A mini vertical of Noval Vintage Port

quinta do noval port

Had a chance to try four vintages of Noval side by side. Sadly, this was tasting not drinking – and usually, tasting notes made in the act of drinking have more value than those made from just tasting – but it was nice to revisit these wines. Some comments. First, the Silval 2005! This is a sensational wine, and it’s definitely Vintage Port quality, but this wasn’t a declared year for Noval. Smart Port consumers benefit from years like this, when the wine quality is there but the declaration didn’t follow. Second, 2012 and 2013 are lovely wines. Eccentric declarations, yes – but they aren’t a million miles away from the 2011. As most readers will know, 2011 is turning into a bit of a mythical vintage for Port. It was a really good year: a very hot end to summer, but just enough rain to stop it being a problem. Sorry the scores are all pretty similar, but these are just so lovely it’s hard to separate them.

Quinta do Noval Silval Vintage Port 2005 Douro, Portugal
Lovely presence here: fresh and floral with lovely red cherries, notes of leather, herbs and spice, and appealing liqouricey complexity. It’s fresh and fruit driven with good structure. Pure and pretty, this is a beautiful wine. 95/100

Quinta de Noval Vintage Port 2011 Douro, Portugal
Very floral, fresh and detailed with firmly structured black cherry and red berry fruits. Lovely structure and presence here: this is almost a complete wine. 95/100

Quinta de Noval Vintage Port 2012 Douro, Portugal
Beautiful floral detail on the nose, which shows fresh, pretty cherry and berry fruits. The palate is structure with finesse and purity to the fruit. Another beautiful effort from Noval. 94/100

Quinta de Noval Vintage Port 2013 Douro, Portugal
Very floral aromatics. Fresh and vivid with nicely textured black cherry fruit. Warm and spicy in the mouth, this is a rich wine with lovely soft texture, even though you just know that tannins are lurking underneath, as evidenced by a slightly grippy finish. 94/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

Champagne Armand de Brignac: a marketing success story


The Armand de Brignac story is a remarkable one, and represents one of the great wine marketing successes of all time.

It begins with the Cattier family, from the village of Chigny-Les-Roses, in the Montagne de Reims. They have cultivated vines here since 1763, although the first wines weren’t made by the family until 1918. Jean-Jacques and his son Alexandre currently oversee this family business, and have 33 hectares of vines, producing around 1 million bottles a year, of which 60% are exported.

armand de brignac blanc de noirs

Then came Armand de Brignac. Also known as Ace of Spades. From a standing start in 2006, this is now one of the most successful of all prestige Champagne brands. It’s fiendishly expensive, with the cheapest bottle retailing at £250, and the priciest at £695. And these wines sell!

I was really interested to try them. How much of the success of Armand de Brignac is because of the packaging (which is remarkable, even though it will not be to everyone’s tastes)? And how does the quality of the wine stand up?


Head back to 2006. Roederer’s Cristal was the bling Champagne brand of choice for the hip hop scene in the USA. Rappers featured it in their lyrics and and were seen drinking it in their videos. But when quizzed about this association, Frédéric Rouzaud, Roederer’s MD, made a careless comment (‘we can’t forbid people from buying it’) that was taken as racist by famous rapper Jay Z. As a result, Jay Z issued a statement announcing a boycott of Cristal. So which Champagne would take its place?

Later that year, Jay Z released a video for a song titled ‘Show me what you got’.  At the 3:05 point, he’s sitting in a club and is offered some Cristal. He waves it away. Then he’s brought a silver case: it’s opened, and inside is a bottle of Armand de Brignac in all its golden glory. Interestingly, this video was shot in advance of any bottles of this new brand arriving in the USA. So why did Jay Z have a bottle? Precisely what was his involvement in this new brand?

Jean Jacques Cattier

Jean Jacques Cattier

Back to the Cattiers. A new Champagne brand with a distinctive bottle takes some planning. This is because the secondary fermentation and ageing on lees takes place inside the final bottle. So, if you decide on a new bottle as part of your brand, it is at least a couple of years (and for a high quality Champagne, much longer) until the product is on the market place. The timing of the rejection of Cristal by the hip hop community, and then the subsequent launch of Armand de Brignac, suggests that if this was a brand that hadn’t been many years in the planning, whoever was behind the new branding would have had to choose a bottle that was already on the market and then add extra design features to it.

And Champagne house Cattier already had the distinctive golden bottle. I asked Jean-Jacques Cattier about the evolution of the Ace of Spades packaging. ‘80% of the design we made ourselves,’ he says. ‘The rest has been made by a US partner.’ (This was Sovereign Brands in New York.) ‘The metallization of the bottle is something we have done for a designer, André Courrèges. He was a very creative designer, so we made a bottle that was metallized silver—the first silver bottles produced in Champagne.’

The collaboration with Courrèges ran its course, and Cattier then used this metal bottle idea for their own brand, Antique Gold. Antique Gold stopped being produced by Cattier at around the same time that Armand de Brignac was born. Cattier currently produce an Antique Brut NV, but this is not in a golden bottle.

All was needed was a name and a concept. ‘Our American partner had the idea of the Ace of Spades,’ says Cattier. ‘The reflection was that Armand de Brignac is an aristocratic name for French people but difficult to pronounce for others. So we had to create a strong emblem to personalize this brand and this bottle.’ The resulting pewter label with the distinctive Ace of Spades logo works perfectly with the metallized finish. ‘When we launched this bottle in Champagne, which is very conservative, it has been like a UFO,’ says Cattier. But he adds, ‘It is not all about the packaging: we have made a good job on the product itself.’


So, what was Jay Z’s involvement in this new brand? The timing of its launch (just after the Cristal boycott), and the fact that it features in his video before it was launched in the USA, hints that he had involvement from the beginning, although officially this is denied. Then, in November last year, it was announced that Jay Z had bought Ace of Spades from Sovereign Brands, so he now owns it outright, while Cattier continue to produce the wines. In 2008 the Blanc de Blanc and Rosé cuvées were added, and this year a Blanc de Noirs has joined the range.

‘We couldn’t imagine the impact this brand would have,’ says Cattier. ‘It is something incredible for us.’

Added later: I asked Jean-Jacques Cattier about the connection between the Antique Gold and the Armand de Brignac wines, both bottled in the same gold bottle. This is his response:

Concerning your question, I can answer you that it was not the same blend and not the same product.

Beginning of the years 2000, we made a trial to test the capacity of the metallization to resist to the ageing in cellars.

Of course, 10 years before we made already a metallization with the French designer André Courrèges and we had already a small experience.

But it was not the same color, silver instead of gold, not the same company for the metallization and not the same process, and a much shorter ageing in cellars. We could not start without any guaranty.

That is why early in the 2000 years we made some bottlings with our classic Cattier blend, in small quantities, and as soon as we were sure of the capacity of resistance of the coating, we started to make a specific blend with grapes of our vineyards and grapes we bought in Cote des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne. And it is those bottles which were ready to start in 2006.

Of course, we sold the bottles used for this trial under a Cattier label, but it was a small quantity during a short period.

We could drink it but it was however too much.

The wines:
Champagne Armand de Brignac Blanc de Blancs NV
From 2008/9/10. Fresh, bright and quite tight with light citrussy fruit. Very clean and attractive with a hint of creaminess and some subtle toast. Light, quite fine and well balanced. Not overly complex, but has finesse. 91/100

Champagne Armand de Brignac Brut Gold NV
from 2008/9/10. This is the original wine. Some toast and nutty notes on the nose with a sweet peachy edge to the citrussy palate. Some nuts and honey. Quite noticeable dosage. A bit grippy. 89/100

Champagne Armand de Brignac Rosé NV
Full orange/pink colour. Richly flavoured style with red cherries, strawberries and some toastiness. There’s a bit of grip here with fresh fruit and a hint of sweetness. A rich style. 88/100

Champagne Armand de Brignac Blanc de Noirs NV
This is 2006/7/8, and has spent 6 years on the lees. Lovely freshness. This is tight with some notes of cherry, toast, peach and citrus. Has real focus with lemony acidity at its core. Subtle herb and toast notes, too. 92/100

Champagne Armand de Brignac Demi-Sec NV
This is a very rich, off-dry Champagne. Grapey with some nice peach, apple and citrus fruit. Broad and richly textured with lots of flavour. It’s pretty sweet. 89/100

Some interesting, rare sherries from Gonzalez Byass


Tried these. Really lovely and rare.

Gonzalez Byass Añada 1987
This is a Palo Cortado, and it hasn’t been in a solera – instead, it’s made from casks from a single vintage that are set aside and then bottled when they are deemed ready. It has a super-complex nose of citrus, old wood and spice. The palate shows marmalade, tangy citrus and notes of caramel, orange peel, leather and herbs. Incredible length and good acidity complete this thrilling wine. 95/100

Gonzalez Byass Dulce 1986
This is Palomino, and – unusually for Palomino – it’s sweet. Gonzalez Byass have made two vintages of this, which is vinified like a Pedro Ximenez and left to age in the cask, but this, the 1986 was more successful than the 1995.['Dulce' is a legal term for sherry that means it must have at least 160 g/litre of residual sugar.] ‘It was a wine-making experiment that was dropped soon afterwards for reasons unknown and mothballed,’ says GB’s Martin Skelton. This is straight from the cask, is unfortified (11% alcohol), and is unfiltered. A raisiny, rich, toffeed nose leads to a sweet, viscous palate that’s bold and rich. This is full, intense, raisiny and bold, with a bright edge to the palate. 93/100

Gonzalez Byass Moscatel Viejissimo
This is a sample of an old Moscatel from a barrel of wine made in the early 1960s, with a view to starting a solera. It’s a blend of several years, and there are three casks in total, but since the project was halted in the mid-1960s no further wine was added to the casks. It shows amazing intensity: bold, rich, viscous and powerful with complex raisiny notes, and intense spice and Christmas cake flavours. 94/100


Gonzalez Byass Pio X Moscatel 1903
This is a vintage Moscatel from 1903, and after 112 years only 20% of the wine is still left in the barrel. It’s unfortified, and this is the first time anyone has sampled this wine for ages. The tradition was that Gonzalez Byass laid down a cask each time there was a new Pope (there are six casks in all, most from the 19th century. This wine will probably be bottled in the future, but there are only about 40 litres left. Superconcentrated and powerful with viscous raisins, spices, treacle and Christmas cake flavours. Incredible intensity, and astonishing acidity (which has concentrated with the sweetness and flavour). Amazing length: a real wine of contemplation. 96/100

See also: visiting the Sherry region

On going back, and beginnings and endings


Yesterday I went back to the building that I’d worked in for 15 years. It was for the Gonzalez Byass tasting, which was held at 41 Portland Place, an 18th Century Adam-style terrace that is now home to the Academy of Medical Sciences. I started working there – it was then another scientific charity, the Ciba Foundation – straight from my PhD back in 1992, and I stayed until the charity closed down in 2008. Although it seemed quite tough at the time, being booted into the freelance world was probably the best thing that happened to me. Some choices are too hard to make, especially when you are the sole wage earner and have two young kids.

Going back: it was odd. I walked through reception, and up the same stairs that I’d used countless times. Into the reception room where we’d held all those dinners with our scientist guests, and seeing through the open doors of the dining room where we used to lunch every day. It was a strange experience: everything was so familiar, yet different. The building no longer meant what it once did to me. I didn’t belong there in the same way that I did for so long.

This is what it got me thinking: In the end, all things will end. Nothing is permanent. We can’t stop time. Everything is fresh and new every day. Fortunately, we mostly don’t know when things will end, and I suppose we cope best by living as if everything were forever. But nothing is.

This sounds unduly morose. But I think it is healthier to integrate future loss – and the fear of endings – into the present. Death is part of life. Parting will follow meeting. It’s impossible to separate out the thread of sadness this knowledge brings from the many threads of joy that the present is full of. Rather than deny this sadness – the realization that endings follow beginnings, and that all will pass – we need to savour the whole experience of life. It’s super-healthy to be able to see not only from our own perspective, but also to take a step sideways to see with fresh eyes. We are not at the centre of the world, but are merely playing a part in something bigger than we are. Much as with Galileo’s realization that the sun doesn’t orbit the earth, the notion that we are not the centre of everything doesn’t go down too well with some. But it’s the way it is.

In the end, all things will end. But knowing this shouldn’t stop us starting things, and it shouldn’t be used to put off new beginnings.

I’m not sure I can relate this to wine, but I will try. Nothing stands still. A wine cannot be locked in time. A vineyard changes every season. Wine keeps moving. Even a bottle in a collector’s seller has a life and journey of its own. Wine parallels life in the way that it changes and transitions, and with the variations of seasons, variety, how it is made and how it is cellared. One of the richest aspects of wine is its incredible variation, and also the way it keeps changing. Let’s hope that attempts to make it more consistent and marketable don’t kill this richness.

B Vintners: an exciting 'vine exploration' winery from South Africa

B vintners

B Vintners is a collaboration between cousins Gavin Bruwer and Bruwer Raats. They describe it as a ‘vine exploration company’, and the aim is to tell the story of the heritage of the South African wine industry, and looking at sourcing grapes from some of the most interesting vineyards in the Cape. The prime focus is on vineyard sites in Stellenbosch, which is a particularly good thing as Stellenbosch has been a bit overshadowed by newer or trendier regions of late. These wines are just so interesting, and B Vintners is another welcome player in the dynamic South African wine scene.

B Vintners D’Alexandria 2015 Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch
This is from a small neglected 31 year old block of Muscat in the Helderberg. 1200 bottles were made in 2014 and they sold out very quickly. This is very aromatic and fresh with a terpenic, grapey nose. The palate is lively, grapey and pure with a fine spiciness and some citrus pith notes. 88/100

B Vintners Haarlem to Hope 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
A blend of Chenin and Semillon with a tiny dash of Muscat. Complex, fine, spicy and ripe with fine pear and white peach fruit. Notes of ginger and lemongrass, too. So pure, complex and expressive with lovely detail. Avoids tartness. 94/100

B Vintners Chardonnay 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
12.5% alcohol. 10 year old vineyard with rocky sandstone soils. Very fine, fresh and mineral with nice spiciness. Lovely pear and white peach fruit, showing superb balance and finesse. 92/100

B vintners liberte

B Vintners Liberté 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is Pinotage from an ocean-facing granite-soiled vineyard in the Bottelary Hills. Lovely floral black cherry and plum fruit nose. Fresh, elegant red cherry and plum palate with nice grip and real elegance. So fine and expressive with raspberries and cherries. 93/100

B Vintners Pinot Noir 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
From west of Strand on the foothills of the Helderberg close to the ocean, this is a 2 hectare block of bush vines, exposed to the south easterlies. Juicy, spicy raspberry fruit with nice grippy tannins and fresh berry fruits. Lovely spice and perfume with lotes of potential for development. 93/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com


So just how good is English sparkling wine? A blind tasting

english sparkling wine v champagne

I took part in a brilliant tasting today, organized by Noble Rot magazine. Alas, there’s an embargo, so I can’t tell you the outcome or list the wines involved, but I can share some pictures and give a little commentary.


So, the tasting was pitting four of the best English sparkling wines (and the Noble Rot guys chose brilliantly here) against four grand marques and four grower Champagnes. To keep things even, none of these were super-expensive wines, so we weren’t look at Krug and DP or any luxury cuvees.

Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling briefing us

Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling briefing us

The tasting group was pretty high powered. Wine writers were represented by Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin and I, and there was a strong group of chefs and sommeliers, plus a couple of other important food and wine people. We tasted from decent glasses (Zalto), and with 12 wines in the line-up, we could take our time. It was double blind (so we didn’t know the identity of the wine, or which wines were in the line up).


I found a real range of styles. It was incredibly hard to spot the English wines: I picked two of them out, but missed the other two. They were certainly in their peer group. I can’t tell you any more about the results. But the next issue of Noble Rot, which will be out in November, to find out.


So how good is English sparkling wine? I’ve been drinking quite a bit of it lately. And I’ve been drinking quite a bit of Champagne. The best English sparkling wines are world class. A few are a bit too lean, youthful and acidic, but the overall quality is really high. Expect to see more tastings like this, because of all countries making sparkling wine, England is one that can do it to the extent that you can pop them in a blind tasting line-up and they won’t stick out against good Champagne.


Lunch at Chez Bruce with some of South Africa's finest, plus some old world stars

chez bruce alheit jancis

Had a special lunch at Chez Bruce last Thursday, with some memorable wines. Keith Prothero was hosting, and also present were Chris and Suzaan Alheit, Peter-Allan Finlayson, Chris Mullineux, John Seccombe, Nigel Platts-Martin, Greg Sherwood and Jancis Robinson. As usual, the food was close to perfection. But what was really interesting was seeing how some of South Africa’s top wines performed in a rather exalted peer group. As you can see from my notes, they did very well indeed.

Dorset crab with scallop sashimi

Dorset crab with scallop sashimi

Domaine Huet Le Haut Lieu Vouvray Sec 2007 Loire, France
Warm, toasty and ripe with honey, citrus and spice. Powerful, textured and spicy on the palate with a lovely lemony character. Rounded with finesse and detail. Such a stylish, delicious expression of Chenin. 94/100


Alheit Magnetic North Mountain Makstok 2013 Citrusdal Mountain, South Africa
This is from an own-rooted vineyard at 520 m in the Citrusdal Mountain area (aka Skurfberg), and it’s a varietal Chenin Blanc. There’s some richness here with pear, peach and spice, and some structure. Fresh acidity on the long, fresh, spicy finish that just goes on and on. There are some mandarin notes, too. This is showing lovely complexity, and has amazing potential for development. 95/100


Alheit Radio Lazarus 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
From a hilltop site with shale soils. Lively, pure, fresh and detailed with fine citrus and pear fruit. Nicely structured with freshness and purity. This is just a baby and could develop really nicely with lovely textured linear fruit. 94/100

Baked celeriac with sauteed ceps and truffle

Baked celeriac with sauteed ceps and truffle


Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2008 Burgundy, France
This is so lovely, but still so primary. There’s a deliciously complex vegetal, cabbagey reductive edge to the sweet pear, apple and spice notes. There’s a mineral core to this wine, and it’s stylish and fine with lovely purity and freshness. 95/100


Thorne & Daughters Zoetrope Chardonnay 2014 Overberg, South Africa
From a single vineyard with clay shale soils, 23 year old vines. Fresh, pure and fine with lovely purity. Real finesse with citrus and pear fruit. Youthful and bursting with potential. 94/100


Crystallum Clay Shales Chardonnay 2013 Walker Bay, South Africa
Very fine and expressive with lovely mineral notes, citrus and fine herbs. So expressive with a hint of tangerine and pear and peach fruit. Finesse here. 95/100

Venison loin with poached quince, soft amaretti and lemon zest

Venison loin with poached quince, soft amaretti and lemon zest


JL Chave Hermitage 1990 Northern Rhône, France
Amazing finesse and elegance here: lovely meat, iron, blood and iodine. There’s lovely precision here with citrus freshness and lovely floral cherry notes. Such purity and detail, it’s quite Burgundian, but now pretty much at peak drinking. 97/100


Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage 1990 Northern Rhône, France
This is really dense still. Ripe, warm and spicy with rich black fruits and underneath this, hints of blood and iodine. Textured with nice sweet fruit. Dense and broad with lovely depth: this has a long future, I reckon. 95/100


Mullineux Schist Syrah 2011 Swartland, South Africa
Sweet and pure with lovely black fruits, showing real finesse. There’s a subtle peppery spiciness with real detail and potential for future development. 95/100

A delicious Koshu from Japan: Grace Kayagutake 2013

grace koshu

Koshu is a Japanese grape variety. It produces large bunches of pink-skinned grapes, which are used to make white wine. Often it’s quite neutral, but here’s one that has some real interest.

Grace Koshu Kayagutake 2013 Yamanashi, Japan
11.5% alcohol. This is interesting. It has an aromatic, gravelly, mineral edge to the citrussy nose. The palate is fresh and mineral with a savoury, slightly spicy, grainy gravelly core. More mineral than fruity and quite delicious. 90/100 (Imported into the UK by Hallgarten Druitt; stockists include Corking Wines, wineman.co.uk)

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

South African fine wine comes of age: the new wave South African tasting

new wave south african wine tasting

Yesterday was the New Wave South African tasting, held in a really cool venue under a vinyl shop in Soho. Rarely have I been to a tasting where the wines are as consistently good and interesting, and the people presenting them so great. There was a real buzz about the place.

There was also the sense that this tasting, and Cape Wine which preceded it, is an important marker in the progress of South African wine. I reckon in a decade’s time we’ll look back and say: ‘I was there.’ For this is when South African fine wine came of age.

new wave sa tasting

What we are seeing in this particular segment of South Africa’s wine scene is really important. It’s the realization that warm climate wine regions can produce wines of balance, detail and precision. Wines that are interesting and ageworthy. The recognition that certain vineyard sites are privileged, and skilled winegrowers can interpret them to produce special wines.

There’s a welcome diversity too, here. Many have the confidence to interpret the terroirs they are working with in their way, allowing their own personalities to be expressed in the wines (in as much as you can have control over the wine style – after all, it’s microbes that make wine).

Of course, some will argue that this is just a small segment of South Africa’s wine output, and it is. But what is being achieved here will (and already has begun to) trickle down to change the more mainstream offering. I’m just thrilled to have been a witness to what is going on here. A new wave, a new generation, and a bright future.

Some lovely affordable bottles from the Co-operative

Trapiche pure malbec
Tasted at the Co-op press tasting on Tuesday. Some nice affordable wines, and one slightly pricier bottle.

Trapiche Pure Malbec 2014 Uco valley, Mendoza, Argentina
14% alcohol. This unoaked Malbec is just so lovely and drinkable. It has a floral violet and blackcurrant nose with some black cherries. So pretty on the palate with pure cherry fruit. Supple and delicious. 90/100 (£8.99 Co-op)


The Co-operative truly Irresistible Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley, Chile
14% alcohol. Most cheap Chilean Pinot is unpleasant. This is very tasty. Raspberry and redcurrants on the nose. Fresh fruity and supple on the palate with direct, pure sweet berry fruits. 89/100 (£7.99 Co-op)


The Co-operative Truly Irrresistible Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Leyda Valley, Chile
13.5% alcohol. This is an impressive Sauvignon from Viña Leyda. It’s stylish with taut citrus fruit and some fine green notes. Quince and grapefruit are the lead flavours, and it finishes with high acidity. 89/100 (£6.99 Co-op)


Clos Floridene 2013 Graves, Bordeaux, France
12.5% alcohol. This is a stuning white Bordeaux, and it’s a blend of 56% Sauvignon, 42% Semillon and 2% Muscadelle, made by Denis Dubourdieu. Pure and aromatic with amazing notes of passionfruit, smoky lemons and grapefruit. Fresh and detailed in the mouth with citrus and herb flavours as well as well integrated oak. Complex and precise. 93/100 (£17.99 Co-op)


Château Thauvenay Sancerre 2014 Loire, France
13% alcohol. Nicely packaged, this is fresh, pure and delicate with lovely mineral notes and a subtle grassiness, as well as appealing fruit. A really good Sancerre for a good price. 90/100 (£9.99 Co-op)


Les Jamelles Viognier 2014 Pays d’Oc, France
13% alcohol. This is a bit of a steal: it has lovely varietal character at a really affordable price. Floral pear, peach and apricot nose leads to an open, softly textured palate showing lovely weight and freshness. Varietally true and quite delicious. 88/100 (£6.99 Co-op)

Wolfberger Gewurztraminer 2014 Alsace, France
12.5% alcohol. Very appealing off-dry white with lychee and grape and a bit of citrus. Pure, broad, textural and varietally true. Good value here. 89/100 (£8.99 Co-op)


La Grange St Martin 2014 Côtes du Rhône, France
13% alcohol. This is really good. Lovely cherries, berries and spice with a peppery edge to the fruit, as well as hints of meat and blood. 88/100 (£6.99 Co-op)