The world's flintiest vineyard?

silex vineyard

I have seen a lot of vineyards in my relatively short career, but this one was one of the most remarkable. Flint on flint.

Sébastien Redde

Sébastien Redde

Back in 2009, Domaine Michel Redde (Thierry and his two sons Sébastien and Romain), decided that they wanted to produce a remarkable vineyard. In their region, Pouilly-Fumé, silex (flint) is a very highly prized terroir, and although people talk about gun flint in Pouilly-Fumé, linked to this soil, it’s not all that common.

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So they took an abandoned flint quarry in Tracy-sur-Loire, just over the river from Sancerre, Les Champs des Froids. First of all, they had to clear the vegetation. Then, the hard work of preparing the ground to plant in began.

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It involved huge construction vehicles and dynamite, and then to actually put vines in the ground required the use of a long crowbar like tool – the Barre à Mine, which became the name for this cuvée. Each year, they planted a little bit more. To plant half a hectare required the manual removal of 300 tons of large flint. The vines were planted at a density of 10 000 per hectare.

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Some of the large boulders removed

Some of the large boulders removed

The first vintage was 2014. This really is a remarkable-looking vineyard: all you can see is flints. ‘It’s like the Châteauneuf-du-Pape of flint,’ jokes Sébastien. He says they haven’t worked out how much this has all cost. It’s a labour of love, and a celebration of a remarkable terroir. The first wines are just lovely, and very distinctive. When the vines have some age, this will be a stunning vineyard!

Barre à Mine

Barre à Mine

Here’s a film of the vineyard:

This is my tasting note on Barre à Mine:

Domaine Michel Redde Pouilly-Fumé Barre à Mine 2015
Complex and detailed with lovely tangerine, lemon and pear fruit. Very stony and mineral with a transparent personality. There’s freshness, but also some of the richness of the vintage here. Very textural. 94/100

Domaine Michel Redde Pouilly-Fumé Barre à Mine 2016 (from cask)
Lively, expressive and bright with tangerine and subtle herbs. Distinctive, showing nice purity. Highly mineral with a savoury core, as well as expressive fruit.

Who decides the news agenda? The Internet?

A small story becomes a big story because of the Internet. The recent media frenzy over a passenger being removed from an overbooked United flight has been interesting to watch.

Back in the day, news rooms decided on the merits of a story. The editor edited. Now, the Internet can decide that a story is news worthy, and then even more serious news outlets (yes, a few remain) have to run the story too.

The United story would have been a non-story without video. The two (or was it more?) videos that circultated made this a story, because they were dramatic, and there was even some blood involved.

After the initial reports (videos plus sketchy details), we are then treated to the United response (another chance to run those videos), plus the tracking down of the passenger involved and the inevitable scrutiny of their personal life. Then we have more bad stories about United (any large airline will have some controversial or negative incidents attached to them), and for the next two weeks any stories about airlines behaving badly will be fast tracked.

Next we’ll have government response, and perhaps even new legislation, all on the back of a small but regrettable incident that got blown out of all proportion by the Internet.

I’m not knocking the Internet. It’s how I started, and it’s how I (largely) communicate as a media person. But the way incidents like these suddenly become news shows there’s something wrong with our news outlets. In the wine world, we should be wary of letting the agenda be set by noisy, or controversial, or simply ill-informed people. Or people who are simply famous. Some people are just famous for being famous, without every contributing anything substantial.

Also, if you are going to do something bad, then make sure you don’t do it where you can be filmed and end up on the Internet.

Also, don’t join internet mobs. Don’t throw combustible materials on internet fires. Don’t waste time on news as entertainment.

Some profound(?) thoughts prompted by this Loire trip

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Terroir is a creative act between people and a place. Terroir only exists in the context of a wine, and wine is a creative act as a winegrower seeks to interpret their place through choices they make in viticulture and winemaking.

Drinking wine is itself a creative act. We are given a sensory theme, and we act upon this. We use our imaginations as well as our palates, as we recreate the place through the medium of the wine. We question the liquid in our glass, and then we are creative as we choose to let it take us to a destination that is prompted by our sensory experience, but which we also contribute to. To understand a great wine and appreciate it fully requires a skilled and imaginative taster.

The weather of a season – the vintage – is very important in cooler climates (and sometimes even in warm ones). Yes, the soils are vital. But they need to be partnered with a good vintage in order to show what they are capable of. It is this interplay of the season’s weather (vines NEVER see climate) and the soils that produces the wine of that year, and sometimes the weather is such that the role of the soil is diminished.

Sauvignon is a great grape variety and it is unfairly dismissed by some. It makes simple wines of pleasure, but it can also make profound white wines that express terroir and which age well. It is a singular variety, but those who criticize it do so from a position of not having given this variety a second chance.

We are only just beginning to explore the impact of soils on wine, and it’s such an interesting topic. Yet there exists a mine of misinformation and assumption on this subject. We need to combine anecdotal observation with good, open-minded science to understand this better, and we shouldn’t rush, because it’s such a fun journey that’s only just beginning.

In the Centre Loire: Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Coteaux du Giennois

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The Monts Damnes vineyard in Sancerre

For the last couple of days I have been in the Centre Loire, visiting Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and the Coteaux du Giennois. These three neighbouring appellations are home to some compelling Sauvignon Blanc, as well as good Pinot Noir and Gamay in smaller quantities. For the next couple of days I’ll be doing more of the same, as well as taking in Reuilly and Quincy.

Vintage 2017 beginning in the Coteaux du Giennois

Vintage 2017 beginning in the Coteaux du Giennois

One of the things that has struck me so far is how distinctive and exciting the terroirs are here. All three appellations have a mix, with limestone and clay (calcaire argile), kimmeridgean marl and clay, and flint (silex) and clay the three main combinations. Wines from all three terroirs taste different. There’s also silex over a limestone base, and some vineyards with both limestone and silex.

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Some late pruning

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Another thing that has been exciting is just how well some of these wines age. I’ve had some great experiences with wines from the 1990s. Who said Sauvignon doesn’t age?

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Enjoying some older wines with Pascal Gittons and his daughter Chanel

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An 18th century barn at Villargeau, Coteaux du Giennois

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With Raymond Bourgeois (of Henri Bourgeois), in the cellar, Sancerre

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In the vineyard with Melanie Masson and her father Jean-Michel

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2011 Nova Scotia, Canada

benjamin bridge

Had another opportunity to try this beauty. I visited Benjamin Bridge last year, and I’m really impressed with what they are doing. These wines have very high acidity, so they won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I think they are serious, and will get better with the viticultural and winemaking changes that have been implemented.

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2011 Nova Scotia, Canada
11% alcohol, 100% Chardonnay. Tight, pure and lemony with brisk acidity under the tightwound but elegant citrus fruits. This is so linear and focused with a lovely acid drive and potential for further development. Everything is clean, pure and in harmony. Very restrained, refined and elegant. 92/100

 Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

The ultimate vodka martini at Dukes

dukesmartini
After Friday’s lunch at Berry Bros & Rudd, Douglas Blyde persuaded Katherine Houston and I that we needed a vodka martini at Dukes. He was right. This was the best vodka martini possible, prepared by Alessandro Palazzi with his famous trolley service. Dukes, a grand old hotel in Mayfair, is described as the spiritual home of the martini. [Apparently, you are only allowed two of them.]

Alessandro’s martini’s are very simple. Everything – the glass, the vodka, the vermouth – is kept in a freezer, to avoid the need for ice and the resulting dilution. He takes the glass and pours in a little vermouth. This is then swirled around, and dumped on the carpet (yes). He adds the vodka, in this case the fab Konik’s Tail. Then he takes rind of an amalfi lemon and twists it to release some oils, and then places it into the glass. That’s it.

The resulting drink is remarkable. It also contains a lot of vodka. You sip it slowly. Next time I go I will have the gin martini, made with No. 3.

A couple of lovely Chardonnays: Kutch and Bachelet-Monnot

bachelet monnot

Had a couple of lovely Chardonnays side by side: one from Burgundy, the other from the cool Sonoma Coast.

Bachelet-Monnot Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Referts 2011 Burgundy, France
Lemony and taut, this has a lovely bright mineral quality to the crystalline citrus fruit. It’s beautifully expressive with crisp lemon fruit with well integrated acidity. Very pure and developing nice and slowly, with finesse and some structure. Not a big wine, but a pretty one. 93/100

kutch

Kutch Chardonnay 2015 Sonoma Coast, California
12.7% alcohol
Very fine, lemony and assertive on the nose, with delicate matchstick notes from nice reduction. The palate is linear and precise with really tight, lean, but full flavoured lemon notes. It’s beautifully taut and expressive with keen acidity that’s struggling a bit to integrate now, but which will in time. This is so pristine and taut and offers lots of promise for the future, but it’s also edgy and enjoyable now if you like this reductive style. I love it. 95/100

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

Coutet 2005: let's drink more Sauternes

chateau coutet sauternes

Had this last night. Lovely wine. Sauternes/Barsac is one of the great sweet wines of the world and it is currently undervalued. While red Bordeaux has steadily got more expensive, the sweet wines have stayed sanely priced, especially considering the risk producing them. This wine was beautiful.

Château Coutet Premier Cru Classé Sauternes-Barsac 2005 Bordeaux, France
14% alcohol. From half bottle. Concentrated and smooth, this has a lively citrus edge to the apricot, peach and melon fruit. There’s a creamy richness to the texture and hints of lanolin and wax, with sweetness, richness, spiciness and acidity well balanced. Drinking beautifully with grape and honey richness lingering on the finish. An elegant expression of Sauternes. 93/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

Jay Rayner on the aesthetics of wine

The dangers of commenting outside your sphere of expertise were illustrated last week in a couple of tweets from food expert and restaurant critic Jay Rayner.

Ok, my personal taste is for wine that doesn’t taste of sweaty pig anus and mouldering grass clippings. I know. Picky, picky, picky.

a) I’ve had repeated lecturers (natural wine bores do go on) and b) what other point is there to wine than it tasting nice?

From my perspective, Rayner’s comments on natural wine are fine. They’re his opinions and I understand that many folk don’t like some of the more extreme natural wines, just as many folk struggle with extreme cheeses. He’s a smart guy, and a very good writer. So I’m not going to try to persuade him that there are lots of good natural wines out there that don’t taste weird or bad, because he’s not really interested.

But would dispute the very silly statement that he makes about the point of wine. This was not his finest moment on Twitter.

  • So is the only point of food that it should taste good?
  • Is the only point of art that it should look good?
  • Is the only point of music that it should sound good?
  • Is the only point of sex that it should feel good?

Rayner is a food critic. He writes for national newspapers. He clearly believes that his expert judgements should be, to a degree, normative. That is, they should apply to most if not all people: his readers may not all agree with him, but where he makes statements about the quality of food, he isn’t simply being autobiographical, saying that this is his experience and it applies only to him.

Yet for wine, Rayner is implying that there’s nothing more to it than simple hedonics. If you like a wine you are drinking, this is for you a good wine. There’s nothing more to wine appreciation than the simple question: do you like it?

It’s entirely appropriate for people to decide whether or not they like something. We all do this all the time. But it’s foolish and ignorant for someone to say that there’s nothing more to food, or wine, or art, or music than whether or not they happen to like it.

With food, the hedonic approach ignores the reality that most of the tastes we cherish are acquired ones. We learn to like things, and knowledge can enhance enjoyment. When I first tasted strong cheese or beer or dry wine I didn’t like them. Now I love them.

Rayner’s stance on wine makes me think of a person visiting the Tate Modern and dismissing the art there as nonsense, because they don’t like it. ‘I’d rather see pictures that actually look like things. Give me pictures that are pretty, like Constable, or Monet, or – at a stretch – Turner.’

He’s behaving like someone visiting to a high-end cheese shop and rejecting the strongly flavoured goat and ewes’ milk cheeses. ‘Don’t give me all those stinky cheeses. I’ll stick with cheese that actually tastes nice, like mild cheddar or gouda.’

The world of wine is a complex and interesting one. It’s one of the most thrilling areas of gastronomy. But to an outsider it looks too complex and geeky, and people who care about it (like me) run the danger of looking like over-sincere losers. And the occasional friction between various aesthetic systems, such as classical fine wine and the natural wine movement, looks like silliness to those taking a superficial glance in. After all, who cares? Wine should just taste nice, shouldn’t it? Don’t take it too seriously.

A deeper issue here is that of ego. We often think that we are at the centre of the world, and that our particular interests and fields of expertise are the most significant and important. And then, when we look at another field of expertise, it can all seem a bit too involved; a bit silly and inconsequential. How could someone possibly care so much about coffee? Or baking?

Being an important media figure can lead people to believe that their opinions are similarly important, and their judgements are better than those who don’t have the same level of minor celebrity. We should be careful when we step outside our field of expertise.

Saturday morning in Stellenbosch, in pictures

stellenbosch

Had a lovely Saturday in Stellenbosch. Such a pretty town. At the heart of South Africa’s winelands, it’s an easy place to hang. These are some street pics.

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