So, here’s a short film from the International Wine Challenge judging earlier this month. This was Tranche 2 (the other being in November) of the 2016 judging, and 200 judges gathered at the Oval to work their way through thousands of wines, carefully, methodically and accurately. I hope it gives you a flavour of the competition. Results are out May 11th.
Had lunch at Terroirs wine bar today with a friend. I haven’t been here for a while, but we were in the neighbourhood, it was just past noon, and the opportunity presented itself. We did a walk-in, sat at the bar and ordered oysters and a lovely fresh, natural Muscadet (Amphibolite).
It was a magical combination. The briney intensity and slippery texture of pure oysters coupled with the stony, rocky lemony character of the Muscadet. An uncomplicated wine elevating itself through a well-chosen pairing.
Then we ordered more food. Endive with walnuts, mustard and blue cheese, and also an artichoke with a mustard aioli. These were both beautiful. By coincidence, Caves de Pyrene founder Eric Nairoo and wine buyer Doug Wregg were both here, and Eric sent over a carafe of an unidentified white wine. It was really beautiful: not immediately obvious, but growing in charm and complexity with time in the carafe. It was the Belluard Gringet from Savoie, and in the 2014 vintage this wine is just singing.
Domaine Belluard ‘Les Alpes’ Gringet 2014 Savoie, France
Fragrant nose of tangerine and lime blossom with some pear fruit. Very fine and expressive. The palate is delicate and mineral with a rounded texture and also amazing freshness. So pure, with an attractive stony minerality. This improves with time in the glass, and is really delicate but has personality to. Lemony finish leaves you wanting more: quite profound in an understated way. 94/100
Day two in Champagne began at Bruno Paillard, someone who I have featured on this site before (here and here). Bruno began with an interesting statement: ‘The true richness of Champagne is the poverty of its soils and the poverty of its climate,’ a comment that was prompted by just how freezing it was, even at the end of April.
‘You will see plenty of old buildings and kilometres of underground cellars,’ he told us, regarding our upcoming appointments. But, he pointed out, there are particularities about Maison Bruno Paillard. ‘Like any maison the name on the label is the name of the founder,’ he stated, ‘and here it is also the name of the owner of the nose who creates the Champagnes.’
Bruno has a very sensitive nose, and it is this he uses in blending his Champagnes, not his palate. He doesn’t taste the vins clairs, but instead selects them by careful nosing. He took us through a range of still wines from 2015 which will soon be blended.
For a Champagne house, Maison Bruno Paillard has a lot of vineyards. All the money he has made since he started the house in 1981 has been ploughed back into buying parcels of vines in good sites: he now has 32 hectares in 89 parcels, from 14 crus – this is enough for 60% of his requirements.
Half of sales of this house are the NV blend, called Première Cuvée, which, like all the wines here is an extra brut. The one we tried is a really attractive wine with subtle toast and refined white peach, pear and citrus fruit. We also looked at the Nec Plus Ultra, Paillard’s top cuvée, from the 2003 vintage. This was a very tricky vintage with April frosts wiping out a lot of Chardonnay (this buds earliest), and then a super-hot summer leading to a very early harvest. Yet, by careful site selection, Bruno has managed to produce a remarkable, complex, textured wine of real profundity – albeit in tiny quantities (4200 bottles).
The next visit was a lovely one, with one of Champagne’s true super-stars – Anselme Selosse. Selosse is singular in his approach: everything is fermented in wooden barrels (although there are a couple of terracotta vessels in the cellars which were used for the first time in 2015). The juice goes from the press to barrel, and then ferments naturally before the second bottling. The juice goes to the vats for settling after pressing (this is a requirement), but afterwards he resuspends the solids and the resulting cloudy juice goes to barrel with nothing missing.
Selosse – uniquely, I think – stores some yeast from the first fermentation, freezes it, and uses it in the second fermentation in bottle.
He believes in minerality. He explained that the plant takes in mineral salts and water, and then photosynthesis creates organic matter. ‘I want a mineral product,’ he said. His goal in winemaking is to transform the organic material in the grape juice into mineral. He illustrated this by taking a bit from his cigarette packet and burning it. ‘After the organic parts burn the rest comes from the soil,’ he explained. ‘I am left with the mineral part.’
For Anselme, what really matters isn’t the smell, which changes quite a bit, but the feel of the Champagne in the mouth.
The wines are truly astonishing. Initial (a blend of 2009, 2008 and 2007) is mineral and intense; VO (9, 8, 7 again) is utterly breath taking with a lovely hint of bitterness and a linear, mineral character; Les Careilles (blending 2003 up to 2009) is structured, savoury and gastronomic; Sous Le Mont from Mareuil sur Ay (blending 04 to 09) is mineral, muscular and with a tart bitterness from the high magnesium; vintage 2005 is another astonishing wine; 2002 is beautifully keen and lemony; and 2003 is attractive and interesting but struggles to throw off the shackles of this vintage.
The final visit of the day was at Gosset. Gosset is a Champagne house that still manages to appeal to geeks who’d normally be running after grower Champagnes. This is because of the style of their wines, which is very linear and pure. No oak is used here. Production is around one million bottles, so they are not very small but not very large either.
The core of their range is a trio of non-vintage blends, which are the face of Gosset. There’s the Grande Réserve NV, which is a blend of all three main varieties and which shows well balanced cherry and citrus fruit with nice tension. Then there’s the pale, delicate Grand Rosé Brut, and finally the excellent Grand Blanc de Blancs. This is relatively new: Gosset relocated to Epernay from Aÿ a few years ago, and their previous home indicates that the emphasis used to be more on Pinot Noir than Chardonnay.
Then we tried a new product: 15 Ans, which is the minimum age of the wine in this bottling (it’s actually 17 years old). This is taking a spirits approach to Champagne, and this wine was originally laid down in the late 1990s. It’s intense, concentrated and lively with high acidity and a chalky, grainy savouriness.
This Champagne trip started gently, with a weekend in Reims that contained just one vineyard visit: JL Vergnon, in Le Mesnil. We were hosted by Christophe Constant (below), who has been running things here for 15 years now. Vergnon have 5.5 hectares in the Côtes des Blancs, with 18 parcels in Grand Crus and 2 plots in Premier Crus. They work the soil rather than use herbicides, and while they are not organic, they are close.
Christoph says that organics is difficult in the region, so he wants to reserve the right to use systemics if the weather is bad. Vininfication is roughly 70% stainless steel, 30% wood for most of the wines.
I’d not tried these wines before, and I was impressed. The house style is one of precision and purity, which is a good thing. The Eloquence Extra Brut NV is the main wine, and it’s a pure, details Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs. I was thrilled with the ‘OG’, which is a 2010 vintage wine from Oger, but which can’t be labelled Oger because when Christophe presses he doesn’t distinguish it in the Carnet Pressoir for the customs. There are two more seriously impressive vintage cuvées: the Resonance 2008, which is all steel ferment from Le Mesnil, and the Confidence 2009, which is all barrel fermented.
Then in the evening we dined at restaurant Bocal in Reims. This was a near-perfect experience. It’s a small, unpretentious restaurant at the back of a fishmonger’s near the market hall. The menu, as you would expect, is exclusively seafood, with a superb selection of interesting Champagnes at prices close to retail. We ate lots of oysters: a comparative oyster tasting, no less. For those who love flavour (and oysters, and grower Champagne), this is close to heaven.
We had a couple of bottles, but the one I wanted to write about is the Cuvée Cep from Jean Michel, which is an equal parts blend of the three main Champagne varieties, made without added sulphur dioxide. It’s complex, citrussy and quite intense with a lovely core of acidity and a low dosage of 2 g/litre. This was a brilliant oyster accompaniment. Next time I come to Reims, I will be going to Bocal more than once. I quite fancy eating oysters and working my way through their entire list of Champagnes.
This is not a Champagne and sparkling wine blog, although if you’ve been scrolling through recent posts you could be forgiven for thinking that it is. It’s just I’ve been quite taken by fizz of late. So I was pleased to be able to try this South African sparkling wine recently, which is creating quite a stir in its home country, but which hasn’t yet made its way here to the UK (although some is on its way with Gudfish). it’s from Le Lude in Franschhoek, and it is made by Paul Gerber, a sparkling wine specialist.
While Le Lude is based in Franschhoek, the grapes are sourced from a range of regions, many of which are cooler climate. This wine, based on the 2012 vintage, is the first release and I was really impressed.
Le Lude Cap Classique Brut NV South Africa
12% alcohol. A blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in roughly equal proportions, this is taut, pure and linear, with lovely citrus and pear fruit. Fine and expressive with real precision. Zippy and fine with a lovely clean, lean personality, and real finesse. 92/100
I’m quite a Gimonnet fan, so I was delighted to find this in a wine shop in Reims at a sensible price. It’s just beautiful. 2005 isn’t the best ever Champagne vintage (it was actually quite tricky), but this wine has developed really nicely and is now at something approaching peak drinking I reckon, although you could store it for longer without any worries.
Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Oenophile 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 2005 France
This has no dosage. Really linear and taut, but this has developed a lovely toasty, spicy richness that accompanies the lemony fruit quite beautiful. Such a complex, tight, beguiling Champagne with real beauty and focus, and notes of hazelnut, roast almond, apricot and cream as well as a lovely lemon and grapefruit core. Quite sensational, and drinking perfectly now. 95/100
I’ve been here in Reims since Friday, drawn here by my growing love of Champagne. It has been nice to explore the town a bit, and my self-imposed rule is that while I’m here, I’ll be drinking nothing but fizz. So I have been on the lookout for places to buy good Champagne. There are three really good options.
The first is the Club Trésors de Champagne, which is an association of 28 artisan growers. Here you can buy their wines, plus also the Special Club bottlings that they all make. Prices are really good: lots of fun to be had here in the 20-30 Euro zone. The shop is very stylish and modern, too, and it’s near the large market.
The other two shops are both very close to the Cathedral. Pictured above is Cave des Sacres. This old school shop has a brilliant selection of wines, including a lot of top grower Champagnes. There’s an awful lot of interesting wine here, although they don’t like you taking photographs.
Le Parvis (Place du Cardinal Lucon, 51100, Reims) is a more modern shop, but there’s still a lot of good grower Champagne here, and they have some good things that Cave des Sacres don’t, such as Gimonnet. Prices don’t seem excessive either. Between these three shops you can drink very well during your stay in Reims.
Also worth a mention is Le Clos (25 Rue du Temple, 51100 Reims) a wine bar very close to Club Trésors. It’s quite quirkily decorated, and as well as offering a good list of fizz and still wines, it also has a wide range of Champagnes for sale which you can drink-in for a 15 Euro supplement.
So, I open a bottle of Champagne Dom Pérignon with brother in law William Beavington, and we drink it, talk about it, and have a broad-ranging discussion about Champagne more generally. The film is here.
On Monday evening I caught up with Camille Lapierre, of domaine Marcel Lapierre, which she runs with her brother Mathieu.
The domaine was founded by their grandfather, who was one of the first to bottle in the area. It was their father Marcel, who died in 2010, who was largely responsible for the reputation Lapierre enjoys today. He took over in 1973, but in 1981 he met Jules Chauvet, who led him to work in a more natural direction.
The domaine consists of 16 hectares, and the latest additions were a couple of hectares in Côte de Py in 2012. They are farmed organically, but 2 ha are farmed biodynamically, as a trial. Camille says that they don’t see a lot of difference.
Winemaking here hasn’t changed with the new generation. They make a selection on the vine so that they only bring into the winery clean, whole bunches, with no dried grapes and no unhealthy grapes. These are then put into wooden tronconic fermentation vats which takes 4 tons each. Carbon dioxide is used to fill the remaining space and the weight of the grapes causes some juice to pool at the bottom.
Fermentation starts inside the grapes with an enzymatic transformation and after 2-3 days alcoholic fermentation starts at the bottom of the tank. Altogether, it takes around 3 weeks for fermentation to take place and pressing occurs in a vertical press. The wines are then matured in older oak without any additions at all.
2015 was a weird vintage, she says, with very dry conditions, resulting in wines with high pH and high alcohol. They have a tendency to be unstable and liable to oxidation, so in this vintage they won’t be making any of their ‘N’ cuvée. Typically, each year they make and ‘N’ and ‘S’ cuvées, with the latter receiving a bit of sulphur dioxide at bottling, and the former none. Harvest for 2015 was on August 23rd, which is really early, and the potential alcohols were 15-16%, which is unprecedented.
I love these wines.
Lapierre Raisins Gauloius 2015 Vin de France
From 20-30 year old vines, carbonic maceration. It’s bottled too early to call it Morgon, but too late to be Nouveau, so it’s vin de France, and it’s screwcapped. Camille says it is a wine to drink under the shower. Very lively, fresh and juicy with black cherry and raspberry fruit. Supple and drinkable with floral fruit and a bit of grip. Smashable. 90/100
Lapierre Morgon 2014 Beaujolais, France
Pure and focused with lovely warmth. Textural and fine with fine-grained tannins and generous silky cherry fruit with some raspberry too. Quite lovely. 94/100
Lapierre Morgon 2011 Beaujolais, France
Warm, supple and sappy with nice rich texture and some cherry and plum fruit. This has lovely fine grained structure, and it’s sweet and smooth with nice texture, as well as some fine spicy notes. 93/100
Caught up with Craig Hawkins to try the new releases from Testalonga, one of South Africa’s most interesting and bravest wineries. Craig and Carla left the safety of being based at Lammershoek (which was owned by her parents) and have moved to a remote but beautiful farm on the very edge of the Swartland. The winemaking pushes boundaries, with low alcohols and precise, intense but delicate flavours. The labels are also quite striking, and have got ever more colourful and artistic.
These wines aren’t to everyone’s tastes, but I love them. Here are my brief notes on the 2015 releases.
Testalonga El Bandito Cortez 2015
Matchstick notes on the nose. Quite pure, linear and with lovely citrus and pear fruit. So delicious with fine acidity. 94/100
Testalonga El Bandito Skin Contact 2015
Grippy and detailed. Savoury, spicy and firm with high acid. Very fresh and fine. 93/100
Testalonga El Bandito ‘Sweet Cheeks’ 2015
This is Muscat Alexandria, 18 days on skins. So pretty and floral with lovely aromatics. Fresh, lemony and grapey with pithy edge to the palate. 92/100
Testalonga El Bandito Manualizza 2015
This is the Hungarian grape Harslevelu. Lovely acidity: fresh and lemony with pure, bright brit. Precise and lemony and linear. Lovely. 94/100
Testalonga El Bandito Manualizza Skin Contact 2015
Grippy with high acidity. Spicy, detailed, linear and fine with some peach and pear richness. Lovely. 94/100
Testalonga El Bandito I wish I was a Ninja Pet Nat 2015
This is a fizz made from Colombard. Amazing with lovely purity and bright, sweet lemony fruit. It’s off dry and smash able with lovely acidity. 93/100
Testalonga ‘King of Grapes’ Grenache 2015
Very tight and a bit reductive. Fresh and linear with nice cherry and raspberry fruit. So lean and linear. 93/100
Testalonga ‘The Dark Side’ Syrah 2015
Slightly rubbery, closed, taut, closed nose with leather and herbs complementing the nice raspberry and black cherry fruit. Fresh with high acidity. Savoury and fascinating. 93/100
There are also three wines that are a bit more affordable called ‘Baby Bandito':
Baby Bandito Keep on Punching 2015
Pure, lemony and linear with nice weight. 91/100
Baby Bandito Stay Brave 2015
Skin contact Chenin. Textured and cloudy with a bit of grip, some spice and nice acidity. A super wine. 93/100
Baby Bandito Follow Your Dream 2015
This is a Carignan. Very fresh, pure and linear with bright cherry and raspberry fruit with lovely detail and precision. Very fresh with real grip. 92/100