Château Pichon Baron 2013

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Recently I was lucky to be able to taste all the Pichon Barons from the current era, 2001 until 2014. They were lovely wines, but one was missing: the 2013. This is widely regarded to be the weakest Bordeaux vintage of recent years (perhaps alongside the 2007), but I had a bottle lurking, so I cracked it over dinner a few nights ago. These days, a Château like Pichon doesn’t release bad wines, and the 2013 is not a bad wine. I really enjoyed it, and although I wouldn’t cellar it for 15 years, it will make fabulous drinking over the next 5-10 if you have any.

Château Pichon Baron 2013 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
This is really fresh and balanced. Lovely blackcurrant fruit with some raspberry freshness, and savoury notes of gravel and spice. It’s definitely a lighter expression of Pichon, but it’s perfectly proportioned and drinking very well now, and will carry on drinking well for a decade, I reckon. Lovely focus and definition here. Classic Claret with nice structure and acidity. 93/100

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Champagne Dom Pérignon 2009

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This, the latest release of Champagne Dom Pérignon, was released out of sequence, before the 2008. It’s because of the ripeness of the year, which has produced a wine that drinks superbly young, but which has plenty of finesse and manages that ripeness superbly.

Champagne Dom Pérignon 2009 France
Amazing finesse and purity here. Fine aromatics of lemon and subtle toast, with a twist of white peach richness. The palate is pure and focused with lovely fine citrus fruit and faint supplementary hints of cream, toast and pear. Ripe and fruit driven but with lovely delicate savoury complexity. Almost perfect balance: nothing sticks out, and overall this is a lighter expression of Dom Perignon. There’s an effortless elegance here. It’s thoroughly accessible and also serious at the same time, a product of a ripe vintage but handled in such a way to maintain freshness and purity. 94/100

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A gem from Yarra Yering

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Yarra Yering, with its distinctive labels, is one of my favourite Australian wineries. I drank this gem last night: probably well before its time, but it was lovely. [Read more about Yarra Yering here.]

Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No 2 2012 Yarra Valley, Australia
This is the Shiraz-based wine. Fresh, sweetly fruited and textural with a complex leathery, spicy, slightly meaty edge to the berry and cherry fruit. There’s just a hint of mint and medicine, but the dominant theme is supple, juicy sweet berry and black fruit. Developing very nicely, this is beginning to mellow out. It’s Australian, but it doesnt taste overripe or dominated by eucalyptus. Instead this is balanced, approachable and delicious, and will age beautifully over the next decade or two I reckon. Lovely weight here. 94/100

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Pio X 1903 from Gonzalez Byass: an ancient Moscatel

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There’s something special about very old wines. While I was tasting through the Las Palmas sherries with Martin Skelton last week, I got a chance to try this remarkable wine, and alongside it as a comparison, the same wine that had been aged in bottle since 1919.

The Pio X hails from a single barrel of wine that was made in either the 1850s or 1860s, before phylloxera hit the region. This wine was made from Moscatel Menudo Blanco (which is Muscat Petit Grains), which was replaced after phylloxera by Muscat d’Alexandria, and was the 2600 litre barrel was dedicated to new Pope Pius X (Pio X in Spanish) in 1903 by current chairman Mauricio Gonzalez Gordon’s great grandfather. The wine wasn’t fortified and had an alcohol level of just 9%.

Over the years wine was removed from this cask, most notably 1000 litres in 1911. After this the odd 50 litres were removed from time to time, but this stopped in 1946. The current bottling is from the remainder of the cask, which by this stage was just 90 litres of incredibly concentrated wine. This was enough for 120 bottles, of which 100 will be sold (expect retail price to be around £1000), and 20 kept.

As well as tasting this wine, we also got to look at the same wine, but bottled back in 1919. Just 14 wines were left, and Gonzalez Byass were sure that 7 of them were Pio X. So it was incredible to compare the journey that the same wine took in cask and in bottle. They are both equally compelling, but different.

Gonzalez Byass Pio X
The release wine, aged for more than 150 years in cask. Super concentrated and very intense with amazingly smooth flavours of raisin and spice, with a hint of treacle. So viscous and smooth and intense. 97/100

The same wine from bottle: 
There’s a freshness here with hints of mint and earth as well as sweet raisins and spice. Viscous and intense with fine herbs and spices. Some leafy detail. Compelling stuff. 97/100

 

Gamay 35, Château de Grandmont Beaujolais Villages Nouveau 2017 France

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So, it’s Beaujolais Nouveau day. For quite a while, those of us who love Gamay and Beaujolais were a bit embarrassed by this seemingly outdated celebration. We cringed when we saw a region market itself through its worst wines. But as the reputation of Beaujolais has been rebuilt, now people are taking this day – the 17th November – as a chance to celebrate Beaujolais more widely. And we’re also seeing the emergence of some properly delicious Nouveau wines. This is a great example: it’s smash able and affordable, and is a primary, infant expression of the new vintage, capturing both the year and the place in a quick preview of what is to come.

It’s from Château de Grandmont, and one of the partners here is wine merchant and Beaujolais expert Chris Piper, who is selling the wine at £8.80 in the UK.

The wine is made from 52 year-old vines (planted on Vialla rootstock) from their Blacé vineyards in the Beaujolais Villages area. The soils here aren’t pure granite, but rather clay and limestone, with some granitic rocks. The vines are hand-picked, and the Gamay grapes are given a brief, honest six day fermentation (without any tricks such as thermovinification, which involves heating grapes and must up before fermentation begins to extract more colour and aroma from the skins), and then it is pressed. Minimal sulphur dioxide is added, and only at bottling. Screwcap seal (saranex liner).

Château de Grandmont Beaujolais Villages Nouveau 2017 France
12.5% alcohol. Vivid and aromatic, this shows black cherries, herbs and some subtle gravel notes on the nose. The brightly fruited palate has a distinct stoniness that I often find with Gamay, and delcioulsy primary, forward black cherry and raspberry fruit. There’s some grip here, and good acidity, and this all helps keep the juicy, primary fruit honest. There’s almost a cheesy, meaty twist on the finish. It may be nouveau, but it has a twist of seriousness as well as the delicious smashability. 90/100 (£8.80 www.christopherpiperwines.co.uk)

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Some thoughts on Minimum Unit Pricing of booze

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Big news in the drinks trade yesterday, although this is less relevant to readers of this blog: Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) of booze has been ruled legal, and Scotland are going to roll it out.

It’s a big deal, because now this is legal (it was claimed by opponents that it broke EU competition law), it could be rolled out into other countries. I think it’s a positive thing, overall, although the drinks trade have been campaigning against it.

How does it work? Basically, it sets a minimum price per unit of alcohol (in this case 50 p), and will impact on the cheapest forms of alcohol, such as high-strength lagers, inexpensive vodka and whisky, and cheap ciders. The cheapest bottle of wine at 12.5% alcohol would become £4.70, so very few wines will be affected. For a 4% can of lager, the minimum price would be £1.

This isn’t the answer to alcohol abuse. But it’s much more sensible than some of the other options, such as changing the safe-drinking guidelines, raising taxes, or banning advertising of alcohol. The government will need to do something about alcohol abuse, and this is the best option because it leaves interesting booze untouched.

The drinks trade needs to show it’s taking problem drinking seriously, and MUP addresses the sorts of products that tend to be abused more often. As a parent of teenagers I saw the chaotic drinking patterns of my kids’ peers, and they were drinking the likes of K Cider, strong lager and cheap spirits, all of which made it too affordable and easy for them to get very drunk.

Increasing the price of booze does reduce overall consumption, and the other way of doing this is raising duty. MUP, which targets just cheaper products, is much better for the industry because it’s not a tax. To oppose it would show that the drinks industry is interested in profit over public health, and the
consequences of this stand in terms of government public health legislation could hit drinks companies a whole lot harder than MUP.

Anyone making serious, crafted products, or with decent brands, has nothing to worry about because it won’t impact them. And it won’t touch the on-trade.

Ultimately, alcohol abuse is a symptom of something deeper in society. It has always been with us, and always will, but the problem certainly isn’t being helped by the affordability of alcohol, which has become cheaper in real terms over recent decades. MUP is much better than the prohibitionist rhetoric that wants to tell people that any level of alcohol consumption is harmful, which is not borne out by the many meta-analyses that show a protective effect of moderate drinking.

It would be interesting to see what effect introducing a MUP of say 60 p per unit would do. It’s not taxation, so if there is a higher spend, retailers and producers could benefit. Will higher prices reduce consumption? This will be interesting to follow.

My advice to the drinks trade would be to support MUP. Think of all the alternatives, and you’ll see that this is by far the most sensible and least painful of the various public health initiatives to curb excessive boozing.

Back at the IWC for some more wine judging

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It’s Tranche 1 of the 2018 International Wine Challenge this week. [In case you are wondering why it's 2018, not 2017, a couple of years ago an extra week's judging was included in November in order to (1) take some of the pressure off the two-weeks' judging process in April and (2) suit better the needs of southern hemisphere producers who are going to be bringing their wines to market before April and would like to use medal awards to help promote them.]

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In Tranche 1 there are four days of judging, with two days round one, a rest day, and two days of round 2. I’m co-chairing again, a job that’s demanding but really enjoyable. There are six co-chairs, and our job, as Charles Metcalfe puts it, is to act as a long stop (a cricketing term: where the wicket keeper is incompetent, as is often the case in youth cricket, the long stop fields directly behind the stumps on the boundary, saving valuable runs when the ball gets past the keeper).

Charles Metcalfe and Oz Clarke, co-chairs

Charles Metcalfe and Oz Clarke, co-chairs

In round one, the panels decide whether or not a wine is medal worthy. We taste just those wines that they reject, checking that nothing good has been mistakenly booted out. It’s not the most pleasant job. We start with the assumption that the panels have got things right, and usually they have, because one of the strengths of the judging at IWC is that the judges and the panel chairs are assessed to make sure they are doing a good job. Tasting wine blind in this context is a tough job and requires judges with skill and experience. If one of us wants to change a result off the floor, then we need a second co-chair to agree. We don’t change that many results, but we do change enough to make our existence worthwhile, and provide a consistency and robustness to the IWC results that helps give better results. We want every wine entered to be treated as fairly as possible.

Tim Atkin and Sarah Abbott, co-chairs

Tim Atkin and Sarah Abbott, co-chairs

Today is a rest day while the wines that got through are re-flighted. Tomorrow we are back for two days to decide on medals. This is where things get really interesting, and it helps to have narrowed down the field in order to do this stage well.

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Some people are critical of wine competitions, for a range of reasons, but it’s worth stating why a well-judged competition is useful. It’s one way for consumers to navigate through a wall of wines in a supermarket or wine store. It’s also a good third-party endorsement for producers looking to export their wines. Achieving a gold medal at the IWC is a major achievement. And if you are a retailer with a range of private labels, then medal success is a good indicator of how well the buying team did.

Why the IWC judging process is so rigorous: the co-chairs explain

Discovering new old varieties in southwest France with Plaimont

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If a highly paid marketing consultant had come to Plaimont a decade ago, they might have given the following advice: give up on these difficult-to-pronounce, unusual grape varieties with their distinctive local flavours. Instead, plant the grape varieties that people know and love – Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Make fruity, approachable wines. Blend in some grape juice concentrate to sweeten them up a bit. Make the wines that people want to buy: don’t try to force your obscure wines on the consumer.

But I’m fairly sure this would have been disastrous advice. Plaimont would have been sucked into a rapid race to the bottom in terms of pricing, competing with countries who could make wine much more cheaply. And the heritage of the region would have been disrespected and damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

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Instead it is encouraging to see a large company, with some 5000 hectares of vines under their control, taking an approach that is based on regional flavour and identity. In the three appeallations they work in, Saint Mont, Côtes de Gascogne and Madiran, they are using the traditional varieties. But they are also looking to find what I like to call ‘new old’ varieties from the region. These are varieties that used to be grown but were discarded for the wrong reason. As I mentioned in my earlier piece on their Cuvée Prephylloxerique, in the past there was a need for wine as a staple. People drank a lot of it, and this wasn’t fancy drinking by fancy people. It created a demand for volume over just about any other criteria, so vines that didn’t yield highly but which produced characterful wines were often sidelined or forgotten altogether.

Now, the team at Plaimont, led by research coordinator Nadine Raymond, has been making a big effort to unearth these forgotten varieties, and see what sort of potential they have. As well as working her way through existing older vineyards, with the help of some of France’s top ampelographers, she also has at her disposal a unique treasure.

In the ancient Sarragachies vineyard

In the ancient Sarragachies vineyard

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This is an ancient 0.2 hectare vineyard in Sarragachies. The Vins de Sarragachies are a historical monument and this plot is mentioned in records dating back to the early 19th century. Specifically, there’s a reference to it in the famous Cart de Cassini, the first detailed map published that covered all of France, from 1810. So these vines, which are on their own roots, are properly old. This plot was rediscovered by Plaimont in 1999, and they have been busy mining its viticultural riches. Overall there are 21 different varieties planted here, with seven of them unknown.

The Conservatoire

The Conservatoire

From this resource, plus the results of other viticultural forays, in 2002 Plaimont planted an experimental conservatory vineyard, the Conservatoire Ampélograhique, in Pouydraquin. This has 20 or so vines each of 37 different vinifera varieties, one wild vinifera (V. vinifera sylvestris), and one tetraploid version of the Pinenc variety.

From these vines, Nadine makes microvinifications each year. The results show that some varieties were rightly forgotten: they make low yields of very ordinary wines. But others show a lot of promise, and not least Tardif. This is one variety that will definitely be making an appearance in the vineyards, because it makes lovely wines with moderate alcohol and a distinct pepperiness (from very high levels of rotundone).

Why are new varieties needed? Plaimont are very happy with their existing white varieties (Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Petit Corbu and Arrufiac), but need something else to blend with Tannat for the reds. Currently, Tannat is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Pinenc. The two Cabernets have trouble ripening. Pinenc (aka Fer Servadou) is great, but is very sensitive during flowering so yields can be quite low. And Tannat itself has plenty of personality but these days ripens with high potential alcohols, so could do with a bit of taming. It’s also very demanding viticulturally.

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We tried microvinifications of four different red varieties:

Chacolis 2013
Cousin of Cabernet Franc. Intense with tannic black fruits, and some green notes in the background. Good acidity, too. Nice maturity. They think this might be better than Cabernet Franc, in terms of reaching maturity. Now they have 300 plants of this.

Dubosc 1 2014
An unknown variety. Related to Tannat. Not clear whether this is hermaphrodite or female: it has male parts but they don’t know whether this is effective. It’s a very late variety. Dense, structured and tannic with lovely blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. Grippy and taut with lovely freshness. Lots of impact, but not rough.

Manseng Noir 2014
Plaimont have been working quite a bit with this variety, and in these microvinifications that are looking to see whether there is a difference between the three selections found in the vineyard. This one was identified in Madiran. Green edge to the meaty, olive-laced nose. Lots of sweet fruit too. Smoked meat and spice on the palate with lovely ripe flavours and moderate alcohol.

Tardif 2014
Such a good grape! They will have 1500 plants to plant next year. They uHave 40 in the conservatory. Lovely bright, peppery, supple red and black fruits. Lovely supple wine with brightness and peppery detail. Very interesting with freshness and detail, good acidity and nice tannins. This could be a great variety in this region.

It was raining when we visited, but here’s a quick clip showing what the vineyard looks like:

 

 

Rediscovering a love for Barolo

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Two great recent experiences with Barolo, which I’ve struggled to love a lot in the past. I love the idea of Barolo, but I’ve often found the wines to be a bit too difficult, with firm drying tannins and no pleasure. Yet occasionally I have had the most sublime experience with this region. It’s very confusing. And then there’s this whole modernist/traditionalist thing, which doesn’t correlate closely with the good/bad experiences I’ve had.

Coupled with this, there seems to be a subtle pressure to love Barolo unquestioningly. I guess if I’d actually spent much time in the vineyards, I’d get things much more, but my bad experiences have sort of put me off exploring. Often, I’ve found it cheaper and less risky, and more consistently enjoyable to get my Nebbiolo fix from Langhe Nebbiolo, the little sibling.

So my latest ray of hope was on Friday night at Noble Rot, where a friend pushed me in the direction of the 2008 Vietti Castiglione Barolo. This was a superb wine with real focus and elegance, and a lovely purity. I didn’t take notes, but just enjoyed it.

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The second was a few weeks ago in Scotch Bar, in Blenheim New Zealand. It was the Albe from GD Vajra, and this showed a similar silky elegance and refinement. And real drinkability. It’s the second bottle of this that I’d had in Scotch, Vajra can do no wrong it seems.

So, buoyed by these experiences, I’m going to give Barolo a serious chance. I would love to hear of readers’ personal favourites, in the more elegant and pure vein.

A great lunch at Terroirs with lovely wines

terroirswinebar
It’s always good to lunch at Terroirs. The combination of the food, wine and the vibe in the place makes it one of my favourite stops in London. On Friday I popped in with a friend fresh off a plane from New Zealand and we lunched really well. Above: Burrata, Smoked Eel, and Chopped Raw Beef, Swede & Truffle.

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And this is classic Terroirs fare: Duck Rilletes and Pork and Pistachio Terrine.

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Wines, set 1. A very elegant Ganevat Jura red with just a hint of spicy funk. Port Flirtation is a super pure Californian red (Carignan/Zinfandel blend, 11.3% alcohol) from Martha Stoumen that is the essence of drinkability. The Brutal red from Gut Oggau: very pale, peppery and a wee bit funky. And Colfundo is a superb reductive Prosecco that’s non-disgorged from Casa Belfi.

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Wines set 2: Thierry Navarre’s Ribeyranc from the Languedoc. A forgotten variety: beautifully supple and drinkable with some meaty notes. Bow & Arrow’s Melon from Oregon, which is just beautiful. The Burja is bright, focused and fruity: a Sauvignon alternative. And the Chateau Chalon from the Jura is salty, tangy and delicious: a flor wine of great intensity.

There’s a lot of joy t0 be had at a place like Terroirs.