Thursday, 9 January 2014

First new year taste of Burgundy 2012

Well, we're off on our January odyssey of the 2012 en primeur burgundies. Last night at the Savile club that doyen of great tasters, David Peppercorn, apparently gave a very positive thumbs up to the vintage. In the presence of so many authoritative tasters, the only area I feel I can add anything from  long experience is Chablis, so close to my beloved Champagne with which it has more in common than it does really with the Côte d'Or.

Yesterday morning at the Domaine Chanson tasting, with a clear view over the Tate to Westminster Cathedral from Mentzendorff's offices,  I sensed I was in the presence of something special, reminding me of when I first tasted, forty years ago, a great Chablis Blanchots  with Michel Laroche over dinner in Auxerre- the beginning of a friendship still warm today. The Chablis 2012s have a concentration and latent power I haven't seen for years. But they are generally not going to reveal themselves for quite a while: these are classic sleepers with beautiful ripe acidity and mineral depths to come. The Domaine Chanson Montmains,usually so forward and  friendly, is tightly packed and steely; the Fourchaumes does reveal a glimpse of that flowery charm but with heft behind; as usual the Montée de Tonnerre - "grand cru" quality at a premier cru price  - is a captivating lemon-gold, elegantly gras but with all that austere craggy sense of place that will make a great bottle. Little point in pontificating about Les Clos and even Les Preuses so young, I just wish I will be still be around to enjoy them at their zenith, come 2024 and beyond!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ay " en Argonne" - current Giraud Champagnes

Tasted London, September 2013

Quite a memorable experience, what a card player might call a Royal Flush.

Esprit de Giraud Blanc de Blancs - a rare type of all Chardonnay champagne, the grapes coming exclusively from the Montagne de Reims, including 10% Ay Blanc. Maintains an admirably crispness and aromas of spring flowers but has an added rich smokiness that is very Montagne. As such, it might go with a wider palate of food flavours than the lighter style of the Cote des Blancs. Stainless steel fermented. Terrific quality for an entry level champagne. *** (*)

Hommage à Francois Hemart, Ay Grand Cru NV - pure Ay 70 /30 Chard. NV. Six months in oak barrels gives patina to the wine. Three years sur lie. Roundness, freshness and the key iodic saltiness of a great site. Long. ****  fine quality /price ratio.

Code Noir Blanc de Noirs Ay Grand Cru NV - richness, intensity, exotic touch of pineapple, reined by noble minerality - you feel the dentelles of chalk in its texture. Opens many opportunities to gastronomy - lobster, seafood, scallops maybe with black bean sauce. ****

Code Noir Rose Ay Grand Cru Ay Grand Cru NV- a truly orginal expression of Pinot Noir Rose striking sensation of wild ham, with strawberries left under the sun, & a note of white pepper. A sensuous delight. For risotto with porcini. **** (*)

Fut de Chene, Multi Vintage, Ay Grand Cru NV - this former top-o-the-range cuvee is now a muti-vintage, rather than from a single year. Created in response to consumer demand, this champagne is all about balance and impressively shows the blender's skills: it has an extra freshness and more keenly defined minerality as a counterpoint to the inherent richness of old; if anything, the wood is even better integrated. **** (*)

Henri Giraud Cuvee Argonne, Grand Cru Ay 2002 - replaces the Fut de Chene vintage, now named after the forest of Argonne. Outstanding wine from a great vintage, all burnised gold, tiny bubbles and every component - fruit, chalky salinity, rich vinosity, perfect oak integration -in superb balance.Grand Vin ***** Tasted Ay, February 2013.


Monday, 30 September 2013

Giraud Master of Argonne Oak in London

Until recently, trying to identify the origins of oak in French fine winemaking was a fool's errand since tracing the wood to an exact forest and type had become impossible.The supplying coopers  tended to give vague answers about the provenance of their wood to houses and growers, who had to resort to averaging everything out by using up to five different coopers to arrive at a style of wine that they thought best suited their wine. It was all a bit hit and miss, anything but precise and clear.That began to change in the early 1990s, when Claude Giraud from one of the oldest wine growing families in Ay began the most intellectually rigorous study of Champagne's local forest, the Argonne, south east of Chalons which for three centuries had provided the most suitable, least invasive type of oak to support the delicate flavours of Champagne. Claude was at Lord's Cricket ground last week at Coe Vintners Tasting to reveal the fruits of his research into oak, expressed in a range of champagnes that come  predominantly from Ay, the silkiest of Grand Cru Pinots; and certainly all his wines are born on the Montagne - unique for a producer who straddles the world of merchant and grower with effortless ease.

Claude Giraud of Hemart-Giraud

Claude began the seminar with some essential background. He told us that with the dramatic expansion of the Champagne market post World War 2, by the 1950s the Champenois were faced with the  Industrial/Agricultural option. As they had become rich,with the thought of becoming richer still, it is no surprise they chose the industrial path based on volume and ambitious distribution. The oak forest of the Argonne was abandoned and stainless steel fermenters were installed to bring a simpler type of Champagne, which was easier to make for mass markets with fewer challenges and risks. Yet from the late '80s, a stalwart band of smaller producers ( led by the pioneering example of Bruno Paillard in 1981) returned to the precepts of their fathers, seeking to  express the true nature of chalky Champagne - fresh, pure, mentholated, mineral and dry, set for a long distinguished life. At first, several growers were wary of returning to oak for fear of distorting the purity of their wines.

Claude had other ideas. Because of  his heritage, he knew that the poor soil of the Argonne was the perfect place for the subtlest oak to enrich his grands vins d'Ay - if only he could identify and authenticate the forest of this ideal wood. Thanks to Claude's 20-year friendship with Camille Gauthier, a 'meraindier' (tree cutter), the last link in the puzzle has been solved. So Maison Giraud now choose all their own oak from trees that are 150 year old, 100 per cent  Argonne authenticated, the only houses in Champagne that can make this claim. Claude signs off in his laconic humorous style: ' Since 1990, there's been no racking. If you touch the wine, you lose its sense. We're not bio or extremist, we just use sustainable methods to make the best wine. Steel tanks are inert, the cask is alive, giving texture, tension , durabilty.' Another way of saying great Champagne. The sweetest irony is the two entry- level cuvees made in stainless steel, Esprit de Giraud, white and pink, are still of the highest quality at their price point.

That's a long enough post for one day...for a full report on the current Giraud range,  the next postfollows in a few days.

Friday, 6 September 2013

A fresh look to Bordeaux at the Westbury

Last night was one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in a while, taking my mind off a sore knee inflicted by my falling on the stairs in the middle of the night after a blameless alcohol-free supper. Louise Hill organized a wine dinner for 12 in a delightful svelte room off Alyn Williams' splendid restaurant at the Westbury. So good to see professional wine friends, Hugh Johnson, Charles Metcalfe, Neal Martin, Patrick Schmitt and Tom, the Cambridge wine blogger. Louise the one delightful female company and her husband, Neil the wine tipster, always good value.We had come to hear three growers from Fronsac, Graves and Margaux give eloquent proof of Innovation & Change in Bordeaux. We kicked off with an impressive aperitif, Chateau Couhans, Pessac- Leognan blanc 201, presented by Romain Baillou. Although it was pure Sauvignon, it wasn't the grape's usual descriptors that struck some of us, but as Hugh said, a genuine sense especially of the clay and limestone terroir from which it sprang, in the best part of Pessac-Leognan for whites between Chx Carbonnieux and Bouscaut. The dramatic improvement in this wine apparently owes a lot to an infra -red technology that analyses the soil, applies ripeness tests and determines homogeneous areas. Geeky, I know, but it works.

Then, a relaxing interlude, as chef Alyn Williams, ex chief sidesman to Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, told us about the elegant dinner to come. The lightest veloute of butternut squash/ new forest mushrooms in that morning, with aged parmesan; braised beef  cheek/ gentle garlic scapes/beets/ mild home-made horseradish sauce; vanilla creme brulee, the classic sans extraneous flavourings. Mouthwatering, eh, and later passing the plate test with flying colours, happy to play second fiddle to the wines, just enhancing them.

Guillaume Halley, the young scion of Chateau de la Dauphine in Fronsac took the stage and spoke of two big changes at his beautiful property. His sizeable hectares are all being converted to organic viticulture; and he has changed wine consultants from Denis Dubourdieu to Michel Rolland. To be honest I winced slightly, as I'm a great admirer of Denis and a more reserved one of Michel. But my scepticism was confounded when I gazed at and tasted the baby 2012 Dauphine, largely Merlot -lovely deep colour and enticing, not too extracted ripe fruit - the Rolland influence. The 2009 looked a little in on itself, with a less youthful hue than the excellent 2001, a classic and his father's first vintage after he bought the property in 2000.

Chateau de la Dauphine & pond

And so to Chateau Marquis de Terme, Margaux classified growth, a nostalgic memory of more than 40 years ago when I was a squirt stagier in the Medoc. Lunching frugally but decently at the cobwebby restaurant L'Etoile - 8 Francs all in, vin ordinaire inclus -  I used to dream of being rich enough to drink the Marquis regularly. It always had fabulous terroir in the centre of the Margaux-Cantenac sector, but it's rarely been that fashionable. Now it has a fine protector in Ludovic David, general manager and winemaker. The 2011 is a quiet little beauty from as yet an unsung vintage. Structure, elegance, admirable Margolais expression of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ludovic's innovations include a 10 % use of the now famous 'egg' vat made of concrete, less oxidative than full oak, in order to preserve the fruit, as it ages. The curvaceous shape of the egg allows for a better interchange of wine and lees. Another tool from the box of tricks is a whizz which measures the polyphenols that will contribute much to the complexity of the wines - that's as far as one old  taster understands it. Ask Neal Martin or Chris Kissack! The 2005 Marquis is a great sleeper that needs more time. I can see why Tom loved the 1990, but we had perhaps a different bottle at our end of the table - in our glasses, the wine seemed a bit torn and drying out.

Altogether a lovely evening, though, restoring one's faith in the greatest wine region on earth.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Flights of Franciacorta (2) _ Enrico Gatti

Erbusco vineyards

This azienda is close to my heart, a proper wine farm, the enterprise akin to a good-sized recoltant-manipulant in, say, Champagne's Cote des Blancs, with 17 hectares of prime vineyards above Erbusco, producing 150,000 bottles annually of Franciacorta DOCG across five cuvees. Founded in 1977 by Enrico, the wines are now made by his son, Lorenzo in a style that is serieux, without compromise - for those who want durably structured Franciacortas which will age well in a unhurried way. Low in dosage (5 g/l or less), firm but not too big, with a strong mineral presence & sense of place. English speaking journalists often scurry around to describe the Italianate character of Franciacorta. Personally, I think the more interesting reality is how closely the Franciacortese study the best Champenois and impose even stricter criteria on themselves in the search for balance and poise in their inherently richer wines. Jean-Claude Rouzaud of Louis Roederer's famous adage about 'Champagne's restrained exuberance' finds an echo in Gatti's Franciacortas, a different opulent expression, of course, but from the same philosophical base. Lorenzo at first spoke about his wines in workaday English, but he soon got frustrated and asked if we spoke French. So, we  chatted away happily, comparing notes about our shared favourites among growers in Le Mesnil, Cramant & Avize (Peters, Vergnon, Lilbert, Agrapart). Lorenzo is very well informed

Three winners, tasted Erbusco 10 July 2013

Enrico Gatti Franciacorta Brut Rose. Pure Pinot Nero/Noir from 2010. Made the hard way, the fine roseate colour with subtle salmon lights, achieved by skin contact, is most skilfully judged. Fresh and fragrant, medium intense mouthfeel, beautifully dry, lots of little red fruits but withal precise, well defined, enhanced by that mineral streak and elegant acidity. Made for food, especially risotto con porcini to please the Pinot Nero. Franco Ziliani gave this wine four and a half stars, maybe from a different vintage. How right he must have been.  Today **** (*)  18. Exceptional

Enrico Gatti Franciacorta Saten 2007. 100% Chardonnay, fermented in French oak futs. The wine is now opening up beautifully, the effects of gentle oxygenation from its time in wood. Excellent,straight, super-dry, steely elegance, a touch of austerity in the best sense. Dosage just 4.5g/l. **** 17.5

Enrico Gatti Franciacorta Millesimata 2007 at the start of its journey to full maturity. " You do need patience with my wines," sighs Lorenzo. Great wells of fruits which will blossom in complexity over quite a few years. Great potential Dosage 4g/l, doesn't need more. **** (*) 18

Azienda agricola Enrico Gatti
(Lorenzo Gatti)
Via Metelli 9
25030 Erbusco (Brescia)
Tel 030 7267999


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Flights of Franciacorta (i) - Il Mosnel

 An hour's drive or so from Milan, on the south shores of Lombardy's Lake Iseo, Franciacorta has been on the radar of oenophiles internationally since just the late 1960s. Then, the important house of Guido Berlucchi decided to concentrate on sparkling wines. It was a far-sighted move, for in the half century since, with wealthy Milanese pouring money into new or revitalized wineries, this compact region has established itself as the home of Italy's finest spumante, no expense spared, to vie with great Champagne at much the same full prices. Warmer than the Marne, with fewer problems of ripeness, Franciacorta is withal a fairly temperate sub-alpine climate, Lake Iseo being on average one or two degrees Celcius cooler than Lake Garda to the east. The main quality challenge tho' is to temper the natural richness and assertive character of mainstay Chardonnay in the blends by tending higher altitude vineyards close to the lake and staying loyal to floral, delicate Pinot Bianco/Blanc in the grape mix. Some of the most glamorous wineries (notably Bellavista) now feel they don't need PB  anymore - I suspect what they really mean is that it's a tricky grape to grow, thin-skinned and prone to rot in humid summers. For me, still the greatest of Franciacortas, Ca'del Bosco, doesn't make this mistake: as its presiding creator Maurizio Zanella insists, "an element of  Pinot Blanc is essential to maintain the finesse of the wines." Music to my ears when bigness is too much the order of the day, as much in Lombardy as in Champagne. Another estate which clings to the old virtues of elegance and restraint is the historic house of Il Mosnel,  still family run by a brother and sister,Giulio & Lucia,children of the matriarch Emanuella Barzano Barboglio who died in 2007.

Giulio & Lucia Barzano
Vyds below Franciacorta's Morainic hills
Il Mosnel has been a wine estate in Franciacorta since the Renaissance, reflected in its 16th century cellars and a captivating clos now planted in Pinot Nero/Noir, framed by beautifully tended roses - if you think the wine experience should be all about emotion, this is the spot to rekindle your feelings. For the historian, the original name Franzacurta, first recorded in 13th century documents probably referred to exemption from commercial taxes - in the Latin,franca curtes- which was a privilege of local villages under the protection of influential clergy. Il Mosnel has been in the Borzano family since 1836, and it was Emmanuella who carefully guided the winemaking for 40 years since 1967 Today, there are 40 hectares in production, two of which are reserved for still wine making. The estate is a model of high density planting and restricted yields: the vineyards are in the third year of conversion to organic viticulture. Guilio, the winemaker, ferments the wines in a mix of stainless steel and barrels. Dosage is about 7 g/l, though as at other leading Franciacorta estates he makes an excellent pas dose (Brut Zero), which I think is generally more successful in this clement place than in Champagne.

Three strong recommendations:

The entry level Il Mosnel Brut NV - 60 Chard., 30 Pinot B., 10 Pinot N. 30% fermented in barriques, 24 months on lees, Dosage 7g/l (October 2012) Subtle pale yellow, green lights; captivating white flower aromas; lovely soft-textured mousse caresses the tongue; yet the wine has energy, freshness, mineral drive, length. Brilliant with local Grana Pardana Lombard cheese and better still with Lucia's Casoncelli tortellini with vegetables,oil and herbs. Impressive ***(*) 16.5+

Il Mosnel Saten - 100 percent Chardonnay from the 2009 vintage. The category where the great white grape shines, certainly here. Less pressure, akin to the old cremant style of Champagne. A feminine wine, for once the right word. All silk and satin, fine-drawn, creamy; subtle persistence of flavour makes for a fine finale. A grand aperitif, par excellence/  **** 17

Il Mosnel Riserva 2007  - 40 Chard, 40 Pinot Blanc, 20 Pinot N Welsh gold, a real sheen; at this stage of maturity a captivating note of strawberry; but this is more fine wine than spumante\;,elegant, aromatic, supple, made more complex by good phenolic maturity. No green edges  The bees' knees. Exceptional. **** 18

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Great forest for great Champagne - L'Argonne reborn

The great oak of the Argonne Forest, south east of Chalons-sur-Marne lies on the first real hills down from northerly Epernay, an hour drive's away. Since the time of the Giraud ancestors and Dom Perignon, Argonne has been the cradle in which great Champagne is made and aged . The silex soils of the forest gives to the oak a more delicate and subtle texture than that of the Troncais forest in central France. At the beginning of the 20th century there were as many as 180 coopers in Florent en Argonne. But by 1950 the expansion of Champagne internationally brought a more industrial attitude; steel and stainless steel were preferred and the Champenois forgot their forest for half a century

History often turns full circle and there's now a return to oak use in winemaking.. Claude Giraud, pioneer of reborn Argonne oak in Champagne says, " I want to make a call to growers and to bigger brands to use our great local oak. The Argonne Forest needs us today, as we need it. In partnership with the National Forest Office, we are planting its oak now as a symbol of  our patrimony and its historic excellence."