A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

New Wine of the Week – quirky deliciousness from the Loire Valley

Vines in Saumur, photo courtesy of Bouvet-Ladubay.

Vines in Saumur, photo courtesy of

I love quirky wine. I love talking about quirky wine and encouraging others to try quirky wine too. So many wines are so dull, I wish more people would open their minds and try many more different things – remember to click ALL the links.

Well recently I tried a wine that is far from dull. In fact it is really quite odd, to us in the UK anyway. It is a sparkling red made by the famous firm of Bouvet-Ladubay and I enjoyed it so much and found it so different that I made it my Wine of the Week. Sparkling reds are often regarded with a bit of suspicion, which is a great shame as they can often be delicious whether they are from Australia, France, Spain, or Italy in the form of real Lambrusco.

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

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

The tuffeau cellars, photo courtesy of Bouvet-Ladubay.

The tuffeau cellars, photo courtesy of Bouvet-Ladubay.

Bouvet RubisBouvet Rubis Demi-Sec
Vin Mousseux
Bouvet-Ladubay
St Hilaire St Florent, Saumur, Loire Valley
France

Bouvet-Ladubay were founded near Saumur in 1851 and has been owned and run by Monmousseau since 1932 except for a, relatively, brief interlude from 1974 to 2015 when it was owned by Champagne Taittinger and then Diagio. 

Saumur has long been known for quality sparkling wine production, as the climate is pretty cool. The soils are chalky and the bedrock is tuffeau which was mined for centuries to use as a building material. As a consequence the whole region has a warren of deep caves where the excavations happened. Some of them have been turned into troglodyte villages, some into mushroom farms and many into wine cellars, as the rock keeps them at a constant temperature. Bouvet-Ladubay age their sparkling wines in some of these tuffeau cellars.

This wine is simply labelled as a humble Vin Mousseux, or sparkling wine, but it is made using the traditional method and from a local noble grape variety – Cabernet Franc. It is possible that it does not have an appellation because it is not aged in the cellars on the lees for long enough, as the makers want the fruit to dominate – which it does.

One of the great things about sparkling reds is the lovely ruby coloured froth and that is just as you would hope from a wine called Rubis, or ruby in English. The nose has wonderful crushed raspberry and cherry notes and it is yeasty too, in fact it sort of smells a bit like a winery. The palate is richly fruity with black and red cherry, enlivened by some of the freshness of raspberry and strawberry and some cleansing acidity, together with a little sweetness. It is also enriched by some chocolate-like characters and a touch of bitter cherry stone flavours that help balance the sweetness too. In some ways this seems a weird wine, until you drink it anyway and then you realise what a very drinkable and delicious wine it is, so embrace the weird – 88/100 points.

Bouvet recommend having this with Raspberry Sorbet Macaroons, while I think it would go splendidly with duck and a wide array of cheeses. I actually enjoyed mine with a curry though, so it lives up to its cockney-rhyming slang name.

Available in the UK at £13.49 per bottle from Majestic Wine Warehouses – currently on offer at £11.99 and at £9.99 as part of 6 mixed bottles.

Celebrate Chinese New Year with Style

Chinese New Year is looming and so it’s always fun to celebrate with a good Chinese meal. I have already had mine, because the nice people who promote wine from the Loire Valley’s Central Vineyards area, or Centre-Loire as they call it, sent me some bottles to judge for myself how well they go with Chinese food.

Loire Map QS 2015 watermarked

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

This sub-region of the Loire Valley is very beautiful and is a cool climate area that is most famous for producing crisp white wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, which is supposed to come from around here. In fact though, there are 7 appellations here – 8 if you count Pouilly-sur-Loire separately (these white wines are made from Chassellas grapes) – and only 2 of them are just for white wines: Pouilly-Fumé and Quincy both only use Sauvignon Blanc, while Menetou-Salon, Sancerre and Reuilly also use Pinot Noir to make red and rosé too. The Coteaux du Giennois also makes Sauvignon Blanc whites, but can also use Gamay in its red and rosé wines, while the more obscure Châteaumeillant only makes reds from Pinot Noir and Gamay.

Sancerre.

Sancerre.

The line up of wines was really interesting, with a Pouilly-Fumé, a red Sancerre and a Rosé Sancerre as well as a pair of whites from 2 slightly lesser known appellations; Reuilly and Coteaux du Giennois. The 3 Sauvignons showed differences too, which made for some interesting interaction with my Chinese take away.

Which brings me to the food. I ordered the meal from an excellent Noodle place I know and I stuck to really traditional dishes too – traditional British Chinese food that is, whether it’s authentic Chinese food or not, I have no idea. The starters were Peking Dumplings complete with their vinegar dip, Crispy Prawn Dumplings with sweet chilli dip and Chicken Satay in the classic spicy peanut sauce – I know that isn’t really chinese, but all Chinese restaurants seem to do it nowadays. Then there was a course of Crispy Aromatic Duck complete with pancakes, spring onions and Hoi-Sin sauce. The mains were very traditional, Chicken with Cashew Nuts, Szechuan King Prawns – in a spicy sauce – and Sweet and Sour Pork which I ordered for nostalgic reasons as well as to see how it went with the wines. There was also a spicy Singapore Noodle and some Egg Fried Rice.

My Chinese New Year meal, not the most elegant in its little cartons, but it tasted really good.

My Chinese New Year meal, not the most elegant in its little cartons, but it tasted really good.

The food was very good actually, the first Chinese food I have had in a long, long time and it reminded me how much I can like this cuisine. What’s more I was pleased with the selection as I had ordered a good cross section of flavours and styles, some of which I suspected would challenge any wine.

Here are the wines and an idea of how they worked with the food:

PF2013 Pouilly-Fumé Champalouettes
Caves de Pouilly-sur-Loire
A.C. Pouilly-Fumé
This was the most traditional style on show and reminded me of how Pouilly-Fumé used to be.
The colour was very pale, but very bright too, a silvery lime in a way that most modern wines are not – they are usually deeper.
The nose was stony and mineral with some lime, hints of orange and wafts of stone fruit too. There was also some green pepper and herbaceous notes too.
The palate was taut and very lemony, with very high acid, grapefruit and elderflower. It was overwhelmingly green and quite nicely mineral, but just a little bit dilute, but then it was a tricky vintage. All in all a nice wine, but lacking a little depth – 84/100 points

With the food: Because this was a very light style, it suited the lighter dishes very well indeed. It was perfect with the Chicken and Cashew Nuts for instance and it was also very good with the dumplings. It even coped with the acidity of the vinegar dip – acid with acid always seems to work. It came a little unstuck with the richer flavours of the sweet chilli dip, the satay sauce and the Hoi-Sin of the duck, as well as the tangy sweetness of the sweet and sour, it seemed to me that it just did not have enough weight of fruit to cope well with these dishes. It was lovely with the prawn crackers though.

Conclusion, keep this for the aperitif, with fried things, crisps, scampi, fish and chips, but best of all delicate fish dishes and the local Loire Valley cheese.

Available in the UK from Sainsbury’s at £13.00 per bottle.

Gien in the Coteaux du Giennois.

Gien in the Coteaux du Giennois.

MS_FD_F23A_00902823_NC_X_EC_02012 Domaine de Villargeau Sauvignon Blanc
Domaine de Villargeau
A.C. Coteaux du Giennois
Strangely, although this wine was older, it was more lifted and aromatic, with rich lemon and lime citrus aromas.
The palate has good weight, with some orchard fruit and even a touch of cream and then refreshing, but not tart high acidity and citrus. It came over as being lovely, cleansing and pure, but with very attractive richness and good concentration of fruit. The finish was very long and I thought this was a very good wine – 89/100 points.

With the food: Because this was a richer style with more succulence and concentration of fruit giving that sort of fruit sweetness to the wine, it went very well with everything, even the sweet chilli and Hoi-Sin – to my surprise.

Conclusion, a perfect wine to go with a wide array of dishes, just as you get in a Chinese meal.

Available in the UK from Marks & Spencer at £9.99 per bottle.

Nathalie2014 Nathalie Reuilly 
Domaine Claude Lafond
A.C. Reuilly
This is the Lafond’s top cuvée and is named for Claude Lafond’s daughter Nathalie, who is the winemaker of the operation. It’s a lovely wine too, very much at the mineral end of the spectrum though. The colour is that pale silvery lemon and the nose is very gooseberry and nettle – I think, I’m not actually sure that I’ve ever eaten any, but you get the picture. The palate is very refreshing with gooseberry, lemon, elderflower and the sensation of sucking pebbles. There is just a touch of blackcurrant leaf too. All in all a very good and elegant, mineral wine – 88/100 points.

With the food: Because this was lighter than the previous wine, it did not go with everything so well, but it was  little richer than the first wine and was just able to cope with the sweet chilli, so it was perfect with three quarters of dishes.

Conclusion, if this was my only bottle I would have selected lighter, fresher tasting dishes, but it was still good with most of the meal.

Available in the UK from Majestic Wine Warehouse at £11.99 per bottle.

Sancerre rose etienne de Loury2013 Sancerre Rosé 
Domaine Etienne de Loury
A.C. Sancerre
This wine showed me that I just do not drink enough Sancerre Rose. The colour was a delicate strawberry and rose petal hue that was very enticing, while the nose of delicate red fruits, strawberry, raspberry and cranberry, with the merest touch of red jelly sweets and rose petal jam. The palate was overwhelmingly red cherry and delicate strawberry, with very good, refreshing acidity keeping it all in check. A lovely wine that feels both casual and sophisticated – 88/100 points.

With the food: That little touch of sweetness of fruit was enough to make this a perfect partner with all the dishes, even the sweet and sour and the Hoi-Sin sauce with the duck, while its refreshing acidity made it a good foil to the fried stuff too.

Conclusion, a good all rounder, enjoy it with everything or just on its own as an aperitif.

Available in the UK from Oddbins at £17.00 per bottle.

Sancerre rouge2013 Sancerre Rouge au Bois de l’Épine 
Maison Foucher Lebrun
A.C. Sancerre
A light and delicate red wine that is very attractive indeed. The nose is of soft red fruit with a touch of fresh earth and minerality too. The palate is smooth and quite light, with very soft tannins, but really nice plump, soft, ripe cherry and raspberry fruit.  There is just a touch of chalky tannin on the finish, which makes it more structured and elegant than if it was just all about fruit, as does the fresh acidity – 88/100 points.

With the food: The sweetness of the fruit made it work very well with the duck and the richer dishes, but the intensity of the wine, light though it was, was not so perfect with the lighter dishes. Chilling it made it much more versatile though.

Conclusion, best with the richer dishes, but a good all rounder once chilled.

Available in the UK from Marks & Spencers at £15.00 per bottle.

So in conclusion here, the combination of Chinese food and the wines of the Loire’s Central Vineyards seems to work very well and give enjoyable combinations.

What’s more, if you are still hungry after all that Chinese food, you could try some cheese from the Loire with the wines too. 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 and guess what year it is is after 19 February? Yup, you’ve guessed it, The Year of the Goat, so you see, so it all ties in quite nicely and shows just how versatile food and wine pairings can be.

Wine of the Week 20 – a lovely, honest, great value red wine & a bit of a rant

Chinon with Chinon Castle above. This where Joan of Arc met the dauphin of France. "Château Chinon" by Touriste - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_Chinon.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_Chinon.JPG

Chinon nestling below the walls of Chinon Castle. This where Joan of Arc met the dauphin of France. “Château Chinon” by Touriste – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A bit of a rant
Sometimes I despair about how wine is sold in the UK – by many of the supermarkets anyway. At the cheaper end of the price spectrum it is getting harder and harder to find a wine that is not some sort of own label product. Therefore it is getting harder to buy wines that are made by the producer without input from the UK stockist. Most cheaper wines are tweaked to some degree to make the style more palatable to the UK drinker. I suppose there is nothing terrible about making wine more palatable to certain tastes, but it does sort of fly in the face of what wine has traditionally been about.

Call me an old romantic, but somewhere in the back of my mind I still cling to the thought that wine should at its heart be all about where and how the vines are grown. Where the style of a wine comes about from the balance between the climate and traditions of an area together with the skills of the winemaker, rather than customer research saying what people want.

After all there are so many possibilities in wines and so many options that no one can possibly know every style, grape, blend or flavour that is possible. So if supermarkets only offer people what they think they want, which will by definition be based on their, possibly, limited experience, then the range of wines people are offered the chance to experience will become narrower and narrower. And that is most definitely happening already.

What then happens to all the grapes people have never heard of? Or the styles of wine people have never tried? They will slowly wither and stop being produced, which will be an absolute tragedy as there are still so many wonderful wines out there just waiting to be tasted by the adventurous.

I think that supermarkets and wine merchants should try to lead the market. To some degree they should offer their customers some idea of the diversity of wines that is possible and not just stick to a narrow range of wines that they know sells and that focus groups tell them their customers want. Remember what Henry Ford is supposed to have said about his early days, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’

It’s just as relavent when applied to wine, if consumers are led to believe that there are only about 6 different grapes, they will say they want more Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Shiraz.

I am also tired of those fake discounts which make out a wine is half price when it is merely discounted to the price it should have been in the first place. So I am delighted to tell you that lurking on Sainsbury’s shelves there is still a wine that fits my criteria for a traditional and honest wine, what’s more it sits there year after year, never being promoted, so it is at a sensible price to start with – it’s something of a bargain actually.

My Wine of the Week
It is a red wine from France’s Loire Valley made from Cabernet Franc grapes in Chinon. Back in my youth Loire Valley reds were pretty problematic and usually underripe with green tannins. Not anymore, I have become more and more keen on the reds from this part of the world in recent years and think they can offer delicious drinking.

Domaine du Colombier - by kind permission Domaine du Colombier.

Domaine du Colombier – by kind permission Domaine du Colombier.

The cellar at Domaine du Colombier

The cellar at Domaine du Colombier – by kind permission Domaine du Colombier.

Colombier QS2011 Chinon Domaine du Colombier
Christine & Olivier Jouvault
A.C. Chinon, Loire, France
Domaine du Colombier has belonged to the Jouvault family for five generations. It comprises 24 hectares of vines in Beaumont-en-Véron, some 6 km northwest of Chinon itself. Cabernet Franc, for reds and rosés and Chenin Blanc, for whites are the only two grapes permitted in the Chinon appellation. Like so many of the producers around here they have wonderful cellars dug into the tufa rock below their winery and this is where they age their wines. Growing the Cabernet Franc on trellis systems, to maximise exposure to the sun, de-stemming, long fermentations on the skins and daily pump overs, to get the skins and juice in contact with each other, has improved wines like this beyond recognition. There is nothing green or harsh about this wine at all.
The colour is an attractive medium-deep cherry tinged ruby.
The nose is richly fruity, but it’s dry fruit, red fruit, plums and cherry with notes of fresh earth and brambles and some ripe green pepper too.
The palate is medium bodied with enough juiciness of cherry, plum and black cherry fruit to make it supple and the freshness – acidity – gives it a feeling of elegance. The tannins are very light, just a little chalky on the finish and there is a leafiness quite characteristic of French Cabernet Franc, in fact it is a textbook example of what a red Chinon should be.
The fresh acidity means it is very nice lightly chilled too, but be warned, it is very drinkable. A lovely honest wine, the sort of thing I would enjoy served by the pichet in a bistro with steak frîtes or confit du canard with dauphinoise potatoes.

Rather stupidly, I almost never drink Chinon except when I am in a French restaurant, preferably of the laid back brasserie / bistrot type, but then I am always drawn to it  because it just goes with the food so well. Having taken to this wine so much I have discovered that Chinon Rouge goes with pretty much anything else too, it is a very versatile food wine indeed.

This is one of those rarities from a major supermarket, a wine made by a proper vigneron exactly as they want and sold at the proper price without any fake promotions or anyone over branding it and it has become my house red of the moment – 88/100 points

Available in the UK from Sainsbury’s at £7.00 per bottle, which is pretty amazing considering it’s €6 from the winery – so you see, contrary to popular belief, wine is not stupidly expensive in the UK!

If you are unfamiliar with Loire Valley reds, then this wine would be a good place to start. If you already know them and love them, then this is a bargain that you should snap up.

Chinon is also a wonderful place to visit by the way. It’s steeped in history, has one of the most amazing castles in France, the local food is superb and the wine is a joy. It is very much the France of one’s imagination, so well worth a visit.

Quality, convenience & a great deal of pleasure

Time was when your local corner shop was the last place you would turn to buy a bottle of wine. I well remember how they used to be, a jumbled assortment of wines with no apparent selection process, vaguely arranged on the shelves with price tags guaranteed to make you wince.

Well it seems that that might all be in the past, at least at Spar stores. We all take Spar stores for granted, there they are on most shopping parades all over the country supplying us with emergency bread and milk and a few other bits and pieces. Well recently I have tasted quite a few of their wines and I have to say that I have been impressed.

The range that I tried consisted of smart, well sourced and sensibly priced wines that hit the spot time and time again. It seems to me that the quality of the Spar wine offer now means that they will no longer be the wine shop of last resort, but somewhere customers can rely on as to provide some really very good bottles of wine.

What’s more they have their 5th Annual Wine Festival coming up which will allow you to try their wines at specially reduced promotional prices.

Red

Modesta Grenache Syrah Mourvedre2012 Modesta Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre
D.O. Valencia, Spain
Opaque purple damson colour, bright.
Plummy, fragrant, bright and fruity.
Chunky fruit, some spice and a feel of happy freshness. The texture is satisfyingly chewy with a sappy quality.
Soft tannins and rich fruit make this very enjoyable and very versatile. Extremely drinkable with or without food – 86/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.00 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £4.00

SPAR Chianti 20122010 Spar Chianti
D.O.C.g Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
Nose of damsons, rich cherries and red berries with a touch of smoke, fragrant spice and flowers.
The palate is smooth and discretely juicy with lovely ripe red plum and cherry fruit supported by soft tannins, subtle oak and a seam of fresh, cleansing acidity. This was either a delight or I seriously wanted a drink! Perfect with pasta and a multitude of Italianate dishes – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.29

Print2009 Valle Vento Barolo
D.O.C.g Barolo, Piemonte, Italy
Made by the lovely people at the Araldica cooperative this is a very modern and fruity Barolo.
Deep ruby colour, not opaque, with a slightly orange rim.
Nice earthy nose, orange peel and savoury mushrooms, even some meat notes.
A very supple palate, smooth and very drinkable. The astringent dryness comes through on the finish much more as do the rose petals and earthy characters. The tannins are there, but not harsh, for a Barolo it is very fruity and upfront, which makes it very attractive and enjoyable – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £14.99 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £12.00

White

XXXX SP_Gavi label design_22011 Gavi
D.O.G.g Gavi, Piemonte, Italy
This was also made by the splendid Araldica cooperative this is a nice, easy drinking Gavi.
Citrus and orange blossom aromas lead to a gentle palate with soft acidity and a touch of almond about it. There is a touch of minerality and a slight creamy feel that makes it feel quite elegant. A very enjoyable, user friendly dry white wine – 86/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.29 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £6.00

Sancerre - La Valle des Vignes2012 Sancerre La Valle des Vignes
A.C. Sancerre, Loire Valley, France
Fresh, citric, grassy and elderflower nose.
Green tinged palate with quite rich, soft ripe green fruit and the merest hint of apricot and a juicy palate.
Nicely made, modern, bright and drinkable, not really crisp but very attractive and very drinkable – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £11.99 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £9.00

Sparkling

PrintNV Perlezza Prosecco Brut
D.O.C. Prosecco, Veneto, Italy
I’m not always a fan of Prosecco, they can often be a bit simple and somewhat sweeter than I want, but this is a very nice sparkling wine. Unusually dry and not too cloyingly aromatic, it is elegant, refreshing and crisp with a steely edge and taut appley fruit.
Incredibly versatile and clean as a whistle – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £9.00 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £6.00

These were all good wines that I tasted on their own and again with food. They were well made, stylish and very enjoyable, perhaps not the most profound wines or finest and most complex examples of their type, but they were all very enjoyable to drink – I know I certainly derived a great deal of pleasure from drinking them.

So next time you are in your local Spar, stick a bottle of Prosecco in your basket as well as the milk and the hobnobs.

50 Shades of Gris

Domaine Jones

Domaine Jones

Wine isn’t all noir and blanc

I know what you’re thinking. I bet you think this piece is about Pinot Gris, dont’y ya, don’t ya?

Well you are wrong, I might mention Pinot Gris in passing – see I just did – but actually this piece is going to be about a couple of others grapes with Gris in their name.

Pinot Gris is not a grape that I gravitate towards, I think it is usually just too low in acidity for me, but there are some honourable exceptions – what’s more, I am so broadminded I have even been known to enjoy the odd Pinot Grigio.

Until 10 years or so ago I was under the impression that Pinot Gris was the only grape called Gris. I knew there were others that are ‘gris’ or pink skinned, just as grapes called ‘noir’ are red or purple skinned and those called ‘blanc’ have green skins – I think they named them from engravings before colour photography was invented. Gewürztraminer of course has pink skins when fully ripe, so does Koshu and Moschofilero which makes Mantinia in the Peloponnese region of Greece, but none of those have ‘gris’ in their name.

Sauvignon Gris
Well, one day in 2003 I was with a group of fellow wine educators in Chile and we were served a bottle of white wine with our fish that I – and most of our party – assumed was Sauvignon Blanc. Only it didn’t taste quite like Sauvignon Blanc, we even wondered if it was a dodgy bottle for a while until one bright eyed individual noticed that the label didn’t claim it to be a Sauvignon Blanc at all, but a Sauvignon Gris. It was made by a famous old producer from the Maipo Valley called Cousiño-Macul and it was pretty good, but most of all it was interesting. I have tried more recent vintages of this wine and it seems to me that like almost everything else they have improved greatly over that time.

I later learnt that the vine was imported into Chile in the nineteenth century in mistake for Sauvignon Blanc – mind you they did the same thing with Sauvignon Vert too, which is also known as Sauvignonasse and (Tocai) Friulano.

A few days later I was able to try another example of Sauvignon Gris, this time it was made from very old vines in Colchagua Valley by a winery called Casa Silva and I loved it.

Sauvignon Gris is thought be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and is fatter and less aromatic than its sibling. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape, indeed so excited was I by the Casa Silva wine that I actually became the first person ever to ship a few cases to the UK.

A few others followed my lead and now you can find some Sauvignon Gris wines if you shop around. Mark and Spencer lead the pack as they offers two, one from Argentina that I have not tasted and another from Chile that I like very much indeed. I have mentioned Viña Leyda before, they are a great producer in Chile’s Leyda Valley and they also make the excellent Secano Estate wines whose Sauvignon Gris is a delight.

It can be found in France too, where there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire, where Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose.

Recently I was able to taste this terrific example from the flamboyantly named Xavier Frissant of Touraine-Amboise at the Absolutely Cracking Wines From France event:

2010 touraine blanc les roses du clos2010 Les Roses du Clos
Cépage Fié Gris
Xavier Frissant, A.C. Touraine
Touraine is usually associated with Sauvignon Blanc, so this is an interesting variation on the theme. The grapes are harvested by hand and the wine is fermented and aged on the lees in 400 litre oak barrels, but the oak does not show at all – unless it adds to the texture.
The nose was bright, vibrant and fresh with an underlying stoney / mineral quality and a deeper, denser apricot-like note too.
The palate offers high, but rich, not citric, apricot acidity and textured apricot fruit, while some grapefruit characters freshen it up and keep it balanced by giving it some real tang, in fact it is more tangy than zingy. It is clean and fresh, but has a lovely juicy weight to to as well which balances the high acidity and makes the wine very attractive and pleasurable to drink. It is dry with a long finish and I can imagine it goes with a wide array of foods – 89/100 points.

£14.75 a bottle in the UK from H2Vin.

Grenache Gris
The other gris that has been exciting me recently is Grenache Gris. Grenache is originally a Spanish grape, so perfectly suits the Mediterranean climate and should really be called Garnacha. It spread throughout the Mediterranean world during the time of Aragon and Catalan strength in the middle ages and because Roussillon was a part of Catalonia until 1659 – and who knows it might be again soon – Grenache remains a dominant grape in the region.

Grenache comes in all colours and I understand that Grenache Gris is a natural mutation of Grenche Noir, the one that makes the red wines. Like all the other gris grapes, you can make a pale rosé from them – like Pinot Grigio Ramato (coppered) – but it seems more normal to use them to make rich-ish white wines that often have a deep colour.

I have tasted a couple of examples recently that stand out and show that Grenache Gris really should be a more widely appreciated grape:

photo blanc2011 Domaine Jones Blanc
Grenache Gris
Katie Jones, I.G.P. (Vin de Pays) Côtes Catalanes
Katie is from Ashby-de-la Zouch in Leicestershire and perhaps the French name got to her because she finally ended up in Paziols near Tautavel in Roussillon. Joining the local cooperative and eventually becoming their Export Sales and Marketing Director Katie worked with the local wine and loved it so much that eventually she bought her own parcel of vines near Maury and settled down to craft some stunning wines in this beautiful, rugged landscape.
This wine betrays a slightly coppery hue, just the merest tinge mind, while the nose is gloriously scented and lifted with grapefruit, softer mandarin notes and exotic wild herbs and even a touch of honey. The palate has richness with a slightly creamy and oily texture making it fat and mouth filling. The citrus fruit and richer stone fruit – nectarine – balance this beautifully and there is an enticing gently smoky character that together with touches of herb makes the wine nice and savoury. It finishes long and is balanced, fresh, flavoursome, mouth-filling and juicy – 91/100 points.

£14.95 a bottle in the UK from The Wine Society and direct from Domaine Jones.

Katie Jones (second from left)

Katie Jones (second from left)

Reading about Katie Jones I kept getting this feeling that I had met her or heard of her before. Then I realised, her story has much in common with Charlotte Allen‘s. They are equally determined, dedicated and passionate about their wines, they ended up in different parts of Europe – but similarly rugged and beautiful ones and they use many similar grapes. It is so wonderful that there are people like Katie out there as the wine world needs them and their wines.

This example was one of the first Grenache Gris wines that captured my imagination and it is made quite close to Domaine Jones:

coume_blanc2009 Domaine Préceptorie de Centernach Coume Marie
Domaine La Préceptorie
A.C. Cotes du Roussillon Blanc
Mainly Grenache Gris, this also has some Grenache Blanc, Macabeu (Viura) and Carignan Banc and is fermented in 400 litre oak vats and aged in them for some 8 months.

This exciting wine is elegant, richly textured and quite delicious, but sadly the Wine Society no longer stock it, so I do not know how to get hold of any right now.

Grenache Gris is so versatile and gets so ripe that it can, like Grenache Noir, be used to make some stunning fortified wines and one of the great bargains of the moment is this amazing Vin Doux Naturel from Rivesaltes in Roussillon, which makes it just the thing for Christmas:

catalogue_age-85_4f2fe5355383a_V1985 Rivesaltes Ambré Hors d’Age Arnaud de Villeneuve
A.C. Rivesaltes Ambré

Grenache Gris with some Macabeu and Grenache Blanc – whatever Waitrose say on their website!
An Ambré must be aged for 30 months before release, which changes the colour to that oxidised caramel hue and  Hors d’Age Rivesaltes wines have to be aged for a minimum of 6 years in barrel.
The nose was slightly caramelised with coffee notes and hints of orange.
The palate offered figs and prunes and honeysuckle and more coffee and the sort of caramel on the top of a creme brulée – but it was not overtly sweet at all. The richness was balanced by a seam of clean acidity too.
A stunning wine full of complexity, richness and finesse, the grapes are different, but it is not so very far removed from a great Oloroso sherry – 93/100 points.

£13.99 per 50cl bottle in the UK from Waitrose – and it is not made from Muscat, whatever they say!

Thoughts on varietal labels
Thinking about how lovely these wines are convinces me all the more that selling wines by grape variety, choosing wines by grape variety and labelling wines by grape variety is all very well, but it actually restricts consumer choice and makes everyone drink the same small number of wine types. We have been told to think grape variety for 20-30 years and country’s like France are criticised by many drinkers nowadays for not putting the grape variety on the label, but surely that only helps if the wine is made from the six or so grapes people seem to know about and are prepared to buy. It seems to me that if anything other than one of those is on a label, people resist buying it because they haven’t heard of it. I increasingly believe that although varietal labelling has simplified wine enough to get people to drink it, having the grape variety on the label has then stopped them becoming truly adventurous and curious about the subject. I wrote a piece about it here.

Savennières – a rebooted classic?

Looking south from the Château des Vaults – Domaine du Closel

It seemed pretty hot for a cool wine growing region. Standing on top of the slope looking out at the stunning beauty of the countryside I felt enveloped in peace and drenched in the sun’s hot rays. Strangely the scene was made all the more peaceful for the birdsong and the peal of distant church bells as I looked at the vines and listened to the winemakers around me. I heard their passion and their commitment and I hoped that the wines I would soon taste were as good and as interesting as the story I was being told.

You see, I had come on this trip to Angers deliberately because I was pretty sure that I didn’t like these wines. All the books and many experts say that Savennières ranks as one of the greatest wines of France – certainly that country’s finest dry white made from Chenin Blanc. Personally though I have never been able to see what the fuss was about – much as I fail to find the pleasure in Condrieu. Savennières was certainly dry and had that typical Chenin high acid, but I could never see its charm. It was hard and unyielding and seemed reminiscent of sucking a pumice stone – austere might be the kindest word to use. We were always told that they needed to be old to show at their best, but frankly who wants old white wine nowadays?

So, I was here on this hill-top to confront my lack of knowledge and understanding – I wanted to see what I was missing and whether I should update my view. Continue reading