Judging at the International Wine Challenge, day 1

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Yesterday was the first day’s judging at the International Wine Challenge (IWC). Taking place at the Oval Cricket Ground, which has been an excellent home to the challenge for the last few years, it’s a major operation with 20 tables of five judges working hard all day. This first week involves four days of sifting through all entries (and there are lots – there were around 15 000 last year, although numbers aren’t talked about openly because it just ends up in an arms race with another large UK-based competition). We are looking to see whether the wines are medal worthy or not, and those that pass through will come back next week to be looked at in more detail. A team of co-chairs checks all the rejected entries this week as a back-up mechanism to make sure that no good wines have been unfairly rejected, and also to harmonise standards.

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I had a lovely team yesterday. One of the strengths of the competition is that places to judge are sought-after, so the organizers can be picky about who they choose. Everyone is subject to peer feedback, including us panel chairs. If anyone shows a track record of poor performance, they don’t get asked back. If anyone excels, they can be promoted from associate to judge, then to senior judge, and eventually panel chair. Promotion is based on performance, and at the end of the two weeks we panel chairs get a report on how well we and our teams performed, showing areas where we need to develop and congratulating us where we have done well.

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So, this was how our day looked:

  • Flight 1 New Zealand sparkling wine – pretty good
  • Flight 2 Brouilly – some nice wines, some very commercial ones
  • Flight 3 South African Sauvignon Blanc – poor wines unfortunately
  • Flight 4 Cabernet-based reds from the Veneto – these were a bit strange
  • Flight 5 Barolo – as you’d expect, a few nice wines and some ordinary ones too
  • Flight 6 South African Chardonnay – pretty good, some nice wines
  • Flight 7 Minervois – not as good as we were expecting
  • Flight 8 Pouilly Fuissé – a small, strong flight
  • Flight 9 Spanish reds – a short flight of three oddities that weren’t nice
  • Flight 10 Douro reds – some smart wines here
  • Flight 11 Douro whites – a bit underwhelming
  • Flight 12 Greek reds – these weren’t very good alas, Greece can do much better
  • Flight 13 Turkish reds – ditto
  • Flight 14 20 year old tawny Port – a very strong flight and a good way to finish

As you can see, it’s a varied diet of wines, and this helps to keep the palate fresh. It’s also a great way to get a snapshot of what is going on across the world of wine. With 103 wines in all, it’s a comfortable number to taste because we aren’t taking detailed notes. Repeat this for two weeks, and the experience you gain as a taster is immense.

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On belonging

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For two weeks each year, around April, I’m reminded what it is like to go to work. Like normal people do. As in have a job. It’s the International Wine Challenge (IWC), and as a panel chair I’m there every day. I commute by train to Vauxhall station, and then wander down to the Oval cricket ground, where we are based. Each day, that pattern is repeated. The same journey: leaving, going to work, coming home. I commuted for 15 years into town, and although most bits about having a regular job I can live without (I just love the flexibility of being a freelancer), there are a few I still miss.

The main one – and this is part of the reason I enjoy the IWC so much – is the sense of belonging. There is something rich and satisfying about being in a joint venture with colleagues. I love the sense of belonging to something bigger than myself.

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The IWC is tough work: we have to taste a lot of wines, and we have to be disciplined to taste thoroughly and give every wine a fair chance. But it is so great to work as a team: each day I will be with four different people. Some I will know; some will be strangers. As a panel chair, my job is to help this team work well together to provide the right results (which isn’t the same as convincing them I am right). Panels are a great way to assess wines in a competition setting, when the team works well and there’s some discussion of the results.

The wine challenge is also great because each day there are 80-100 judges participating, and it’s an opportunity to catch up with peers and old friends. For a few weeks a year I feel I belong, and reminded that I’m part of something bigger than me.

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As a freelancer, this is valuable. It’s not just the wine challenge that provides me with a sense of belonging though. It happens with press tastings, where you bump into lots of your peers. We’re competitors, yes, but we all get on pretty well, like a sports team where there’s healthy competition for places. I also get a sense of belonging with collaborative ventures. For example, I’m now working with WineAlign, a superb Canadian outfit. For the last two years I have been a guest overseas judge at their National Wine Awards of Canada, and this year I’ll be doing it again, but now as a regular part of the team, contributing articles to their website. The NWACs are great fun, and WineAlign brings together most if not all of the leading communicators and writers from the Canadian wine scene in a way that I’ve not seen anywhere else. They are a lovely group, like a big and sometimes slightly crazy family, and it’s so great to be involved with them.

Belonging is human. I know and celebrate the fact that everyone is different. But I thing there’s a deep human need to belong. We’re wired to desire it, and much sadness results when people don’t feel they belong.

We want to belong with a significant other. [Although some people, by choice or circumstance seem to do singleness well, it is not an easy path for many.] The feeling of belonging to another in a special way, that neither of you share with anyone else, is a beautiful, deeply satisfying thing. It can also be incredibly painful when it goes wrong. This belonging is the source of inspiration for many songs, poems and novels.

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We also belong to a family. This is important, because it is our link with the past. This is where we came from, and it’s an important source of identity. Good families can provide a wonderful sense of belonging, but when things aren’t good, this can also be the cause of emotional and psychological devastation. Sometimes it’s hard to repair the damage done by loveless families.

Then there’s belonging to a network of good friends; belonging to a wider social circle; and belonging in tribes (for example, people drawn together with a common interest, such as support of a sports team or shared admiration for a band).

Then there is the more fundamental issue of belonging to the universe. We look into the night sky, consider the enormity and ever changing, expanding, evolving nature of the universe and think: I belong here. I am part of this.

I think art is one of the ways that we celebrate, explore and share our belonging together. That is why it is so important. To a degree, a culture of wine is also one of celebrating belonging. Wine is shared, with meals. Sitting down with someone and sharing a meal is a very intimate thing, and it is at the core of most families and societies. And wine is frequently part of this experience.

Although I love being a freelancer, I recognize the importance of being part of something bigger. I cherish the independence that being a freelancer brings, but acknowledge the loss that comes with it. For the next two weeks I’m going to be taking part in the IWC, and I’m looking forward to it a great deal.

Neudorf Rosie's Block Chardonnay 2015, with video

neudorf roses block chardonnay

This is the latest release from Nelson winery Neudorf, and it’s a new name for an old wine. Rosie’s Block is named after Judy and Tim Finn’s daughter Rosie, and used to be known simply as Neudorf Chardonnay. They also make a more expensive Moutere Chardonnay.

The wine comes from a block overlooking the home vineyard with a north-facing aspect and clay/gravel soils. The vines are dry grown, mature and the vineyard is managed organically (it’s in conversion). There’s also a bit of fruit from other Moutere hill sites in here. I really like this wine – it’s precise and detailed and should age beautifully.

Neudorf Rosie’s Block Chardonnay 2015 Nelson, New Zealand
Very lean and citrussy. Pure and quite mineral with a fine spiciness. It’s still primary with very direct lemony flavours and keen but well integrated acidity. Amazing finesse: so taut with nascent complexity. Drinking well now but will get better with a few years in bottle. 94/100

Here’s a short video of me tasting the wine:

 


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A lovely wine lunch at La Colombe, Cape Town, with Coche, Raveneau, Jamet and Montrose

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It was great to catch up with Keith Prothero, Ryan Mostert and Sam Suddons on Wednesday for lunch at one of Cape Town’s most celebrated restuarants, La Colombe. It was my first time there, and I was impressed. It’s in a beautiful setting high up in the Constantia valley, located in the grounds of the Silvermist vineyard.

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The food is beautifully executed and the flavours are good. No massive surprises: this is modern fine dining with good quality ingredients well prepared. The dining room is clean, attractive and nicely arranged so you don’t feel at all hemmed in by other diners. Service is pretty good, and excellent by South African standards. I liked the wine list, but there’s an expensive, unimaginative Champagne list that could be improved with a few decent grower Champagnes.

Keith very kindly provided the four wines below. Ryan and Samantha brought a 2002 Grivot 1er Cru but I didn’t get a proper note on this, alas. Tragically, the Coche was a bit corked. We tried to deny it at first, but it was pretty obvious by the end of the afternoon. It was just faint, especially at first, and we drunk it still. It’s Coche. The 1999 Jamet is a sensational wine. Truly superb, and with some time ahead of it yet.

 

coche dura meursault

coche dura meursault

Coche Dury Meursault 2004 Burgundy, France
Lively, complex and taut with a touch of matchstick and nice minerality, as well as some toasty richness. Serious, but unfortunately this was affected by some cork taint, so no rating.

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Raven eau Montée de Tonnerre Chablis 1er Cru 2006 Burgundy, France
Very taut and crystalline with lovely finesse to the mineral-driven lemon and pear fruit. Just a hint of creaminess in the background. So pure and fine with some oyster shell character. 95/100

montrose

Château Montrose 1989 Saint-Estephe, Bordeaux, France
Smooth, broad and beautifully textured, showing blackcurrant, some red cherry and a fine spicy core. This is quite lovely: it’s showing some development, but is ageing really well. 96/100

jamet cote rotie

Domaine Jamet Côte-Rôtie 1999 Northern Rhône, France
This is stunning, and still so fresh. Fine, expressive and meaty with notes of iron and blood as well as black cherries and plums. This is so fine and expressive with lovely citrussy acidity, some iodine and some herbs. 97/100

An extra wine that Ryan and Sam bought. I love this stuff.

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Texier Brézème Vieille Serine 2010 Rhône, France
Fresh, fine and expressive with lovely raspberry and cherry fruit. Has texture and freshness and purity. Some pepper notes too. So fine and youthful, with real potential for development. 94/100

sadie kokerboom

These wines were shared by a neighbouring table:

Sadie Kokerboom 2014 Swartland, South Africa
Linear, fine and expressive with lovely pure citrus and pear fruit. There’s a hint of creaminess here too. Taut, pure and quite lovely. 94/100

Sadie Soldaat 2014 Swartland, South Africa
Pale red. Lovely fresh cherries and plums with nice sappy notes. Fine and expressive with cherry and raspberry fruit. This is a brilliant lighter-styled red. 95/100

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In the vineyards with Johan Reyneke talking farming and biodynamics

Johan Reyneke

Johan Reyneke

Had a lovely morning with Johan Reyneke at is Stellenbosch farm. Duncan Savage and I swung by for a spot of breakfast, and we had a lengthy chat about how he farms, as well as a chance to wander the property before I had to head off to the airport.

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Johan is the standard bearer for biodynamics in the Cape, and currently farms 40 hectares of vineyards this way. This will soon expand, though, because half of the neighbouring farm has come up for sale. Reyneke are buying it, which means they’ll have 80 hectares of estate vineyards. The deal is that when they buy this slice of the neighbour’s farm, they are also allowed to farm the remaining 40 hectares of vines and have the grapes for no extra cost. This would leave Johan farming 120 hectares, making it one of the globe’s largest biodynamically farmed vineyards.

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He’s very happy with how the 2016 vintage is looking. It was a very dry year, though, and one of his blocks – four hectares of 40 year old Chenin Blanc vines – only gave him 1.2 tons of grapes.

One of the key decisions for biodynamic farmers is whether or not to work the soil. If you leave a permanent sward and just mow occasionally, this is good for soil microlife, but bad for yield. In this part of Stellenbosch this would give him yields of 4 tons/hectare. With soil cultivation, he can double the yield because of the lack of competition for soil nutrients and water. But cultivation can be bad for soil life, as it’s bringing a layer of soil up to the surface and thus disturbs the microbial balance. Also, discs can create a hard pan just below where they reach. Johan has recently been looking at older texts written by farmers who worked before the widespread availability of chemical solutions, and is getting lots of ideas for ways of preserving the soil microlife while not taking an unnecessary yield hit.

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He had a team of workers out in the vineyard doing the back-breaking work of removing a type of couch grass from the soil (I don’t remember its name). This grass is invasive and it is also allelopathic, which means it sends chemicals out of its roots that inhibit the growth of other nearby plants. Using this bullying tactic, it spreads fast by means of thick rhizomes, and once it takes hold you lose the diversity of species that is beneficial for soil life and which also provides refuge for beneficials.

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The Reyneke farm (and the two new neighbouring blocks) are in a beautiful setting. The soils, a sort of pink, almost sandy decomposed grantite, are devigorating and give very good quality grapes. Johan is currently deciding what to do with the extra 80 hectares he now has access to. In the short term, even though he is farming them biodynamically, there’s a three year conversion period. So if he were to use these grapes, his wines wouldn’t be certified biodynamic, and he feels that biodynamics is an important part of the Reyneke story. To take a holiday from certification might cause him problems in those export markets where he’s part of a biodynamic portfolio.

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Interestingly, he finds that it is actually cheaper for him to farm biodynamically than it would be conventionally, ‘because cow shit is free.’ He doesn’t have to buy any products (fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides), save for a bit of elemental sulphur, and also some Trichoderma preparations (this is a form of biological control against downy mildew). He very occasionally uses a bit of copper, but this is now quite rare for him. Composting is a very important part of his farming. About half of his costs are labour, because working with biodynamics is labour intensive. But he’s happy to pay people wages, and would much rather do this than make agrochemical companies rich.

It was a lovely way to spend my last morning in South Africa. Talking and walking with lovely people, on a stunning morning, in a beautiful spot in the wine lands.

Judging the Top 100 South African Wines competition

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For the last couple of days I have been judging the Top 100 South African Wines competition. This is the sixth year this competition has been run. Along with Richard Kershaw and Duncan Savage, I’ve been a judge at all six. Sadly, this year there was a clash with Bordeaux primeurs, so for the first time we were without Tim Atkin and Greg Sherwood. We were in a new venue (the very nice Schoenstatt conference centre). And I was promoted! I was Mr Big this rime round: my role was to chair the competition.

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It’s an interesting job, and I learned a lot from how Mr Atkin did it so well for the last five years. There are two panels of three tasters, and this year the two panel chairs were Richard Kershaw and Ginette De Fleuriot. I went from room to room tasting all the wines and then taking part in the discussions of the flights. It meant a lot of tasting, but I didn’t have to make detailed notes like the others so I could move faster.

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My goal was to make sure the right wines got through, and also to moderate the level of judging between the two panels. Most of the time they were spot on, but occasionally they had a split verdict, and we needed to re-look at the wines.

Judging wines is an art as much as a science. However experienced and able your tasting panels, there will never be complete agreement. The goal is to arrive at a fair verdict, with each wine being given a proper chance, and this is where some discussion is really useful. You can’t re-taste every wine, but if someone has an outlier high or low score, that’s often an indication that a wine needs a second look.

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There are a few pitfalls that less experienced judges sometimes fall into (and also experienced judges, on occasion). One is the tendency to score wines for what they are not. If you have a flight of big, rather ripe reds, you can end up rewarding the wines that aren’t big or over-ripe, even though they have no real positive attributes of their own.

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Another is to pick out the wines that stick out in a flight. If you have a big flight of pretty similar wines, then there’s a temptation to reward a wine that stands out as being different. In some of the white flights, a wine with excessively high acidity can sometimes be rewarded. But acid for acid’s sake isn’t good. Acidity has to be integrated into the wine. Is the wine balanced? An unbalanced wine can get extra points merely because it is a point of interest in an otherwise uniform run of wines.

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Other things that can get awarded: sweet fruit, sweetness, oak. They can be seductive and woo tired tasters. Presentation order can be a problem: a wine can be affected by the wine that came before it. There’s some interesting taste psychophysics involved with judging lots of wine, and the methods we use certainly aren’t perfect, but we want them to be as good as the constraints will permit. Eventually, you have to judge the competition (and the tasters) by the results. Did the right wines get through?

In South Africa: new releases from Craven, Intellego and Hogan

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Mick and Jeanine Craven

Caught the end of yesterday’s Ex Animo trade tasting in Cape Town, after a long day’s judging wine. And in the short time available, managed to try new releases from Craven, Intellego and Hogan. These are three very exciting producers.

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Of the 2015s, Mick Craven says, ‘if you didn’t make good wine in 2015, you should probably quit.’

Craven Clairette Blanche 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This has a bit more skin contact than last year’s. It shows bright citrus fruit with lovely detail and freshness. A super wine. 93/100

Craven Pinot Gris 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa
7/8 days skin contact has given this a pink colour. Detailed and lively with some herby notes, as well as pear and cherry fruit, along with some rich grapey notes. Really focused and distinctive. 93/100

Craven Faure Vineyard Syrah 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Lively fresh red cherry fruit with some pepper notes and an expressive, juicy personality. Fresh with sweet cherries and plums, showing restraint but also some ripe characters. 12.4% alcohol this year – up a little bit! 94/100

Craven Firs Vineyard Syrah 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa
A new wine in 2015. This vineyard has dark, rich iron/clay soils. These heavy red soils are quite vigorous, but this wine is thrilling. Bright black cherry fruit with nice freshness and a silky texture. Really pure and fine. 94/100

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Jurgen Gouws (intellego) with Donovan Rall

Jurgen Gouws (intellego) with Donovan Rall

Intellego Chenin Blanc 2014 Swartland, South Africa
A lovely Chenin combining richness and complexity. Textured and fresh with rich pear and apple fruit. Very fine. 93/100

Intellego Rosé 2015 Swartland, South Africa
Lovely weight: textured, smooth and very fine grained with hints of cherry and some pear fruit. Broad and lovely. 91/100

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Intellego Kedungu 2015 Swartland, South Africa
Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. Fine and expressive with a lovely meat and olive edge to the black cherry fruit. Has a real smoothness awith some peppery notes on the finish. Smashable and brilliant for the price. 93/100

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Intellego Syrah 2015 Swartland, South Africa
Lovely fresh vivid olive, black pepper, raspberry and blackberry characters. Some cherries too. Vivid with a bright peppery edge. Brilliant. 95/100

Intellego Kolbroek 2013 Swartland, South Africa
Vivid, juicy and bright with nice sappy red cherry and berry fruits, as well as some black cherry. Fresh, sappy and delicious. 93/100

Jocelyn Hogan Wilson

Jocelyn Hogan Wilson

Hogan Chenin Blanc 2015 Swartland, South Africa
From a cooler site (southeast facing), this is quite brilliant. Textured pear, citrus and apple fruit with depth of flavour but also nice freshness. Give this a couple of years and it will be amazing. 93/100

Hogan Divergent 2015 Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan, this is a Stellenbosch/Wellington blend. It’s fresh with nice vivid sweet cherry and plum fruit. Nicely textured this is fine and expressive with lovely purity. Really fine. 94/100

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In Cape Town, the first evening: Meerlust, Villiera, Mossop and Nuy

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I’m in Cape Town. I’ve come to judge the Top 100 South African wines competition, which is now in its sixth year. This year, for the first time, we’re not at Rodwell House (it has been sold), so I’m staying in Vredehoek, on the outskirts of the city. It’s a pretty place, and last night when I arrived I went for an hour’s walk taking a loop through the hills, looking down onto Cape Town. The views (above) were lovely.

Afterwards, I dined with my host, Robin. We had some lovely South African wines, including a really good MCC and a thrilling Rubicon that really delivered.

milesmossopsaskia

Miles Mossop Saskia 2011 Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of 66% Chenin, 26% Viognier, 5% Verdelho and 5% Clairette (which eagle eyed readers will see adds up to 102%). This is a lovely wine that has some richness (14.5% alcohol), but which is fresh and has taken on a nice savoury dimension. Complex, powerful and spicy with citrus, pear and white peach notes. Nice finesse despite the evident power, and a lovely savoury edge. 93/100

villiera

Villiera Cape Winemakers Guild Meteor Methode Cap Classique 2008 Stellenbosch, South Africa
11.5% alcohol. An impressive sparkling wine with a rich apple, pear and toast nose. There’s depth to the palate with rich toast and baked apple characters, and also keen acidity. Really alive and harmonious. 91/100

meerlustrubicon

Meerlust Rubicon 2004 Stellenbosch, South Africa
14% alcohol. Such a lovely wine, drinking somewhere near what I would think to be its peak. Beautifully aromatic with a gravelly, slightly smoky spicy edge to the pure cherry and blackcurrant fruit. The palate is fresh and vivid with lovely harmony to the blackcurrant, chalk and gravel flavours. Fine and elegant, with generosity but also balance. 94/100

nuymuskatel

Nuy Red Muskatel NV South Africa
This is pretty smart – sadly we don’t see many of these Muskadels outside South Africa. 16.5% alcohol. This is a 50th anniversary bottle that recognizes vintages going back to 1963, from the last three cellarmasters. Rich, sweet, warm, aromatic and lovely with spice, tea, raisins and sweet cherry fruit. Richly textured with notes of marmalade and spice. Warm and sweet with lovely balance. 91/100
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Video: reviewing Torres Sangre de Toro, a good honest cheapie

I have a soft spot for Torres. They’re a big company, but they make honest wines. The cheap stuff – the Vina Sol, Vina Esmerelda and the Sangre de Toro – are all really reliable and over-deliver. And they aren’t tricked up. And then Torres also do good expensive stuff, too.

So, continuing my theme of tasting inexpensive, popular wines on camera, here’s a film of me tasting the 2014 Torres Sangre de Toro, complete with its plastic bull. Just £5.50 from Tesco, and that’s the regular price.

Benoît Gouez introduces Moët et Chandon MCIII, the new prestige cuvée

benoit gouez

On Wednesday, I met with Benoît Gouez, chef de cave of Champagne Moët et Chandon, to try their recently introduced prestige cuvée, MCIII. ‘Since the mid-1990s we’ve been thinking of creating something special,’ he says. ‘Different ideas had been offered. Then in 2000 we released 323 magnums of ‘Esprit du Siécle.’ The idea here was to include a vintage per decade throughout the 20th century. The vintages included were 1900, 1914, 1921, 1934, 1943, 1952, 1962, 1976, 1983, 1985 and 1995. All except the last were from bottles, which were then used as base wines alongside the still wine from 1995. This was, or course, a super-expensive wine, but the success of the project led to the idea behind MCIII.

‘We came to the idea of making a blend of vintage wines aged in three different universes,’ says Gouez. They tried and failed to achieve this with a blend based on 1998, and failed again with 2000. But all the time they were learning. Gomez learned that the basis for the wine had to be a ripe, substantial vintage, and then it had to be finished with fresher older wines.

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The concept is that there should be three strata to the wine. The first stratum is the base year for the wine, which is aged in stainless steel. This is named ‘metal’. Gouez poured me the 2013 ‘metal’, which illustrates the style of wine they are looking for. This was concentrated and pure, and much more of a complete wine than you’d expect from a Champagne base wine. It reminded me of a good, taut Grand Cru Chablis.

The second stratum is wood. This wine is aged for six months only in 5000 litre oak casks. The idea is not to impart an oaky flavour, but to bring some maturity and texture to the wine. Then the wine is taken from oak and kept as a reserve. We tried the 2006 version, which since 2007 has been in stainless steel after its sojourn in cask. This was quite lovely.

Stratum 3? This is called ‘glass’, and it refers to old vintage Champagnes from the Moët collection, aged in bottle and then disgorged and then poured into the base wine blend. We tried the Grand Vintage Collection 1998 and 1993, which showed lovely development and maturity.

So then we tried the first release of MCIII. This is a blend of 37.5% Metal (a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the 2003 vintage, fermented and aged in stainless steel); 37.5% Wood (Grand Vintage blends from 1998, 2000 and 2002 aged in word for a bit then stainless steel); and 25% Glass (wines from 1993, 1998 and 1999 that are disgorged and then added to the base wine).

The wine was bottled in 2004 and disgorged in 2014. There are 20 000 bottles of this first release, and four more of these MCIIIs are currently sleeping in bottle. Dosage is 5 g/litre.

‘It’s new, it’s different and it’s unique,’ says Gouez. ‘Nevertheless it is Moët et Chandon in that is has accessible complexity,’ he adds. ‘Even if you don’t understand anything, you can very easily drink it.’

MCIII

Champagne Moët et Chandon MCIII 001.14 NV France
Concentrated, powerful, textured and quite broad with refined pear and peach fruit, as well as some subtle spiciness. Fine notes of toast and bread. This is a complex, rather taut wine, showing real density and nice balance between the richness and freshness. Real harmony and precision, and some beauty here too. 96/100

UK retail is approximately £330

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