Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Little Gem and Right on our Doorstep

Just when you think you know an area like the back of your hand, something pops up out of nowhere to put you back in you place.  It all began when Jean-Marc tasted a sample of really lovely St-Emilion 2011 and asked me to go and check out the property first hand to see if the sample matched the wine in barrel.

All I had to go on was a mobile number of one Monsieur Cazenave in Saint-Genes des Castillon. I called at least five times the first four were answered but all I could hear was a muffled voice swearing in French at “poches!, trop de poches!, pourquoi les portables si petit, c’est la m***e!” However, on the last call Monsieur Cazenave had managed to get his minuscule mobile out of one of his many pockets and was in fine form!

I asked if I could come and visit his cellar to taste his wines which he was very happy about and then proceeded to tell me in the greatest detail (reminiscent of a Fast Show sketch)  “turn left after the rotting log then you’ll see a mushroom, turn right here……” and so on.  We agreed to meet on Monday at nine in the morning but I would have to call 35 minutes before so he could meet me at the cellar.

A bitterly cold Monday soon came and so I called Monsieur Cazenave as agreed. Sure enough, on the fifth call he duly answered but by now I was only 10 minutes away so I had to stop and have a coffee to delay my arrival; the last thing you want to be doing in this situation is be early! 

I spend much of my daily life (and maybe 99% of my lunchtime life) in an around the village of St-Genes and the road I was instructed to take to get to his cellar I had never even seen!  The road winds into some woodland and down into a little valley bordering St-Emilion and Castillon. Fortunately the detailed directions were inch perfect and I soon saw old Monsieur Cazenave jumping up and down waving his arms.  The tiny vineyards plot was frozen solid and reading -5°C on the car dash but after a strong hand shake I was ushered into the tiny warm cellar.

 Monsiuer Cazenave explained to me that he was now in his mid eighties and had studied winemaking at Bordeaux in the 50s under the legendary professor Emile Peynaud.  He has been the cellar master/winemaker for many châteaux including Haut-Sarpe, Yon Figeac, Jean Mouiex and Canon and hasn’t missed a vintage since 1947!

We taste his wines and they are beautifully made, in a charming, old fashioned style. He told me a story of when the great Emile Peynaud held a tasting for his students and made them taste over-ripe, heavy Bordeaux wines whilst cursing them and saying “trop mûrs, ca jamais tenir la route” (“overripe, they will never last”) and on tasting a pure limestone plateau ripe wine shouting “et voila ca c’est un vin de garde!” (“now that’s a wine to lay down”).  From then on M. Cazenave told me he had always made his wines in the true St.Emilion way.

The barrels were as good as the sample and Monsieur Cazenave explained to me that although he loved making the harvest and the wine he didn’t want to bottle too much wine. It was more work to sell and although he looked years from his eighty odd he was keen on slowing down. So I called JMS immediately and we confirmed the purchase of the single vineyard Château Franc Cantenac wine there and then.

We bottled the wine days later and if you want to taste a true St-Emilion wine made by one of the most experienced winemakers still around I strongly recommend Monsieur Cazenave’s 2011 Château Franc Cantenac.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Greased Lightning!

Normally I say “what a week that was” but this time I have to say what a month that was! Needless to say, it’s been a very busy past few weeks.

 It all started way back in October with the brilliant Laithwaite’s show at Vinopolis. As usual the eager customers in the bustling, excited, mile-long queue were raring to go.

And inside it was chock-a-block on Le Chai stand with Le Chai team and I was proud to finally present the new La Voute vintage: the mind-blowing, long-awaited 2011!

After a couple of days in London and a very proud moment catching my niece Aimee (aged only 10yrs) performing in Grease at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket on the Sunday night, we managed a blurry, red-eye flight back to Bordeaux as a week of bottling lay ahead.

As harvest gets longer, so bottling seems to come earlier (no rest for the winemaker anymore!) and the first 2012 white into bottle was the highly aromatic, fresh and zesty, all-new Double Agent Sauvignon Blanc; made at the Chai with James Macdonald of New Zealand’s Hunter’s fame. A little twist of new world winemaking on old world grape growing. You’ve got to try this, perfect with oysters! 

The bottling followed with the 2011 Château du Tertre Bel-Air, a structured Merlot/Cab France from the north of Castillon and the Keep Calm and Carignan 2011. The end of the week arrived and before I knew it I was back on the early Friday BA flight to Gatwick in order to get to Manchester for the Laithwaites tasting where Libby and I would be representing the Chai. 

It’s a lovely place, Manchester, and the most northerly place where I’ve been in the British Isles! Well, I am a Jersey boy and we always head south! We visited the beautiful John Rylands Library, a fascinating place and a must-see if in Manchester, before eating at the superb Australasia restaurant (a couple of sneaky Brew Dog beers, too, at their new bar on Peter street). 

The tasting was held at the historic Old Trafford Lancashire County Cricket Ground in a big room overlooking the sacred Old Trafford pitch. No cricket on today, though, but there was plenty of wine to keep customers busy. I was once-again armed with the 2011 La Voute (becoming a La Voute road show!) which customers thoroughly enjoyed. I also had the pleasure of a couple hours help from ex England cricketer and fast bowling legend Dominic Cork. His preference? The big fast red Vent de Folie 2010!

Back again to Bordeaux and another huge week starting with the biggest winemaking exposition VINITECH taking its biennial home in Bordeaux Lac. A great couple of days visiting, chatting, learning and tasting with all the major manufacturers … from barrel makers to tractor mechanics. The Chai was busy too as we had 55 students from the English winemaking university Plumpton College arriving for an evening’s tasting and talk held by Jean-Marc and I. The students were very enthusiastic and you could see them dreaming of one day being able to work in a winery as beautiful as Le Chai (bit of hard core pruning before that me thinks!).

The end of the week saw Le Chai getting ready for the big Christmas open-doors day on Saturday. We invite the public into our cellars to taste and buy our wines, obviously not without a hot mince pie and my famous Grenache mulled wine, accompanied beautifully by the Castillon Chantamicale Choir.

Mulled Wine recipe:
1 bottle of XVdu President
110g sugar
1 vanilla pod split
1 clove
300ml of water
3/4 juice of 1 lemon
Zest of one lemon (peeled into strips with potato peeler)
1 bay leaf
1-2 juniper berries

Add all bring to boil, infuse for 10 minutes and ladle away!

With Le Chai Christmas weekend over it’s an early Sunday night as I had to leave at 6am from Bordeaux to meet Midi buyer Cat Lomax in Montpellier. We’re taking a week’s trip around the Midi to taste everything and I do mean everything!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Roda Visit

Here at Le Chai, we started harvest with the Grenache Gris down in the Roussillon on the 29th of August and have just finished the red Bordeaux picking last week! So it’s been a long harvest for us winemakers here at Le Chai.  Although there is much more work to do and the wines are far from finished, JMS decided to take the harvest winemakers for an overnight stay in Rioja, including a visit to a top estate and a slap up meal!

We set off early from Castillon and headed south to the Spanish border to pick JMS up at Bilbao airport. Then onto Rioja for our 3pm visit at the highly reputed Bodega Roda in Rioja Alta.  We made good time so had an hour for lunch and in Northern Spain that means tapas!

It was a great little bar and within seconds out came the Jamon Iberico, sizzling Chorizo, cheese and ham croquettes and of course a bottle of reserva from Bodegas Remelluri.  The finale was the a magnificent Morcilla, a huge Spanish blood sausage stuffed with rice, amazing!

Feeling satisfied we headed just up the road to the village of Haro. Here, the Roda bodega sits in the original winery area of Barrio de l’Estacion, next door to the famous Lopez de Heredia, backing onto the river Ebro.  The relatively new winery is the perfect example of the modern Spain where no expense has been spared on the construction, but the ancient location and old vines give a wonderful contrast shown in the stunning quality of their wines.

We were met by the very knowledgeable Sara Fernandez Bengoa who showed us firstly to the oak fermenting vats. She explained that only 20 years ago, Roda was the one of the first wineries – if not the very first – to introduce a bunch-sorting conveyer table to the region. The grapes come from the very best source and their search for quality has resulted in over 20 different vineyards which all contain low-yielding old vines. 

We were shown next to the stunning barrel stores which start at surface level where the young wine goes though the malolactic fermentation. The wines then descend level by level as they age, finally ending up in the hand-carved tunnels which lead out on to the river Ebro.

We headed back up to the very top to the tasting room, passing the owners Mario Rotllant Sola and Carmen Daurella De Aguilera’s stunning suspended apartment that seems to be floating high above the barrels. (The name Roda was created from the surnames of the owners).

The tasting presentation was beautifully laid out and we were soon seated for the first of six wines to be poured.

We started the tasting with the Sela 2009, Roda reserva 2007 and Roda 1 reserva 2006 all three wines were beautifully made and had stunning acidity with silky ripe palate, I especially enjoyed the 2007.  Then just as I was wondering why we had an empty glass in the middle of the line up all was revealed as Sara poured their olive oil, Dauro.  I must admit I had never treated olive like tasting a wine and was amazed at the complexity of aromas leaping from the glass: banana skin, tomato, walnut, green apple and lemon!
We moved onto the next two wines which come from their winery in the Ribera del Duero; Corimbo 2010 and Corimbo 1 2009: both muscular wines with good oak integration. The best was left for last and it was back to Rioja for the Cirsion 2009: a highly rated wine with many interesting reviews including a 95/98 from Robert Parker.  It’s always tough tasting wine with so much expectation but this was one that didn’t let me down. I thought it was a truly fantastic wine with power, elegance, fresh fruit and beautiful tannins. However the price was a little out of my range so I left with some delicious 2007 Roda Reserva!

The next visit was over in Rioja Alavesa towards Logrono to a quite spectacular winery called Baigorri.  Rioja Alavesa is the only part of Rioja that is in the Basque country and today was a Basque only public holiday so the welcome and visit was rather rushed. I’m used to it; I live in France. 

However we only wanted to see the architecture!  As you pull up to the winery all you can see is a large glass box, the enormous winery is cleverly hidden underneath by the architect Inaki Aspiazu who worked with Jesus Baigorri to subtly blend a building into the countryside.  Well, the winery is certainly blended into the countryside; it’s underground!  It’s just the big glass-and-steel box with huge letters spelling BAIGORRI wrapped around it that seems to rather ‘non-blend’ into the countryside! But, I suppose if it was too well-hidden, no one would go there and neither would it be talk of the town! 

Nevertheless, it is quite a winery underneath and everything is done by gravity albeit with quite a lot of money spent on lifts and cranes. 

I liked the huge oak foudre vats that descended deceivingly in size with the sloping roof!

The tasting was pleasant but I was certainly not wowed by the wines (JC and I make a hundred times better in his tiny garage!) but the white was lovely and very well made.

Back in the car and no one bought any wine … must be a sign? JMS said he had saved the best visit until the end …… his own bodega Altos!  We arrived to Altos, a non-imposing humble building and were greeted by winemaker and good friend Hector. We entered via the side door (in fact the only door!) and tasted some of the best wines of the day: the reserva 2009 and the 100% pure Graciano.

It was now time for dinner! We headed to the normal haunt: Carlos’ restaurant in downtown Logrono.  As always, Carlos was at the front of house working his magic and we were showed to our usual table and the food began to flow! Carlos’ mother is the chef and to kick off the meal a plate of  sublime pulpo with paprika on almost transparent slices of potato came out followed by melt in the mouth Jamon Iberico and razor fish. For main even more melt in the mouth entrecote steaks and –can I say it? – frites up there with the voyageur! A good range of wines including a 2001 Todonia and a magnum of 2005 Muga reserva matched the food beautifully.
A great end of harvest trip, merci ton ton JMS!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Where did that week go?

With the Bordeaux red harvest in full swing, the atmosphere begins to buzz throughout the region. With more rain due, it’s all stations go whatever the weather!

Meanwhile, at Le Chai on Tuesday we saw the eagerly awaited, multi-medal-winning 2011 La Voúte dressed. It’s been quietly laying down in cages for a few months to recover from the bottling.

On Wednesday we bottled the all-new 2011 Les Cailloux Dorés Chardonnay; a lovely, very lightly oaked, fresh white from Carcassonne. And our first-ever screwcap Chardonnay to keep it that way!

Thursday was a big day, starting by my parents saying au revoir. They had a wonderful time and were heading north to the Loire Valley for a few days to rest those aching harvesting backs and knees!

Meanwhile, at Château La Clarière Henry Laithwaite was busy (and carefully) opening 26 vintages of Château La Clarière-Laithwaite for a historic vertical tasting from 1984 to 2010!  I was fortunate to be able to taste them all along with Tony, Justin, Clare, Henry, James, Nadja and Guy. Guy was Tony's man in the vineyard right from the start and only retired when the current vineyard manager, his son Olivier, took over!

The tasting was held down in the La Clarière barrel caves where Tony and Guy told some lovely stories of the old vintages as each wine suddenly jogged their memories. That's the beauty of wine; a living remnant from that very year, still here to remind you unlike any other artefact, painting or photograph. Nearly all the wines tasted great and those that tasted a little old were still amazing thanks to the stories and memories. A wonderful experience to taste, thank you.

Once more, a fabulous lunch was put on by Bernadette upstairs above the caves before a blind tasting of 23 wines from St. Emilion and Castillon was held. A very interesting and exciting tasting indeed, with many Castillon wines finishing way above the expensive St.Emilions. Results to be revealed in the near future

Friday morning I was up early and off to the Entre-Deux-Mers and a place called Castelviel; yet another tiny hidden village which is home to our new discovery, Château Riffaud.  I was met by the current owner Stephane Delarue, a young vigneron and third-generation winemaker of the family property.  Castelviel sits high on a mini plateau overlooking the valley towards Gornac.  Stephane has 14 hectares of Merlot, Cabernet S and Cabernet F situated around the village and the little winery sits in the heart of the village where he makes beautiful fruity reds.

The weekend was cellar work and warming the barrels for malo-lactic as the air temperatures finally started to plummet in Bordeaux. However, Nadja and I were soon back in the cellar but no blundstone boots to be seen as we were (along with Libby’s direction!) hosting a tour and tasting for BK Wine Tours who brought along some wonderful Finnish and Swedish people who really enjoyed Le Chai visit. We were also very lucky to attend lunch at the superb La Poudette restaurant in Pujols and I matched four wines to Chef Frederic's excellent dishes including:

2011 Vent de Folie Vermentino with Scallops and Parsnip Puree
2010 Grand Chai Montagne St.Emilion with Fillet of Beef and Cepes
2004 Château La Clarière with cheese

The following week started in usual madness and on Monday I was back on the road to do the rounds in the Midi. Starting in Perpignan, then to Maury, back to Perpignan, on to Narbonne, Beziers, Montpellier, Beziers again, Narbonne, Carcassonne and home for a late dinner in Bordeaux Tuesday evening …

It’s perfect mushroom season right now, so a plate of the first cepes gently cooked in butter, garlic and parsley allowed me the time to write the week’s events!