Wine of the Week – a Happy, Happy Syrah

Tain-l’Hermitage – photo courtesy of Maison Les Alexandrins.

Personally I think a lot of talk and writing about wine – and I am guilty of this myself – focuses on how fine, interesting or different a wine is rather than how much pleasure it delivers.

Which is really very strange as wine is all about pleasure isn’t it? If a wine does not give you pleasure, then what is the point? I certainly think about the pleasure a wine offers while I am tasting it but do my descriptions and writing about a wine always convey that? I am not sure.

All of this flashed through my mind recently when I tasted a wine that in more normal circumstances I might well have ignored.

For a start it is made from Syrah, or that is what it says on the label anyway. Be prepared to gap in astonishment, but I am not especially drawn to Syrah, or don’t generally think I am anyway, so rarely seek it out – although that seems to be changing.

Secondly the wine is not from an appellation contrôlée / AC / appellation d’origine protégéeor / AOP / PDO or not even a Vin de Pays / PGI, but is a humble Vin de France. This most basic quality level of French wine replaced Vin de Table a few years ago, with similar changes right across the EU.

Fundamentally what changed was that they were given the right to state the grape variety, or the blend on the label. They are also allowed to show the vintage, which means that we can be more selective, choosing the better vintages and perhaps also the fresher years – especially useful with white wines, but a good idea with most modern red wines too.

The vast majority of Vin de France are, as you might imagine, pretty basic, everyday wines – which is why I would normally pass on by. However, as with the Syrah that I tasted some producers use this level to make something altogether more interesting and worthwhile. Certainly this Syrah is a lovely wine – so good in fact that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The stunning Northern Rhône Valley – photo courtesy of Maison Les Alexandrins.

2016 Syrah
Vin de France 
France

Maison Les Alexandrins is a very interesting project that produces some rather good wines. It is another example of a thoroughly modern phenomenon – a micro-négociant that focuses on high quality wines. It grew out of the Domaine Les Alexandrins and is a joint venture between Nicolas Jaboulet, formerly of the eponymous winery in Tain and now the head of Maison Nicolas Perrin, winemaker Guillaume Sorrel and viticulturalist Alexandre Caso. The aim is to give Nicolas Perrin a presence in the Northern Rhône and they aim to buy really good parcels of fruit from top growers across the area and to craft expressive wines from them. Eventually they will have a permanent base as they are building a new winery in Tain-l’Hermitage.

Wine Map of France, the Northern Rhône is just south of Lyon – click for a larger view.

This is the bottom rung of the wines they make, but don’t let that bother you. It comes from a great vintage and the quality shows, but so does the skill of the winemaker.

The fruit comes from younger vines across the Northern Rhône and although the label calls it a Syrah, there is actually 8% Viognier in there too, co-fermented with the Syrah. There was a cold soak to extract flavour before the fermentation which was in stainless steel. Half was then aged in tank for 6 months and the other half was aged in barrel, but from the taste of it I would say very little new wood at all.

Everything about this wine is bright and fresh. The colour is a vivid cerise – like a sorbet. The nose gives bright cherry and blackberry with lightly creamy notes, some spice and a little touch of freshly turned earth.

The palate just delivers pure pleasure. It is fresh, fleshy and juicy and cram packed with bright cherry, cranberry and plum fruit together with bright, refreshing acidity and just enough soft tannins for interest. It is beautifully balanced, perfectly judged, delicious and dangerously hedonistic. All in all it is a fine bottle of really well crafted happy juice.

This is a lithe, fresh and punchy red that will go with almost anything and is a very attractive wine to drink on its own too. Personally I think its charms are mainly upfront in the fruit, but it might be interesting to see what it’s like in five years or so as underneath all that pleasure I am sure there is a more serious wine trying to get. This is so delicious, so drinkable and made me so happy that I will award it 90/100 points – it earned extra points for severing extreme pleasure.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from South Downs Cellars. More stockist information is available from Liberty Wines the UK importers.

Frankly the only mystery about this wine is why it does not have more stockists. Sealed with a screw cap it would make a perfect restaurant wine too.

Wine of the Week – a fine affordable Chablis

Vineyards in Chablis showing the light, stony soils.

Chablis, one of the most famous wines in the world, is widely known and highly prized. I also think that, like many very famous wines it is deeply misunderstood.

My parent’s generation venerated Chablis and both my father and my father-in-law waxed lyrical about any dry white wine as being like Chablis. I know that all the books and courses bang on about Chablis being crisp and dry and high acid indeed, but I think that misses the point as to what Chablis really is.

The trouble is that with these really famous wines we all tend to drink the better value – cheaper – examples down the bottom of the range – most of the time anyway. These wines are made to a price and not as concentrated as the genuine article. So most of us drink dilute Châteauneuf-du-pape, St Émilion, Sancerre and, yes Chablis, much of he time. Which is a great shame as it does classic french wines no favours and might well be one reason why so many people that I meet at wine events claim not to like French wine.

Basic Chablis is often just crisp, green and acidic and bears only a paling resemblance to the complex wines that you can have further up the food chain.

Well the other day a ‘basic’ Chablis came my way and it pleased me greatly. It was a real Chablis at a great price and I liked it so much that it is my Wine of the Week.

Wine Map of France – click for a larger view.

Chablis of course comes from Northern France and is one of the most northerly fine still wines that there is. It is a complete fluke of a place really. Nowhere else around there has the south facing hills that allows the Chablis producers to coax full ripeness out of the grudging Northern European sun. Actually that is a bit mean of me as it can get pretty hot there, but not for long and the winters can be pretty extreme, but that’s continental climates for you. As a consequence you will never get big, rich, bold wines this far North. Instead you get something just as exciting, when everything goes right anyway, but very different. In fact it is a fascinating lesson in terroir as the rest of Burgundy is only just over 100 km away but makes very different wines because the climate is that little bit more generous.

The vineyards of Chablis.

Just as with Champagne, Chablis is only about the fruit in passing. Instead the whole point is the freshness, the minerality and the nervy quality of it. It is those subtleties that sadly often get lost in the cheaper versions, leaving just the green tart fruit and acidity – not in my Wine of the Week though.

Chablis has fossil rich Kimmeridge Clay soils and this ammonite fossil is typical of what they find in the vineyards.

I always think it is such a shame that so many people have a view on Chardonnay that simply does not do the great grape justice. Chardonnay is not always oaky, sweetish and gloopy, indeed almost always is not nowadays, but many consumers retain a view of it of old. Perhaps trying this classic very unoaky and fresh style of Chardonnay might change their mind?

2016 The Co-op Chablis
AC Chablis 
Chablis
Burgundy
France
The Co-op actually produce a good range of exemplary own label wines and this is an excellent example. What’s more if you read the back label of the wine is states that it is bottled in Péhy, which is just 5 km outside the village of Chablis and is home to one of the area’s great producers, Jean-Marc Brocard and this wine is indeed made by him. 
Brocard makes beautiful Chablis and this gives a good introduction to this style of zesty, unoaked Chardonnay. In the glass it glistens with a sort of limey gold – so richer than you might expect. While the aromas offer floral notes, hints of honey, a few chopped nuts, some wet stone, green plum, apple, earth and even a little twist of tangerine and lime.

Julien Brocard, Jean-Marc’s son who now heads up the company.

The palate is fresh and lively with that driving acidity and a nervy, hesitant style. However, there are richer characters here too. There is a dollop of creaminess that rounds the wine out, there is some green plum, green fig and apple, but most of all there is that stony, mineral quality that is often lacking in Chablis at the cheaper end and makes the wine seem thrilling and taut.
A glorious wine for the price that shows how exciting this region can be, perfect as an aperitif, or with shellfish and light fish dishes. I had it with smoked trout paté and it was delicious – 88/100 points.
Available in the UK for £11.99  per bottle from The Co-op.

The Variety of Champagne

Vineyards around Dizy in Champagne.

Recently I have led a few Champagne tastings, well it is Christmas. I showed a wide range of Champagnes each time and they were very well received.

What fascinated me was how many questions were asked and the lengthy discussions that grew out of the tastings. In my experience that level of enquiry is relatively rare at wine tastings and I loved it.

What became apparent to me – even more so that I had expected – was how misunderstood, or rather how pigeonholed Champagne is. To most people who came to the tastings Champagne was just one thing, posh sparkling wine for special occasions. Very few of the tasters, before they came anyway, saw Champagne as a wine and very few understood, again before the tasting, just what variety there is in Champagne.

It is that variety that makes Champagne so fascinating and that I sought to illustrate in these tastings. The truth is that Champagne is much more than just a sparkling wine to be drunk at special parties. Sure there are plenty of Champagnes that make a good aperitif – and therefore toast – wine, but there are others that partner pretty much every type of food too.

There is a whole world of Champagne out there with styles to suit every mood and occasion.

Firstly Champagne is defined by the climate of the region. The Champagne region is east of Paris, and some of it slightly north too, so it is not blessed with the best conditions to make wine. The climate is grudging – about as far north as it is possible to grow grapes – and if it was not for the hills of the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs Côtes des Sezanne and the Côtes des Bar then Champagne would not really be a wine region at all. Just as in nearby Chablis, these slopes allow the grapes grown on them to catch much more sun than if they were grown on flat land. This makes ripening the grapes possible which is why Champagne became a place that made wine at all. Therefore, although there are different levels of ripeness in the wines of Champagne, it is all relative. This cool climate region is a place to make delicate white wines, not bold reds – unless global warming really gets going anyway.

Map of Champagne – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

The second thing to define Champagne is the chalky soil. This chalk is the second factor that makes it possible to grow grapes and make good wine here. It is very well drained and so negates the bad effects of the rain that can happen pretty much all through the growing cycle. The chalky soil ensures that rain just runs away, leaving the grapes concentrated and healthy. Perversly though this fossil rich chalk, rich in lime and calcite, also retains moisture – a bit like a sponge – and releases it when conditions are dry. It also stays at a constant temperature all year round – pretty crucial in a cool place as it gives the warming up of the season a quick start and helps ripening. The chalk itself is ancient sea-bed and full of fossils and that also helps in the development of complex flavours in the wines. Whether or not it imparts the minerality that can be found in many good Champagnes is open to question – see my article here for more on minerality.

Vineyards in the Valley of the Marne.

Blending Wine from Different Harvests

Because of the lack of heat and sunshine, the Champenois (Champagne producers) have, over the centuries, developed a way of making the best use of the weather that they do get. Most Champagne is sold as Non Vintage – or NV on a wine list –  (Multi Vintage in the US) – with no year on the label – and is made by blending wine from different harvests together. This allows the producer, or house, to always blend the wine to be pretty much the same year in year out. To do this they have to keep back stocks of older base wines to give them the blending options that they need.

Grape Varieties

By and large Champagne can be made from just three different grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – so just one white grape and 2 black grapes. Remember that white wine, which is what most Champagne is, can be made from any colour grapes as you only ferment the juice after pressing and leave the skins out. The colour of a red wine comes solely from the skins. Therefore a good bit of the different styles comes about because of the blend of grape varies used or sometimes which single grape is used. The great majority of Champagnes are a blend of all three grapes, in differing proportions, while those made purely from Chardonnay can be called Blanc de Blancs and those made from either or both of the two Pinots can be labelled as Blanc de Noirs. Generally speaking a Blanc de Blancs will feel brighter, lighter and fresher than Blanc de Noirs Champagnes.

There are always exceptions in wine and there was a much bigger list of grape varieties grown in the past and although the modern rules forbids the planting of anything other than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, you can still use them if you have them – it seems that you can even replant them too. Up until the First World War Pinot Blanc, Fromenteau / Pinot Gris, Arbane, Petit Meslier, Gamay, Chasselas, Savagnin Blanc, Sacy (also known as Tressallier), Troyen and Morillon were found quite widely in the region.

Nowadays they are pretty rare, but it is still possible to taste Champagnes made from some of these old grapes if you are prepared to work at it – and pay for them. Champagne Fleury produce a pure Pinot Blanc – click here, as do Chassenay d’Arce, while Pierre Gerbais’ L’Originale is made from a parcel of Pinot Blanc vines planted in 1904 – click here. Champagne Moutard make a pure out of Arbane as well as the Cuvée 6 Cépages made from equal proportions of  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Arbane, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier. Duval Leroy make a Champagne from pure Petit Meslier. Champagne Aubry produce three different Cuvées (blends) using these ancient grape varieties, while Champagne Drappier‘s Quattuor is made from equal parts of Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay.

Oak or No Oak

Oak barrels at Champagne Alfred Gratien in Epernay. Gratien are very traditional and one of the few houses to barrel ferment the majority of their base wines. Photo courtesy of Champagne Alfred Gratien.

The base wine for some Champagnes, the still wine that is later made fizzy,  are aged or fermented in oak barrels before they are made sparkling, which will make them richer and more complex still. Champagnes made this way seem to be bolder and more obviously savoury, so making them less suitable for frivolous drinking and more suitable for drinking with food.

Ageing

It isn’t only the grapes that determine the flavours and the differences between the different Champagnes though. Length of ageing is very important. Any Non Vintage Champagne has to be aged on the lees – the dead yeast cells left over from the second fermentation in the bottle – for at least 15 months. Most good houses age them a fair bit longer than that though, perhaps for three years or so.

Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs undergoing long ageing in Taittinger’s chalk cellars below Reims. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Vintage Champagne is the product of a single exceptional harvest – Non Vintage is made from fruit from more than one harvest – so Vintage Champagne will be richer and fruitier than Non Vintage. In addition Vintage Champagne must be aged at least 36 months on the lees before release, so will be more complex too. The longer you age a Champagne on the lees, the more the rich biscuit, brioche, flaky pastry and nutty characters develop. We call this ageing yeast autolysis.

Sweetness

The sweetness also has an effect on how the wine tastes. The drier it is the more you will notice the acidity and Champagne being so far north, where there isn’t so much sun to ripen the fruit, has a good deal of acidity to make your mouth water. If acidity is not your thing, I love it because it is so refreshing, then there are options available to you, a sweeter Champagne.

Most Champagnes are Brut, which is very much on the dry side. Brut Champagne contains 0 – 12 grams per litre of sugar, equivalent to half a teaspoon or so per glass. In practice the posher Champagnes like Taittinger are usually about 8 – 12 grams and the cheaper and own label ones usually have that little bit more sugar. Extra Brut is a bit drier than Brut, whereas rather confusingly Extra Dry or Extra Brut is less dry!

Sec Champagne is less dry again and contains 17 – 32 grams per litre of sugar, equivalent to a teaspoon or so per glass. Before the First World War most Champagne was pretty sweet, but nowadays these wines are pretty rare. I am sure there are others, but Taittinger’s superb Nocturne Sec is the only one widely available in the UK and at 17.5 grams per litre of sugar it contains the bare minimum amount of sugar to be Sec, so is not actually sweet at all.

I loved showing a range of different Champagnes at these tastings and seeing how interesting the tasters found them. They just were not expecting to experience so many different flavours and styles.

Here are some of the Champagnes that I have shown in my recent tastings, these all found particular favour with the crowds on the night, sometimes for very different reasons.

Light, fresh Champagnes 

This is how most people imagine Champagne and indeed the style of Champagne that most of us drink most of the time. They are perfect to drink on their own, for the toast or the aperitif or to serve with light nibbles like cheese straws, fresh light cheeses, fish and chips and Asian cuisine.

Veuve Monsigny Brut No III NV
Champagne Philizot et Fils
Reuil, near Reims

I know nothing about Philizot, but they appear to be a genuine Champagne house rather than a dreamed up brand name. They must be quite big, even though very few of us have ever heard of them, because they have to be selling a great deal of this. The blend is one third each of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

This is genuinely a nice bottle of Champagne, fresh, lively and very appley with a soft mousse and palate. Not the most complex, but very decent and well made with nice acidity and some of the elegance and purity that generally sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines.

How they do this at the price I really do not know, but I am glad they do – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £10.99 per bottle from Aldi.

Bissinger & Co Grande Prestige Premium Cuvée Brut NV
Vranken-Pommery
Tours-sur-Marne

I know next nothing about this Champagne house except that it used to be based in Aÿ and has history dating back to 1875. Since 2012 it has been part of the mighty Vranken-Pommery group and continues to make good wines that deliver excellent value for money too.

It looks good in its fancy shaped bottle and it tastes pretty good too. It might not be quite as dry as other Champagnes, but that makes it soft and very drinkable indeed – and it is still dry. There is a little more richness here too, from longer ageing than the Verve Montigny I assume. I liked this and so did my tasters – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £17.99 per bottle from Lidl.

Louis Chaurey Brut NV
Champagne Oudinot
Epernay

Oudinot is a pretty prestigious house with history going back to the dawn of the nineteenth century when Jules Edouard Oudinot started making Champagne from his vineyard in Avize in the Côtes des Blancs south of Epernay. Today it is part of the great Laurent-Perrier and they make this label for Marks & Spencer. Again the blend uses all three typical grapes, but I am unaware of the blend.

This is very Epernay in style, very apply, very citrus. In short it is light, fresh and refreshing. Thoroughly enjoyable and that light touch of crushed digestive biscuit gives it enough interest and richness. A perfectly decent Champagne – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £34.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer – make sure to buy it when on offer which comes around about twice a year, 50% off and another 25% off when you buy 2 cases of 6 bottles.

H Blin Brut NV
Champagne H Blin & Co
Vincelles

I have always been a fan of H Blin. Based in Vincelles some 20 km west of Epernay they have farmed grapes for generations, but only started making their own Champagnes after World War II. Being based in the Valley of the Marne they champion the somewhat unloved Pinot Meunier, even to the extent of making an excellent still red from it under the Coteaux Champenois appellation.

This is their standard non vintage Cuvée made from 80% Pinot Meunier with 20% Chardonnay and 2 years ageing

The nose is of toasted brioche and cooked lemon, while the palate gives zesty green apples, a touch of red apple, some light nuts and even a touch of caramel from the ageing development. A very tasty, but also refined and elegant Champagne – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £28.00 per bottle from Oddbins.

Taittinger Brut Réserve NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

Taittinger is a rare beast for a Champagne house, in being owned and managed by the family whose name is on the label. This is no mean feat in the modern world when Champagne is often seen as a luxury brand product rather than a wine as such. As far as I am aware Bollinger is the only other world famous Champagne house to remain a family company. It must focus the mind somewhat having your name on every bottle and being ultimately responsible for the quality and style of wine that your family produces and under the management of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger I think the wines have evolved and the quality has really shone.

This is the standard wine from the house and I always enjoy it. 40% Chardonnay dominates the wine together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier blended from vineyards across the region and then aged 3 years on the lees.

I really enjoy this wine because it light, fresh and vibrant, but has depth of flavour too. There is a creaminess running all the way through it, as well as citrus, green apple and a touch of peach. There is crisp, but not startling acidity and the mousse is soft and creamy without being frothy. There is also a touch of caramel and digestive biscuit to the palate that gives a nice smack of complexity, but the finish is dry and clean.

I always think this wine is deceptively straightforward and sinfully drinkable. Indeed it is a wine that you can focus attention on and savour its subtle charms, or just enjoy it and let those charms wash over you – 91/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £37.00 per bottle – Majestic reduce that to £27.73 when you mix 6 bottles of anything. Asda’s price is £27.

Champagne vineyards.

Franck Bonville Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Avize NV
Champagne Franck Bonville
Avize

This small, family run Champagne house has always attracted me. They winemaker is fourth generation Olivier Bonville whose grandfather Franck started it all just after World War I. Altogether they farm just 20 hectares in the Grand Cru Côtes des Blancs villages of Avize, Over and Le Mesnil.

This wine blends 70% of Avise fruit with 30% from Oger and it is aged for 30 months on the lees. The nose gives a lovely touch of ozone or rock pools – which I find fairy typical of lean Chardonnay.

The palate has plenty of orchard fruit too, apples and white peach. There is a lovely, playful tension in this wine between the almost creamy richness of the Chardonnay and the freshness and acidity of the style. The result is wine that gives softness and generosity together with that purity, almost salty quality that a fine dry white can have. An excellent and complex aperitif wine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £35.00 per bottle from Premiers Grands Crus and Cadman Fine Wines.

Legras & Haas Chouilly Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut
Champagne Legras & Haas
Chouilly

Champagne Legras & Haas is a Champagne domaine founded as recently as 1991. Before he created his own estate in 1991, together with his wife Brigitte – whose maiden name was Haas, François Legras was the winemaker at R & L Legras as his forebears had been since the sixteenth century. It was his desire to be a true vigneron, a grower with a domaine that made him strike out on his own and today the house has 31 hectares mainly in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. Today the house is run by François’s sons Rémi and Olivier Legras and I think the wines they produce are remarkably fine.

Extra Brut has a dosage of less than 5 grams per litre, so the wine is allowed to dominate the style. There is no softness here, no fat, just precision and austerity. This means that the Champagne has to be perfect first time – like a water colour.

They got it right, the wine has concentration, but is about minerality and tension. If you like Chablis you will enjoy this. It has that same nervy character and stony depth to it. The bubbles really are tiny and persistent and add some structure to the wine. Four years ageing on the lees has also added little flourishes of flakey pastry, but for me this is all about the minerality, finesse and elegant austerity – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £48.00 per bottle from Uvinum.

The softer side of Champagne

If all that acidity is not your thing, you can still enjoy Champagne, but a slightly less dry Sec version might suit you better. Rosé Champagne is softer too as the great majority of rosé Champagnes get their colour from some still, red Pinot Noir being added to the base wine before it is made fizzy. This gives red fruit characters and makes the wine seem riper and rounder and so softens that acidity,

Taittinger Nocturne Sec NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

40% Chardonnay together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, aged 4 years on the lees. Much of the fruit comes from Taittinger’s own estates including some from their Château de la Marquetterie.

The idea here is to make a soft Champagne that is drinkable after dinner and long into the night – or indeed any other time, I find it’s good at breakfast! People often assume that this will be sweet, but it isn’t at all. There is 17.5 grams per litre of residual sugar, but remember how high the acidity is in Champagne, well here the acidity and the sugar balance each other perfectly, so the wine finishes clean and balanced. It is soft, not sweet at all, the palate is creamy and there is a gentle nectarine quality to it and and an eating apple crunch.

This might be perfect if acidity is not your thing, or if you want a Champagne that can withstand traces of something sweet on your palate. This also lived up to its name by remaining quite delicious throughout the tasting and even after all the others were finished – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £47.00 per bottle from Asda and Waitrose Cellar.

Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

I love Rosé Champagne as it always feels so hedonistic and almost naughty. I think this is one of the best on the market.

35% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier with 15% of the Pinot Noir being red to give the colour – the Pinot comes from Ambonnay, Bouzy & Les Riceys. The finished wine is aged 3 years on the lees.

This is a real charmer of a wine, the colour is a deep wild salmon meets strawberry and the richness of red fruit makes the wine seem much less dry and acidic than it actually is. So if you like a softer style of Champagne then this could be for you, certainly the palate gives lots of red fruit, raspberry and even blood orange.

If you age it for a few years the fruit mellows somewhat to a more rose petal quality making the wine quite different, but just as lovely – 91/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £50.00 per bottle – however the Asda Wine Shop price appears to be just £27!

The Richer Side of Champagne

I am lucky, I like all styles of Champagne including the rich ones. These are often based on black grapes rather than Chardonnay, so gives more weight. They are also often aged longer and sometimes have some oak influence too. These Champagnes go very well with surprisingly rich food too, like foie gras, game and charcuterie.

Barnaut Grande Réserve Grand Cru Brut NV
Champagne Barnaut
Bouzy (yes, Bouzy, really, it is a Grand Cru village in the Montagne de Reims and rather wonderfully Dizy is not far away either!)

This little grower-producer is a new find for me and they are pretty good. Based in Bouzy they base their wines on Pinot Noir – and even make a still red wine and rosé too. This cuvée is two thirds Pinot Noir and one third Chardonnay from their own vineyards in Bouzy, Ambonnay and Louvois. The wine is aged for 4 years on the lees and has a low dosage of just 6 grams per litre, making it almost Extra Brut.

In truth this Champagne is only slightly richer than those above, so could be enjoyed on its own, but there is a touch of something richer from all that Pinot and the longer ageing. There is a touch of red fruit here together with a deeper biscuity note. It is wonderfully focussed and pure though and very dry, but with the sensation of very ripe fruit, so there is plenty of tension in the wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £27.00 per bottle from Lea & Sandeman.

One of my two favourite Champagne village names.

AR Lenoble Blanc de Noirs Premier Cru Bisseuil Brut 2009
Champagne A R Lenoble
Damery

AR Lenoble was founded in 1920 and is still family owned by sister-and-brother team Anne and Antoine Malassagne, the great-grandchildren of founder Armand-Raphaël Graser from Alsace. He called his house Lenoble as it sounded more French than his somewhat Germanic name of Graser. AR Lenoble owns 18 hectares in three prime locations in Champagne. Chouilly, Bisseuil and Damery. All their Chardonnay comes from the Grand Cru village of Chouilly, their Pinot Noir comes the Premier Cru village of Bisseuil and their Pinot Meunier comes from their home village of Damery.

100% Pinot Noir with 35% fermented and aged in oak before the second fermentation and aged on the lees for 4 years. This is a powerful, heady and concentrated Champagne. The dosage is only 5%, so could be labelled as Extra Brut if they chose, however it is so full of flavour that it is far from austere and has a wonderful spicy cinnamon and vanilla note from the oak.

A wonderfully intense Champagne with real richness that comes from the use of just black grapes, long ageing, barrel fermenting and ageing and the quality of the vintage – 93/100 pints.

Available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle from Plus de Bulles and Premiers Grands Crus. Also contact Ellis of Richmond who are the UK agents.

Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

What to do? You want vintage Champagne with all that richness and savoury brioche character, but cannot be doing with ageing some and anyway you want a slightly softer fruit character to give a touch of the frivolous, yet still keep it elegant and refined. You probably guessed it – you drink this.

50% Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs – including Avize and Le Mesnil sur Oger – blended with  50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims – including Mailly and Ambonnay. The finished wine is aged 5 years on the lees.

Another glorious cuvée from Taittinger that manages to be intense and soft all at the same time. This makes it very appealing with rich fruit and similarly rich leesy characters and complexity. The mousse is markedly softer than on Taittinger’s vintage, yet firmer and more precise than on their Brut Réserve Non-Vintage. In truth this Champagne goes with everything and nothing, it is just splendid – 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £40 per bottle: John Lewis, Great Western Wine, Majestic, Champagne Direct.

Taittinger’s beautiful Château de la Marquetterie. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Taittinger Les Folies de la Marquetterie Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

A single vineyard Champagne – a very rare beast indeed – from the vineyards around Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry near Epernay, which quite apart from being a beautiful place has a south and southwest exposure and so creates beautifully ripe fruit.

The blend is 55% Pinot Noir to 45% Chardonnay a small portion of the latter is fermented in oak vats which lends a subtle toasty spice to the finish as well as weight to the palate. It is aged for 5 years on the lees.

This is an exciting Champagne with richness and real savoury qualities. Again it is concentrated, but has bigger bolder characters and in some ways feels like a mature vintage Champagne.

Personally I do not regard this as a Champagne to drink while standing and nibbling twiglets, for me this needs a meal  – although feel free to serve it to me with nibbles – and would be perfect with a lovely piece of good quality fish – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £50 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Fareham Wine Cellar,  The Drink Shop among others.

Alfred Gratien Brut Vintage 2004
Champagne Alfred Gratien
Epernay

A tiny Champagne house that was long part of Gratien and Meyer in the Loire. It was founded in 1864 and was for a long time run by the Seydoux family who were related to the Gratiens and also the Krugs. Nowadays it is owned by German sparkling wine giant Henkell & Söhnlein, but all they seem to have done is to pay for much needed repairs and vineyard purchases, the style and devotopn to tradition remains the same, as does the cellar master in fact.

Alfred Gratien was the first Champagne house, indeed the first winery that I ever visited back in 1984 at the age of nineteen and I have been fond of what they do ever since. They ferment their base wines in oak barrels that they buy second hand – you don’t want too much oak – from the Chablisienne cooperative in Chablis. As a consequence their wines are rich and heady and brooding and very fine.

This is two thirds Chardonnay with the rest equal parts of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The nose is nutty, citric and toasty with flecks of flint. The palate is broad and deep, yet with that lively purity that makes Champagne so wonderful. There is toasted brioche, smoke, peach and apple and citrus and a warmth and fullness that belies the zing of the acidity. That tension between those two makes it feel very fine and long in the mouth – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £42 per bottle from The Wine Society.

Taittinger Brut Vintage 2009
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from mainly Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs for the Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for the Pinot and then aged 5 years on the lees.

If you are ever feeling jaded and tired of life then this wine has a wonderfully restorative quality. The sensations here are of concentrated fruit as the vintage is only made in occasional exceptional years, however not only is the fruit more powerful, but the acidity is fresher and the weight is greater too, so this is a very intense wine. Red fruit notes and ripe peach vie with each other on your senses, while the savoury, nutty, brioche lees characters add more depth and the rich seam of acidity keeps it all fresh and elegant too.

A glorious Champagne with a firm and steady mousse and a wonderful feeling of tension running through it giving it poise and elegance – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £50 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Amazon,  The Drink Shop and Great Western Wine among others.

And some Ultimate Luxury…

Most major Champagne houses produce a Cuvée de Prestige using the very best fruit. These wines have care and attention lavished upon them and are aged longer than the normal cuvées and usually come in a fancy bottle that looks lovely and shows you that everything has been done by hand as these bottles do not fit the machines.

I like Taittinger as a house and think that their Cuvée de Prestige is one of the very best on the market. It certainly wowed everyone I showed it to at the tasting.

Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs in the punters in the chalk cellars below Reims. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2006
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

One of the greats of Champagne, this cuvée de prestige is 100% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. 5% is aged in new oak barrels for 4 months to add complexity and richness and the finished wine is aged for at least 7 years on the lees before release.

James Bond fans will know this was the favoured Champagne of Ian Fleming’s spy in the early books and I for one can see why – JFK seemed to enjoy it too. This is the most delicate. mineral and fine Chamapagne that I have ever tasted. It oozes finesse and breeding and subtlety, but has many more obvious charms too. I often think this is the most ‘wine-like’ Champagne that I know, it sort of seems like the finest Chablis you can imagine, but with a delicate and taut mousse – 95/100 points.

This very fine stuff and makes a superb aperitif, but is even better served with light seafood dishes like oysters or scallops. It would even go with a light fishy (sea bass) or chicken main course.

Available in the UK @ around £120 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Majestic,  Marks & Spencer and Ocado among others.

Obviously this line up barely scratches the surface of the different styles of Champagne that is out there, but is shows how different they can be and made for some fascinating and thought provoking tastings.

If you have only had a single view of what Champagne does, perhaps you might enjoy a little experimentation too, try some different examples and see what you think.

Wine of the Week – a lovely red wine for Summer

The beautiful south facing slopes at Domaine de Noblaie.

I know we are all supposed to drink rosé wines in summer, and why not, there are some superb rosés around, but even in hot weather you shouldn’t ignore reds completely.

All sorts of red wines are suitable for summer drinking, sparkling reds for instance and smooth fruity red wines with a barbecue, but the most fun style is light red wines.

A lot of people rather poo-poo light red wines, in the UK anyway. Too many people buy into the theory that unless a wine beats you up as you drink it then it isn’t any good. Which is a great shame as lighter red wines can be utterly delightful.

There are many more light and lightish red wines than you might think too, Beaujolais of course, but Valpolicella, Bardolino, Rioja Joven, Swiss Dôle and Gamay, Touraine Gamay, Alsace Pinot Noir, Austrian reds, German reds, red Vinho Verde (if you dare), red Mâcon and a lot of the world’s Pinot Noir.

Any, or all of those, especially New Zealand Pinot Noir, can be perfect in summer. Serve them with lighter food and lightly chilled and you will have a lovely time.

I say lightly chilled, but it depends on the day really. WSET say light reds can be chilled down to about 13˚C, but on a 34˚C day, you might want it cooler than that. It’s up to you.

Recently I was presenting a red wine to big group of people and I really liked it and so did they. It was a Chinon made from Cabernet Franc grapes in the Touraine district of the Loire Valley and although it was pretty light in body, it was very fruity and delicious. What’s more it was a very hot day and so I served it chilled and it went down a storm. I liked it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of the Loire Valley – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

In my experience the three best appellations for red wines made from Cabernet Franc in the Loire are Saumur-Champigny, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon. The last of the three actually makes white wines from Chenin Blanc grapes too, but only in tiny quantities, so it is the red wines that we actually see in the shops. Red Chinon has long been a favourite of mine as it is pretty reliable and very good value for money. Chinon is something of a secret in the UK, most consumers simply don’t know about it, but there is usually one on the wine list of any decent French bistrot or brasserie, whether here or in France, and I always order it.

Chinon castle where Joan of Arc met the Dauphin and persuaded him to let her lead the French army against the English.

Although it is in the Loire region, the town of Chinon sits on the north shore of the Vienne River. It is surrounded by 18 other communes (villages) that can make wines that are labelled as Chinon. These estates are on both sides of the Vienne, Domaine de La Noblaie is on the south bank.

It is worth mentioning that Chinon is a delightful town to visit. It is a very beautiful place with lovely little streets, half-timbered buildings, bustling squares lined with cafés, fabulous restaurants and much to see. The Castle sits on the hill above the town and you really do feel as though you have stepped back in time. A visit to the castle is a must. It was once home to Richard I – who together with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried at the nearby Fontevraud Abbey, which is stunning and even boasts a fine restaurant – it was also where Joan of Arc met with the French Dauphin and there is a museum dedicated to her. Rabelais was once mayor of Chinon and they are rightly proud of him. He was born nearby at La Devinière, where there is a museum dedicated to him and his writings.

2014 Le Temps de Cerises
Domaine de La Noblaie
AC / PDO Chinon
Touraine
Loire Valley

This is an old domaine. The site was originally home to some crusaders and was a taxing station used to finance the Crusades. The current house was built in the fifteenth century and it commands a hilltop site some two and a half kilometres south east of Chinon itself. The rock is a chalky limestone called tuffeau and the property has old cellars duck into this rock, perfect for ageing wine. They still use a vat carved into the stone in the 16th century, so wine has clearly been made here for a long time. Further proof is in the name of the hamlet, Le Vau Breton. Breton is the old local name for the Cabernet Franc grape, so it is called Cabernet Franc Valley.

Jérôme Billard.

The grapes are carefully hand harvested, with ruthless selection of the fruit first. The bunches are then carefully laid in plastic hods so as not to bruise or damage the grapes.

Today four generations farm here, but the estate is run by Jérôme Billard who is considered to be one of the great, young talents of Chinon. For a young guy he has quite a career, with stints at Château Petrus, Dominus in California and Sacred Hill in New Zealand before going home to run the family property. They have been certified organic since 2005 and all harvesting is done by hand. Fermantations are spontaneous with the indigenous yeast and the fermentations vary between stainless steel, barrel and that chalk, limestone vat.

That stone vat, used exclusively for his top red cuvée Pierre de Tuf.

The cellars carved into the limestone hillside at Domaine de Noblaie.

Le Temps de Cerises is Jérome’s lowest tier wine, his calling card if you will. It is made from 30 year old vines blended from across the estate. The grapes are hand picked and rigorously selected by the harvesters and everything is done to keep that Cabernet Franc ‘greeness’ at bay, but to preserve the freshness and vitality. The wine is fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks and aged in them on the fine lees for 8 months.

I love this wine, it is delightfully fresh and appealing. It smells of fruit, cherries especially – it has to live up to its name after all – and raspberries with perhaps a dash of blackberry in the mix. There is something leafy and herbaceous there too, but not too much, just enough for interest. On the palate it is juicy and ripe with loads more cherry, some plums and raspberries, a light touch of tannin, fresh acidity and a leafy quality. Overall it feels very smooth, soft and supple, silky even. Serve it cool and enjoy it with almost anything inside or out this summer. It is especially good with cheeses and charcuterie. This is a delicious and very accomplished, simple, little wine that delivers a lot of pleasure – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10-£13 per bottle from:
The Wine Society (2015 vintage), Hayes Hanson & Clark, Adnams, Frazier’s, Hawkshead Wines, Gusto Wines, Slurp.co.uk.

For US stockists contact European Cellars.

The Loire Valley – delicious sparkling for summer

So Summer finally seems to be here and at such times lighter, fresher wines seem to be the order of the day. I never actually go on a pic-nic, but my mind always turns to the sorts of wines that would be great with one at this time of year.

Recently I have been showing quite a lot of Loire Vally wines at consumer events – I was also thinking bout the Loire because of my travel guide of the region –  and it struck me that the wines of the Loire are often just right to go with eating outdoors, whether a proper picnic, or sitting in the garden.

The beautiful Loire Valley.

The Loire of course produces many different wine styles along its banks, but by and large they are fresher rather than richer, so they feel light and easy to drink even in warm weather. This makes them more refreshing too.

I really enjoyed showing a range of sparkling wines from the Loire valley at the recent Three Wine Men event in London. I don’t think that Sparkling wines, other than Champagne and Prosecco, get enough attention. There are so many lovely sparkling wines out there from all sorts of places and sometimes you simply do want Champagne or cannot justify the cost of Champagne. I certainly liked all of these and think they are well worth seeking out.

Wine map of the Loire Valley – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Loire Valley Sparkling Wines

While pretty much every wine producing country makes good sparkling, France makes something of a speciality of it with nigh on every region making quality sparkling wine, many of them are called Crémant followed by the name of the wine region. By this I mean a sparkling wine made fizzy by the traditional method as used for Champagne. Indeed any French sparkling wine with an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – call it what you will, they are the same thing – must be made fizzy by the Traditional or Ancestral Method. The Ancestral Method / Méthode Ancestrale is an older more primitive version of what became the Traditional Method. The wines can also be called Pétillant Naturel, or even Pét-Nat by the hipster community, and unlike Champagne etc. the yeast is left in the bottle instead of being removed and this often leaves the wines cloudy. 

When making a sparkling wine, what you need most is acidity to make the finished wine fresh and lively and the Loire uses a grape that delivers plenty of this freshness – Chenin Blanc.

There are several different sparkling wine PDOs in the Loire, Crémant de Loire, Touraine Mousseux, Vouvray and Saumur and there’re many excellent wines produced. The examples that I particularly enjoyed recently were:

Monmousseau Cuvée J M Brut
AC / PDO Touraine
Monmousseau
Loire
France

Monmousseau is a large producer founded by Alcide Monmousseau in 1886 when he turned a large quarry, previously a source of building stone for the the Châteaux of the Loire, into a cellar for ageing sparkling wine. This quarry became a network of 15 km of galleries that are remain at a constant 12˚C, the perfect temperature to age wine.

This wine is one of their top sparklers – named in honour of Justin-Marcel Monmousseau, the nephew and heir of Alcide Monmousseau – and is made from a blend of 80% Chenin Blanc, the typical grape for Loire Valley sparklers, and 20% Chardonnay. It is aged on the yeast sediment (lees in English / lies in French) left over from the second fermentation in the bottle, for some 24 months. This ageing on the yeast sediment gives the classic complexity of yeast autolysis, biscuit, brioche, flakey pastry and sometimes caramel too.

The aromas are light and fresh with green apple, citrus and jasmine flowers and a little touch of digestive biscuit. The palate is crisp and taut with fresh, clean acidity, apple and lemon fruit together with some chalky /earthy / minerality – it grows in chalky soils – and a touch of biscuity richness on the finish. A very nice, well made sparkler that would be perfect as an aperitif or served with anything light. It met with wine approval when I showed it recently – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Spirited Wines
For US stockists – click here.

The Loire in Touraine.

Château de la Presle Jean-Marie Penet Brut
AC / PDO Crémant de Loire
Château de la Presle, Domaine Penet
Loire
France

Another Touraine producer that started about the same time as Monmousseau in fact in 1885. It is now run by the fifth generation of the same family, but until 1970 was mixed farm whereas now the focus is purely wine. Since 1998 it has been run by Anne-Sophie Penet and her Burgundian wine maker husband Frédéric Meurgey.

This Cuvée is their top sparkler and is made from 75% Chardonnay with 25% of the little known Arbois. I do not know how long it is aged on the lees, but it seems like it was quite a long time to me.

This is a richer, deeper more serious sparkling wine with a richer, nutty, brioche-like aroma together with peach and apple. The palate is again rich and rounded with a softness and a feeling of dry honey and apple strudel. This is a superb sparkling wine, full of character and flavour. It makes a sophisticated, intimate aperitif or would go beautifully with rich fish dishes, rice dishes and white meat – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Gerrard Seel, St Andrews Wine Company, Silver Fox Wines & Wood Winters

Vouvray cellars dug into the rock.

Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau Vouvray Pétillant Brut
AC / PDO Vouvray
Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau
Loire
France

An exemplary estate in Vouvray, Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau was founded in 1875 and is farmed by the fifth generation of the Vigneau-Chevreau to make wine here. Over that time the domaine has expanded from 5 to over 30 hectares and is one of only two biodynamic producers in the area.

This wine is, as always for Vouvray, 100% Chenin Blanc, has less fizz than normal sparkling wine – full sparkling wines are Mousseux, this is Pétillant – and it is aged on the lees / yeast sediment for 18 months.

This carries its ageing week as it is a light, lithe and precise wine with aromas of pear, apple and citrus and a palate of crisp green apple, richer pear and a hint of apricot and quince. The acidity and minerality make it a mouthwatering aperitif and a bright aperitif – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Roberts & Speight, The Solent Cellar, David Bell McCraith and Wood Winters – more stockist information is available from Thorman Hunt & Co Ltd.
For US stockists – click here.

The beautiful Chateau de Moncontour.

Château Moncontour Vouvray Tête de Cuvée Brut
AC / PDO Vouvray
Château Moncontour
Loire
France

A very old estate, this was purchased by the Feray Family in the 1990s and it has never looked back. Again 100% Chenin Blanc, this is a Cuvée (blend) made from the best fruit and aged for around 18 months on the yeast – although it tastes like it was aged longer.

Yeast autolysis dominates this wine, it even smells of toast – yeast / lees can give a good impression of oak sometimes. Rich pear, cooked lemon, quince, honey, apple compote are all here as well as some frangipane / bakewell pudding sort of character making it feel pretty rich and flavourful, although the brisk acidity certainly cleanses the palate making it balanced. An intriguing wine that I enjoyed very much – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Slurp.co.uk
For US stockists – click here.

So you see, further proof that there is much more to sparkling wine than just Champagne, Cava and Proseco. The sparklers from the Loire are very varied in style and often very good indeed.

Loire Valley – a short travel guide

With Summer just over the horizon I thought you might enjoy another one of my travel articles, this time it’s about Anjou-Saumur and Touraine in the Loire Valley.

Angers and the Loire from the ramparts of Angers Castle.

The Loire Valley encapsulates everything I think of when daydreaming about France. As Ratty said, ‘there is nothing – absolutely nothing, half so worth doing as – simply messing about in boats!’ As a confirmed landlubber of course I stretch the principle somewhat to include messing around near boats. Life always seems more pleasurable and peaceful near a river and the Loire is one of the most tranquil and picturesque rivers that I have ever seen. It meanders through gorgeous places and seems to cast a spell over all of them. Buildings that would seem quite ordinary elsewhere, exude an enticing charm. Luckily a great many of them are cafés and restaurants whose gardens and terraces provide tranquil views of the Loire or one of its many tributaries.

Chinon with Chinon Castle above. This where Joan of Arc met the dauphin of France.

Wine map of the Loire Valley – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Think of the Loire Valley and it isn’t long before castles spring to mind, there are over 80 châteaux here and they are key to the region’s image. In fact they were the main reason that Unesco gave the Loire Valley World Heritage status in 2000. They range from true medieval defensive structures like the wonderful castles at Angers and Chinon to the more flamboyant 17th Century confections, such as the Château de Cheverny that was Hergés inspiration for Marlinspike Hall in his Tintin books.

Château de Cheverny.

Make sure you see the Château de Chenonceau, it is simply breathtaking. This exquisite building acts as a bridge that spans the River Cher not far from Vouvray, amazingly it marked the border between Vichy and Occupied France and was the scene of much clandestine border crossing during the war. The gardens, complete with a maze, are equally lovely and they have a couple of restaurants and a wine cellar if you need some refreshment. Equally sublime is the early renaissance Château Azay-le-Rideau near Chinon, and it must not be missed.

The exquisite Château de Chenonceau.

The beautiful Chateau-Azay-le-Rudeau.

 

The imposing main gate of Angers Castle.

Strolling through the narrow lanes and bustling squares of Anger’s old town is time well spent, and make sure you take a tour round the castle that dominates this attractive city. Once home to Catherine de Medici and where the future Duke of Wellington received his military education, the harsh defensive exterior does not prepare you for the haven of peace inside. It is a delightful place complete with rampart walk, gardens, orchards and even a small vineyard. Most famously though, it houses the incredible Apocalypse Tapestry which really is one of the jewels of early French culture. As you might imagine, Angers is heaving with eateries, but Mets & Vins is both a stylish restaurant and excellent wine shop. It has no wine list, instead you browse the shelves and see what takes your fancy.

La Croisette, try the Sandre for a taste of local tradition, or (strangely) some of the best calamares I have ever tasted.

Leaving Angers, head south to where the Maine and Loire rivers meet. The river is wide here and there are lots of islands which add to that sense of tranquility. Savennières is a good place to explore before finding lunch in a traditional Guinguette, which is a casual riverside restaurant, often looking like a riverside beach bar. My favourite is La Croisette which is on the river bank on an island in the Loire, make sure you try the local speciality of Sandre, a fish known as Pike-Perch in English.

From here it’s fun to follow the Layon river as it winds through the beautiful villages of Anjou and the Coteaux du Layon. The village of Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay houses the Vine and Wine Museum of Anjou-Saumur which is well worth a visit. If hunger strikes then head for La Table de la Bergerie. This delightful modern restaurant is set amongst vines in the middle of the countryside, making it a magical place to sit outside and enjoy your aperitif.

Louresse-Rochemenier.

The evocative cellars at the wonderful Domaine de Bablut in Anjou.

Nearby is the village of Louresse-Rochemenier, which is fascinating with its troglodyte dwellings cut into the tuffeau cliff face. In the past this stone was excavated and used to build the châteaux and wealthy towns of the region. In turn, the local poor moved in to the holes left behind and they were lived in until the 1930s. Many such caves are also used as cellars as they provide perfect conditions to age wines.

The charmingly eccentric Château de Brissac.

Another view of the Château de Brissac.

Next, head up to Brissac-Quincé on the banks of the Aubance, this attractive town has the remarkable Château de Brissac at its heart and it’s a delight in every way. The gardens are beautiful, while the building is now a fascinating museum and boasts that it is the ‘tallest castle’ in France as it is has sections from the 17th century built on top of a medieval castle.

Vines at Château de Saumur, photo courtesy of Bouvet-Ladubay.

Returning to the River Loire itself, Saumur is a must see town on the south bank of the river. Everything is built out of the local honey coloured tuffeau stone and many of the buildings are magnificent, especially the City Hall and the imposing Château de Saumur. Saumur is a great food town too, with an amazing array of places to eat, try Le Gambetta or Le Carrousel for a treat, or one of the many bistrots by the river. In addition, try not to leave town before you have experienced Gérard Girardeau’s superb charcuterie and wine shop, it really is one of the very best.

Vines in Souzay-Champigny.

A little way south east is the village of Souzay-Champigny. Champigny itself is a few kilometres south and lends its name to the Saumur-Champigny appellation which produces some of the best red wines of the Loire. It’s a sleepy little place, but worth a visit for more of those troglodyte houses.

Carry on east and you come to the Touraine area, whose vineyards include Bourgueil, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon. Bourgueil is pretty and a joy to explore, with a 10th century abbey that is now a museum, a busy street market on Tuesday and a gastronomic market held in the medieval market hall every Saturday. If you have worked up appetite, La Rose de Pindare is a delightful restaurant serving local food and wine in the centre of the village.

That giant bottle outside the Church.

Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil is a very small place that is mainly worth visiting for the wine, but it does boast a giant wine bottle outside the church, it serves as a fountain, and the excellent Saint Nicolas Gourmand restaurant just across the road.

Not far away Chinon is one of the major towns of the Loire and a terrific place to visit. In fact the castle alone makes it worthwhile. This sits above the town and although it was the home of Richard I of England – who together with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried at the nearby Fontevraud Abbey, which is stunning and even boasts a fine restaurant – it was also where Joan of Arc had her first meeting with the French Dauphin and there is a museum dedicated to her. Rabelais was once the mayor and Chinon still feels medieval with its narrow streets, gothic buildings and timber frame houses. The markets are on Thursdays and Sundays and there are restaurants galore, but I always choose Les Annees 30 and have never been disappointed. La Cave Voltaire is a superb wine shop that doubles up as a bar offering cheese and charcuterie, the focus is on organic and natural wines from small producers.

The Loire Valley is a hedonists’ paradise, with superb food and produce. There are 6 appellation controlée cheeses in the Loire and they are all made from goats milk, Valençay, Crottin de Chevignol, Chabichou du Poutou, Pouligny St. Pierre, Selles-sur-Cher and Sainte-Maure de Touraine. Legend has it that when the invading Arabs were defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732 they left their goats behind. Whether that is true or not the cheeses are perfect with the local wines.

Charcuterie is important here too, especially rillettes, a soft, fatty paté that tastes delicious. It is usually made from pork, but goose, duck, rabbit and even fish versions are available and while it is normally eaten with bread and cornichons, rillettes are sometimes served with a local unleavened bread called fouaces.

If all this makes you feel spoilt for choice, then don’t worry. There is beauty and there are delights wherever you look in the Loire Valley, the important thing is just to get there.

 

Contacts:

Restaurant Mets & Vins
44 Boulevard Ayrault, 49100 Angers, France
Phone: +33 2 41 87 03 35

La Croisette
rue de la Boire 49170 Béhuard
Phone: +33 02 41 23 19 53

Vine and Wine Museum of Anjou-Saumur
Musée de la vigne et du vin d’Anjou
Cellier de la Coudraye
Place des Vignerons
49750 Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay
Tél: +33 02 41 78 42 75

La Table de la Bergerie
La Bergerie
49380 Champ sur Layon
Tél:. +33 02 41 78 30 62

Restaurant le Gambetta
12 Rue Gambetta
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33 02 41 67 66 66

Restaurant Le Carrousel
15 r Colonel  Michon
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33  02 41 51 00 40

Gérard Girardeau
53 Rue Saint-Nicolas
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33 02 41 51 30 33

La Rose de Pindare
4 Place Hublin
37140 Bourgueil
Tel: +33 2 47 97 70 50

Saint Nicolas Gourmand
Avenue Saint Vincent 28
37140 Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil
Tel: +33 2 47 97 77 37

Les Annees 30
78 rue Voltaire
37500 Chinon
Tel: +33 2 47 93 37 18

La Cave Voltaire
13 Rue Voltaire
37500 Chinon
Tel: +33 02 47 93 37 68

 

 

Cork v3.0 – Cork Fights Back

Cork oaks with their trunks stripped – photo courtesy of Diam.

The cork or screw cap debate is getting interesting again – click here for an article that I wrote about it quite a few years ago. For many years I, along with many in the British wine trade, have long championed the use of screw cap over cork.

My main reason for doing so is that for a long time we had far too high a proportion of bottles that were corked. This happens when a cork is infected by a compound called trichloroanisole, TCA for short, and that gets passed on to the wine in the bottle, killing the fruit in the wine and making it smell and taste musty like mouldy cardboard.

A compelling second reason to favour screw caps is that with corks there is a significant amount of bottle variation as some give a better seal than others, so little bit of oxidation can occur making some bottles seem less vibrant and more muted than others.

Screwcaps do not get rid of all of this, it is possible to get TCA into a wine by another route, so I have had 4 ‘corked’ bottles sealed with screw caps. That is 4 in over 20 years though. By comparison my record for corked wine that was sealed with corks was 6 bottles from a single case on a single day!

I also like the glass closures, they look very classy and I think if I made wine that is what I would choose. The rather more funky  Zork closure is rather good too, especially for sparkling wine.  It makes a noise like a cork popping and you can reseal it.

However, many people are more traditional than me and like to cling to things because they are used to them or sometimes because they think they are best and so cork is still used to seal the majority of wine bottles.

In the 10 years from 2006 to 2106 the use of cork has dropped from 78% of closures to 61%, so it is still the dominant material. In that time screw caps have grown from just 5% to 26%. If those figures seem low to you, outside of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland, cork is considered superior and screwcaps are widely viewed as suitable only for the cheapest wines.

The tops of various types of cork.

Well cork seems to be fighting back and the charge is lead by a new form of cork that manages to get round the traditional problems that cork has.

Natural cork.

Most of you will be able to picture a traditional cork, that is a cylinder of cork stamped out a single piece of cork oak bark. Being a single piece if it is contaminated by TCA, this will infect the wine.

Agglomerate cork.

Agglomerate cork was an attempt to get around that by making the cork out of lots of tiny pieces of cork glued together. However these are usually considered less suitable for ageing wine as there is almost no oxygen ingress, or trickle of oxygen through the cork, to age the wine. In addition they are less pliable than natural cork, so again less suitable for long term ageing.

Synthetic cork.

Synthetic corks have certainly proved to be effective for early drinking wines. The risk of TCA infection is almost completely removed, unless TCA gets into the wine via wood or filter pads or by another route – this can also happen with screw cap wines, but it is rare. However many of them can harden over a relatively short time, making them less effective and allowing air into the wine. Added to which they are really difficult to get off the corkscrew once you have removed them from the bottle. In my opinion these are really only suitable for early drinking wines, but a screw cap would be a better seal and preserve the fresh character of the wine and the fruit much better.

Recently I was invited to France to tour a cork factory that belongs to a company that is changing everything – that company is Diam.

A Diam 3 cork.

Basically Diam manufacture a type of agglomerate cork, but a very high tech and high quality one. I cannot pretend to understand the science, but basically they harvest high quality cork, season it outside for up to 12 months, just as natural cork would be. They then wash it and crush it into granules which are then filtered to remove foreign bodies and the woody parts. This leaves them with pure suberin, which unlike lesser cork is inert. This substance undergoes a similar process to the one that removes caffeine from coffee, which removes all impurities from the cork granules, they actually store the TCA that they remove as it can be used in the manufacture of some skin creams – so the next time auntie smells of cork taint, perhaps she hasn’t been drinking! The gaps between the cork granules are filled with microspheres which increases the elasticity of the finished cork. They are then bound together with a food grade binding agent before being moulded, machined and finished to the correct size and finish.

They tell me that with their process there is no risk of TCA, the cork is pliable enough to ensure there is minimal risk of premature oxidation – which makes Diam corks particularly popular in Burgundy – and stops bottle variation as they perform consistently.

If you look at the Diam cork above, you will see in the bottom right it says Diam 3, they actually make Diam 2, Diam 3, Diam 5, Diam 10 and Diam 30 for still wines, the number tells you how long they guarantee the cork for. They also make sparkling wine corks and spirit stopper corks.

An unused Diam 5.

It was a fascinating visit. The factory floor was almost entirely unmanned, with robotic machines doing all the work. The whole place had a rather wonderful toasty, malty, toffee, caramel sort of smell which is what the corks smell of when still warm.

Our little group on the factory floor and yes that is Charles Metcalfe in the centre. I reached the conclusion that the protective clothing was a French joke as none of the management wore it!

Diam corks are tested for their elasticity as they want them to be as pliable as possible. This elastic property ensures that they give a perfect seal and apparently do not need to be kept damp – so if you know it has a Diam cork you do not need to lie it down, or so Diam say.

Diam Origine.

Diam have been around since 2005 and their share of the market keeps rising, their share of the cork market has risen from a very healthy 4% in 2006 to 10% 10 years later. And by the way that 10% represents 1.3 billion corks a year!

Now they have launched an organic version called Diam Origine. Initially this will just be in a Diam 10 and a Diam 30 version, but more will follow. The organic corks uses beeswax emulsion and a binding agent made from plants and I expect that we will begin to see them used on more and more organic and biodynamic wines.

The Pic du Canigou from Diam’s factory near Collioure in the Roussillon region of France.

It was a very different visit from my normal wine trips, but it was very interesting and informative and the weather was gorgeous, the only lovely weather I have had this year so far. I was very impressed by what I saw and heard and feel much more confident about cork now than I have for a long time, as long as it is Diam.

It’s just a pity that you cannot tell whether the wine is sealed with a Diam cork before you buy it. Perhaps they ought to find a way of letting us know before we part with our money?