Ageno la Stoppa, a distinctive orange wine from Italy

ageno la stoppa

This is one of those distinctive skin contact white wines that I think I liked quite a lot. But I wasn’t totally sure. If you’ve never tried Brettanomyces in white wine, this might be a wine to check out, because I think it has quite high levels. Why wasn’t I sure about it? It’s just so extreme and full-on, a bit like a stinky cheese. Has it gone too far? Well, if you are looking for some casual sipping in front of the TV, yes. But with the right food, this could be a remarkable wine. On balance, I like my orange wines (the name for white wines fermented on their skins like red wines) with less extreme flavours, and a little more prettiness. UK agent is Les Caves de Pyrene.

La Stoppa Ageno 2009 IGT Emilia, Italy
13.5% alcohol. This is a blend of Malvasia di Candia Aromatico and Trebbiano. Orange/bronze colour. Amazing nose of tea, ripe peaches, spice and medicine. There’s lovely rich ripe peach fruit but also structure: it’s very grippy, with a phenolic TCP edge as well as floral complexity. Drying finish. Such a challenging wine, but it has lots of interest, and works best with food. Not for everyone. 91/100 (£25.99 Toast.ED, East Dulwich http://toastdulwich.co.uk/, Ottolenghi, The Arches)

Don't spit great wine!

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In the wine trade, we taste. And then we spit. Have to, really, otherwise we’d all be permanently drunk and would die young.

Sometimes, though, a wine is too good to spit.

When I was tasting through the icon wines that The Sampler has just put on its enomatics, I found myself instinctively spitting the wines. But then I though, this is madness. Even if I drink all 16 samples I won’t get properly drunk, and there’s no particular reason that getting a tiny bit drunk would be a terrible thing. And some of these wines are so good, it would be utterly wrong to spit them. It would be a sign of disrespect.

How often am I going to get a chance to drink wines like these? This is truly a once in a lifetime experience for most of these wines.

In the end, I did spit some of the wines. Others, though, I swallowed, savoured, and allowed to become part of me, assimilated into my body.

You can read my notes on all 16 wines here. Three particular highlights that weren’t spat:

Château Latour 1955 Bordeaux, France
Warm, harmonious nose of cherries, leather and earth with a savoury twist to the sweet fruit. The palate still has lots of fruit: there are sweet berries and red cherries, plus a thrilling elegance. Incredible mouthfeel with fine grained, chalky tannins, as well as subtle spice. Taut and correct, this is a sensational bottle. 97/100

Ornellaia 1997 Tuscany, Italy
I didn’t want to like this wine as much as I did, because I am not a fan of super-Tuscans. It has a perfumed nose of ripe blackcurrant fruit with a chalky, mineral edge. It’s very classic and enticing. The palate is superbly elegant and shows smooth, ripe, red berry and cherry fruit with some sweet blackcurrant notes. Ripe yet elegant and just beautiful. 97/100 (£215)

Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Reserva Especial 1942 Rioja, Spain
They don’t make them like this any more. This spent 40 years in barrel. Quite a full colour with a very warm, ripe, sweet nose with a hint of malt and some sweet vanilla and coconut, as well as red cherry fruit. The palate still has some fresh red fruit with a savoury, mineral edge and a super-long finish. There are also some lively citrus peel notes. An amazing wine. 97/100

Some lovely wines with the Noble Rot guys

noblerot

It was a sort of Christmas party. It was pretty epic.

Noble Rot founders Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling threw a dinner for some of the people involved in the magazine, and I was thrilled to be invited. We headed to Mission E2, bottles in hand, for some banter, food and blind tasting.

The wines came thick and fast, but I still managed to scribble some notes. Notes as written, more or less, before the reveal. The first couple of wines I missed taking notes on, but they deserve a mention. A white Chateauneuf 2012 from St Prefert that was all Clairette, and a Tondonia white of uncertain vintage that tasted quite Tondonia, which isn’t altogether a bad thing (but is quite difficult when you are tasting blind).

Piedrasassi White 2011 Central Coast, California
A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Albarino. An orange wine. Lovely perfumed aromatics. Lively and ripe with peach, citrus and floral notes. Good balance with some grip under the sweet fruit. Quite thrilling. 93/100

Lafarge Volnay Clos des Chenes 1994 Burgundy, France
Dan bought a couple of bottles of this along, which was tasted sighted but with the vintage hidden. Guesses varied, and no one got it right. I went the oldest at 1996 and was closest. Surprisingly it was a very fresh tasting 94. Tight and fresh but has some age, with firm, grip. Tannic with nice cherry and raspberry fruit, and a hint of earth. 93/100

Leroy Chorey Les Beaune 2003 Burgundy
Fresh cherries and raspberries. Tannic and youthful on one hand, but with some age for sure. A bit grippy with some leathery notes. Grippy and dry: quite Italian in style. It tastes like modern Barolo with its grippy tannins. 90/100

The next wine I have notes on but didn’t write down what it was. This sort of thing happens at dinners like this.

Failla Pinot Noir 2012 Sonoma Coast, California
This tastes like a good new world Pinot Noir. It has sweet, sappy, smooth cherries and berries and it’s smooth and very pure. A ripe style but with lovely definition. 93/100

Ghislain Barthod Chambolle Musigny 2005 Burgundy, France
Grippy, fresh and savoury. Fine-grained tannins with nice savoury notes, and real finesse. Syrah-style Pinot. 93/100

Comtes Lafon Volnay Santenots 1er Cru 2008 Burgundy, France
Grippy, savoury and dense with nice structure. Quite tight black cherry and blackberry fruit with some firmness and lovely density. Serious. 94/100

Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillots 1999 Northern Rhone, France
Ah, the wine I brought along, and I sort of spotted it. Fresh, lively raspberry and cherry fruit with a bit of spice and some tar. A bit grippy with firm, savoury structure. Youthful but not young. 92/100

Peyre Rose Clos des Cistes 2005 Coteaux du Languedoc, France
This was a nice surprise. Warm, sweet black cherry fruit nose with lovely supple character, hints of violets and some tar. Grippy palate with lovely focus and a nice savoury edge. Lovely stuff. 94/100

Tempier La Migoua Bandol 1993 Roussillon, France
Bretty, warm and a bit animally with spicy black cherry and blackberry fruit. There’s plenty of savoury, animal, meaty spiciness here. 93/100

Behringer Howell Mountain The Colline Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 Napa Valley, California
A bit of menthol to the spicy, fresh black cherry fruit with some nice grip. 92/100

The last two weren’t blind.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley, California
Fresh, fine blackcurrant and red berry fruit with fine herby notes. There’s some real elegance here and a hint of spice. Lovely. 94/100

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 1992 England
I think this may have been from magnum. I can’t remember that well. But it was wonderfully fresh with rounded, rich, pure per and citrus fruit. Ripe apples, pear and spice on the finish. Still very fresh and quite delicious. Forgot to score it.

Three days, four restaurants: Mission, Dean St Townhouse, La Chapelle, Avenue

 

Inside Galvin la Chapelle

Inside Galvin la Chapelle

London is full of great places to eat, and I had a particularly good run from Sunday to Tuesday with four restaurant visits in three days.

I’ve acknowledged here before that I make no claims to being a restaurant reviewer. It’s very hard to be a good restaurant reviewer. The best ones manage to entertain and still review the restaurant well. When I try, I find that my writing is just boringly sincere. Still, good experiences deserve to be talked about.

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Sunday lunch was at Mission E2. I love this place. It was a winemaker lunch with Raj Parr and his brilliant wines. At the beginning everyone was a bit nervous and quiet, but after a glass or two people loosened up and the atmosphere was great. The food, which came on plates for sharing, was excellent. The only problem was that it proved very hard to allocate portions appropriately, and one course ran out before everyone had got some. But the benefit that comes from doing this shared plate model is a wonderful informality, which suits the place well. We had lots of courses, and a lot of wines, and it was a memorable time.

Monday lunch was at Dean Street Townhouse. My second visit. It’s a completely different vibe. This is where you go for posh comfort food: British classics that are, I imagine, immensely reassuring for middle-aged public school educated Brits. I had cod on a bed of lentils and bacon, with a side of garlic mash that I didn’t really need – a dish positively experimental compared with the rest of the menu. The decor is similarly conservative. But I really enjoyed the experience. Wine? A cheap bottle of Swartland Chenin Blanc from Riebeek Cellars. Pure, linear, fruity.

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Smoked eel, La Chapelle

Smoked eel, La Chapelle

Then Monday dinner. It was at Galvin la Chapelle. This is an amazing space: a converted chapel in the city. It has a very high end feel to it, and the service is flawless. The food was seriously good: nothing too flash, just brilliantly executed work with good ingredients. I had a delicious starter of smoked eel, and then an almost perfect chateaubriand. I really enjoyed it, but this is an expensive place. It’s probably worth it, though, for the combination of an amazing space and excellent food.

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Finally, Monday lunch. It was at Avenue in St James. This American themed restaurant, part of the D&D group, is excellent. Service is great, and it’s a big, airy, bright, spacious dining room. My only problem is the noise. The acoustics mean that normal conversation levels create a wall of sound, and so you have to shout across the table, which makes things worse. I really enjoyed the food: corn crab and then a brilliant, indulgent, juicy burger of the highest quality. I was having lunch with Marimar Torres, so this was washed down with her impressive Russian River Valley Chardonnays, Albarino and Pinot Noirs.

Grapeful, a new wine app

shakira chanrai

There’s a problem with wine. It’s just too confusing for normal people to deal with. There are tens of thousands of different products, ranging widely in price and quality, and pretty much all of them packaged the same way. So how do you make a choice? I suppose you could invest lots of time and money in learning about it, but for most this isn’t an option.

This is the problem that Shakira Chanrai’s Grapeful wine app sets out to solve. Only 24, Chanrai left University (politics at LSE) and worked for two years in banking (Mutual Funds Marketing at Fidelity) before leaving to devote all her time to app development. She grew up in a home where wine was always present – her father is a keen collector – but it wasn’t really until university that she got into wine.

This app isn’t for experts; rather it is designed for normal people who want to find out more about wine and make better choices. ‘It’s a way to avoid awkward silences on dates,’ she says. ‘I think wine is a very social product, and you can pull out the app and discuss information that can help form the foundation of decisions.’

The app is free, and available on both android and apple, and it’s just seen an update for Christmas. Food and wine matching is a strong theme, and the app is very educational. There’s also the option to buy examples of the different wine types you are being steered towards through various affiliate links. Chanrai is currently working with restaurants to help people choose wines in places that wouldn’t have a sommelier, which I think is a superb idea.

I’ve played with the app a bit and I think it’s really good. There’s room for more specificity, in terms of the exact food matches and the specific wines that are recommended. I’d like to see this as a sort of virtual sommelier: it would be great if you could type the name of a dish in and then get intelligent automated pairings, or even if you could scan a recipe and then get matches that way. Or what about scanning the label and then being given a recipe that would go well with the wine?

It’s a really good app, and it will be fun to watch it evolve. Rather than expanding it in all directions, though, I think Grapeful should focus on its key strength and become even better at that, as a tool to use in the restaurant and in the kitchen.

The remarkable Tissot Savagnin 2008, a flor-aged Jura wine

tissot savagnin

This is a lovely, complex, detailed and – in some senses – difficult wine from Benedicte and Stephane Tissot in the Jura. It’s aged for 30 months in barrel under a layer of flor, and was bottled in October 2011. Remarkable stuff. Like strong cheese, it’s not for everyone, but I think it’s hauntingly beautiful and worthy of deep contemplation.

Tissot Savagnin 2008 Jura, France
Amazing nose is complex and lively with ripe apples, citrus fruit, a hint of cider and some tangy, nutty notes. The powerful, tangy palate is very citrussy but also very nutty with a savoury twist, and notes of bread, spice and apples. There’s even some tannic structure. So complex and minerally with keen acidity. 94/100

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Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorées Côte de Brouilly 2013 Beaujolais, France

jean paul brun brouilly

Gamay. A variety that I’m growing to love. I remember Kermit Lynch memorably describing Beaujolais as ‘the one night stand of wines.’ His point: not every wine has to be serious. Not every wine drinking experience needs to be a great one. I’m sure there are points chasers out there who set themselves a threshold score: ‘no wine rated lower than 92 shall pass my lips!’ But this is to fail to understand what wine is about.

Gamay doesn’t make the sorts of wines that score in the mid-90s with the major critics. This says something about Gamay, but it says something about the critics, too. For me, Gamay can be profound. It can make wines that thrill and enchant. Wines that draw you in with their prettiness, but then compel you to stay as you realize there’s substance and complexity to them. They can have layers. If you just care to look, you find them.

Of course, not all Gamay is interesting. Most is fairly dull. But this applies to any grape variety. When it’s good, though, it’s very good, and Gamay’s time is coming soon. There’s more great Gamay around than ever. The natural wine movement has really helped, because this is a variety that seems to respond well to a natural approach. Tonight I’m drinking a lovely Gamay.

Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorées Côte de Brouilly 2013 Beaujolais, France
12.5% alcohol. Wild ferment, very low sulfur dioxide levels. Wonderful nose of floral red cherry fruit with a sappy, herby edge and some sweet raspberry notes. Lovely perfume. The palate is very fresh with pure, grippy raspberry fruit. Nice freshness and detail. Incredibly drinkable with no excess weight: lean and pure. 92/100 (£12.80 Savage Selection)

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Burgundy and Rhone, Cathiard and J-L Grippat

cathiard nuits saint georges
Met for pre-dinner drinks with Raj Parr and his cousin Prerna at 28-50 yesterday. Two bottles between three before dinner wasn’t a smart idea, but they were super wines. The Cathiard is, as you might expect from the producer and vintage, a big expression of red Burgundy – ripe and rounded. The Jean-Louis Grippat was just beautiful. This was his last vintage, and it’s an elegant, almost Burgundian expression of Syrah that has aged fabulously. Grippat sold to Guigal in 2001, and the 1999 and 2000 vintages weren’t bottled at the time (Guigal finished them off).

Sylvain Cathiard Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru Aux Thorey 2007 Burgundy, France
Rich, dense and sweet with bold blackberry and black cherry fruit, plus subtle hints of malt and tar. Smooth and mineral in the mouth with a lovely textured mouthfeel. Seductive stuff for near term drinking. 93/100

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Jean-Louis Grippat Saint-Joseph 1998 Northern Rhone, France
Sanguine and elegant with hints of tar and olive under the sweet, pure black cherry fruit. This is smoothly textured with just a touch of rusticity, but at the same time it has smoothness and elegance. A truly beautiful wine. 94/100

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Do we overstate the importance of terroir?

terroir

Do we make too much of terroir?

Once in a while, it’s good for us to question ourselves. Far too often we assume that our perspective is the only one, and we fail to acknowledge that others can see the world quite differently, without necessarily being wrong. So I’d like to begin to question some of my views in public. One of these is my belief that terroir is central to fine wine.

What do I mean by ‘terroir’ here? It’s the notion that the vineyard site – the combination of soils and climates – is critical to wine quality. That is, not all vineyards are created equal. Some are especially privileged sites that are capable of making great wines. Also, my concept of terroir encompasses the idea that interesting, authentic wines somehow manage to capture place: they taste the way they do because of where they come from.

So, according to my view, the first duty of interesting wine is to express its vineyard origins. For cheap wine, it’s great if this can be achieved, but I recognize the commercial reality that inexpensive wines are usually blended across a number of sites, and will only really express terroir in a broader sense.

But what about wines that make no attempt to express place? Wines that are blends of different sites, where the terroir is used in order to provide blending components, but is then lost in the creation of the whole wine? Or wines that are crafted by the hand of the winemaker to produce a wine in a style that has little connection with place?

Can these wines be serious? If so, have I overstated the importance of terroir?

Let’s make a comparison with beer. I love interesting beer, but it is not the same as wine in that it is manufactured from ingredients by a brewer, with help from microbes. With wine, most of us shy away from the idea that it is manufactured by the winemaker. The grapes are more than mere ingredients because they carry in themselves so much of the character of the final wine.

Given a batch of grapes, there’s only so much a winemaker can do with them, compared with wheat, barley or rye in the hands of a brewer. It’s as if harvesting the grapes is an act much further along the drink creation process than harvesting the grains that make beer.

It follows from this that with beer, you can’t have the same notion of terroir, or sense of place. Interestingly, the quality of local water has given many beer styles a sense of place in that some waters are better for some styles of beer, so the local beer styles reflected the talents of the local water. But now we know this, it’s possible to for us to modify water to suit the style of beer we want to brew. So my acceptance of ‘manufacturing’style by a brewer doesn’t imply that I should also be equally accepting of manufacturing of style by the winemaker.

There are two wine styles I can think of that don’t rely on terroir in the conventional sense. They are Champagne and Vintage Port, and I like both very much. Both have traditionally been made by cellarmasters skilled in the art of blending, where wines from different sites bring their own characteristic contributions to the blend. Vintage Port is interesting because in a declared year, the top wines from each producer are blends from a number of quintas, whereas in lesser years the wines are released as single quinta wines for about half the price. This is in reverse to the way things usually work with table wines, where single site bottlings are usually sold at a premium.

|It is interesting to note that at the high end, Champagne seems to be moving more in the direction of terroir wines, with top grower/domaine wines gaining a lot of interest.

For still table wines, I’m struggling to think of compelling examples that suggest the role of terroir is being overplayed. At last, it seems the big, extracted, over-ripe, over-oaked wines that got so much attention from top critics are now beginning to fall out of fashion. These wines have had any sense of place obliterated from them. While there are still many who enjoy them, and are prepared to pay lots of money from them, there are very few serious commentators who are still defending this style.

Look at Bordeaux. In the 2010 vintage, some wines were being made at 15 or even 16% alcohol. This isn’t necessarily a crime on its own, although there aren’t many high alcohol reds that are at all interesting, but in Bordeaux, which has terroirs capable of finesse, balance, complexity and ageability, to make this sort of over-ripe big wine is morally questionable. There aren’t that many great terroirs in the world, and if you are lucky enough to be a custodian of one, then you are deranged if you lose that terroir, either through picking too late and using too much oak, or by allowing wine faults to drown out the quiet voice of the vineyard.

One famous example of a non-terroir wine is Penfolds Grange, Australia’s celebrity red, which enjoys legendary status. This wine has changed its style over the years (I remember drinking 1970s bottles with 12.5% alcohol – its around 14.5% now), and is a blend from a number of vineyards, aged in American oak and with added acid and tannin. It’s not a terroir wine. But does this present a plausible case for non-terroir wines being serious? If Grange were released today, without the back story, it would be recognized as a deliciously ripe, polished, modern wine, but I reckon it would really struggle to achieve anything close to the celebrity status it enjoys today.

Can we taste terroir? This is one objection to the emphasis on terroir, and I think it’s a legitimate one. Certain sites are capable of greatness, for sure. But when two winegrowers make wines from the same vineyard, can we recognize that vineyard blind, even when both wines are made very well in a manner sympathetic to terroir expression? This is tricky. I’d say, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Terroir is important, but the link between soils and wine flavour is a complex one.

When I think about it deeply, I have to admit that terroir is a vague and often imprecise notion. It’s like catching a glimpse of something in your peripheral vision, but then when you turn to look at it, it has gone. Nonetheless, I can’t get away from it. In it’s wonderfully fleeting, complex way, I reckon terroir deserves to remain at the heart of fine wine. It’s the soul of wine, and like the soul, it’s very hard to define, but that doesn’t stop it being of utmost importance.

Champagne Deutz Cuvee William Deutz 2002

william deutz champagne

This is remarkable stuff. The prestige cuvee from Deutz, from the brilliant 2002 vintage. Deutz is based in Aÿ, which is Pinot country, and the blend reflects this. It is 60% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier, and it’s aged for 60 months on lees. Dosage is a relatively high 11.5 g/litre. The key here is restraint and balance, and this just-released wine – one of the last 2002s to reach the market – should age brilliantly.

Champagne Deutz Cuvee William Deutz 2002 France
12% alcohol. Very stylish. Restrained with savoury, toasty, nutty mature notes. It tastes very grown up with lovely citrus and pear fruit, as well as notes of ripe apples. Dense and taut with lovely savoury sophistication. Powerful and lively with a spicy, lemony finish. 93/100

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