Beaujolais – a misunderstood region

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Beautiful vineyards on the south western border between Fleurie and Beaujolais-Villages.

 

Recently I had a quick trip to Beaujolais as the guest of Henry Fessy and it was a really uplifting experience. I have only been to Beaujolais once before and had come to the view that, with exceptions, the place was generally nicer than the wines. Now I am not so sure as I tasted some fabulous wines from this Cinderella-like region.

Too many Beaujolais wines in my younger days had almost no aromas or flavours at all except that bubblegum and candy floss character that shows the grapes were not crushed and instead the fermentation was carried out by the maceration carbonique process. I can enjoy wines made this way, but usually do not, especially if they are made from Gamay – the black grape of Beaujolais.

Too much of Beaujolais in my past was Beaujolais Nouveau too. This new wine is released in the year it is harvested – on the third Thursday of November. I am sure there are good examples, but on the whole it is very light, very thin, very acidic and, again, tasting of bubblegum, candy floss and cherryade. It is not everyone’s idea of fun and has tainted appreciation of the whole region for many of us, including me. Which is a pity because Beaujolais is about so much more.

Beaujolais can be a surprisingly complicated place for a region that has traditionally achieved most of its fame from producing very approachable wines.

Firstly, although the focus is on the reds, there is a tiny amount of white Beaujolais produced. Made from Chardonnay these white wines are very good quality and well worth seeking out.

French map QS 2018 Chablis & watermark

Wine Map of France showing the position of Beaujolais just to the south of Burgundy, but only semi-detached in some ways – click for a larger view.

Secondly, Beaujolais has traditionally been regarded as part of Burgundy, in the UK anyway. So much so that in a former life when I sold Georges Duboeff’s Fleurie, in tiny letters it stated “Grand Vin de Bourgogne” on the label. Nowadays Beaujolais is mainly regarded as a region on its own and not a sub-zone of Burgundy.

However this isn’t entirely consistent as there is no such thing as Crémant de Beaujolais for instance. Instead they produce Crémant de Bourgogne. The northern border is somewhat imprecise too with the Mâcon appellation / PDO encroaching all the way down to Romanèche-Thorins in the north-east of the region and even overlapping the Beaujolais Cru of St Amour.

Just to confuse matters a little bit more of course there are some odd labelling laws that permit some producers to label wines made from their Beaujolais vineyards as Appellation Controlée / Appellation d’Origine Protégée Bourgogne whilst denying that to others – this is why you can have Gamay de Bourgogne for instance, and very good it can be too as the grapes have to come from the Cru vineyards of Beaujolais – see below.

Putting all that to one side and looking just at the reds that from Beaujolais, there are three quality levels:

Wine map of Beaujolais showing all 3 quality levels and all 10 Crus.

Basic AC Beaujolais – this is generally grown on chalky limestone and produces very light reds with high acidity.

AC Beaujolais-Villages – from the northern part of the region where the soils can produce richer, rounder wines.

The 10 Crus. The Cru wines are named after the village – with 2 exceptions – within whose boundaries the grapes are grown. The appellation / PDO makes no mention of Beaujolais, just the village name. The most famous of these is of course Fleurie, but there are ten in all – see the map above.

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The mill in Romanèche-Thorins after which the wines of Moulin-à-Vent are named.

The two exceptions that are not named after their village are Côte de Brouilly which is named for the slopes of Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, and Moulin-á-Vent which is named after the distinctive old windmill that stands amongst the vines of Romanèche-Thorins.

With classic French regions it is quite a good idea to visit a producer who makes from the entire area, because you get an overview made by the same hand and mindset. That is what I got at Henry Fessy and it really made me revaluate my thoughts on Beaujolais.

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Laurent Chevalier, the charming director at Henry Fessy.

Henry Fessy was a family run estate from 1888 until it was purchased by the great Maison Louis Latour of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, who are still family owned after more than 200 years. The 70 hectare Fessy domaine has been run by the genial Laurent Chevalier ever since, with some help from members of the Fessy family, and it provides a wonderful snapshot of what Beaujolais can do.

They own land across the region and produce every single appellation contained within Beaujolais, as well as wines from the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy and even a very attractive Rosé de Provence. Currently they farm in 9 of the 10 Crus with Chiroubles being the exception. They do however produce an excellent Chiroubles from an estate with which they have long term contracts for supply and control of the vineyard.

Laurent explained that they handpick the best sites and destem 80% of the grapes, leaving 20% whole bunches. Old fashioned Beaujolais is not destemmed as the grapes have to be whole for maceration carbonique, so is fermented on the stems. 30 or 40 years ago those stems would not be as ripe as they nowadays, for many reasons, and so the results could be stalky and green. Nowadays greater control means that using stalks is a real choice because it can help with the manipulation of the must and also in the development of fuller wines and silkier tannins – providing those stalks are ripe.

So, by definition here they are not using maceration carbonique. Instead they do very light macerations with not very much wood, just a little for the top crus. What they are looking for is the taste of Gamay, rather than the more recognisable taste of bubble gum from the maceration carbonique.

The big differences between the different parts of Beaujolais are soil and aspect – isn’t that always the case! In the south the gentle rolling hills of most of the AC Beaujolais are lighter, chalkier limestone which produces lighter more acidic wines. The north however has a more complex arrangement of mainly granite with some schist, volcanic basalt and manganese. These all produce richer, rounder, more complex wines. Add aspect into the equation and you can quickly see why the Crus are so different from the rest of the region.

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Fleurie’s Chapelle de la Madone was built around 1870 to ward off vine diseases. It seems to have worked!

We talk about the slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and some other places too of course, but generally the Crus of Beaujolais are not spoken about in the same hushed ones. Well they should be. They are easily the equal of the Côte d’Or to look at, more beautiful if anything, with lovely dramatic slopes often angled towards the sun. In fact where the Cru of Beaujolais score over their neighbours to the north is that here the slopes do not only face one way as they often form a ridge with a reverse slope too. So you can have south, east and west facing Fleurie, and other Crus, vineyard slopes for instance.

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That rounded hill is Morgon’s Côte du Py lieux-dit. Fessy blend the fruit from their part of the Côte du Py into their Morgon rather than bottle it separately. The soils here are a mixture of granite and schist, decayed slate.

The different soils of the various Crus are important too as the best wines can be very mineral and make you certain that you can taste the various soils in the wines. Some people believe that happens, but most science points to something else explaining minerality in wine. A function of acidity perhaps? My own feeling is that it is a mixture of acidity and a lack of dominating, rich fruit. We are used to so many red wines being big and bold with rich primary fruit characters nowadays. Well, however ripe a Beaujolais is it will be a relatively light style of wine, so the fruit will not totally overpower the palate. Instead it will leave space for acidity and those other flavours that are not fruit, but come across as more savoury – and indeed earthy or mineral.

So the Crus have more poise, more depth and more elegance than the more basic wines because they have components competing for attention on your senses. It isn’t just red fruit, you also get some black fruit from time to time, the earthy and herbal mineral characters and yes sometimes that sense of granite or slate introducing savoury aspects and tension into the wines.

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Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, the soils are blue volcanic basalt. Right at the peak you can just see La Chapelle Notre-Dame-aux-Raisins.

They are balanced and complete and yet again the truth is much more interesting than what we are normally told about Beaujolais. These wines can last. They don’t need to be drunk young, in fact just as with most good quality red wines a few years in bottle will settle them down and draw out the more complex and satisfying attributes. The things that actually make them good wines as to opposed more simple fruit bombs.

I generally go around telling people to ignore vintage with most modern wines – for wines to drink anyway. Normally the freshest vintage is the one to go for, but obviously with classic red wines that is not the case and good Beaujolais, especially the Crus, must join that band of elite regions where vintage is a really important consideration.

2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2016 are all brilliant vintages down in Beaujolais, with 2017 being great as well. There might still be some 2015 around in the shops and I would advise you to grab those bottles while you can.

I really enjoyed everything I tasted at Henry Fessy, but some of the real standout wines were:

Henry Fessy_Beaujolais blanc bottle2016 Beaujolais Blanc
AC / PDO Beaujolais Blanc
Henry Fessy

Less than 3% of the plantings in Beaujolais are Chardonnay and Fessy only have 1 hectare, but on this showing I cannot imagine why as this is a terrific wine.

100% Chardonnay with no oak but 6 months ageing on the lees.

It has a lovely texture, satisfying mouthfeel, ripe apples and peach fruit and even a touch of something more exotic like pineapple and grapefruit. Lovely freshness keeps it poised and pure and the length is fantastic too.

This is a really good alternative to anything at the more affordable end of white Burgundy – do try it if you can – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Mr Wheeler & Hay Wines.

Henry Fessy_Morgon bottle2016 Morgon
AC / PDO Morgon
Henry Fessy

Fessy only have 2 hectares of Morgon and so blend the Côte du Py with the Corcelles fruit. They believe the Côte gives the body and the other part gives the sumptuous fruit quality.

I found this lifted, aromatic and very attractive. There was a seductive raspberry and smoke tinged perfume to it while the palate was silky and refined yet rounded and weighty with cherry strudel sorts of flavours and a crack pepper together with some lovely delicate structure from the refreshing nature of the acidity and the light touch of tannin playing around the finish.

Fresh, lively and fruity for sure, but supple and concentrated too. – in fact the concentration and balance was a revelation to me – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Fareham Wine Cellar.

2015 Brouilly
AC / PDO Brouilly
Henry Fessy

The abnormal character of the vintage really showed here with rich fruit that still shows that playful, fresh character.

This was 80% destemmed with 6 months ageing in stainless steel tanks.

The nose offered plums and violets, orange peel and that mineral earthy je ne sais quoi. The palate was full and ripe, succulent, juicy with a lovely, lively combination of red and black fruit, spice too and a touch of firm tannins. This was not so immediately about fun as the Morgon, there was a very serious, brooding wine lurking in there with an earthy, slate minerality, there was even a touch of Côte du Rhône about it. Great wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

2016 Régnié Château des Reyssiers
AC / PDO Régnié
Henry Fessy

I have always had a soft spot for Régnié as it was the last of the 10 Cru to be created and I remember where I was the day it was announced back in 1988.

This was made from 40 year old vines grown on a single site at the base of Mont Brouilly. The Châteai itself dates back to 1706 and wine has been produced here for over 300 years prior to Henry Fessy taking over the management of the estate. As usual with Fessy 80% of the vines was destemmed and the wine was aged for 6 months ageing in concrete tanks.

Lovely bright, but deep cherry aromas with a touch of something smoky and savoury. The palate had lovely weight, fruit density and concentration that made me really like this wine.

There was lots of classic fresh red fruit, but plum and blackberry too. There was something wild about the wine at times that was most attractive and all the while a sense of tension, something taut, offset the softness of the fruit and was enhanced by the gently firm earthy finis – 90/100 points.

2017 Saint Amour
AC / PDO Saint Amour
Henry Fessy

Sadly I have experienced precious little Saint Amour in my life – on this showing it was my loss too.

Fessy only farm 1 hectare in Saint Amour but they put it to good use as this was stunning and I was not alone in raving about it at the tasting.

The wine showed its youth with milky, lactic notes and then a vibrant melange of red fruit, cassis and delicate spice notes.

The palate was beautifully concentrated, but bright and pristine all at the same time. The fruit was just joyous and bright and well, downright pretty. It was supple and and ripe even though the winemaking esters were very apparent at this stage. There was a lovely supple, rounded, almost creamy texture and more tannin than you would expect, although it was not aggressive in any way, it just helped give the wine definition. One to watch I think- 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

By the way just in case you like to age wines, you can relax as these wines can age really well, from the great vintages anyway. At Lunch Laurent served us his 2009 Moulin-à-Vent and it was sensational. It had aged beautifully into a supple yet profound wine with silky tannins and concentrated earthy, savoury, light leather and dried fruit characters. In many ways it resembled a Gevrey-Chambertinn but with more sensual fruit and a slightly brighter nature.

So there you have it, a little cross action of what one very fine Beaujolais producer does. These are wonderful wines that deserve to be taken seriously and enjoyed often. They would go with so many different dishes and be suitable for just about any occasion. Who knows perhaps the balance between concentration but not heavy, ripe fruit and freshness might be just right for now? Perhaps Beaujolais’s time has come? Laurent certainly felt that he was “taking Beaujolais back” and showing just what Beaujolais can be.

The realisation may have struck me late in life, but there is no doubt that Beaujolais does make some lovely wines and I really must start enjoying them instead of avoiding them – and so must you.

 

Côtes-du-Rhône with a twist

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Think Côtes-du-Rhône, think red wine, that was their advertising slogan for quite a few years and indeed the popular perception would be that the Côtes-du-Rhône is all about red wines. Which is understandable as this region of France produces a lot of wine – 372 million bottles or so a year in fact, but only 6% of that total is white.

A lot of places are like that  – Bordeaux and Rioja for instance – the red wines get all the glory and all the column inches and I can understand it, but it limits people’s appreciation of some wonderful wines from these places too – the whites.

Recently I was travelling around the southern Rhône Valley where I visited some fabulous estates and tasted some brilliant wines. It may have been because of the hot weather, or because we were given quite light food to eat, but very often the wines that caught my imagination the most were the whites.

The white wines of the southern Rhône are usually blends made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul Blanc and Bourboulenc although Viognier gets a look in as well. I love these grapes, well except for Viognier, as they are full of character, flavour and interest. Single varietals are permitted, although most white wines here are blends of more than one grape variety. These grapes are also widely used in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of course.

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape.

Grenache Blanc – it is Spanish in origin so should be called Garnacha Blanca (Garnatxa Blanca in Catalan) – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. Which is odd for me because it is relatively low in acidity, but handled correctly can still offer enough freshness to balance the alcohol and the aromas. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern, cold fermentation, techniques keep that freshness and bring out the lovely herbal aromas and flavours and it also has a silky texture that can be very satisfying.

Roussanne is also favourite of mine and is another aromatic and herbal scented grape variety that has a nutty character too. The wonderful thing about Rousaanne is though that it has loads of flavour and aroma but also reasonably high acidity, so the wines feel fresh – even when blended with Grenache Blanc.

Marsanne is a much fleshier and lower acid grape and can make big and flabby wines unless care is taken – which is why it is so seldom seen a a grape variety on its own, although even they can be superb. Like Roussanne – which which it is often blended – Marsanne also originates in the northern Rhône.

Bourboulenc is a grape variety that I have really come to love in recent years. It is widely grown in southern France, being used in Bandol, Cassis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and La Clape in the Languedoc amongst other places. It has good refreshing acidity and good citrus flavours too and while almost never used on its own can really give some elegance and finesse to a blend of richer grapes.

Clairette is a fascinating grape. It is low in acid and can be flabby unless care is taken. This is another herbal grape with fennel like aromas and rich orange and peach flavours.In the Rhône this is a blending grape but it is used as a single varietal in Clairette du Languedoc with great success – see here.

Viognier of course is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. Generally low in acid and very intense and oily in its home turf of the northern Rhône, where it makes Condrieu. Personally I do not usually like the grape unless it is a lighter fresher example, but a little in blends can work.

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes very well. Perfect with roast chicken, fish dishes, but also brilliant with roast lamb as long as you pile on the herbs and garlic – garlic works very well with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc especially, as does olive oil. They are also perfect with a cheese board and what I usually serve with a selection of cheeses that includes both hard and softer types.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône – click for a larger view.

Here are some of the white wines that impressed me the most on my recent trip to the Rhône:

Vines at the Château de Montfaucon.

2016 Lirac Blanc Comtesse Madeleine
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

One of the absolute highlights of my trip was the Château de Montfaucon who are based near Châteauneuf-du-Pape and mainly produce Côtes-du-Rhône and Lirac wines – Lirac is another Cru of the Rhône like Châteauneuf but less well known. They farm organically, although are not yet certified and the range was thrilling from top to bottom, but it was the whites that especially drew me.

This wine is a blend of Marsanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Picpoul Blanc and the proportions vary quite widely each year. The greater part was the Marsanne and Grenache Blanc and these components were barrel fermented and aged on the lees, but with no lees stirring as the wine is textured enough naturally. It is all spontaneous fermentation with no added yeast, which also adds to the texture of the wine.

For me this is a beautifully complex and pleasurable wine with, smoke, toast, grapefruit, apricot, just a touch of oiliness and that tangy acidity in the background.
The palate is beautifully textured, almost mealy, with fresh pear and nectarine fruit and beautiful balance. The finish is surprisingly savoury and saline and has great length – 91/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Wine Society.

Winemaker Julien Thorn in the magnificent cellar at Château de Montfaucon.

2015 Vin de Madame la Comtesse de Montfaucon
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

Basically this is made from a single plot of ancient Clairette vines planted in 1870 in very stony and sandy soils on Mount Peguierol, overlooking the river Rhône near Montfaucon. They only make 7 or 8 barrels and it is fermented in oak barrels and aged in them for a few months afterwards with no lees stirring.

The label is a rather wonderful old one that was created for the estate back in 1829 and they claim it is the oldest Rhône label of all as very few wines from this region were bottled until well into the twentieth century.

Complex aromas of pastry, apricot, fennel, annis, apricot strudel, truffles and buttery grilled almonds. The aroma is heavenly and oozes style.
The palate is luscious and rich with just enough acidity and freshness to balance the full and succulent mouthfeel. There is a touch of bitterness and a touch of struck match too, while the finish is lightly oily and creamy with something mineral and saline and a long lingering flavour of orange, apricot and a little peach. Quite a wine – 93/100 points.

I cannot find any stockists for this, but it is well worth seeking out.

Christine Saurel at Domaine Montirius.

Vines at Montirius.

2016 Vacqueyras Minéral
AC / PDO Vacqueyras Blanc
Domaine Montirius
Rhône Valley
Franc

Only 3% of Vacqueyras, yet another Cru of the southern Rhône, is white. This great estate is run with passion and precision by Christine and Eric Saurel. Originally members of the local cooperative they went biodynamic in 1996 – their families thought they had joined a sect – left the cooperative once they had failed to persuade them to convert too, and never looked back.

Christine was our host as Eric was busy in the cellar but wow she feels passionately about how the estate is run, telling us that with biodynamics that if something has to be done it has to be done right then in the moment otherwise it can go wrong.

They have used no oak at all since 1999 and aim for wines that are authentic and minimalist, just as I like them. I was hugely impressed with the whole range here, especially the Vacqueyras Minéral Blanc, which is a blend of 50% Bourboulenc with 25% each of Grenache Blanc and Rousanne fermented in stainless steel with a spontaneous fermentation. Really the only thing they do is to introduce oxygen into the fermentation to stop reduction spoiling the pleasure of their wines.

Rather intriguingly the Grenache Blanc and Roussanne were co-fermented – picked together and fermented together and then blended with the Bourboulenc.

This has a great nose, floral, citrus, nutty and honeyed with deep citrus, orange and lemon peel notes.
The palate has tangy grapefruit acidity and a lively texture too. Very complex with vanilla, floral, citrus, wax, lemon curd, great fruit concentration and a taut mineral quality.
The finish lasts a good 2 or 3 minutes. This is a fine and beautiful wine – 93/100 points.

Available En Primeur for £195.00 per dozen bottles plus duty, shipping and VAT from Laithwaite’s.

The beautiful Château Beauchêne.

2017 Château Beauchêne Grande Réserve
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

This pristine estate is the focal point for the Bernard family who have been making wine in these parts since 1794. They only bought this perfect picture postcard Château in the 1990s but it is the family home and main winery for the company that makes Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Their range is solid and well made, but the high point was this relatively humble white Côtes-du-Rhône made from 25% Clairette, 25% Grenache Blanc 25% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne and 5% Bourboulenc. It is fermented in stainless steel and completely unoaked and has no malolactic fermentation either.

This is a lovely, joyous wine, full of freshness that makes it feel lively and pure. The palate is concentrated and rich but that purity keeps it refreshing too. The herbal characters and orchard fruit of the grapes together with some lemon curd notes make it delicious and moreish – 89/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Huntsworth Wine Company, London Wine Shippers and D’Arcy Wine Merchants.

2017 Château Beauchêne Viognier
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

Pure Viognier from 20 year old plus vines, farmed organically but not certified as such. The grapes were pressed and juice put straight into oak barrels, second and third use. The wine was fermented and then aged in the barrels for another 6 months on the lees.

Now I am not really a fan of Viognier, but this is an attractive wine, delicately creamy and smoky with some nice peach, floral, herb and peach stone characters. It has a lightness of touch enough to keep it fresh and lively and drinkable – very well made wine – 87/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £14.75 per bottle from  Private Cellar.

The beautiful and peaceful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Gilles Férran of Domaine des Escaravailles, he is as charming and funny as he looks!

2017 Domaine des Escaravailles La Galopine
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Domaine des Escaravailles
Rhône Valley
Franc

Domaine des Escaravailles is an amazing place. It is a beautiful spot up steep and bumpy country lane. It seems very cut off and the peace somehow prepares you for the wines to come. The story began in 1953 when Jean-Louis Férran bought several parcels of vines in the Rasteau, Cairanne and Roaix areas of Côtes-du-Rhône. In 1999 his grandson Gilles took over and made the estate what it is today. They farm using sustainable techniques and most of their vineyard sites – at around 250 metres above sea level – are relatively high and cool. As a consequence they seem to make lovely silky and refined wines that are elegant and balanced and never too powerful despite their generous fruit.

Escaravailles by the way is the local Occitan name for the scarab beetle as well as a nickname for the local black robed monks who inhabited a swathe of local monasteries before the revolution.

This is a blend of 40% Roussane, 40% Marsanne and 20% Viognier, barrel fermented and aged in the same barrels for some 6 more months, with lees stirring to help develop complexity and texture. 26 barrels were made and 4 of those were new oak, so once the wine was blended only a little new oak was used in the whole wine as they do not want the oak to dominate, merely to add some spice and structure. The vineyard this wine comes from is actually within the Cru of Rasteau, but for some odd reason only red wines and rosés can be made in Rasteau, so it has to be labelled as Côtes-du-Rhône instead.

Great aromas of herbs together with peach, blossom and sea salt.
In the mouth it has a beautiful palate with great, lush, texture, dense fruit, cooked and fresh peach, apricot, pear and apple together with some lovely herbs and spices and a feel of some wild honey . The finish is long and rich but also fresh and lively, giving it tension as well as making it delicious and sinfully drinkable – 92/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £22 per bottle from the Wines With AttitudeButlers Wine Cellar and Bowland Forest Vintners.

So you see, the Côtes-du-Rhône is not only red. There is a wealth of fine white wines from the southern Rhône and they are well worth exploring as they are often very good indeed.

Wine of the Week – a Happy Affordable Red

El Lloar in Western Priorat – photo courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

We all love a bargain, I know that I do. What’s more sometimes you just want a nice, drinkable bottle of wine that makes you happy. Well I have just tried a bottle that does exactly that. The fact that it comes from one of the world’s greatest wine regions is just an added bonus. What’s more it is utterly delicious and delivers outstanding value for money.

The wine comes from Priorat, that wild, rugged mountain region of Catalunya in north east Spain. Priorat is a little inland from Tarragona and is one of jut two wine regions in Spain to be awarded the highest quality status of Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa), or more correctly the Catalan Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) – Rioja is the other DOCa.

Wine map of Spain, Priorat is the tiny yellow speck near Barcelona – click for a larger view

Priorat and neighbouring Montsant in a little more detail – map courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

Priorat wines are mainly red, although some wonderful whites are made there, and are often eye-wateringly expensive as production is small and there is huge demand. Generally speaking I would urge people to try the neighbouring wines of Montsant – this small region is equally rugged and surrounds Priorat like a doughnut, or nearby Terra Alta. However, unusually this Priorat is an absolute bargain. What’s more it is delicious, so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The wonderful landscape of Priorat – photo courtesy of the Consell Regulador.

2014 Vinya Carles Crianza
Bodegas Reserva de la Tierra
DOCa / DOQ / PDO Priorat
Catalunya
Spain

As so often the case with supermarket wines that are not established brands, it is difficult to get much information about this wine. The name Vinya would suggest that this is a single vineyard wine, however in truth I know almost nothing about it. I do not even know what grapes are in it. Priorat is normally a blend based on Garnacha / Grenache and often has some Carignan and perhaps some Syrah or Cabernet too, but I have no idea what this is – except that it tastes good.

I do know that it’s a Crianza though, so it has spent some months in oak.

Ok, so it is a bright, purple tinged garnet showing both its youth and that touch of barrel. The nose is crushed red and black fruit, fragrant vanilla and sweet baking spice, while the palate is smooth and velvety. The tannins, such as they are, are so soft and ripe and sweet that you do not notice them. The fruit is generous and upfront like a summer pudding, while a little structure is given by the spices, the vanilla oak and a touch of black pepper.

The rugged terrain and bush vines of Priorat – photo courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

I have to warn you, this wine just slips down and bottles empty willy-nilly. It is in the end a pretty simple wine, but very, very drinkable and delivers a great deal of enjoyment for not much outlay. It’s very versatile and soft enough to drink on its own or with easygoing dishes like sausage and mash, pies, pizza or pasta. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the best sub £6 red wine around right now and what’s more it gets better if let open overnight too – 87/100 points. I have marked it up a bit because it delivers such pleasure and deliciousness at a low price.

Perhaps it doesn’t exactly show you very much about Priorat, but it is a very nice glass – or 3 – of wine.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £5.99 per bottle.

If you are after trying Priorat’s more ambitious wines then a good starting point could be the rather lovely Salmos made by Torres at their relatively new, dedicated Priorat winey. It is a legal requirement that Priorat wine must be made and aged within the boundaries of the DOQ / DOCa. This wine on a completely different scale and is a terrific example of what the region does really well.

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.

Wine of the Week – a fine, affordable Zinfandel

Old Zinfandel vines in Lodi.

One of my very early jobs was working for the late Geoffrey Roberts who was an early champion of the wines of California and Australia in the UK. As a consequence I had opportunities to taste some amazing California wine while at a young and impressionable age. As a consequence I have loved California wines pretty much all my working life.

Therefore it pains me that it is so hard to enjoy California wines here in the UK. Yes, there are huge amounts of very everyday stuff that is barely worth drinking – you know the brands, while the fabulous wines that gave California its fame tend to be ludicrously expensive once they arrive in the UK – actually in the US too come to think of it.

So while it is always a struggle to feed my love of California wine, there are some high quality bargains out there. I was fortunate enough to taste one the other day and I enjoyed it so much and it is so delicious – and perfect for the icy weather we are having right now – that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The wine is a Zinfandel and it is worth me giving you a little background on the grape variety from a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago:

As far as we can tell, the grape that became Zinfandel was taken to the eastern United States from Europe in the 1820’s – long before the annexation of California. Records show that it was taken from the Austrian Imperial nursery in Vienna to Boston and was originally sold as a table grape in New England, but destiny called when cuttings were shipped to California to take advantage of the boom caused by the Gold Rush in 1849. That was all we knew until the 1990s when DNA testing discovered that Zinfandel was identical to the Primitivo that is widely used in Puglia, the heel of Italy.

Further investigation and DNA work then discovered that Primitivo/Zinfandel were one of the parents of the Plavac Mali grape which is used on Croatia’s Dalmation coast. The other parent was Dobričić, an incredibly obscure Croatian grape that only grows on the Dalmatian island of Šolta. This find narrowed the search down and in 2001 a vine that matched Zinfandel’s DNA was discovered in a single vineyard in Kaštel Novi north west of Split on the Croatian coast. The vine was known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or ‘the red grape of Kaštela’. In 2011 the researchers discovered another match, this time with a grape called Tribidrag which is also used on the Dalmatian coast. Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag are as alike as different clones of Pinot Noir, or Tempranillo and Tinto Fino, but  Tribidrag is the more common name, although not much of it is left, so it too is obscure. However, records show the name has been used since at least 1518 and what’s more, Primitivo derives from the Latin for early, while Tribidrag derives from the Croatian for early – they are both early ripening grapes.

Wine map of California – Lodi is near Sacramento and due east of San Francisco.

2014 Brazin (B)Old Vine Zinfandel
AVA Lodi
California
USA
I have long been an admirer of what Delicato do. They seem to produce a wide range of really well made, classic California wines with plump, ripe fruit and lots of character – not to mention charm.
 
They have been in California for well over 100 years, since Gaspare Indelicato arrive from Sicily looking for a better life. It seems the family had grown grapes and made wine in the old country, so he and and his three sons established a vineyard and winery in Lodi in California’s Central Valley. Today the third generation of the family run the business and they now have vineyards in Napa Valley and Monterey as well as Clay Station, their 526 hectare estate in Lodi.

100 year old Zinfandel in Soucie Vineyard, Lodi. Credit: Randy Caparoso.

 
Many Italian families, including the Indelicatos, settled in this area which has a Mediterranean climate and sandy soils not unlike those found in many parts of southern Italy. Zinfandel was already grown here and as it has many Italianate characters would have made them feel right at home. Brazin is all about harnessing the rich fruit character of this hot region and producing a rich, plush and powerful wine. Much of the fruit is bought in from small growers with whom the family have had contracts for generations. The vines are all 40 years old at least – often well over 100 – and old vines really suit Zinfandel. Old vines produce smaller crops with smaller berries and more intense flavours. They also reach full ripeness with lower sugar levels than younger vine – a virtuous circle. The vines are un-grafted and dry-farmed, which again ensures a small and concentrated cop, and head trained in the traditional Californian manner, rather than trellis grown. The soils are sandy and silty.

Old head-trained vines in Lodi.

They want the wine to have rich, bold fruit and so cold ferment in stainless steel, but they also want it to be layered and complex, so age it in a mixture of French – for dry spice – and American – for sweet vanilla – barrels for 8 months.

Everything about this wine screams rich and powerful – bold even, hence the joke on the label. It is opaque, like squished blackberries. The nose gives dense black fruit, spice, mocha, a little prune and raisin, pepper, sweet vanilla, red earth and bitter chocolate. The palate is sumptuous, bright, glossy, mouth-filling, mouth-coating and very tasty. There is a sweetness of rich dark plums, blackberries, blueberries, cassis all lightened by a hint of rich raspberry too. There is a little cooked fruit and dried fruit characters too and the whole thing is just a little bit jammy – in a really good way. Along for the ride there are coffee, cinnamon, vanilla, clove, dark chocolate, liquorice and black pepper flavours while there are supple tannins and enough acidity to balance the whole shebang. It is tasty, balanced – it carries its 14.5% alcohol very well, really enjoyable and sinfully easy to drink – 88/100 points.

A lovely big red wine that will partner all manner of foods, burgers, steaks and barbecues for instance, but in the snowy winter conditions that we have right now in the UK I think it would bee great with a steak and kidney pudding, meat pie, beef stew or other hearty, warming dishes. Zinfandel is also really good with crispy aromatic duck!

Available in the UK for £12.50 – £14  per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar and The Wine Society.

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 Sec 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.