Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Budburst in the vineyard

Budburst in April
It has been a very busy time over the last couple of months at the Chai.  Assistant winemaker Nadja left before Christmas to head home to Australia for vintage with Phillip Shaw before taking over things on the family vineyard, which means that I have been travelling up and down between Bordeaux and Midi like a crazed yoyo! 

I have also been back and forth to the UK as I am now part of the Global Wine Buying team along with my Chai winemaking responsibilities.

New Releases:
The 2013 Laithwaites Sauvignon was the first to be bottled back in February and the aromatics are just incredible. On sale now!

The 2013 Coeur des Anges Rose Sauvignon Gris was next to be bottled and the beautiful salmon pink colour has been retained right up to the bottling! Stunning pale pink colour and perfumed pear aromas prove the 2013 Bordeaux vintage was a cracker for whites.  Going to be one my summer wines for sure!

Upcoming releases:
The 100% Vermintino Un Vent de Folie 2013 has been taken out of barrel and blended for the first time. I always split the vineyard into five or so batches and vinify each separately to respect the individual micro-climates with the vision of the perfect final blend and I am extremely pleased to say each element has blended perfectly. A cooler year in the Midi so more aromatics this year and beautiful zippy lime acidity lifts that sun drenched tropical fruit character. To be bottled start of June.

The 2013 La Voute is about to be racked from barrel and well what can I say? La Voute is always a great wine but this year it has just excelled once again and the marriage between the fruit and brand new French oak is mind blowing! The wine will be bottled in August and my advice is to snap this up very quickly.  A trophy winning wine in the making, you heard it here first!

What’s in the pipeline?
The 2013 107 year-old-vine Grenache from Jean-Charles has been brought up to the Chai from its tiny garage winery and harvest residence in the Roussillon and as every year I have squirreled it away into French oak barrels to begin its 18 month ageing. Lowest yields on record here, I never thought it would get lower but it has due to poor flowering. However lower yield only concentrates flavour!

The 2013 old vine Carignan Madame F from French Catalonia is also now safely in barrel at the Chai  - this will have a shorter aging of around 6 months before being bottled. 

A top secret project with a deeply coloured Cabernet from the Languedoc is also in progress at Le Chai, but that’s all I am saying, watch this space...!

Joseph Bousquet and I made once again stunning wines at his Domaine 4 Pilas in Murviel- Monpellier.  Both wines are now in the Chai and the rich 2013 Chardonnay is still on its sediment and being carefully stirred each week and the Pinot Noir is already 2 months into its 12 months barrel ageing and looking very smart indeed, it’s like a Burgundy with attitude!

In The Vineyard:
It has been a wet winter here in Bordeaux so there is plenty of water in the ground and the warm start has accelerated the growth since the near perfect timing of budburst in April. Little rain and a good a breeze has kept and initial mildew problems at bay so far.

In the Midi it has been once again a very dry winter and even though things look good at bud burst it is already hit 27˚C+ in the Roussillon. No doubt quality will be incredible but can yields get lower? Fingers crossed for a little rain before flowering.

Whats Next:
Even though it is only just spring we are already preparing for the 2014 harvest and the challenge is to get all the wines bottled and free up the cellar.  Getting the new harvest team together will be next on the agenda and of course the plentiful summer French bank holidays to enjoy!!

Friday, 7 February 2014

The Loire

The annual Loire fair was held last week on the outskirts of the picturesque, historic town of Angers.

It’s an intimate wine fair compared to the big ones in Shanghai, London, Bordeaux and Dusseldorf. But all the Loire producers are out in force, from the tiniest growers to the big-player winemakers. They come from the west in Muscadet and the Vendée, plus the central appellations and VdPs, through to the far-eastern AOC’s of Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon and Sancerre. What is also nice is that the miniscule, obscure appellations (of which there are quite a few!) are also present and I had a great time tasting wines such as Touraine-Chenonceau, Côtes d’Auvergne, Côteaux de Loir (not a misspelling!) and my favourite, Pissote.

It has been tough in the Loire for the last few years with major frosts and severe hail storms literally destroying the production levels to unthinkable yields. And although 2013 was somehow remarkably better it was nowhere near the average volumes normally enjoyed.

But the people from this region are like their vineyards: very hardy indeed! They hold their heads up high and keep going and going, always smiling, forever with their remarkable passion for wine.  The Loire folk will always make time to let you taste everything from micro cuvées, single barrels or the newest blend … and of course always time to talk goat’s cheese!

This year was no different and after a long day at the fair I was kindly invited to dinner in Angers by the winemakers of our sparkling Crémant de Abbesse Rosé. It was a great evening with lots of characters. I was sat next to Nick Butler, an Australian who was one of the first ‘flying winemakers’ Tony employed in the late 1980s! The table also had some wine importers from Dublin so you can only imagine the craic! Before long the group of older, retired French winemakers were in full voice and began reciting traditional songs, all clasping a glass of sparkling Loire rosé of course!

Next day it was back to business with another good day at the fair. I stopped at various stands to taste the new-vintage wines, discovering yet again just how good and diverse this region is.  I had a wonderful personal tasting from the amazing Jacky Blot; his wines sell out even before they’re bottled but he has let me have 300 bottles of his extraordinary Clos Michet vineyard in Montlouis. 
Jacky Blot

 I wasn’t let down on the second evening either and once again the hospitality of the locals rose to the occasion. Loire maestro Charles Sydney holds his infamous growers’ supper every year and I was privileged to be invited. The venue was at the lovely La Ferme restaurant right under the cathedral in Place Freppel in the centre of Angers. 

What an evening! 50 people in total, the majority being growers with a sprinkling of wine buyers, too. Each producer turned up with a bottle (or three!) of their wines that were passed around the tables igniting a giant game of musical chairs, everyone so intrigued about the wine they had just tasted. Finally things settled down and everyone was back in their own chair. Before the food, a grower from each region of the Loire had volunteered to give a quick overview of their growing season and harvest. A great idea and fascinating to listen to the passion.

Finally, after 3 days of madness, I took the time to visit dominating Château Angers. It’s a huge, imposing castle with its 17 towers guarding the town of Angers at its strategic location along the Loire River. This place has some history and not only a French one! 

Firstly built in the 9th century by the Counts of Anjou, it next became part of the empire of the Plantagenet Kings of England during the 12th century. Conquered by Philip II in 1204, the castle was significantly expanded at great expense to the Royal revenue.

The Château’s most famous possession is the magnificent Apocalypse Tapestry, commissioned in 1373 by Prince Louis, the son of King John II. The tapestry was made in six sections, each 24m wide by 6.1 m high, comprising 90 different scenes, taking Nicolas Bataille a total of 5 years to complete!  It tells the story of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Divine and after surviving centuries of wars, fires, occupations and revolutions the tapestry is now housed in the Château gallery. It is the oldest French medieval piece to have survived.

King Rene, who was born in the chateau in 1409, grew up with a passion for wine and planted the first vineyard inside the walls. And today, 140 Chenin Blanc vines still stand proudly in the little walled vineyard.

The gardens that decorate the grounds around the walls are simply exquisite!

A great 3 days ended on a high as I learned of the exciting news that we had won GOLDs at the prestigious Angers wine competition with Daniel Reverdy Sancerre, Les Damnes des Prieiur Sancerre and the Clos Nozieux Cheverny!

Back to Bordeaux today but here are some of the talented Loire winemakers to look out for and will be listed at Laithwaite’s very soon: Jeremie Mourat, Pierre Sauvion, Chateau Variennes, Christine Champalou and Jacky Blot.

Don't listen to the hype and talk down of the 2013 vintage. Yes, there are problems and yields were small in the Loire, but boy, there are some stunning wines! Real winemakers in the thick of it, and when you’re struggling – and I can tell you from experience – winemakers will make their best wine ever!

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Loire - Day 5

Thursday 12th
The view from the hotel
The following morning was the last early tasting of the trip at Domaine Joseph Mellot.  Originating from the same great family history and winemaking experience as Alphonse Mellot, Joseph Mellot went his own way in 1969 creating his own domaine. His son Alexandre continued the strive for quality until his tragic early death. Since then his wife Catherine has continued the work and success of this domaine.

The domaine has expanded into other Loire appellations such as Coteaux du Giennois, Reuilly and Menetou Salon. This diversity has allowed us to have great success with the Joseph Mellot Réserve Prestige Sauvignon Blanc blend, a Val de Loire appellation wine made with 500 years of Sancerre winemaking know how! 

We dropped in on the Pierre Prieur family back in Verdigny; you must to get the right Prieur as all the Prieur families have a domaine of some sort! Domaine Pierre Prieur, a 10th generation winemaking family, makes the best and we found the current generation Bruno and brother Thierry busy in the cellar. These guys live for the domaine and the organised and spotless cellar is full of superb 2013 Sancerre, each vat being a different vineyard and carefully marked with the exact terroir and all made accordingly, every single vat a vital piece of the final blend jigsaw.  

Their father emerged for the tasting of the bottled 2012 up in the tasting room and the wines have a beautiful purity. We also discovered a Gold-medal-winning 2010 red Pinot Noir. These guys are so modest and don’t make a song and dance; they really do just let the wines speak for themselves!
The Prieurs

The news that SNCF had decided to strike today threw all plans of me getting back to Bordeaux by train and Tony and Abi to London via the Eurostar up in the air! But we had one more visit we certainly were not going to miss under any circumstances: Tony’s oldest friend in the Loire, Michel Thomas! 

Michel was Tony’s first contact in this region and today his son Laurent runs the winemaking. The next generation is also coming into the wine trade with Michel’s two grandsons now working in the industry; one in Saint-Emilion the other in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  We tasted through the vats of the excellent 2013 Domaine wines including the complex ‘Cuvee Silex’ before being shown down into the warm vaulted cellar where Madame Thomas had put on an early lunch of home-made savoury tarts and quiches including plenty of local cheeses! We were joined by Tony’s old friend and neighbours of the Thomas’, the Riffault family. A wonderful ambience of stories and laughter was the absolute perfect way to end a fabulous wine trek through the most beautiful valley in France. 
In the cellar with the Thomas family

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Loire - Day 4

Wednesday 11th
It was another early start and temperatures had plummeted over night to -8˚C!  We were driving 130kms west towards Bourges and the appellation of Menetou Salon to meet a new producer Bernard Minchin. Bernard is quite a character and his beaming smile and energy certainly livened up the frosty morning! Bernard’s grandfather had worked vines since before the war in both appellations of Valencay east of Bourges and Menetou Salon to the north-east.  Bernard took control of the domaine in 2004 and nothing but quality was in his mind from the word go. Stunning wines throughout the range we tasted and yet another winemaker to watch for!

Bernard Minchin
The final leg of the Loire wine trek was now in sight and we were on our way north east to Bué, a small village in the Sancerre Appellation. A Narnia world of fields of frost finally gave way to the spectacular steep côteaux of the Sancerre vineyards.  

At the very top of the central, windy road in the heart of Bué we met characterful Joel Cirotte of Domaine de La Croix St Laurent. Joel works the domaine’s vines and makes the wine with his wife Sylvie, daughter Marie and his son Fabien who also brings experience from New Zealand to the family estate. Although based in the Sancerre Cru of Bué the Cirotte family have vineyards in nearby Crezancy and the slopes of Sancerre itself. 

Micro-cuvees is the name of the game here, each tiny parcel being carefully vinified apart to make either a single wine or to be part of a complex blend. A classy winemaker … and it looks like the close friendship with Alphonse Mellot has rubbed off on this tiny estate.
Joel Cirotte
A wonderful lunch was laid on by Sylvie in the cosy, thatched family cottage, lovely wines finished with some delightful local goat cheeses.
Before heading to Sancerre village itself we took a small stop in another world famous appellation: Pouilly-Fume!

Christophe Denoel at the Caves de Pouilly has done wonders for the growers by introducing new winemaking techniques, vinification and bottling facilities. This has filled the missing link and the wines produced are of the highest quality. It’s no surprise that we have been buying from them ever since this revolution and the cave is now home to two of our top selling wines: the Larmes de Pierre and Les Rochettes. The 2013s were no disappointment and quality is high across the board.

However, before leaving Pouilly-Fume there is one place which is a must visit: the legendary Domaine Didier Dagueneau. Since Didier’s tragic death in 2008, the domaine has been run with the same high standards by his talented son-and-daughter team, Louis-Benjamin and Charlotte.  We were fortunate to have a personal tour by Charlotte and we tasted a range of recent vintages including 2012s from vat. Incredible wines and an unforgettable tasting experience.

Charlotte Dagueneau
Sancerre next and the amazing amphitheatre of vineyards with the village itself sitting on the crest of the famous hill were soon insight.  After Dagueneau there is only one place to go next and that’s to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Alphonse Mellot!

The Domaine Alphonse Mellot is located in the heart of the Sancerre village and has a quite extraordinary history, celebrating 500 years of winemaking this year! The current winemakers Alphonse Jr and his sister Emmanuelle are the 19th generation! They continue to push boundaries in all aspects of winemaking and the immaculate cellars and wines show this clearly.

We were met by Emmanuelle Mellot for a quick tour of the underground maze of barrels and fermentation cellars before being joined by Alphonse Jr and getting onto the serious work of the tasting.  We were extremely privileged to have an extensive range tasting of the 2011, 2012 and 2013’s. For me, the most impressive are the rich, concentrated barrel-aged Pinot Noirs … unlike anything I have ever tried from Sancerre before.

Alphonse and Emmanuelle
Now dark outside, the day was far from over as we drove back down from Sancerre to see a couple of good value Sancerre producers in the village of Verdigny.  First we popped into Domaine Raimbault-Pineau. Jean-Marie is a true farmer and seems to have his fingers in all sorts of pies. His chaotic winery with vats of wines everywhere is a real treasure trove; you just have to find the gems! We get to taste all the 2013’s here and we certainly found some good and well priced wines.

Jean-Marie Raimbaut
Just round the corner in the same village are Domaine Daniel Reverdy and our good friend Cyrille Reverdy who is now running his father’s domaine. This is an amazing story: Abi found this ambitious young winemaker 10 years ago. Neither he nor his father had ever put any of their grapes into bottle as they were part of the cooperative. That was until young Cyrille made an experimental vat in a makeshift winery. Abi bought the wine and 10 years on Cyrille is making magnificent and successful Sancerre and we are the only wine merchant who gets our very own blend!  He has also, for the first time, added a lovely limited-production rosé to his repertoire. And yes, we snapped this up there and then. All of it! 

It had been a long day and laptops, iPhones, BlackBerries and cameras were battery-less as we headed back up to the village to meet the other half of the Mellot family at Domaine Joseph Mellot.  The tasting was scheduled for early tomorrow which meant we could check into the Hotel Panoramic perched on the crest of the hill of Sancerre, but we would have to wait until tomorrow to see the spectacular views.  Olivier the sales manager and winemaker Frederic met us in the lobby and kindly invited us to dine with them and domaine owner Catherine Mellot at the exquisite restaurant La Tour, 100m from the hotel.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Loire - Day 3

Tuesday 10th

An early start. And after sampling a quite exceptional array of Madame Diderot’s jams and preserves it was only a short, icy walk to the cellars of Couly-Dutheil.  

Not a long history here, but since being established 80 years ago, the domaine has risen to become the flagship of Chinon wines. The impressive, medal-winning consistency was sparked off by founder Baptiste Dutheil’s first Gold medal back in 1927! 

We were met by current owner Monsieur Jacques Couly who gave us the run down on the 2013 vintage. It was an average year in volume terms, but a late harvest meant achieving ripeness and phenolic maturity was challenging. However, the Couly-Dutheil team are convinced that the meticulous vineyard work and speed of harvest has made a good wine this year. 

The domaine is a Cabernet Franc specialist, their wines really are quite special and I feel they do have to be drunk at the perfect moment with the perfect accompaniment.  They have pulled back on the use of oak in recent years and the wines need bottle age. However once these wines do have the necessary bottle age they are sublime, with a marvellous finesse of blackberry fruit … not heavy wines but great with hearty dishes! We tasted the whole range with La Closerie and Clos l’Echo cuvees standing out for me.

M. Jacques Couly
Everything was still frosted over when we emerged from the cellars of Couly-Dutheil so it was hasty defrosting mission on the car before setting off for Vouvray to meet the wonderful Champalou family.  We made good time and an hour later we were east of the town of Tours amongst the famous chalk soils of the Vouvray plateau and the unique climate created by the Loire tributaries the Cisse and the Brenne.  Less influence from the Atlantic creates a more continental climate with warm summers and freezing winters (witnessed first hand!) allowing dry, off-dry, noble rot and sparkling wines to be made from the dominant Chenin Blanc grape.  

The remarkable Champalou family started from scratch with a tiny 1.5 hectares and is purely a family affair. Smiling Didier works the vines, his adorable wife Catherine runs the business and their talented daughter Celine is now in charge of the winemaking.  Unlike most Vouvray domaines that are 60% sparkling production, the Champalou’s 21 hectares of Chenin Blanc are geared to make the original, off-dry-style Vouvray where the limy acidity and classic quince and citrus fruit are rounded beautifully with a splash of sweetness! So if you want the real Vouvray then this is the wine to drink!

The Champalou Family
Time to thaw out and after a minor puncture set-back, the heating was on full blast as we motored to the little village of Montrichard in the Cher Valley to meet Pierre Chainier of Maisons Channier and Paul Buisse.  Pierre welcomed us and ushered us into a little bistro where a warming bavette frites was again a welcomed respite from the still-sub-zero outside temperature! 

Pierre is a tall man with a sense of purpose and determination. Tony knew his father well, was the first to buy wine from him and instantly remembered the same characteristics. With his uncanny likeness to Richard O’Brien I was expecting him to either give me a crystal or burst into a rendition of ‘Time Warp’ at any moment during the tasting! With modern cellars and a now-large production, Pierre and his two brothers run a tight ship. They now specialise in Sauvignon from the Touraine region but also make a very good Vouvray.

Pierre Channier & Tony
Next stop and close by in the village of Noyers-sur-Cher is Domaine Bellevue. Here owner-winemaker Patrick Vauvy, a friendly giant, is busy making no fuss, formidable, natural-style wines.  His giant smile is warm but his cellar today was freezing! We braved again the sub zero temperatures that were naturally settling the young 2013’s and tasted through every vat, each sample taken by his shovel-like hands! These wines have a unique, individual winemaker stamp and the purity of the 2013s are very impressive.

Patrick Vauvy
A short drive only for our last meeting in the village of Pouille with the Bougrier family who make our stunning Sauvignon Blanc, the hero bestseller Abbesse.  The fifth-generation winemaker and grower Noël Bougrier was on hand with his trusty side kick Olivier for the extensive tasting of the 2013s. This is our 20th year working with the Bougrier family and a great relationship has been built. And with this stunning quality of wine will certainly continue.

Glad once more to be inside out of the cold and after a quick cup of tea we launched into the mammoth tasting in the well-lit tasting room. We finally decided blends after two hours of solid tasting and the 2013 Abbesse is clearly a triumph: explosive Sauvignon aromas matched with fruit salad and wonderful acidity on the palate. It will be released in March so get your orders in quickly or risk the inevitable sell out!

Back out into the extremely cold and dark night for a short drive to our hotel and dinner hosted by the Bougriers at the magnificent Château La Voute.