Brian and Marion Smith are biodynamic pioneers in the Elgin Valley, with their Elgin Ridge wine estate. I visited them for a look around the vineyards with vineyard manager Taurai Matunbwa, and then a tasting with winemaker Koysie van de Merwe. I really like what’s going on here, and in particular the Pinot Noir and sparkling are very interesting. The Sauvignon is made in a more complex and interesting style than most in South Africa, which sometimes counts against it in competitions, but it’s an interesting drink.
Brina Smith, vineyard manager Taurai Matunbwa and Marion Smith, Elgin Ridge
For the Sauvignon Blanc, whch is the bulk of production, the 2016 vintage was a warm one, but the wines showed good retention of acidity. The cool weather in February saved the vintage, and harvest was in the first week of March. ‘We harvest on taste because we want ripe flavours,’ says Koysie. They open up the canopy quite a bit promoting thiol precursors, and pH was around 3.3 with acids at 5.4-6.
This year, the must was settled for three days and no enzymes were used. Juice washeated up to 15 C for fermentation to start, and Koysie tried to keep it there as it progressed. Biodynamics allows the use of a yeast nutrient called 2B Fermcontrol, which is really useful.
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Elgin, South Africa
(Tank sample) Left for 9 months on lees, natural ferment, 5% Semillon. 7% aged in concrete egg. Ripe but very fresh with subtle herbs, and rich pear and apple fruit, as well as some white peach. Has nice palate weight kept fresh with some grapefruit character. 90-92/100
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Elgin, South Africa
This was a challenging year which required rigorous selection in the vineyard, and the final wine had some botrytised fruit in it. Half the normal quantity made. Very pure, fresh citrus, pear, spice and ripe apple notes with a touch of apricot and maybe a bit of sweetness. Textured with melon and peach skin characters. 91/100
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Elgin, South Africa
14.5% alcohol. Very pure, fresh citrus and pear fruit on the nose with some passionfruit richness. Fresh and detailed on the palate. Quite delicate and precise with lovely citrus and passionfruit, and some fruit sweetness. Some alcohol evident. 92/100
Elgin Ridge Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa (cask sample of final blend)
6 barrels made, 1 of which is new. Very linear and spicy with nice citrus and some pear fruit, with apple and spice. Zippy and vigorous with some some oak. Lovely. 92-94/100
The next wine was interesting: it’s a blend of 60% Sauvignon and 40% Semillon, fermented in an upturned barrels with a third whole bunch, made red wine style. As soon as it begins to taste phenolic, Koysie presses it off to tank, and then it goes to barrel.
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Semillon 2016 Elgin, South Africa
(Cask sample) Very compacy with spice and citrus notes, showing good concentration. Lively and focused with fine spiciness and lovely precision. There are some floral hints on the nose and just a touch of good green. Multilayered. 92-94/100
Elgin Ridge Pinot Noir 2016 Elgin, South Africa
(Cask sample) First vintage was 2012, and the vines are now seven years old. Lots of fruit was dropped this year and there was a lot of sorting. 777 clone is punched down lightly and goes to stainless steel. 667 is fermented in 500 litre bins with 12% whole bunch on top. 115 goes into the concrete egg. Nice sweet red cherries and plums with some elegance. Very fresh and supple, and really nicely expressive. 91-93/100
Elgin Ridge MCC 2011 Elgin, South Africa
12.5% alcohol. Such a distinctive fizz. 83% Pinot Noir and 17% Chardonnay, with the base wine made oxidatively, fermented in stainless steel and going to barrel for 2 years, stirred every 3 weeks. Then the wine spend 3 years in bottle on lees with zero dosage. Full yellow colour with a hint of pink. Intense but delicate too, with ripe apple, pear and a hint of strawberry. Lovely texture with some almond and apricot. 91/100
The Cité du Vin is a major new tourist attraction in Bordeaux. I visited and spent a couple of hours looking around.
Here’s a short film of the visit:
It’s like a museum, but it’s very modern and creative, making good use of technology to create varied, creative, interactive displays.
You navigate with the aid of an iPhone-like device, with headphones that cleverly avoid touching your ears. At each exhibit, you point your device at a special symbol, and the commentary begins in your language.
The content is very good: I thought it was pitched just right, and although the translations from the French didn’t always feel completely comfortable, I found it interesting. It’s not pitched at wine professionals, of course. But if you are a normal person with a bit of interest in wine, you could learn a lot here. The information was accurate and up to date. Even if you know a lot, there’s plenty here to keep you engaged.
Realistically, you need a morning or afternoon if you want to get the most out of this. There’s a lot to learn. And it’s not just about Bordeaux or French wine, either.
After the main exhibition, there’s a chance to taste a wine of your choice from an interesting international selection on the top floor, which has good views over to the city, including the new moveable bridge.
And you can then go down to the ground floor where there’s an extensive wine shop, selling wines from a bewildering array of countries. Alas, the selection from outside France isn’t the best chosen: for example, the USA and South African selections were particularly weak. There’s a wine bar/bistro where you can drink any of these wines for a 10 Euro corkage fee, which is cool.
Overall, I was really impressed by the Cité du Vin, and would recommend it highly.
I’m in Rioja, on a short trip with Vintae, a dynamic wine company looking to make authentic wines across several Spanish wine regions. They’re working with organics, marginal vineyards, forgotten vineyards and have a particular focus on Grenache. We’re staying in Logroño, so on the first night it was pretty much obligatory to go tapas bar crawling in Calle Saint Jean and the famous Calle Laurel.
Many of the most authentic tapas joints here serve just one dish. For example, we visited one that specialises in mushrooms, and another that specialises in pigs cheeks (a bit too weird for me). At another we had pigs face (fried, delicious). Wine is cheap – typically you get a glass with each pincho, and it’s less than €2.
Bar Soriano specialises just in mushrooms
How to spot a more authentic joint? Look for the discarded paper napkins on the floor.
Eating is, of course, standing up. And while there are tourists here, the majority of customers are locals.
This is a lovely wine. Lopez de Heredia is an ultratradtional winery in Rioja, with no concessions made to modernity. I really like their wines, which show lovely complexity, made in quite an oxidative style. This Reserva 2004 is still a baby, but shows brilliant potential. If you can find any of the whites, they are also superb, and I’ve heard that the rosé is also amazing, but I haven’t tried it yet.
Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva 2004 Rioja, Spain
13% alcohol. Berry Bros & Rudd. Beautifully elegant with fresh, slightly sappy, juicy cherry fruit and some plum and damson notes. Leather, herb, spice and earth notes too. Juicy and taut with a lovely poise and balance between the sweet cherry and plum fruit and the savoury, spicy, slightly earthy characters. There are also some iodine, cedar and vanilla notes. Has some distance to go but already delicious now. Some lemony acid on the finish. 94/100
Bordeaux is on my mind at the moment. So I dug this beauty out and shared it. It’s too young, for sure, but what a wine! I was so impressed. This is why we come to Bordeaux: no trace of over-ripeness here, but great concentration and harmony.
Château Pichon Baron, Pauillac 2012 Bordeaux, France
This is sensational. It’s concentrated and intense with ripe blackcurrant and black cherry fruit supported by beautifully refined chalky tannins. Structured and bold with restraint: while this has enough ripeness, it is also really direct and savoury with lovely precision to the black fruits. There’s amazing balance and concentration here. Still very youthful with taut structure, and real potential for development. Such purity to the fruit, and no rough edges; structured and fine. An astonishingly good expression of this vintage, which I’ve grown to like quite a bit. 96/100
Yesterday I returned from spending five nights in Bordeaux. I’ve been a few times before, but not for so long. [Here's a report on my last stay here back in March.]
Rue Ste Catherine, Europe’s longest pedestrianised street. Just next to the Quality Hotel.
We stayed at the Quality Hotel Bordeaux Centre, which impressed. It’s really affordable but nice, and it’s perfectly situated in the centre of town.
You can walk around Bordeaux easily. It’s low rise and quite compact, and there are loads of really nice bars and restaurants. The whole place has quite a buzz about it. I really like the limestone that most of the buildings are made from.
If you are planning to visit the wine regions (the Médoc, the left bank, Entre Deux Mers and Blaye/Bourg are all spread out quite a bit) then the city centre is a good place to stay, but you will have to do some driving, and watch out for the traffic. Were it not for the terrible rush hour traffic, Bordeaux might just be the perfect city.
It makes sense to stay in the city for dining and night life, too, because there’s not much happening in the main vineyard areas in the evening.
Just in the airport after four days in Bordeaux. The goal of this trip was to look beyond the established image of the region, to the more hidden side of Bordeaux. We looked at producers using organics/biodynamics, we looked at the younger generation of winemakers, and we looked for good terroirs in less-known regions. There were lots of surprises.
Maxime Juillot of Château Sémillan Mazeau, AOC Listeras. His superbly elegant 2014, from organically grown grapes, was a real highlight.
Cabernet Sauvignon at Château Lafon Rochet in St Estephe. Basile Testeront (nephew of Pontet Canet’s Alfred) farms organically, and he’s very happy with 2016 so far – harvest here was just finishing.
This is a 2016 Merlot from Lafon Rochet that’s fermented to dryness. It was looking pretty smart, although this is a baby wine. Pretty much everyone we visited was very happy with 2016, which looks like being a consistently good vintage. The only problem for a few is reduced yields, caused by horribly wet weather in late spring/early summer. Where will it rank? Too soon to say, but while there may not be some of the peaks of 2015, there will probably be more consistency. It has turned out much better than most winegrowers had expected or hoped for, which is good news.
Perfect-looking Cabernet Sauvignon at Lafon Rochet.
Basile Tesseron, Ch Lafon Rochet
Palmer. It was great to visit with Thomas Duroux to hear about how Palmer is now 100% biodynamic.
Harvest was underway, and here are some Petit Verdot grapes on the sorting table.
Thomas Duroux in the cellar at Château Palmer. The 2015 we tried from barrel were sensational. He’s pleased with 2016 but lost half his crop to mildew in June.
Château Falfas, Côtes de Bourg, has some lovely soils. It has been farmed biodynamically since 1988.
Véronique Cochran is an inspiring, charming winegrower, and the inspiration for farming Falfas biodynamically came from her father, Francois Bouchet, who was the pioneer of biodynamic wine growing back in the 1960s.
Falfas dates back to the 17th century. The Château is from 1612 (pictured), and the winery dates from later in the same century.
We had a lovely visit at Château Peybonhomme Les Tours in Blaye, which has been biodynamic since 2000. They are now working with a range of different amphora/terracotta vessels.
The family behind Peybonhomme: Guillaume and Rachel Hubert with their father Jean-Luc.
We also visited the hugely impressive Cite du Vin in Bordeaux.
A nice surprise was Château de Cérons, in the Graves appellation. They have lovely limestone terroirs, and their red and white are both superb, as is the stunning sweet wine from the tiny Cérons appellation. Pictured are owners Catherine and Xavier Perromat.
The limestone of Cérons, with its fossils.
It was great to visit Sauternes/Barsac. This will be a great year for Sauternes. Here are some Semillon grapes nobly rotting at Chateau de Myrat in Barsac.
The press being loaded at Myrat with dust from the spores.
Harvest of the nobly-rotted grapes at Château Doisy Daëne, Barsac.
Limestone-rich soils at Doisy Daëne.
Bordeaux Oxygène is a great organization of young winemakers looking to change the face of Bordeaux. We had dinner with a group of them at the fabulous Belle Compagne in the city.
Tasting the 2016s at Vignobles Ducourt. This is a bigger operation with 14 Chateaux.
Jonathan Ducourt explaining how they’ve been trialling new disease resistant varieties. The wines tasted good, and the grapes don’t need spraying. Will they be allowed in future AOC Bordeaux wines?
On the plateau of Saint-Emilion with Château Coutet. A lovely terroir. They’ve been organic forever, too.
Saint-Emilion. Too pretty for words.
So, just a glimpse of what I’ve been up to. Bordeaux is more than just the famous Château of the Médoc. There are stories that need to be told.
I had an interesting comment on my blog a few days ago, and I’ve been mulling it over. If anyone takes the trouble to comment at length like this, and offer opinions, then I should be listening. And I am. Here it is:
I have been mulling over this for a while… but I think you ought to hear this, and think about it. You actually have to be grateful that the Earth is round, and it has gravitiy, so you do not spin off into space in your high-intensity spinning-around the world. Today it is Australia, but the write-up is actually done in South Africa or Canada, and the write up of that is from … Godonlyknowswherefrom.
There is only so much spinning around the world before the “immersion” becomes discredited. For me as a reader, you are approaching this limit. Every now and then you show signs of thinking about various stuff, as if you stopped and started to think “what is it all about?” – but then you resume the high-speed flying-around-the-world. I am not sure this is good for you, and I am not sure this is good for the readers.
And another thing, about your write-ups and points: you bascially operate in the range of 85-95 – OK, theoretically 100). Most of your scores are around the 90s, give or take 1-2 points. (Please check, I have not, but this is my impression). This is bordering on the useless for the readers. It seems you do not want to be unkind to anyone, and I think this stems from your nature, not opportunism – but this is precisely what makes the advice less-than-useful.
I hoipe the situation is not unsalvageabble, but it calls for thinking and action.
This raises several points that I should probably address. I guess there’s a degree to which this can be seen as criticism, but it’s criticism of a constructive kind, done with what seems like good motivations. That is, it’s not a mean person being mean. It’s someone expressing concern. And it’s also quite humorous. So I’m not being defensive here.
1. Travel. Maybe a bit too much, I admit. I see a gap in the diary and then surrender it up. Leaving no more gaps. And a lot of airports, time zones and nights in strange places. I enjoy travel, but I admit that it is possible to do too much. I’m human and have to respect the fact that I’m not indestructible.
But, on the flip side, with all these new experiences, I’m learning a great deal. Since the beginning of the year I have upped my travel because changes in circumstances have left me much freer to travel all the time. I have had some amazing trips, and met some great people, and just soaked it all in like a sponge. So I need to address this: the commentator is correct – it’s probably a bit bonkers at the moment. I’ll settle down a bit in time, I’m. But in this job, a lot of travelling is called for if you want to be the best.
2. Scores. Yes, it’s a good point. My scores fall within a narrow range. At least, they do on this blog. There are many wines I rate far lower, but they never make it here or into my online write-ups. This is for two reasons. First, they aren’t that interesting to readers, and to feature them I’d have to squeeze good wines out. Second, because a false positive is better than a false negative. I’m pretty consistent and quite good at what I do, but I make mistakes. If I give a wine a low score and I’ve got it wrong, it could harm someone’s business. So I would rather not say anything about wines if I don’t like them.
I also need to say that the 100 point scale is very compressed at the top end. Especially in recent years. I didn’t invent it. I have to use it because it’s the standard, and if I didn’t give scores you wouldn’t be able to tell how much I really liked the wine. However good my descriptors, there’s something helpful about a score, even though it communicates a degree of precision that we can never really have in wine tasting. So it is with a degree of reluctance that I score wine, and use this scale that is becoming so bunched at the top end that it is nearing the end of its useful life. I simply can’t start using my own scale unilaterally. It would be daft.
After having spent a few days in Provence, I’m beginning to think that there are some important parallels between Provence and Champagne. Let me try to explain.
First, both are strong regional brands. Champagne is instantly recognizable. People know what to expect when they buy a bottle of Champagne. There are no nasty surprises, and generally speaking paying a price premium over other sparkling wines is usually rewarded when it comes to Champagne. Even cheap Champagne is tasty enough for the majority of consumers. Provence rosé is pretty reliable, and it delivers. There are no nasty surprises: the wines are quite pale in colour, are dry, and have nice texture: they aren’t just about the fruit. The strength of a regional brand is determined in part by reliability. If people are to use a regional name as a buying cue then they are prepared to pay more for guaranteed quality. Thus a regional brand is as strong as the worst examples of that brand, to a large degree.
Second, both regions focus on what they do best and don’t confuse the consumer with too many side options. Provence is 80% rosé; Champagne is, I’m guessing, 99% bubbles. Provence does make good whites, reds, and lately sparklers, but it’s telling the world about its rosé. The message is strong.
Third, both regions have realized that it’s not just about the wine in the glass. Perception isn’t just measuring the physical qualities of the liquid. The Champenois know that the packaging of the product, its image, and the associations consumers have with the particular house or marque alter how they enjoy, and how much they are prepared to pay for, the wine. Also, Champagne in a glass is highly visual. The same is true for Provence rosé. The way it is presented, its colour, and the situation in which it is enjoyed matter a great deal, and there’s a lot of experimentation with packing here that you don’t find with other styles of wine. The Champenois sell celebration; the Provence producers sell pleasure.
Fourthly, it takes time to understand Champagne and to acquire the ability to distinguish between different quality levels. For many people, Champagnes all taste rather alike. It’s as if you have to learn to appreciate Champagne at a high level. The same is true for Provence rosé. To many, they all seem quite similar, and it takes a lot of tasting to be able to understand the nuances and notice the influence of terroir and grape variety on the finished product. In addition, recognizing top quality Provence rosé isn’t easy for the novice. It requires some practical knowledge of the variations in wine style.
Fifth, terroir matters for both Champagne and Provence rosé, but many professionals fail to acknowledge this. They are both terroir wines. It’s because of this link to place that both can command a price premium: they can’t be copied.
It’s for these reasons, that if Provencal wine producers want ideas for how to develop rosé in the future, they might be well advised to look towards Champagne for inspiration.
Based in Verzenay, Champagne Janisson made the transition from grower to Champagne house in 2014, when they also built their futuristic new winery. This NV Grand Cru really impresses: Jansson’s own holdings are supplemented with some bought in grapes. It’s a lovely wine, and it’s also beautifully packaged.
Champagne Janisson & Fils Grand Cru NV
12% alcohol. 9 g/l dosage. 5 years on the lees, bottled 2010, disgorged 2015. 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay from Grand Cru sites: Mailly, Verzenay, Avize and Mesnil sur Oger. 18% reserve wines. Complex, pure and quite fresh with lovely lemony fruit, a bit of pear and some subtle toastiness. Clean, pure and quite fine with real precision and a hint of sweetness from the dosage, providing a nice foil to the lemony acidity. Really focused and delicious with precise flavours. Subtle herb notes on the finish. 92/100 (Retail is £45 in the UK; agent New Generation Wines)