Back in 2017 I stayed in the beautiful village of Riquewihr in Alsace. I have been fortunate to stay many times in the region, one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of France. And, of course, home to some fantastic wines and stunning vineyards. I wrote about the stay back then and, also, the natural wine scene. We stayed in a gite run by Domaine Agapé run by Vincent Sipp (a famous wine name in the region) and his wife. Vincent runs his vineyards on a sustainable philosophy, exploring organics but not certified. He invited me to taste his wines and I bought three 2014 Grand Cru Rieslings from different sites in his vineyards. Whilst 2014 wasn’t a great vintage generally in the region Rieslings did well, especially dry versions.
Earlier this summer, on a hot, sunny day in North East England (yes, they do happen) I decided it would be a good time to open all three for comparison. Three Riesling bottles from the same producer, made in the same way, in the same year, they should offer an insight into terroir as that was the only significant difference. We were in my brother in law’s garden and drank them there after they were slightly chilled.
First was Osterberg, a Grand Cru near the village of Ribeauvillé, a little to the North East of Riquewihr. Marl and limestone soils dominate and the vineyard is traditionally a source of good acidity in the wines. I suspect there had been the slightest oxidation of this bottle as the flavours were a tiny bit subdued but there was still good exotic fruit profile with good weight.
Next up was Rosacker and a complete contrast. This vineyard is near Hunawihr, half way between Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé. The soil is different, deep limestone and the vineyard sees less sunshine and is, generally, a little cooler. The result was obvious in the glass, the wine was cleaner, more direct with fresh acidity. White fruit flavours lingered but this was a wine I would have with food, its freshness would enhance any meal. Where Osterberg was exotic and yellow fruit, Rosacker’s apple and pear fruit provided a clear contrast.
Finally, Riquewihr’s own Grand Cru, Schoenenbourg on the north side of the village. We walked around this vineyard (see above) which has very steep slopes down to Riquewihr, they must be hard work to tend and harvest. Marl, limestone and a touch of gypsum mark the site and Schoenenbourg’s wines are often described as having a smoky hint from the gypsum. There was none of that in this bottle, indeed the wine was a perfect middle point for the two previous bottles. Good acidity but with more obviously expressive fruits than Rosacker, fresher than the Osterberg.
Of the three bottles, my wife and Iain both chose the Schoenenbourg as their favourite wine, whereas I went for the Rosacker – maybe the fresh acidity is more in line with my natural wine palate. It was a very enjoyable mini tasting, providing exactly what I had hoped for, an insight into how terroir can produce different wines from the same grape, in this case the wonderful Riesling.
I recommend the Vins Alsace website for bountiful information on the region and its wines.
A year of classic regions for white wines. Let’s start outside of France with a wonderful Riesling from the Rheinhessen. I declare my bias as Rhine and Mosel wines were what sparked my first interest in and love of wines. Riesling would also be my white grape of choice for my desert island.
Weingut Schmitt Riesling M 2017 I tasted at The Real Wine Fair in May and it made a lasting impression. This is how I described it at the time, “Bianka Schmitt explained to me that this was picked slightly later than their other Rieslings and spends a year in old oak. It was a stunner. Aromas ranging from floral to citrus, initial flavours of zest, yellow and green fruitgums. However, what made the wine stand out was what happened next. The wine continued to release flavours even after I had swallowed the liquid (some wines you just do not spit). Lingering melon, grapefruit and even tropical fruits grew and developed for a full minute. I love Riesling and this was a truly special example of its complexity and generosity.”
Another Riesling, this time from just across the border in Alsace. Christian Binner is a long established natural producer and I enjoyed tasting through his whole range of wines, including some lovely Pinot Noir. However, my favourite was the Riesling Grand Cru Schlossburg 2016, lean, steely fresh but with a lovely apple and pear fruit on top. Superb example of the grape and also the value of a great vineyard site and its terroir.
Whilst tasting the Schmitt’s Riesling I was alongside Alice De Moor and one of her wines comes next. Chablis 1er Cru Mont De Milieu 2017 was everything you would want from a Chablis. This outlying area of Burgundy is renowned for its steely, flinty Chardonnay and this wine provided all of those elements but wrapped around with fruit and a creamy nuttiness. Right at the top of my favourite white wines of recent years, showing again how good natural producers bring out the best of their vineyards and grapes.
Two other Burgundy whites reignited my love of that region. A basic Bourgogne Blanc 2016 from Fanny Sabre punched well above its humble label, classic Burgundy with freshness and generous fruit. I must seek out some of the domaine’s more celebrated wines as this showed great winemaking talent. As did AMI is a newish domaine which buys in organic grapes. I liked all their wines but best for me was another more humble label, St. Romain Blanc 2017. Citrus, creaminess, freshness and a hazelnut note – more classic Burgundy Chardonnay. These two show that excellent wine is still available at good prices in Burgundy.
The Jura has become a very fashionable wine region in recent years, very different to when I first visited 20 years ago. I love the wines though their popularity makes them increasingly expensive and difficult to find. I came across the wines of Domaine De La Touraize at RAW and they were a highlight of the year. Bets of all was the Savagnin 2015 which spent 2 years ‘sous voile’ i.e. under the yeast flor. The wine is nutty, stony and had lovely apricot flavours – all of which lingered long in the mouth. Exciting wine.
Two wines from outside of France merit mention here as I enjoyed them greatly. Patrick Sullivan makes wine in Victoria, Australia. I tasted some of his excellent wines in Australia last year and sought some out upon my return to the UK. His Baw-Baw Chardonnay 2018 had great concentration and power and, whilst still very much in its infancy, offers good fruit and drinkability already.
One of my favourite producers in recent years is Casa Pardet from the Costers Del Segre region in Catalonia. One of their Cabernet Sauvignons tasted 4 years ago was one of the greatest wines I have ever had. This year I revelled in their Chardonnay Amfora 2016. Almost an orange wine (perhaps it ought to have been in that section) it has lovely grip and dry, stone fruit flavours with almost liquorice afternotes. Great.
Finally to the Languedoc and the only domaine in Faugères producing only white wines. La Graine Sauvage is the domaine of Sybil Baldassarre. Sybil is an oenologue by profession but now has her vineyards and works with her partner Alexandre Durand whose red Dynamite I chose amongst my red wines of the year. A talented couple as well as being great people. Sybil’s The Velvet Underschiste 2016 shows off Grenache Blanc with apple and pear fruit flavours and a freshness from the schist soils of the Faugères. Lovely now but with long life ahead of it if I can resist drinking my remaining bottle for a few years. Excellent wine.
Reviewing my selections the predominance of Chardonnay and Riesling came as something of a surprise, the predominance of France perhaps less so. I found this the most difficult of all the categories to select a final list. There were so many great white wines which I was fortunate enough to taste this year and apologies to many other producers whose talents I could easily have highlighted on another day.
T.S. Eliot believed it was the cruellest month but my selection of April wines proved to be generous and pleasing. Here are my thoughts, including my early front runner for wine of the year.
My first real wine tasting was in a small village in the Rhine Valley called Bacharach, in 1982 I think. It is therefore a doffing of my proverbial wine hat to open a bottle from that village. Toni Jost is one of the biggest producers there, this 2009 Kabinett was a classic Riesling, dry with a nice streak of acidity but a sweet fruit finish. I do love German Riesling, my fondness steming from that first experience 37 years ago of how diverse wine could be. In truth this was fairly routine wine, nice enough without being noteworthy. The nostalgia quotient is my only reason for its inclusion here.
Compare that to the 2016 Bourgogne from Fanny Sabre. I often forget how good Burgundy can thrill the tastebuds like very few other regions. There is a reason why prices have gone through the roof and my hopes of tasting Romanée-Conti have sailed off into a horizon never to be reached. My brother in law was amazed that this was natural, it was a pure Chardonnay, classic buttery and hazelnut flavours and, quite simply, very satisfying. This is a basic regional wine, nothing special about the vineyards or terroir, yet it was very well made and I am on the hunt for more of the Sabre wines.
Catherine Riss is another winemaker attracting attention in recent years, this time in the Alsace region. This 2016 Riesling De Grès Ou De Force was a bright, zesty, joyful wine. Catherine’s vineyards are spread around northern Alsace including Nothalten home to Patrick Meyer (and another of my early holiday bases). Made from vines on sandstone (grès) it delivers pleasure and has a serious side too from the acidity, a winning combination. Last time I was in Nothalten talking to Patrick Meyer he praised Catherine Riss and bemoaned that there were not more young winemakers starting out in the region because of the high price of land. On this evidence his faith is being well repaid. I’d choose this every time over the Jost. Great labels too.
By contrast the wines of Jean Foillard are well established, he is one of natural wine’s pioneers and greats, one of the major factors in the renaissance of Beaujolais as one the world’s greatest wine regions. This 2014 Morgon epitomises those points. Foillard wines imprive over several years in my experience and this was at a peak. Delicious Gamay fruit supported by fine acidity and light tannins. This is classic Beaujolais made naturally as it used to be generations ago. Classic wine.
Two other great red wines need to be saluted on here. Louis and Charlotte Pérot make wines in Cahors and (disclaimer) are personal friends whom I admire greatly. I first met them in 2015 at La Remise in Arles, one of their first big wine tasting events and, proudly, I was one of the first to praise them. Understandably they have received many plaudits since and their wines get better and better as their vineyards respond to their care. The labels change annually based on book prints, a reminder of their previous work in Paris. L’Ostal is able to make Cahors’ Malbec (or Côt) into approachable, fruity, delicious wine but with the typical backbone and structure of that region. I love these wines, this was another April success.
Sylvain Bock’s wines from the Ardèche are one of my ‘go to’ picks for enjoyment and reliability. Neck is pure Grenache, ripe but with a serious side. I have seen reports that this 2016 was the best vintage of this cuvee and I can believe it because, like all the wines I have lauded in here, there is a combination of pleasure and reflection. By that I mean, there is a serious side which makes you look closely at the wine, and think about its making not just drink it unthinkingly. Lovely bottle.
The pleasures which April wines showered upon me were greatest from one bottle however. La Paonnerie is based in the Coteaux D’Ancenis in the western Loire. The Carrogets work naturally and I have enjoyed their wines in the past. However, the 2017 Vegyes was on another level for me. Golden in colour I was convinced that there must be extended skin contact but no. The colour is the result of vines over 100 years old which provide Chenin Blanc of great purity. The vineyards have been organic since 1997, the wines are made without anything added. The result was complex. Quince flavours certainly, other fruits too but with texture and classic Loire Chenin acidity. This was a great bottle of wine.
Since I was a little boy I have always wanted to see Sydney Harbour, the bridge and the Opera House. So, for 6 days I was entranced by this place and at the end of my stay I remained awed by the spectacle. We were lucky to stay in a room which afforded this view through the window and I would get up and simply look out of the window from time to time to make sure I was not dreaming it. As man made attractions go, it is as good as any.
The view from the room window
I hadn’t realised just how much of Sydney is a collection of villages and suburbs dotted around the huge harbour. Darling Harbour, Potts Point, Rose Bay, Manly were all places dotted around the magnificent waters linked by ferries and, so, easy to get around. Manly Beach was especially good (better than Bondi in my humble opinion, but then I am not a beach person) and a thriving place of its own, 30 minutes from the Circular Quay ferry wharf.
Darling Harbour is the scene of new building, banks and museums sitting side by side, Chinatown and Paddy’s Market just around the corner. I can recommend the Powerhouse science museum, try to avoid school holidays though unlike us.
A terrific day at Randwick races was another highlight, facilities which would put any UK course to shame, free shuttle buses, cheap entry, well-priced food and drink of good quality and, top class racing. I combined my two passions by having a glass of Chandon sparkling wine ($8.50 or just uner £5) to celebrate winning on the first race and some decent Barossa Shiraz after winning on one of the big races.
Sydney is certainly cosmopolitan, Asian culture is a big part of the city’s appeal. The people were without exception friendly and helpful, more than once when we were looking lost passers-by stopped to help and even walked us in the right direction. Some even recognised the North East England accent, one man born in the next village to our home town. Beautiful gardens and green spaces, that stunning harbour – it is a lovely city.
Jeff Coutelou wines are imported to Sydney by Andrew Guard and he kindly recommended places to eat and drink. Sadly, we missed him by 10 minutes in one of those, he must have seen me coming and done a runner! It was good to meet one of his assistants, Andy Ainsworth, at 10 William Street in Paddington. This is a wine bar/restaurant recommended to us from other friends too and we walked there after visiting the Sydney Cricket Ground. Lovely food including a memorable Brussel sprout dish. Yes Brussel sprouts, I’d never have imagined them so tasty.
Sprouts stir fried with mint and candied almonds
To drink, a Beaujolais from Karim Vionnet but mostly a bottle of Riesling from Adelaide Hills winemaker Travis Tausend. This was recommended to us by Andy who reckons this is one of the most up and coming producers. The Riesling was zesty, vibrant, fruity and had a lovely, Riesling finish. He reported that Tausend worked with Riffault in Sancerre and borrowed the idea of picking 3 times to get a mix of early higher acidity grapes, the main pick and then others just showing the merest hint of botrytis. The result was excellent. No SO2 either.
The other restaurant of note was Fratelli Paradiso in Potts Point. The pasta with langoustine I had there was certainly the best pasta I have eaten outside of Italy. To accompany a Vineyard Blend from Basket Range, yes another Adelaide Hills wine. Basket Range is made by Sholto and Louis Broderick whose wines I praised in my post on Melbourne. This blend included Petit Verdot, Merlot and whole bunch Saperavi, a Georgian grape I had only ever had once before. The result was fresh, sappy, fruity and terrific with the pasta, I liked this a lot. And no SO2.
Elsewhere I tried a number of wines from fairly familiar names from Hunter, Barossa and Mclaren Vale. They were fine in a typical Australian wine way, they just seemed a bit heavy, perhaps the heat didn’t help them. Instead I turned to the many craft beers for refreshment, Pale Ale is very much on trend and to my taste. For me though this was further evidence that Adelaide Hills is the exciting region to explore, I urge you to do so. Meanwhile the people and those views will long live in my memory as the absolute stars of Sydney.
On to New Zealand with an interesting flight into Queenstown, mountains either side of the plane as we came into land. Any qualms were soon allayed by the region we were in, Otago is simply one of the most beautiful regions I have ever visited. Lakes, mountains, unusual wildlife, small towns, little villages. Undoubtedly tourism keeps the economy buoyant, Queenstown itself is a busy town of 16,000 residents, which population doubles every night with visitors.
Otago is a relatively new vineyard region. There had been tentative plantings from the 19thC but when Northern Ireland born Alan Brady planted a first commercial vineyard in the Gibbston Valley in the early 1980s he was mocked for being a dreamer. Yet Brady had realised that at a latitude of 45˚C South the area was at a similar level to Burgundy at 45˚C North. Success followed as did other growers and Otago is now widely regarded in the wine world as one of the most promising, up and coming wine regions. Pinot Noir dominates (that Burgundy parallel) with 75% of planting, whites make up the rest with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (just 2%), Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer amongst the most common grapes.
Fighting two problems: small turbines to combat frost in the air and netting to stop wax eyes from eating and damaging grapes
Within the region there are sub regions which do have different climates and geology. The Gibbston Valley, for example, is relatively cool and on schist whereas other major growing areas such as Bannockburn are warmer, more open and on sandy, silty soils. This has an effect on growing time, ripeness etc. We must also bear in mind that the wines being produced are from relatively young vines, most are around the 20 year old mark and will mature and produce more complex wines with age.
Not knowing the region at all I decided to take one of the wine tours available and travelled with Appellation Wine Tours, which proved to be a wise decision. We were taken to 4 wineries in different areas of the region and tasted over 20 wines, not to be recommended if driving. Our guide Gavin was very well informed, enthusiastic, patient and extremely helpful with a good sense of humour. He certainly made it a very good day for everybody. Lunch was provided too, a very good platter (vegetarian in my case) with a glass of choice at Wooing Tree winery in Cromwell.
The main domaines we visited were Mt. Rosa, Domain Road and Kinross which is a type of co-operative where 5 different wineries sell their wines.
Mt. Rosa is in Gibbston Valley and we tasted a range of whites and Pinot Noirs. The Sauvignon Blanc was textural and not your typical Kiwi SB, nice. I was unconvinced by the Pinot Gris but liked the Pinot Blanc 2017 with its fruity, melon flavours. Trish MacKenzie kindly poured 3 vintages of the Pinot Noir, it was interesting to see vintage difference from this relatively cool area. The 2016 was juicy and fruity, the 14 starting to show forest floor, earthy flavours. The 15 was much more austere, apparently it snowed at the end of harvest time. The Pinot Noir Reserve 2016 was more intense with oak influence.
Domain Road is in Bannockburn on a hillside with lovely views. The vines are covered in nets as most are in New Zealand because of the Wax Eye bird which eats grapes but also leaves some leaking juice so that rot can set in. They are a real nuisance. The Estate Pinot Noir 14 was plummy but already showing those earthy notes and the French oak was apparent. Single vineyard Defiance 2016 was more juicy and serious with the oak influence again. 2013 single vineyard Paradise Reserve was darker still. The best of the grapes are taken and given extra barrel ageing. However, the whites were much more to my taste to be honest. The Sauvignon Blanc 15 had typical NZ flavours but was subtle, concentrated and very clean, one of the best examples from NZ that I recall. Defiance Chardonnay 16 was barrel aged and though the wood gave crème brulée aromas the flavours were more subtle, stone fruits and spice. I liked it a lot. On to two Rieslings. Water Race 16 is very dry with only 9gms of residual sugar, not very aromatic but lime and citrus flavours more than compensated. Very refreshing. Duffer’s Creek 15 has 20gms of residual sugar and in an off dry style. Very appley on the nose with lime flavours again and a touch of sweetness. I very much liked this and bought some too!
Finally, on to Kinross. Coal Pit wines have been running since 2006, we tasted their Sauvignon Blanc 2011. Interesting to taste an older SB and what an aroma, sweetcorn! Classic NZ Sauvignon Blanc flavours. Hawkshead Riesling 2015 was organic and has 11gms of residual sugar. Very kerosene on the nose but clean, citrussy flavours. Domain Thomson’s Surveyor Thomson Pinot Noir 13 is made on biodynamic principles. This 5 year old wine was very mushroomy and savoury. Fascinating to taste Valli Pinot Noir Gibbston Valley 2016 made by Grant Taylor, 4 time winner of Decanter’s Best Pinot Noir in the world award. The fruit was apparent but there were already savoury notes and quite apparent oak. Finally, and appropriately, The Wild Irishman Macushla Pinot Noir 15. This is made by Alan Brady and with minimal intervention, a slight use of SO2 on bottling but otherwise a classic natural wine. Interesting to see that this was the favourite wine of others in the group with its wilder, spicy freshness. The godfather of Central Otago still leading the way!
I had the opportunity to taste other wines during my time in Queenstown. Carrick winery is organic and its Chardonnay 15 was one of the best examples of that grape that I have tasted in some time, delicious. Of other Pinots, I liked Prophet’s Rock 15 more than Two Paddocks 11. And that highlighted an issue for me. I found many of the Otago Pinots were showing very savoury flavours at a relatively early age. My personal taste is towards the fruitier Pinot and so, the younger bottles appealed more to me. There was also a lot of oak use, not all subtle either. So maybe it’s just me but I wasn’t completely convinced by Otago Pinots, much more so by the white wines. I go against expert opinion in saying this I have to say.
This really is the most stunning wine region and as vines mature and winegrowers learn more and more about their terroir and vines it will certainly produce increasingly good wines. I would be very, very happy to return and find out for myself one day.
And so to the wines at RAW which contain sulfites above 20mg/l, in other words sulfites added. Reading Alice Feiring’s book ‘Naked Wine’ she tells of how the founding father of natural wine Jules Chauvet used SO2 as do some of the movement’s well-known figures such as Foillard and Puzelat if they feel they need to do so in order to protect that particular wine. Natural wine is about more than just sulfites though its reputation seems to be bound with that additive. RAW’s own charter is worth reading on the subject.
I did enjoy many wines at RAW which are above my artificial 20mg/l mark. There are a dozen domaines worthy of mention so I shall be brief in describing them. Again I refer you to the RAW website for more information (via links) and also to David Crossley’s website for more detailed descriptions on some.
Confounding all my prejudices about big, sweet California wines this domaine’s hallmark was freshness and a light touch. Whether a peach aroma Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2016 or a juicy, red fruit Redwood Valley Carignan 2015 and even a Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 Santa Cruz Mountains – all these wines delivered everything you’d want in flavour and drinkability together with some complexity. Together with The Scholium Project I am converted to West Coast wines.
And Canada too. This is an interesting project where as well as making their own wine new winemakers are helped to make theirs too. Read more at the link above. Their Haywire wines were very good, providing an interesting contrast for me. As stated before I am not the biggest fan of extended skin contact wines, but here was a Free Form Sauvignon Blanc 2015of 9 months maceration which was fruity as well as having texture, very good. I preferred it to a more traditionally made Pinot Gris. On the other hand the red skin contact was outshone by a beautifully fresh Water And Banks Pinot Noir 2015, classic grape character with red fruits and an earthy crunch. Lovely.
Jura wines are very on trend and with good reason, there are many excellent wines being produced there. I visited the region 20 years ago when Jura wines were hard to find because nobody was interested, now they are hard to find because they are in demand. I have had the good fortune to taste many excellent producers before including La Pinte, present at RAW. This domaine was new to me however, and another name to add to my list of must buys.
The Crémant Cuvée Adrian 2014 would certainly fit nicely into any occasion, refreshing tasty sparkling Chardonnay. The Chardonnay Sur Montboucon 2015 was even better with round , green and yellow fruits, great character. Perhaps my favourite wine was the Poulsard 2014, very light like a rosé in colour but packing dense rose and red fruit aromas and long red fruit flavours. One of my wines of the event. A word too for Vinum Paléas 2015, Éric’s straw wine with a slight honey note but dry and refreshing. Skilled winemaking.
I don’t recall drinking wines from Bugey before. I will again. Again wines marked by a freshness and pure fruit . A lovely, fresh Chardonnay les Côtes 2016– more direct and zesty than the Jura style but a good food wine. The Pinot Noir Tradition 2016 made another comparison with the Jura and again it was more direct, good red fruits, ripe and clean. My favourite was the Altesse De Montagnieu “en Chinvre” 2016which is quite a mouthful! Roussette is the grape and there was a grapefruit, citrus attack with a soft finish, really good.
It really is good to see a region fighting back led by a producer who lets nature speak.
I was delighted to bump into Mathieu Deiss again. I have met him at a couple of tastings before when he was showing the wines of the family domaine with his father at the helm. I love those wines and their philosophy of place rather than grape. He is a passionate young winemaker and I am happy, but not surprised, to say that his own wines are crackers too.
Singulier is a blend of various white grapes, mostly Riesling made by carbonic maceration. The 13 was nice but the 15 was even better, singing with zesty fruit and character with mo SO2 either. It was another skin contact wine which made sense adding that characteristic texture to the fruit. Vibration 2013 was a Riesling with quite the best aromas of any wine at the Fair. Classic Riesling, zesty and long fresh flavours which grew in the mouth. Pierres Sauvages 2013 is a blend of Pinots; Blanc, Gris and Noir but made as a white wine so no long skin contact with the Noir grapes. This filled the senses, it is still developing in bottle I would say, lovely.
To the Loire, that hotbed of natural wine and another new domaine to me based in Azay Le Rideau. I liked the reds but Loire reds are often a blindspot for me and it was the white wines which really stuck out, based on Chenin Blanc. The Azay Le Rideau ‘Les Chênes’ 2015 was a classic Loire white with zest and minerality, textured and fruity. I also liked the Blanc Chenin 2015 made in concrete eggs which seemed to have a richer depth. More young winemakers making an impact, the future looks good.
I have bought wines from this domaine in the past and was pleased to see them here at RAW. This is a classic Burgundy domaine and I love good Burgundy. No disappointments here, lovely Savigny and Pernand Vergelesses but there were two stand out wines. Corton Blanc 14 was a reminder of why Chardonnay in Burgundy can be just about perfect. The aromas and flavours seemed to have limitless depth, from apple and green fruits to rich, round hazelnuts. A stunner. And the Corton Bressandes Grand Cru 2014, just makes me smile thinking of it. Still a baby, but delivering forest aromas, dark red fruits, earthy notes – it’s one of those Pinot Noirs which just says this is as good as red wine gets. Tannins aplenty still but in a few years? I would love a supply of these to follow the wine’s progress. Top class biodynamic wine with producers cutting back on sulfites too. Love it.
Wines from classic old world regions and new world upcoming areas too. The world of wine is embracing natural wine.
Two of the main salons of the year take place in Montpellier in January, Les Affranchis and Le Vin De Mes Amis. Both are based around natural producers though there are other producers present who follow organic or biodynamic methods but who do use SO2 in their wines.
Les Affranchis (The Liberated) meet at Chateau de Flaugergues, happily this year the event was back in the main rooms of the domaine rather than the marquees of 2016. The Sunday was relatively quiet and it made it easy to get around and talk to the producers as well as taste their wines. Though some were familiar, Jeff Coutelou and Olivier Lemasson for example, there was plenty of opportunity to meet producers whose wines were new to me.
A familiar range
Rather than a bottle by bottle description here are my highlights from Les Affranchis:
La Busattina (Tuscany) – completely new to me but what an impression. The white San Martino was lovely and came in two forms, the traditional and the longer maceration which I actually preferred with cleaner, direct fruit and acidity though both versions were very good. Legnotorto 2012 was a Sangiovese of real cherry fruit and impressive length, and the Ciliegiolo 2008 was even better showing the value of aging these wines with truffle, cherry and round flavours. It was pleasing to hear other friends also praise these wines, the real highlight of the day.
Kumpf et Meyer (Alsace) – I am a fan of Alsace wines but this was a new domaine to me and quickly became a favourite. Julien Albertus presented an excellent range from a lovely fresh PetNat, top still wines and a delicious sweeter wine. Favourites were a Crémant of Chardonnay and Auxerrois plus a Pinot Noir Weingarten 2014 of lovely fruit and depth. I never thought an Alsace Pinot Noir and Crémant would be highlights of any tasting so these were a lovely surprise. Best of all though was the Riesling Westerberg 2014, classic Riesling flavours with a freshness and drinkability all too rare. I shall be looking out for Julien’s wines in future.
Binner et Cie, Les Vins Pirouettes (Alsace) – yes Alsace again. This is a range of wines where Christian Binner has enabled young producers to move away from the co-ops and bottle their own wines. There was one producer, Stéphane, whose wines shone here. His Tutti Fruti, a blend, was lovely classic Alsace wines but the single cépage Riesling Bildstoeckle, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer were all just lovely, marked by freshness, fruit and flavour. The Riesling was top class and Gewurz is a grape I find difficult but was delicious. Prices are very affordable too.
More familiar wines which again proved worthy of a place at the top table came from:
La Ferme Saint Martin (Rhone), a long term favourite of mine and this time it was the Beaumes De Venise Vieilles Vignes 2015 and the delicious Le Blanc 15 which took the prize
La Sénéchalière (Muscadet), proving how the region has really moved on and is producing top fruity wines of distinction. Favourite cuvées were the well named Miss Terre 16 and, especially, the longer macerated Nuitage 15.
Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme (Touraine), more lovely, fresh Loire white wines from all across the river’s length. Lovely Melon De Bourgogne 16, round apple and pear fruits made from grapes bought from the Landon family. Very nice Pouilly Fumé 15 of real minerality and clean fruit and lots of other good cuvées too.
Boulard (Champagne), lovely wines, champagnes of real freshness and length. Les Murgiers was my favourite cuvée and came in two forms, non-dosage and 5mg dosage. Both had their merits though the former had clearer floral notes and a zesty finish.
Other wines I really enjoyed were:
Les Roches Sèches (Anjou) – Pentes Douces with a lovely, dry fruit and a well-judged touch of sweetness from Chenin Blanc
Tetramythos (Greece) – Muscat Sec 15, fresh and grapey
La Paonnerie (Anjou) – Les Champs Jumeaux 15, a lovely Chenin Blanc, clean, fresh and mineral; Loire white wine at its best
Rémi Dufaître (Beaujolais) – Côte De Brouilly 16, darker fruit and lovely Gamay, joyful
Chateau Meylet (Saint Ėmilion) – the 2010 showed the benefits of age for this lovely wine. I had forgotten how good Bordeaux wines can be and this has freshness and very deep fruits. The other vintages were good but this was lovely.
An excellent event, relaxed atmosphere, great producers and not too crowded. I missed out on some other top producers as always at any tasting, however the wines above and many more made for a lovely day. Surprises in the form of enjoying Crémant and St Émilion, variety from Greece and Italy, favourites from previous years – liberating.
After my everyday case it is time to select my case of wines representing my favourite wines tasted (and drunk) in 2015. It has been a fantastic year for me, I love my life in the Languedoc and the opportunity to spend time alongside someone I consider to be a truly great winemaker and, I am fortunate to say, my friend. Through various tastings, meals and purchases I have also been fortunate to discover many top class wines. So here is my final selection of twelve. I have omitted Jeff’s wines as that will form the next article and they would fill much of this case. It should also be said that my choice would probably vary day to day, I was torn between a number of great wines.
The Languedoc Roussillon is perhaps best known for its red wines and yet looking through my notes it was often white wines which excited me most in 2015. Indeed I will start with two wines from the region.
Mas Gabriel, Clos Des Papillons 2013. No surprises here, this also featured in my everyday case. It has been a favourite wine of mine for many years, I love the Carignan Blanc grape with its freshness and white fruits and Peter and Deborah Core have mastered a wine which brings out its best. Every vintage from 2010 to 2014 tasted at the Domaine’s tenth anniversary dinner was excellent but the 2013 stole the show for me.
The 5% Viognier adds a little mystery but it is the Carignan Blanc which gives the fruitiness, freshness and longevity. The reds of Mas Gabriel are lovely too but this remains my favourite and I’m also looking forward to the development of the new white wine Champ Des Bleuets. It is not just loyalty which earns Clos Des Papillons its place here though, the wine genuinely thrills me no matter how often I drink it. It claims first place ahead of another exciting Carignan Blanc from Caux, Lune Blanche of the Conte De Floris.
Clos Du Rouge Gorge, Sisyphe 2014. Cyril Fhal produces great red wines especially his Carignans in Latour De France in the Roussillon. However, this year it was his white wine Sisyphe which really captured me. Grenache Gris is the cépage behind most of my favourite wines in the region and this wine adds a clean, fruity yet racy edge. A wine you could drink alone or with food and one which leaps out as something special from the first sniff to the last sip.
Domaine Montesquiou, Terre De France 2014.I could probably include every wine made by Montesquiou, so high is the quality of this Jurancon domaine. It was a thrill to visit Fabrice and Sébastien in Monein and to tour the vineyards and cellars, I had long been a great fan of their wines. The excitement and enjoyment found in the wines is so obviously a reflection of the land and the family, the brothers are passionate about their vines and restless in seeking to make their wines even better. The raciness of the dry wines, the skilful use of oak, the tightrope balance of the sweet wines, every bottle offers a treat. I chose this wine as it walks that fine tightrope with lime, lemon and white fruits just offset by a trace of sweetness. Masterful.
With Olivier Humbrecht
Zind Humbrecht, Clos Windsbuhl Riesling 2011. I love Riesling, I love Alsace wines. Most of my favourite Rieslings are from the Mosel, others from Australia but this wine blew me away, apt on a day when gales were threatening the tent where the tasting took place near Montpellier for Biodyvin. I had tasted some Zind Humbrecht wines before and enjoyed them but this was one of those moments when the lightbulb lit above my head. Classic fresh aromas, so clean tasting and those flavours of fruit with a thrilling edge of acidity and, yes I know it makes no sense, minerality. There really is a texture and saltiness which reminds me of minerals. It is a very young wine, it will age for decades I would think but it is already packed with so much complexity and pleasure. It is everything I would ever want from a white wine.
Domaine Huët, Clos Du Bourg Demi-Sec 2005. At the same tasting as the Zind Humbrecht I tasted this beauty. I admit to some bias as Vouvray was my first wine village visited in France and long a favourite. The sweeter style moelleux which I tasted that day were excellent, a 2008 Haut Lieu for example but I love the demi-sec style which balances the dry appley side of Chenin Blanc with its capacity to produce a sweet side with hints of honey balancing the zestiness. This Clos Du Bourg was so deep and complex and so long lasting, it was like tasting several different wines in one glass. This will again age for a long time, I’d imagine it will develop more sweetness but right now I love this balance of dry and sweet. I often resist the big names of a region but this Huët just stood out as an example of great winemaking.
Pierre De Sisyphe of Joe Jefferies
Other dry white wines close to selection included Pierre De Sisyphe 2014 from Bories Jefferies (again from Caux!), the Greco 2013 from Giardino (Campania, Italy), Casa Pardet’s Chardonnay 2013 (Costers del Segre, Spain), Loin D’Oeil 2014 from De Brin (Gaillac) and a lovely Chenin Blanc from Testalonga (Swartland, Soith Africa), tasted on a beach in Marseillan, called El Bandito but no vintage noted whilst there I’m afraid.
I’m including Champagne Franck Pascal Quintessence 2004. Long, yeasty, rich but with a great freshness which cleansed the palate and left me wanting more. Yet another biodynamic producer, I loved all the wines I tasted but this vintage champagne with its Pinot Noir dominance had the extra complexity and depth which marks great wine of any type. The 2005 was almost as good but this 2004 was extra clean and long. I tasted a lot of very good champagnes this year, Barbichon, Leclerc Briant, Drappier, Lassaigne being some, but Quintessence was special.
So, six white wines which have given me great pleasure in 2015. Next the reds.
I read an article recently by renowned wine writer Eric Asimov in the New York Times in which he outlined the twelve wines he would always want to have around, his everyday case of wine. As I read it I naturally began to consider which wines I would include in such a case.
Issues to consider included the balance of red and white, sweet and fortified as well as sparkling wines. I could make a case just from the Languedoc, even from Mas Coutelou alone. In the end I went for a balance of wines. As an everyday case I have chosen still wine over £15 (€20) and sparkling / fortified wine less than £25 (€33).
I decided on a balance of white and red together with one example each of sparkling wine, sherry, port and sweet wine.
I have to start with Riesling, my ultimate white grape. I like Alsace examples a great deal but nothing surpasses the Mosel for me and the Kabinett / Spätlese styles in particular. JJ Prum or Bürklin Wolff Kabinetts would fit the bill nicely, easily within the price bracket, I shall go with the former.
The last few years have given me a great love of Jurancon dry white wines, heightened by a recent visit. In particular Domaine Montesquiou strike me as amongst the great white wines of the world. The balance of fruit, acidity, hint of sweetness enriched by the lightest oak influence is just my thing. I loved the new Vin De France and L’Estela is a favourite (unoaked) but will stick with Cuvade Préciouse for that extra complexity of oak.
Vouvray was the first wine village I visited in France and remains a favourite for its mix of dryness and hints of sweetness in the demi-sec style. The Loire is a centre of natural winemaking and I shall opt for Vincent Carême’s Vouvray Le Clos, though not all his his cuvées are sulfite free . Champalou would be an alternative.
I would love to include a white Burgundy but price makes it difficult, I was close to choosing a Grenache Gris from Roussillon. Instead I shall opt for Mas Gabriel’s Clos Des Papillons. A firm favourite for many years I was fortunate enough to attend the 10th anniversary dinner of the Domaine this summer and to taste through a number of brilliant vintages of this superb Carignan Blanc and it is a wine which gives me so much pleasure and a reminder of how great the Languedoc can be.
Red wines and the choice becomes even harder. I have to include a Languedoc – Roussillon wine because I love it and there is no better value for quality wine. How to choose? There are so many wins I love but how could I not include a Mas Coutelou? A week without one is too long so there has to be one in my everyday case. Vin Des Amis was the wine which hooked me, Copains and Flambadou would be amongst my favourites. La Vigne Haute and its pure Syrah with drinkability and complexity combined is the choice though. If I had to choose one bottle to drink for a final meal this would be it and yet I can fit it into this everyday price bracket, great.
I love lighter structured red wines and I would definitely want one in the case. Beaujolais is a favourite but my preferences are, sadly, above the price bracket. Just fitting it however, my choice would be a Sicilian Frappato from the excellent producer COS. I really fell for this on a trip to the island in 2014 and its fruit, complexity yet light touch fits the bill perfectly.
My favourite red wine grape is Pinot Noir. I was lucky enough to visit Burgundy when prices were high but not stratospheric. I soon learned that one memorable bottle would be followed by a number of disappointments but that one bottle was so good that it made me keep searching for more, very addictive. No New World Pinot can match Burgundy though there are some very good ones. But at less than €20? Well there are good Bourgogne Rouges available and villages such as Fixin offer better prices but even they push that limit. One producer whose wines I really like is Guillot-Broux in the Maconnais. The wines are much more serious than you’d expect from that area, equal to many Côte D’Or producers. I notice the Macon Pierreclos is £15.95 with the excellent Leon Stolarski so maybe he will do a discount for a bulk order. Cheat? Probably, but I have to include a Burgundy.
Other than Sicily my choices have been all from France and I want to remind myself that good wine comes from around the world. Te Mata Coleraine was the first new world red to really make me realise how good it could be but the price has risen way too high. Australian reds were a staple for so many years though I find so many too heavy these days, especially in this price range, much as I love some Penfolds, Wakefield and Tim Adams. Spain is a source of good value wines though I find too many overoaked. Casa Pardet (Costers del Segre) was a great discovery this year but too expensive for this. Instead I have opted for another Italian wine, Le Carline Refosco which is sulphite free and has great freshness and fruit, a great food wine. And a reminder of how unusual cépages have been a great interest for me this year.
Daniele explaining his Carline wines
Sparkling wine means champagne to me. I love some Pet Nats such as that of Vincent Carême, I appreciate some crémants and sparkling wines such as the Nyetimber I tasted recently but nothing quite matches Champagne for quality. I have always liked Roederer and nothing has been better than Charles Heidsieck in recent years but they are too pricey for this case. Barbichon, Lassaigne and Franck Pascal are all producers which pleased me through the year and I could buy wines from all three in France for under €30 so I shall opt for the Quatre Cépages of Barbichon, with its Pinot character adding some extra weight.
Sherry is a must, nothing beats its variety from the clean dry fino or manzanilla to the intense sweetness of pedro xinenez. I am a fan of them all but a Cayetano del Pino Palo Cortado really caught my attention this month with a real balance of dryness with a touch of sweetness and great complexity. Like many sherries it is great value too.
Port is another wonderful wine style and I love its variety, from tawny to vintage. At this price I would choose Late Bottled Vintage and probably Niepoort just above Warres, it is more in a vintage style, not quite so rich.
Finally, a sweet wine. The Jurancons of Montesquiou and Nigri were a delight, great wines from Huet too. Natural sweet wines from De Brin and Clos Mathélisse would fit the bill too but in the end one range of sweet wines stood out this year and they were the Coteaux Du Layon from Juchepie and I would select Les Quarts for the case.
At a push I would merge the port and sweet wine choice and opt for another red wine but I would be very happy with my case. Feedback and your own selections would be very welcome.