The London wine bar scene is thriving. On Wednesday evening I paid my first visit to a relative newcomer (almost a year old now), Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in Seven Dials. It’s owned by the team (a group of young-ish French guys) behind the Experimental Cocktail Club, who also have places in Paris, New York and Ibiza.
It has a lot of personality. This isn’t an identikit new opening. It’s a little quirky, but in a good way. Soft furnishings, for a start. Low sofas and chairs, with low tables, giving it an informal relaxed feel. Initially I felt out of sorts here, but after a while, I began to relax into the comfortable (dated?) ambience. It feels more like a posh hotel lobby than a restaurant.
The food menu consists of a modestly sized list of small plates, which are designed to work well with the wine list. And that’s what you really come here for. The wine list is geek heaven, with a strong emphasis on authentic wines, focusing mainly on France but with some nice contributions from elsewhere in Europe (despite the name of the place, it’s not a typical natural wine list). ‘We taste a lot of wine with the chef,’ says young Sommelier Julia Oudill (pictured above). She hails from Biarritz, and her father is a chef, so she knows food. Juila discusses her ideas for wine-friendly dishes with her own chef, who then decides how to execute them. So wine really is at the forefront of Comagnie des Vins Surnaturel’s offering.
I ate and drank well here. Although I wasn’t massively at ease with the low seating positions, the food and wine offering is spot on. In particular, you just have to try the posh madame, which is one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in ages. All the wines here were from the by-the-glass list, which is quite extensive and based on an enomatic which means those wines will always be in top condition.
Clos Columbu Corse Calvi 2013 Corsica, France
Lovely fresh, bright pear and citrus fruit with a hint of melony richness. This is a fresh unoaked style with nice texture and a savoury fennel edge to the rounded fruit. Stylish. 91/100
This went well with burrata, with an olive oil sourced from Casanova in Sicily.
Istvan Szepsy Furmint 2011 Tokaji, Hungary
Rich, textured and with hints of honey and spice as well as citrus, pear and mineral notes. Richly textured but dry, and has real appeal. 92/100
An inspired pairing for the crispy baby squid.
Vincent Pinard Sancerre Rouge 2010 Loire, France
Robust and quite dense for a Pinot with rich black cherry and plum fruit, as well as some pepper and meat notes. Complex and edgy. 92/100
This was matched with the posh madame (a croque monsieur made with truffle ham and a quails egg) and the scallops, cream of cauliflower and crispy iberico ham. These were superb dishes. Wine friendly, too.
Chateau du Cedre Cahors 2011 France
Lovely black fruits here: supple and fresh with some berries, black cherries and a hint of iron and spice. Sweetly fruited with lovely focus. 91/100
Pairing: cassoulet. Very well executed version of this classic dish.
With the cheese board, three small pours of the following wines:
Patrick Baudouin Coteaux du Layon Les Coteaux 2013 Loire
Lovely apple, sweet pears, fine citrus fruit. Rounded with some sweetness, but not too much. Keen acidity as you might expect from this vintage. 90/100
Château d’Arlay Macvin du Jura Rouge
This is really interesting: macvin, made by boiling down fresh grape juice, adding brandy spirit and then ageing it. So it’s a vin doux naturel,with no fermentation process. Amazing sweet flavours of red cherry, tea leaves and spice. Warm, spicy, smooth and delicious. 90/100
Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos 2010 Savennières, Loire
Apples, herbs, citrus and some straw/herb notes. Quite dry. Supple and detailed. 90/100
So the video of my talk from the Wine and Culinary Forum (nice review of the forum here from top Canadian wine journo Treve Ring) is finally live and posted to Youtube. Here it is:
This was a remarkable Albariño, made from a one-hectare plot of vines that’s over 200 years old. It’s made by Gerardo Méndez of Do Ferreiro, who farms 10 hectares, split into numerous small plots, more or less organically. This Cepas Vellas is from a hillside vineyard with sandy granitic soils. The grapes come in with around 10% botrytis, which adds some richness and complexity. The vines have to be seen to be believed: the local way of training them is on an elevated pergola, so by the time they get to 200 years old they are like trees, forming an imposing, thick permanent structure. This wine is fermented with natural yeasts and doesn’t see any oak.
Do Ferreiro Albariño Cepas Vellas 2009 Rias Baixas, Spain
Complex nose of toast, spice, ripe apples, dried herbs and some fennel. The palate combines nuts and minerals with keen acidity. It’s dense and rich with peach, citrus and pear fruit. A really complex, thought-provoking wine that shows that Albariño isn’t all about light, fresh whites. It has more to show than this. 94/100
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I remember when I started getting interested in wine. This was in the early 1990s, before the internet. A friend had a copy of one of the early editions of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, which I pored over. The sweet spot for me was the ’86A’ bracket of wines: in those days 86 was a good enough score, probably an 89 in today’s money, and the As were the cheapest wines. I was on a tight budget.
As you get older, it’s common to get a little wealthier (or, more accurately, slightly less broke), and your wine budget grows. This is when we can hit one of the problems with the 100 point scale. You raise the score benchmark. Suddenly you won’t buy a wine rated less than 90, and then this creeps up. 93, or even 95 becomes the new threshold. It’s a bit like upgrading your car. When you are a student you are the luckiest person in the world because you have an old car that starts most days. But if you are wealthy and care about these things, by the time you are in your 40s you’d be horrified if anyone saw you driving a six-year-old mid-range family saloon.
For all their usefulness, points rot the mind when it comes to wine. They are a terribly distorting lens to view the wine world through.
This idea of having some personal points threshold is a great illusion. It would be depressing to drink Haut Brion every day, even if you just stuck to great vintages. It is a strange sort of madness to be looking for a great wine experience every time you open a bottle. If you confined yourself to Michelin-starred restaurants, you’d tire of dining pretty quickly too.
And I really believe that the concept of a perfect 100 point wine is quite ridiculous. On so many levels. Chief among these is that the score is not given to the liquid in the bottle, it is given to the interaction between the taster and the wine, a perceptual event in the brain that is impacted on by lots of factors aside from the wine itself. Anyone who really believes in the 100 point concept should read Charles Spence’s new book The Perfect Meal.
In my opinion, holding 100 point wine dinners is a strange sort of vinous insanity that betrays the heart of wine itself. Instead of encouraging people to aim ever higher in their pursuit of points, we should be telling the stories of wines that offer great pleasure and a broad palette of flavours and textures. It is in this diversity of authentic wines that true wine pleasure lies.
Points have their place, but they have the problem that more often than not they taint the conceptual thinking of wine lovers and lead them on a journey down a joyless cul de sac of wine as a competitive sport or status symbol.
As you all know, Chenin Blanc is officially one of the two coolest white grape varieties, along with Riesling. Chenin’s attributes are its good acidity, its structure, its ageability, its flexibility and, of course, its terroir transparency. It’s a grape that is good at interpreting soils, and making wines that are different depending on the soil type. It’s also not an obvious grape variety. It’s one for the geeks.
So I was delighted to be able to try these two soil-type specific wines from Swartland stars Mullineux. For a few vintages now they have released single soil type Syrahs – Granite and Schist. They emphasize that these are not necessarily better wines than their Syrah (which is much cheaper), but rather they are for those who are interested in seeing what single terroirs produce. Now these Syrahs have been joined by Quartz and Schist, two Chenin Blancs. They’re both brilliant. Thanks to Udo, the NL importer, for bringing these to dinner.
Mullineux Quartz Chenin Blanc 2013 Swartland, South Africa
First vintage of this wine, just 100 cases made, 13% alcohol. Lovely delicate citrus and pear fruit with some toasty hints. Very fresh, open texture with a delicate, fine personality. This shows real finesse: it’s delicate with good acidity, and it’s brighter than the schist. 93/100
Mullineux Schist Chenin Blanc 2013 Swartland, South Africa
Second vintage of this, 100 cases, 13.5% alcohol. There’s some richness here: textured, pure and open with nice pear and melon fruit. This has a restrained sort of richness with finesse and purity. It’s a bit richer than the quartz, but both these wines have great potential. 94/100
These are able in the UK from www.vincisive.co.uk and perhaps also from Berry Bros & Rudd (they had some in their offer, but this is probably sold out now)
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This is one of the best affordable wines I’ve had in a long time. It’s a Syrah from the Ardèche, and it’s just so brilliantly drinkable. Made by Cave Saint Desirat for Marks & Spencer, it manages to capture that northern Rhone Syrah quality. This is what M&S wine buyer Belinda Kleinig had to say about it when I asked her:
The Syrah de l’Ardèche comes from Cave Saint Desirat, where we also source our fabulous Gamay de l’Ardèche. The winemaker is Jean-Luc Chaléat – his speciality is Saint Joseph, and he applies the same winemaking to this wine as his premium Saint Joseph. All of the grapes are hand-picked, and come from a mixture of terraced vineyards on the slopes, and 30 year old vines grown on the plateau. In the winery it has 2 weeks carbonic maceration in a mixture of concrete and stainless tanks, and controlled fermentation at 25°C. No oak at all. I like it (obviously!) but what I particularly like is its restrained alcohol. It’s only 12%, yet it’s very juicy and forward with peppery spice. The restrained alcohol lends it a refreshing finish and leaves you wanting another glass.
Belinda is right. Here’s my note:
Syrah Vin de Pays de l’Ardèche 2013 France
12% alcohol. This is fabulous. It’s so fresh and alive with lovely peppery red cherry fruit and a delightful green sappy note. Fresh, peppery and bright, with a nice granite-like minerality. 90/100 (£6.99 Marks & Spencer)
Most wine writing in wine magazines is boring and formulaic. What does that tell us? A logical conclusion to draw is that if you want to be a successful published wine writer then you need to learn how to write boring, formulaic wine articles, because this is clearly what the market is looking for.
So I’m here to help. I’m going to tell you the secrets – give you the inside track – on how to write just such an article.
First of all, you need to take a press trip. Two or three days in wine region X, paid for by a generic body, where you get to visit a mix of producers. Travelling with a group of fellow writers, you’ll be taken to see one or two boutique producers, one or two larger producers, and some lousy huge producers who pay a lot of money to support the generic body. The exact itinerary, of course, will mostly be determined by internal politics. [Bad producers, you see, don’t realise that it would be better for them if journalists just visited the best producers in any particular region.]
So you then get a commission from a magazine editor to write about wine region X. It works out quite nicely, because if region X has the money to host journalists, they’ll also have money for advertising, so magazine editors will be looking to commission articles on region X. They will want 1500-1800 words, and they’ll pay you between £225 and £250 per 1000 (a rate that has not budged in 15 years).
So how do you write your boring wine article? You haven’t got room to go into depth, so remember: big overview without too many specifics. The good news: it won’t take long to do, especially if you follow my template here.
Start off with how 30 years ago region X wasn’t making very good wines, despite the obvious potential of the vineyards and the grape varieties that were grown here. Then explain the work of the pioneers. People who began making slightly better wines than their peers. Mention between one and four producers who found out that if they made better wines, they could charge more for them, and how they realized they were onto a winning streak when they won a trophy at a competition or got a 90+ score from Robert Parker.
Then put some facts in. How many hectares? Which varieties? What’s the climate like?
Two paragraphs in, begin inserting a few quotes from some of the producers you visited. The blander and more generic the better. Keep it positive.
Say how some producers are small, some are medium sized, and some are big. Remark on how good the quality of the big producers is, considering how big they are.
Talk about the viticulture and winemaking. Explain that some of the vineyards are new plantings, whereas others are older. Explain that the best wines come from old vines on the best terroirs. Point out that some terroirs are better than others, and how the range of soil types varies across the region. You’ll need to put a quote in from one of the people you visited describing their soils, because you don’t know what the geological terms they are using means. [It’s OK. No one does.] Mention the grape varieties that are grown here. Some of them are white and some are red. There are different clones and some of the clones are better than others. Some wines are varietal and some are blends. Sometimes blends are better than varietal wines, but sometimes they are not. Some producers use oak and some use stainless steel. Some use both.
Some producers are traditionalists and some are modernists. Some people think the traditionalists are right, but others think the modernists are better. Some producers are traditional, but in a modern sort of way.
Take a personal angle. Tell (briefly) the story of winegrower Y who had a passion for winemaking and how they bought a small vineyard and lavished it in passion, and then gradually grew their business by making slightly better wines each year and gradually increased their vineyard holdings because of their passion for wine. And explain carefully that some old winemakers are retiring and new winemakers are starting out.
But don’t deflect from your narrative theme, which is thus: everything is getting just a little bit better. [I think I have Richard Neill to thank for this insight, but I can't find the original quote anywhere.] The wines being made today are better than those being made a few years ago, and because everyone is so passionate and motivated we can confidently predict that things will continually to improve, little by little.
The crunch. At this stage you’ll be worrying that your article is beginning to read like an advertorial. [Which it sort of is.] So you’ll need a crunch. This is the time to introduce two or three mild threats or challenges to the ever-improving wine quality, but it’s best that these challenges are fairly easily surmountable, or – even better – have already been successfully overcome. They could include a recent vintage that wasn’t quite as good as another, or the risk of hail, or exchange rate instability, or the shortage of donkeys for old-style vineyard work.
To finish. The conclusion. The future is bright, and the wines from region X are better than ever, and you should probably be buying them.
This is the stage where you recommend five producers, so take a spread from the different scale and quality levels of those you saw. And pick a wine from each and give it a vague generic description. Job done. No need to thank me, just trying to help.
I’ve spent the last day and a half in the Ahr Valley in northern Germany. It’s my first visit here. This is a small, compact region that’s a tight valley with vineyards on either side, many of which are incredibly steeply sloped. The predominant soil type is slate, and this is Pinot Noir country. I visited three of the top producers in the region and was blown away by the wines. There is some serious, world class Pinot Noir being made here. For now, some pictures. More to come shortly.
My travelling companion Lars Daniels trying not to die on a scary steep vineyard
Dőrte and Meike Näkel of the remarkable Meyer Näkel estate
Alexander Stodden of Jean Stodden
I have just been in the Netherlands, presenting a talk and tasting to wine professionals here over two days, with the same 10 wines both days. I met some really great people and enjoyed talking about organic/biodynamic/sustainable/natural/authentic wine. It was also nice to look at the wines over two days. Interestingly, the wines seemed all to be just a little better on Tuesday than they were on Monday. I can’t think of an explanation. We started with these two lovely whites. Both completely different, and both very interesting expressions of place.
Vincent Carême Vouvray Sec 2013 Loire, France
Very fresh, keen and lively with very pure apple and lemon fruit, as well as hints of straw. The acidity is high but nicely integrated. A striking, bracing dry Vouvray showing Chenin at its freshest. It’s quite edgy, though, and really needs food. 93/100
Jean-François Ganevat Grusse en Billat Chardonnay 2012 Jura, France
1960 planting on schist and marl. Made with no added sulfites, but this is fresh and pure and not at all oxidative. Complex, nutty and linear with a really mineral personality and some nice creamy texture as a foil to the fresh, detailed citrussy fruit. A hard wine to capture in words, but quite lovely. Verging on the profound. It will be interesting to watch this develop if you are lucky enough to be able to get hold of some. 94/100
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I’m just preparing a presentation I’m giving in the Netherlands tomorrow, and I came across two pictures I took in the vineyards at Waterkloof in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The first is of one of their vineyards that has been managed biodynamically from the start, which is above. [It's not an old vineyard.] The soils had a loose structure and were quite pliable.
The second, below is from a vineyard that was previously managed with herbicides. It has just been converted to biodynamics. The two vineyards are only a few paces apart, and share the same soil type, but the vineyard managed with herbicides is like a road.
Clean cultivating using herbicides (most commonly glyphosate, which is relatively benign) has profound effects on the soil structure. It has effects on the soil microlife, too. It’s generally a really bad idea, but it saves lots of money, and the vineyards look very tidy and orderly.
Gradually, people are beginning to appreciate the importance of what goes on below the ground in viticulture. Plant roots exude a range of organic nutrients such as organic acids, sugars, amino acids, nucleosides and mucilage. This encourages the development of a community of microbes, including some – called plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) – that interact with the roots in specific ways, including altering the root structure itself. They promote nutrient uptake and can help plants tolerate drought stress, among other things.
A recent paper by Patricia Piccoli (above) and colleagues looked at what’s taking place under the ground in Catena’s Adrianna vineyard, in Mendoza, Argentina – and specifically which bacterial strains are present in the soil. They took root and soil samples every 10 cm to a depth of 80 cm. These were placed in sterile pots and then taken to the laboratory, where the work of characterizing the various bacteria present began. After culturing and examining the various isolated strains, Patricia analysed the DNA to identify the species present. In all, 11 strains of soil bacteria were isolated, and these were from 10 different genera. Of these, two were selected as having characteristics of plant growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR). These were Bacillus licheniformis and Pseudomonas fluorescens, both of which produced the plant hormones abscisic acid (ABA), indole-3-acetic acid (IAA) and the gibberellins A1 and A3. They also colonized roots of Malbec grape vines grown in controlled conditions in pots. Vines that had these bacteria on their roots showed ABA levels that were increased 76-fold by B. licheniformis and 40-fold by P. fluorescens, when compared with controls. These bacteria slowed down the rate of water loss in the vines, and this slowing of water loss correlated with increased ABA levels. Because the levels of ABA found were so high, Patricia and colleagues think this indicates that the increase is due to production by the bacteria plus production by the vine as a response to the interaction with the microorganisms.
The bacteria also increased the production of terpenes, which are associated with plant defence against microbial attack. Interestingly, high levels of terpenes were found in the aerial part of the vine whereas the bacteria were present just on the roots. This suggests that these bacteria are able to cause what is known as induced systemic resistance in vines, because the synthesis of terpenes was found mainly in leaves, which would be the part of the vine mainly subject to any microbial attack.
There’s a lot happening under the ground that’s really important in viticulture, and we don’t know enough about it. But killing soil life by using herbicides is clearly a silly thing to do.