch and a good few comfort breaks along the way. The most stress-free journey I can ever remember. The only downside was that we didn't feel as if we could stop for an evening meal, so we decided to eat on the ferry. Big mistake. The P&O ferry cafeteria menu offered either "traditional" fish and chips, half a chicken and chips or curry and rice, each costing around a tenner. I surveyed the line-up long enough for the man serving to ask "....still browsing, Sir?" No, I thought - I'm just trying to decide which is the least worst option. I opted for chicken, which turned out to be so dry it fell into a thousand pieces when I tried to cut it. The chips were hard to start with, and were like dried twigs by the time I'd managed to eat half of it. Goodness knows how many times this food had been reheated, but I can honestly say it was right up there with the most miserable eating experiences of my life. Diane's "traditional" fish and chips were equally bad. So, you learn something everyday - I never knew that the word "traditional" was a synonym for "dehydrated".  Frankly, P&O ought to be right royally ashamed for offering such pitifully bad "food". It was the worst 20 quid we've ever spent. A decent(ish) Cappuccino in the bar helped to ease the discomfort, before we disembarked and made the last (and always by far the worst) part of the journey.

As we docked in Dover, I sent a message to my son, Alex. "The Olds are back in Blighty. Party-off, dude. I want to see my house spotless." Back came his reply.... "Party's never off, dude. You won't believe how spotless the house is." Needless to say, we took his advice and didn't believe it - justifiably so, as it happens.

The 3 and-a-half hour drive back to Nottingham was - as always - tedious as tedious can be. For 2 weeks and 2,500 miles driving in France, we had not encountered one single traffic jam or motorway roadworks. Within the first 100 miles travelling back in England, there were 3 long stretches of roadworks (one of almost 20 miles) with 50mph restrictions and speed cameras on all of them. Welcome to England. :-(

At least the house was still standing when we got home at 4.45 am - not at all "spotless", but not completely wrecked either. Thanks heavens for small mercies!