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.