In Beaujolais: Julien Sunier, Antoine Sunier and Domaine de la Combe Aux Loup

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Since I first tried his wines a couple of years ago, Julien Sunier (above) had been on my hit-list of must-see Bojo producers. And then, a while later, I tried the wines from his brother, Antoine Sunier (below). These were different, but also compelling. So it was great to be able to visit them both at Julien’s place, which is quite beautiful, tucked up in the hills. We had an engaging, frank discussion and tasting.

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Julien set up his domaine in 2008, and he now has 7.5 hectares of organically farmed vines in Regnié, Fleurie and Morgon. He emphasised how hard it is to work organically in Beaujolais, and just how back breaking the work can be.

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Antoine came later, and has 4.5 hectares, with 3.5 in Regnié and 1 in Morgon. He also farms organically.

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‘We have opportunities to rent because people are getting old,’ says Julien, who talks much more than his younger brother. ‘Young people are beginning to arrive in Beaujolais. It’s pretty trendy and we have a good group of natural winemakers, but when you see the size of the vineyard, we need the young generation to come here.’

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He says that organics is rare in Beaujolais because the vineyards are difficult to manage. The issue is manual weed control with the densely planted bush vines. ‘We are very proud to farm organically,’ he says. ‘It is almost double the cost in the vineyard but our price isn’t twice as much.’

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Both the brothers work semi-carbonically (starting off fermentation carbonically but later pumping over and plunging as you would do in Burgundy), believing that full carbonic can risk losing the terroir. They only use sulfur dioxide at bottling.

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At the age of 20, Julien worked as a trainee with Jasper Morris at FMV, a wine agency business in the UK. So when Julien began making wine and had some to sell in 2009, Jasper was the first to buy. It’s a nice relationship.

Julien’s wines are really elegant and expressive. They have purity and express their terroirs really well.

Antoine arrived here in 2013, rented a house, and found a place with a vineyard and a cellar. He’s making lovely wines: they are different to those of his brother’s – perhaps more dark fruit and structure, but they are really compelling too.

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The Sunier brothers with their brave organic approach, coming here without money behind them, but forging their own identity, is surely the future for the region. They are tremendous fun, too.

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Domaine de la Combe aux Loup is a 14 hectare domaine based in Chiroubles, the most homogeneous of all the crus: it’s practically all granite. We met with owners David and Nathalie Méziat, and tasted through their range of wines, which includes Regnié and Morgon.

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They work sustainably, certified by Terra Vitis, and have 6 hectares in Chiroubles, spread across 17 parcels. David showed us examples of traditional bush vines (hard to work without herbicides), and the more modern trellised Gamay vines (which are much easier for working the soil). In the last 15-20 years he has completely changed his viticulture, but he needs to use a bit of herbicide still on the hillsides, although he tries to work the soils as much as possible.

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The vinification here is quite modern, with starter yeasts and temperature control, and a degree of destemming (depending on the grape). No wood is used, and David does some micro oxygenation in tank. ‘Wood takes Beaujolais away from Beaujolais,’ says David. The result is very pure wines, with admirable consistency. You can buy anything here, really. I didn’t think the 2015s were quite as good as this vintage is hyped, but the 2014s were really solid. From other vintages, the 2013 and 2010 Morgons were both lovely, and the 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2009 Chiroubles were delicious.

‘For a cru it is important to make wines that you can keep,’ says David. ‘It is the opposite of what the big producers are doing, which is to make wines that are always fruit forward, and always the same fruit.’

Gorging on pāua, lobster and wine on the Wairarapa coast

This is an old film from 2010 that I initially uploaded on another platform, which has since disappeared, and I had requests (well, one actually) to resurrect it. So here it is. Oz, Tyson and I were supposed to go diving for pāua as part of the recreational activities surrounding Pinot Noir 2010, but the weather was foul. So we devoured some caught the previous day, along with some lobster, and some wine. And we made friends with seals. Ah, the Kiwis. They know how to live.


ICCWS: Gary Pickering on managing green flavours in wine

gary pickering

Gary Pickering, of Brock University presented a talk at the ICCWS (International Cool Climate Wine Symposium) on managing green flavours in wine. These are largely (but not exclusively) caused by methoxypyrazines. The two main ones in wine are isopropyl methoxypyrazine (IPMP) and isobutyl methoxypyrazine (IBMP).

There’s a level at which these green flavours can be typical of certain varieties – the Cabernet family seems to show them as a varietal characteristic, and they work well in Sauvignon Blanc – but they are unpleasant when they are too high.

Humans are incredibly sensitive to methoxypyrazines and can pick them up at very low concentrations: the detection thresholds are 2.1 ng/litre for IBMP and just 320 picograms/litre for IPMP, but there’s variation according to which wine context they are found in. There’s also inter-individual differences among people for detecting these, so some people can pick up IPMP at 320 pg/l while others only spot it at 95 ng/litre, which is roughly a 300 fold difference. They survive fermentation pretty much intact and don’t change much in bottle.

There are two sources of methoxypyrazines in wine. The first is from grapes: levels are high in unripe grapes and then diminish with ripening, so in cool climates where grapes struggle to ripen they can be elevated. But perhaps more worryingly, they can also come from ladybirds hiding in the bunches at harvest time.

This is known as ladybug taint (LBT), and there are two species responsible: Harmonia axyridis (the multicolored Asian lady-beetle; MALB), and Coccinella septempunctata (seven spot). These ladybirds take up residence in the grape cluster and end up in the fermentation vat, and when they are stressed (getting crushed and drowned is pretty stressful) they release methoxypyrazines. Just one per vine is enough to taint the wine, and with global warming they are becoming a bigger problem. Affected wines are described as having flavours of greenness, peanuts and earth.

So what can be done about these green flavours if they are present?

Destemming and minimizing skin contact is important, because most methoxypyrazines are extracted in the first 24 h of maceration. Clarification and settling prior to fermentation can make a big difference in reducing levels in the final wine.

Pickering also described some more novel remediation techniques. In his laboratory he has shown that The use of mMUP (mouse major urinary protein), an odorant binding protein specific for methoxypyrazines, can reduce levels from 300 ng/litre to just 5 ng/litre. This protein binds the methoxypyrazines and is then fined out with bentonite. Thermovinification also reduces methoxypyrazine levels. Silicone and polylactic acid are also fairly specific ways of removing methoxypyrazines that have great promise. Clearly, it’s best not to have sky high levels of methoxypyrazines in wine in the first place, but if you do, it’s nice to have a remedial solution.

See more in this paper from Pickering’s group.

ICCWS 2016: Alistair Nesbitt's model for identifying suitable vineyard sites in the UK

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Alistair Nesbitt, from the University of East Anglia, has created a model that maps spatial climate variability in the UK, showing the suitability of various areas for viticulture in England and Wales. Over the period 1954-2015 there has been a non-linear warming trend for the growing season, and the amount of variability from season to season is quite high. But since 1993, every year has been above the 13 C minimum average temperature for the growing season that is usually regarded as the baseline for successful viticulture. But this doesn’t mean that every year has been successful: rainfall variability, for example, has had an important impact.

In order to see where in the UK might be best suited to viticulture, Nesbitt has created a map looking for areas that are less variable, but still suitable. He’s used a technique called ‘fuzzification’, which is a way of integrating data sets, and has worked on grids of 50 x 50 metres.

In the UK, of land that is currently described as arable (and therefore which potentially could be planted with vines), there are 1.4 million hectares that could be considered suitable for growing vines on the basis of temperature. And of these, there are 197 000 hectares of land suitable with limestone/chalk soils. In Hampshire alone, there are 17 000 hectares suitable for viticulture with limestone/chalk soils. This is quite exciting.

Then it’s possible to integrate other climate details into the model that further clarify which are the best sites. Factors such as frost risk, variability and rainfall levels affect the potential of a site. This gives a rating scale of suitability for viticulture.

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Nesbitt points out that despite the comparisons that keep being made, there isn’t much of a comparison between the UK and Champagne. Over the last decade, the south of the UK has consistently been 1 C cooler than Champagne on average during the growing season, and also wetter. Where is most similar to southeastern England? It’s eastern Denmark, which shows an average difference of 0.1 C over the last ten years.

Nesbitt closed by suggesting that we need to pay more attention to future climate and weather patterns, and we also need to understand better the adaptive capacity of the vineyard. He also revealed that he has found the single field in the UK that is best suited to high quality viticulture, but he won’t say where it is.

A copy of a paper from Nesbitt’s PhD research is available here.

Video: RAW Artisan Wine Fair 2016

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A short film from this year’s RAW Artisan Wine Fair, held earlier this month at the Old Truman Brewery, London.

Two lovely biodynamic Sauvignon Blancs: Waterkloof and Churton

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Opened this pair. One from South Africa and one from New Zealand. Both biodynamic. Both pretty compelling, and perhaps not what you’d immediately expect from Sauvignon Blanc. This is a variety that can be serious, but doesn’t have to be. It’s almost as if, though, that by putting Sauvignon Blanc on the bottle, you are making a contract with the consumer that you will be delivering a certain style of wine. And these wines aren’t typical Sauvignon, but they are really lovely. Increasingly, we are seeing the emergence of serious Sauvignon, with ageing potential and real interest, and I love it.

Churton Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
14% alcohol. From a 22 hectare vineyard in the Waihopai Valley, this is a really textural Sauvignon with crystalline citrus fruits and hints of pepper and minerals. Dry and taut with some generous texture to the bracing, limey fruit. Lovely purity here, with some pear richness and spicy minerality. 92/100 (£13.80 Tanners)

Waterkloof Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa
14% alcohol. Rich, appealing, yet restrained pear and white peach fruit. Rich, textural palate with nice breadth. Fine-grained crystalline fruits here and fine spiciness, with just a hint of green pepper in the background. Ripe apple notes, too. Lovely complexity and finesse to this wine. 92/100

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At the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium

Greg Jones presenting at ICCWS 2016

Greg Jones presenting at ICCWS 2016

570 delegates, three tons of ice, 22 000 glasses. Brighton in May. It’s the 9th International Cool Climate Wine Symposium, and it’s being held in the UK for the first time, and everyone is quite excited. I’m currently sitting in a session on Day 2, so I thought I’d report a bit on the first day.

Bruce Tindale, the event chair, kicked things off with some facts and figures on the UK wine industry. Things have been moving fast: there are now over 2000 hectares of vines here which has doubled over the last eight years. The UK is looking to grow to 3000 hectares by 2020, with production set to rise to 10 million bottles by then (the current average is 5 million). There are now 502 commercial vineyards and 133 wineries, and the retail value of the wine produced is some £82 million. Currently just 5% exported. Sparkling wine is 66% of production by volume.

Jancis Robinson was delivering the welcome keynote speech. ‘So many of the world’s finest wines are made in relatively cool climates,’ she said, pointing out that over the last few decades the cooler regions have found life a little easier: ‘Those of us in cool climates are fortunate in this era of climate change that we have benefited from rising temperatures.’

Jancis described the ICCWS as a hugely significant event, celebrating the coming of age of England and Wales as wine producing countries. ‘It is amazing to see the dramatic progress made by the English wine industry,’ she says, referring specifically to the recent success of Hambledon and Nyetimber at the Noble Rot tasting.

She’s a big fan of English sparkling wine. ‘Nowadays it is made with such competence and consistency,’ she points out. ‘It’s not a copy of Champagne. It’s hedgerow in a glass.’ Jancis suggests that the UK is playing an oversized influence in the world of wine, especially in the realm of writing: books, magazines and now online writing. So why not for winemaking also?

But it’s not just sparkling. ‘English still wines continue to make significant progress,’ she adds. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised to have my socks knocked off by an English Pinot Noir or Riesling.’

Given the success of England’s wine industry, she is surprised the government haven’t been more supportive. Addressing her comments to George Eustace MP, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), she made some political points. ‘Plumpton College’s WineSkills Programme has had to be abandoned because DEFRA has rescinded its funding of it,’ said Jancis, ‘at the very time when the English wine industry has reached new heights of accomplishment and fame,’ And there was more. ‘For some mysterious reason, DEFRA has failed to renew its membership of the OIV, the world’s massively important International Organisation of Vine and Wine. This means that Plumpton can’t participate in international research projects, leaving it marginalised from the world of wine academia. And it also means that the British in general and English producers in particular have no voice whatsoever in international wine negotiations and regulation. Holland, Belgium, Sweden, India and Azerbaijahn are all members, whereas it would only take a small, five figure sum for the UK to rejoin the OIV.’

The next session was with Greg Jones (Southern Oregon University) and Hans Schultz (Geisenheim), talking about climate change and emerging cool climate regions.

Hans pointed out that cool climates presented both opportunities and risks. The temperature during the growing seasons matters, but he also drew attention to day length effects, which climatic indices tend to neglect.

For coastal zones, high rainfall can be a risk, for continental zones, winter lows are often a problem.

They highlighted some extreme cool climate locations (with degrees latitude):

  • Leelanau Peninsula, northern Michigan 45.15
  • Kamloops, Canada 50.68
  • Lake Timagami, Canada 46.4
  • Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia 45.15
  • Sussex, Canada 45.4
  • Chiloe Island, Chile 42.67
  • Sarminento, Argentina 45.58
  • Bruny Island, Australia 43.32
  • Alexandra, New Zealand 45.26
  • Aalborg, Denmark 57.1
  • Gothenberg, Sweden 57.7 (close to sea, moderates the climate)
  • Zilona Gora, Poland 51.6 (very continental climate)

Historical records show that, if a rolling 10 year average is used, there has been an increase in growing season temperatures since the 1980s. Oxford in the UK is now the same as Geisehneim was in 1980, and Gothenberg is now the same as Oxford was in 1980. The impact of climate change has been felt more in northern latitudes. Over the past century there has been an average rise of 1.3 C.

Daylength has not been paid enough attention. Compare Sweden (57.7 N) and Adelaide Hills (34.7 N). At summer’s peak there is a 3 h 20 min difference in day length between the two.
Carbon dioxide assimilation by vines is 20-30 tons/ha per year, and the different day lengths can account for 0.8-3.2 tons CO2 per year.

Winter cold is a big risk in many cool climate wine regions. If temperatures drop down to -20 C, then it’s trouble for most Vitis vinifera. But different varieties show different susceptibilities. Gamay is very frost resistant, Pinotage also strong, and Chardonnay is also hardy. Syrah is very sensitive, as is Lagrein.

A one degree temperature change opens up some new areas for cool climate viticulture, and some cool areas become intermediate climates. Greg and Hans reckon we will reach this one degree change by 2040, which isn’t a long time. So it looks like constant change is here to stay. More on the rest of day one later. I need to pay attention to this talk.

A lovely Loire Chenin: Richard Leroy Les Rouliers 2012

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I’ve had this wine a couple of times now (both times at Noble Rot, but Sager & Wilde are also listing it). It’s a stunning wine that has the most amazing matchstick reduction integrated into the richer Chenin flavours to great effect. This is a perfect example of a wine character that could be seen as a fault (reduction) acting as a positive. Richard Leroy farms 2.7 hectares in Anjou, Loire, and this wine, which comes from a 0.7 ha plot (Les Rouliers) with schist soils, is made without any added sulfur dioxide.

Richard Leroy Les Rouliers Chenin 2012 Vin de France
Amazingly intense matchstick nose is mineral and taut with citrus, flint and spice. The palate has ripe apple, spice and pear with lovely bright citrus notes. Complex and detailed with amazing integrated reductive mineral notes. So expressive. 95/100

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In Beaujolais: Mee Godard, Domaine des Marrans, Bernard Metrat

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Mee Godard started her own domaine just three years ago. She’s previously studied winemaking in Oregon, and worked in Burgundy and Champagne. Now she has 5 hectares of vines in three different Morgon Climats: Côte du Py, Corcelette and Grand Cras.

Côte du Py, Morgon

Côte du Py, Morgon

This year she’s begun to work organically in the vines, although she’s taking it slowly because she doesn’t want to stress her vines (average age 60 years) too much. It will take time for the soil to adjust, she says.

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‘I want to make vins de garde,’ says Mee. ‘So when they are young they are not easy. You have to decant or wait.’ She adds, ‘I like tannins. Maybe it would be a good exercise for me to make a non-tannic wine.’

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We tried all the wines she has made so far: the 2013s, 2014s and 2015s (the latter from barrel; as with most serious producers, the 2015s are taking longer to develop than normal and won’t be bottled for some time).

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Right from the start, Mee has nailed it. These are backward, structured expressions of Gamay from good terroirs, and they will repay time in bottle. 2013 was quite a cool vintage, and these are particularly taut wines. 2014 is more classic, and shows a bit more generosity. 2015 is a hard vintage to get a grip on. The wines are big and impressive, with plenty of structure, and for many producers they are a little too big. But Mee has read the vintage well, and hers show superb precision and focus.

This is the sort of domaine where you buy all you can, and stick the bottles away for a few years.

mathieu melinand

Domaine des Marrans was a real find. Mathieu Melinand hosted us. He runs the domaine along with his father Jean-Jacques, and makes wines in the most traditional way: short-ish macerations in concrete fermenting vats, then the wine goes to large oak to mature.

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Marrans is based in Fleurie, just outside the village. It has 20 hectares of vines, with 18 in the crus. As well as 10 hectares of Fleurie, there are 3 in Chiroubles, 3 in Julienas and 2 in Morgon. They’ve been replanting their vineyards with selection massale (mostly from their own old vineyards), and not with clones.

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domaine des marrans

The winemaking here is really terroir transparent, and it allows the good work in the vineyard to be expressed fully in the wines. 2015s from cask were looking pretty smart, although these are certainly big, slightly atypical wines. The 2014s from bottle were superb. I was particularly taken by the Fleurie Clos des Pavillons, which is 4 hectare block that consists of pink granite over a clay base, with vines averaging 70 years old, and the thrilling Morgon Corcelette. We also had a look at an older vintage: the 2000 Fleurie (Pavillons has only been separated out since 2002). This was beautifully elegant.

Bernard Metrat

Bernard Metrat isn’t one of those winegrowers who gets talked about all that much, but I really like his wines. He’s based in Fleurie, and makes consistently fine, balanced, full flavoured wines that express their place. Viticulture is lutte raisonée (Terra Vitis certified) and winemaking traditional. From his 10 hectares of vines he makes wines from three crus.

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Chiroubles La Scandaleuse is a lovely wine, made from the Côte Rôtie climat (which he’s not allowed to use on the label, hence La Scandaleuse). Fleurie La Roilette is superb, and I actually prefer this to the Vieilles Vignes from the same plot, which shows a bit of barrel influence. We had a look at the 2009 La Roilette VV, which was much better, though, with depth and richness allied to elegance.

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I also really liked the Belle Coudrière Moulin à Vent. As with many of the leading Beaujolais winegrowers, these wines are also superbly affordable given the quality on offer. Now is certainly the time to begin exploring Beaujolais, because I reckon its time is coming.

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Sager & Wilde Wine Bar

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Popped into Sager & Wilde Wine Bar today for the first time in a while. It’s a lovely space, and what a wine list! The by-the-glass list is  shortish but it’s really good, and changes frequently, but it’s the lengthier by the bottle list that really grabbed my attention. This is a superbly chosen (I avoided the temptation to use the term ‘curated’, which I think is now officially one of those words it’s no longer possible to use without sounding dickish) wine list. Yes, it’s quite expensive. But then the sorts of wines you get here are worth spending proper money on.

And the food: the short list of bar food is brilliant. We had some almonds and some smoked aubergine on toast, and both were spot on. You could certainly eat well here, even though it’s very much a wine bar, not a restaurant.

This is my sort of place, serving my sort of wines, and I love it. We weren’t here for long, so between us just had three glasses: a lovely Champagne from Frank Pascal, the 2012 house Pinot from Raj and Sashi at Domaine de la Côte in California, and a pink wine from Frank Cornelissen. Sorry: no real notes, or even precise details. It was just an hour of fun. This sort of place makes wine fun, and is the perfect environment for drinking. Now I just need to secure some more commissions and speaking gigs so I can afford to raid that lovely list.

Sager & Wilde
193 Hackney Road
E2 9JL