I do like Comtes. It’s invariably a beautiful wine, and it ages well. I’ve written up a vertical of these wines before, and recently tried the current vintage, 2006. This 2002 is from a ripe, seductive year, and it’s shaping up very well. This is drinking very well now, but will probably still develop a bit more. No need to wait, really, though.
Champagne Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2002 France
Very fresh and linear but with a lovely toasty richness. Notes of almonds, pear, ripe apple and lemons, as well as some candied citrus peel. Finely toasty with a bit of spicy, mineral reduction adding interest. Complex and bold, this has a fresh mineral component but also some richer toasty notes, showing finesse and intensity as well as the generosity of the 2002 vintage. 95/100
Had a lovely evening last night with a small group at 67 Pall Mall, the wine-friendly club that opened last year. It was my first time at 67 Pall Mall, and they seem to get most things right: the space is beautiful, the wine list excellent, the food spot on and the Zalto glassware just astonishingly good. Service, though, was a bit patchy, and I’m no friend of the insistence that gentlemen must wear jackets at all times when in the club. That seems a bit retrograde. And the wine list is on iPads, but they don’t seem to have enough of them, and one of the benefits of this, you’d think, is that out of stock wines could be removed (we ordered one to find out there was none left).
We had some lovely wines. First of all, a couple of by the glass selections. Mullineux Schist Chenin 2014 was really smart (maybe a little warm, though), and I really liked Gavin Chanin’s Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay 2013, which was incredibly refined and Burgundian. One of my companions, a skilled blind taster, had it as a Premier Cru Puligny, and I can see why.
Then some Condrieu: Francois Villard’s Terrasses du Pilat 2014. This is a stunning wine: such an open, balanced, aromatic expression of Condrieu. And good value, too.
Talking of value, the Champagne Vazart Coquet Grand Cru Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs NV is quite beautiful, and really well priced. Served out of the Zalto sweet wine glasses, of course.
I was really impressed by the next wine: the Pignan 2008 from Rayas. This is a thrilling expression of Grenache with a truly Burgundian elegance to it. Such finesse and purity. This was a real star.
And to finish with, something great from California. The Ridge Montebello 1989, which has developed into a beautifully elegant maturity, but there’s no hurry to drink this up. Really fine. It’s always great when famous wines like these deliver.
This is an important wine, because of the vineyard that it is made from (pictured above). It’s a very old (1905) Semillon vineyard in Franschhoek owned by Basil Landau. Basil makes a wine from these vines, which are now over 100 years ol , called Landau du Val, but he is also selling some of these precious grapes, and for the first time Jacques Wentzel, the talented winemaker at newcomer Black Elephant Vintners, has some. This is their debut vintage with this wine, and it is really good, with lots of potential for further development.
Black Elephant Vintners Semillon 2015 Franschhoek, South Africa
This is the first vintage that Jacques Wentzel has made from Basil Landau’s famous old Semillon block, which is over 100 years old. And he’s done a great job. This is textured, fine and expressive with lemons, minerals, herbs and lovely pure fruit. It’s expressive, pure and mineral with real finesse, and huge potential for development. This once again demonstrates the potential for Semillon in the Western Cape. 93/100
Yesterday I took part in a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc seminar at New Zealand House in London. The aim of the seminar was to compare classic styled Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with newer alternative styles, such as those that are barrel fermented, or fermented using wild yeasts.
My job was to make the case for the classic styles, and Melanie Brown of New Zealand Cellar was tasked with defending the newer, more experimental styles of Sauvignon. We had five wines each, and as well as tasting them, we had a broad-ranging discussion about Sauvignon, expertly chaired by Patrick Schmitt of The Drinks Business.
My point? Since the first vines went into the ground in Marlborough in 1973, this region has experienced amazing success. Now, with 22 000 hectares under vine, it’s the country’s largest region by far, and this success has been built on Sauvignon Blanc. Marlborough Sauvignon is a unique style that has won the hearts of wine lovers worldwide. It combines well integrated green aromas and tastes with lovely fruity aromatics: think passionfruit, grapefruit, tomato leaf, green pepper, lemons and gooseberries (if you know what these are).
The classic style of Marlborough Sauvignon has redefined this grape variety, and it has put New Zealand on the map. When people buy a bottle of wine that says New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, they know what to expect, and the consistency of these wines has seen Kiwi wine get the highest per bottle average price in the UK by some distance, compared with other countries.
So don’t fix what isn’t broken. By introducing new and esoteric styles of Sauvignon, there’s a danger that consumers will be confused.
Melanie countered very well, and began by asking me what I thought of the alternative styles. My answer? I love them. I think that there are now some brilliant alternative Sauvignons coming from New Zealand: not relying on overt greenness and thiol lift for their impact, but having more texture, complexity and ageworthiness. I’m excited to see these styles. But I’m a geek, not the average consumer. She made a good argument that there’s room in the marketplace for these wines, and that she sells them to her customers all the time. Given the right communication to customers, these alternative wines add an extra facet to the New Zealand wine offering. They also represent a chance to break the price ceiling that exists for Marlborough Sauvignon made in the classic unoaked style.
We agree, I guess. There’s a place for the classic style (and these wines seem to be improving each year), but there’s also a place for alternative styles, too. It’s an exciting time for New Zealand wine, and Sauvignon is anything but boring.
Rapaura Springs Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Blend of Wairau, Rapaura and Awatere. Pungent green herbal nose with grassy green pepper notes. Lively and focused on the palate with broad texture and sweet melon and pear fruit. Textured and smooth, this is aromatic and polished with lovely weight. 91/100
Tiki Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Wairau Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
From upper Wairau. Fresh grapefruit and lemon nose with some passionfruit aromatics. Lively, bright, crisp and balanced with bright limey notes. Very pretty and balanced with some tropical notes but also citrus freshness. Pure. 91/100
Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Wairau Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Lovely tension here between the fresh grapefruit and lemony flavours, and the detailed spice and passionfruit notes. Has detail and precision, with lovely freshness. Really classic and showing nice complexity. 93/100
Brancott Estate Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Lovely green tomato leaf and green pepper nose. It’s very green but it is well integrated with the fruity aromas. Vivid, green palate with some pear and melon richness and superbly integrated greenness. 92/100
Villa Maria Single Vineyard Graham Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pungent and melony with some pear and citrus as well as a slight waxy edge. Nicely textural with appealing green notes well integrated into the rich melony fruit. Generous and delicious with some saline, mineral, chalky notes adding interest. 92/100
Fairbourne Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
3 hectares, north facing slope. Slightly smoky edge to the tangerine and pear note. 3% of blend fermented in French oak. Some subtle toast here, too with ripe fruit. 89/100
Greywacke Wild Sauvignon 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Complex fig and herb notes on the nose with peach and fine citrus characters. Aromatic and quite intense. The palate is bold and generous with complex pear, peach and spice notes. Full flavoured and with potential for development. 93/100
Seresin Mārama Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
Complex and broad with toast, nuts and pears and well as some spicy, waxy complexity. Bold and intense with lovely depth of flavour: it’s just so well integrated with a strongly savoury dimension and potential for development. 93/100
Giesen The Fuder Dillons Point Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
Complex and intense with striking notes of green herbs, peppers and quince coupled with toast, nuts and spice. Lively lemony acidity keeps things fresh. Has depth to it, and a really broad spectrum of flavours. The toastiness is really prominent at the moment, but I think this will harmonize in time. 91/100
Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Semillon 2013 Waipara Valley, New Zealand
Lovely balance here between the fresh, citrus and green flavours and the more broad peach and subtle toast notes. Really inviting with a sweet fruity quality and subtle green notes. Has lovely balance and the potential for development. 92/100
There’s a human tendency which many of us fall prey to. It’s to do with how we got to where we are today. Putting it metaphorically, we got here by jumping over a bar (I’m thinking the high jump bar here, not the booze-dispensing type). Then we progress, and jump over the next bar, as our expertise improves.
But once we have jumped over the bar, we have this tendency to raise it a bit for those coming after us. We forget what it was (previously) like for us, and our expectations for those coming after us are concomitantly raised. This bar-raising makes it hard for others to learn and progress. You see this in companies where leaders are not prepared to deputise, even though they are overworked, because they don’t feel that junior staff members could do as good a job. They forget that they’d never have got to where they are now had it not been for someone else letting them learn and develop by taking on tasks that pushed them a little beyond their current expertise.
I remember a maths teacher at school. Now I was a bright kid, but I struggled with ‘A’ level Pure Maths (I was good at statistics) because he was a terrible teacher. It was because he was so smart (he had a PhD in maths) and the subject clearly came easily to him. He couldn’t put himself in the shoes of his pupils (and I was, in all likelihood, naturally an arts guy who’d ended up studying sciences), so he found it hard to reach us where we were.
This is so true for wine expertise. I remember back in the early 1990s, when I first started drinking wine in earnest. I had very trivial knowledge, but was hungry for more. I devoured any wine book I could lay my hands on, and went to consumer tastings. As an example, I remember being fascinated by a masterclass with Liz Robertson of Safeway (now defunct UK supermarket) demonstrating that it was best to go for the freshest, youngest wine in many cases, which was illustrated by tasting Safeway wines in the current and follow-on vintages. This was pretty trivial stuff, but to me as a wine newbie it was fascinating.
We’re often so quick to raise the bar, that we leave too many people behind us. I know quite a bit about wine, but for my consumer writing I’m always trying to put myself in the shoes of readers who aren’t as far along in the journey. Of course, not everyone wants to learn about wine: for many, it’s just a question of enjoying the stuff. But there’s a subset of folk who have a latent interest, which – given the right watering and nurturing – will blossom into a geeky habit. We need more wine geeks, because they are the curious folk who are prepared to spend a bit more, and who will be the customers that provide a market for brave winegrowers looking to make authentic wines of place – and who will buy the sorts of books that I like writing. But we need to reach down a bit and meet people where they are, and not expect them to jump over bars that are higher than we encountered at the same stage in our journey.
This is a great project – one that I mentioned last year when I tried a cask sample with lunch. It’s a charity Port project to which 20 of the leading Port producers from the Douro each contributed around a ton of grapes. These were fermented together in a lagar at the Niepoort winery, and now the wine is bottled. There’s a nice picture of all the producers treading the grapes together here. The project was conceived by Axel Probst, German fighter pilot and Port lover, and owner of World of Port.
I recently got to taste the final, bottled wine. Here’s my note:
O Port Unidade 2013 Vintage Port, Douro, Portugal
19.5% alcohol. Concentrated, tannic and primary with lovely raspberry and blackberry fruit with some sweet black cherry notes. Sweet but with nice dry, savoury grip. Intense and grippy, with good potential, this is lovely stuff with real potential for improvement. 94/100
And here’s a video of me tasting the wine on camera:
Well respected US author John Bonné has just written an article on Provence rosé for Punch. He’s a clever writer, and understands how to construct an article, but I felt on this occasion he’d just got it very wrong. So I thought I’d write a response.
According to Bonné, the success of Provence rosé is a problem. He’s struggling to find the real heart of Provence, as expressed in its wines, and feels that the huge momentum behind rosé is leading to a standard product winning out over more authentic wines that have a better connection to the soul of the place.
It’s a familiar narrative to any American wine lover who has grown up with Kermit Lynch, whose excellent book Adventures on the Wine Route has been hugely influential for a generation of US wine people (indeed, Bonné quotes Lynch in his piece). The narrative? Idealistic American (Lynch, in this case) travels to France looking to source wines. ‘Discovers’ (of course, they didn’t exist before they were discovered by said earnest American) amazing producers making wines traditionally. But they are in grave peril! Modernity is on the march! Stainless steel, cultured yeasts, filtration: all these things are looking to destroy the amazing wines that the American has discovered. But relax: the American will save the French from themselves.
Early in his piece, Bonné acknowledges the way that rosé seems to capture the essence of Provence quite well:
Its pink wines are an easily accessible totem of the Provençal good life—pure Mediterranean idyll in a bottle.
But, to him, this is a problem.
The net effect of the surging popularity is that Provence now represents little more than a lifestyle (or a simplified interpretation of a lifestyle). It’s not just that the wines have become boring; it’s that rosé’s deeper cultural relevance there has been whittled down to a vague fashionability.
This is surprising, because when I visit Provence, I see one of the wine world’s few success stories. Provence has taken, whether deliberately or not, the wise choice to do one thing well, and to lead with this on export markets. There’s a wonderful concordance between the product – pink wine – and the ‘brand’ image of Provence, as Bonné points out above. This resonates with export markets. When we drink a bottle or Provence rosé, we are transported to this magical place of sun, sea, blue skies, large yachts, fashionable people, al fresco dining and glamour. And this is a problem?
And rosé is now much better than it used to be. Advances in pressing techniques, better vineyard work, and the fact that this is now a profitable wine so there’s a premium to be had for better quality, have resulted in much nicer wines. I’ve been visiting Provence since I was a child, and this new wave of rosé isn’t supplanting artisinally made authentic wine; it’s replacing cheap plonk.
A bowl of saffroned, garlicky fish stew or a tranche of the onion tart known as pissaladière, plus a glass of salmon-hued wine, used to be the sort of simple pleasure that transported foreigners. But 40 years of fetishization, then a final shove from the rosé craze, have pushed Provence into cliché territory.
But surely Bonné is fetishizing himself, trying to fit each wine region into his Lynchian narrative? Provence just won’t fit, so there must be something wrong here, right?
Americans like Bonné travel to France looking for a great, authentic cultural experience. They are looking to validate their aesthetic sensibilities by experiencing this connection between gastronomy and culture. They want to participate in the good life of the modestly poor people of southern Europe; eat where they eat, avoid fellow tourists, and immerse themselves in a rich culture of food and wine. They arrive, and are affronted when they find that things have changed. They are somewhat distressed when they find winegrowers driving expensive German cars rather than a beaten up 2CV.
Of course, this isn’t so much a piece about Provence wine, as it is about Bonné and his expectations. It is a lament that he can’t indulge his fantasy. He is at the center of this piece as much as he is in some of his other work, and I think this is a weakness. He’s clearly a very talented writer. He would be stronger if he could remove himself a little. The New California was a brave and important book, but he can give the impression that he thinks he was instrumental in bringing about a shift (in some small pockets of Californian wine) to more balanced styles, rather than chronicling this shift. In this sense, he seems like a surfer trying to take credit for a remarkable wave.
I’ve written this response, because I think that those of us in the wine world should be celebrating (and learning from) the great success of Provence rosé, instead of lamenting it. This is a region where innovation is welcomed. Rather than knock the producers who toy with unusual bottle shapes, we should be applauding them. Normal people are responding to these wines, and are prepared to pay good money for them. In a context where large swathes of the wine industry struggle to be profitable, this is something that needs to be welcomed.
Had a chance to taste this new varietal Pinot Meunier from Hampshire-based English sparkling wine producer Exton Park, with winemaker Corinne Sealy. She describes Pinot Meunier as ‘a child that has to be well educated.’ She says, ‘it is stubborn.’ In the vineyard they have tried all sorts of ways of growing it, and finally settled on Chablis pruning.
In the winery, there’s just 12 months on lees to keep the freshness and elegance, and the delicate character of this variety. Although this is a vintage 2014 wine, it is labelled as non-vintage. It’s really successful.
Exton Park Pinot Meunier Rosé NV England
Pale pink in colour. Very fruity and lively with delicacy and finesse, showing a hint of spring hedgerows alongside fine cherry and pear fruit. There’s a lovely purity and delicacy to this wine. It’s distinctive and really works well, with lovely purity. 91/100
Had an amazing Sake tasting yesterday with Jörg Müller of Ueno Gourmet (pictured above).
We began with the Amabuki Gin No Kurenai Rosé, a Junmai that’s pale pink in colour, made using ancient black rice. It was really elegant and fruity with clean flavours, and the colour really makes an impression.
The Ikekame Turtle Red is a Junmai Daiginjo, produced with rare black koji. It has fruity flavours: wild strawberry, even some cherry. It’s delicious.
Yuki No Bosha Junmai Gingo is just beautifully balanced. Elegant and textural, this is serious stuff.
Katsuyama’Den’ is another serious Sake made with rice that has been 35% polished, and it’s a Junmai Daiginjo. This shows amazing concentration and balance, and with its complex flavours it’s almost perfect.
Katsuyama ‘Gen’ is a sweet Sake inspired by Château d’Yquem, and it is deliciously viscous, sweet and complex with lovely spicy depth, and an eternal finish.
These are such interesting flavour experiences, and I think it requires a slightly different mindset to appreciate Sake rather than wine. But this different aesthetic – focusing on textures and flavours in the mouth, rather than being so concerned about smelling – can then usefully be applied back to wine.
Sauvignon Blanc is a serious grape. Trust me. It gets a bad rap from some wine writers, but it can achieve amazing results. Look at the fab Tscheppe butterfly wine that I recently reviewed, for example. Or the Sauvignons with a difference from New Zealand that were covered here. Now we’re travelling to the Loire, and a complex, beguiling Sauvignon, made with native yeasts, from Sancerre. This is serious wine. Don’t dismiss Sauvignon!
Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Sauvage 2012 Loire, France
13% alcohol; unfiltered. From chalky soils in the village of Champtin, this is made from organically grown grapes with natural yeasts. A reductive matchstick nose shows lovely citrus fruits. The palate has a really nice mineral core with taut citrus and pear fruit, real complexity and nice texture. Very fine and expressive with keen acidity. Serious stuff. 94/100