Mountains, Saints and Satellites – stunning quality in Montagne-St Émilion

It is so easy to fall into a rut with wine. There is so much wine available from so many different places nowadays that you have to make a cut off somewhere and for many years for me that cut off was the classic wines of France. Only the cheaper versions though, I have always retained my love of France’s great wines.

My focus is always to find really lovely wine that over performs for its price and for many years the famous bits of France usually failed to do that at the cheaper end. Many of the classic regions of France have enormous fame, but the quality of the affordable examples seldom showed what the top end ones were like – and most of us have to drink the cheaper versions. The result of this was that consumers were often buying the lesser examples of Sancerre, Chablis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, St Émilion and the like and yet they were never truly cheap, so still seen as bit of a treat. Sadly many of these wines were a pale shadow of the wines that have made the name on their label so prestigious and sought after and so for long gave the impression that France offered bad value for money. For quite a long time the affordable versions of classic French wines were dilute, unattractive and uninspiring as well as being more expensive than many good wines from elsewhere.

By the way it isn’t snobbery that made me avoid them, those who know me will know that price tags do not impress me at all. No, it was the lack of character and concentration that made me avoid these wines. Who wants a Chablis that could pass for a Muscadet in a blind tasting, or a Châteauneuf that offers less character than a Fitou or Minervois?

This lack of quality at the lower end was, in my opinion at least partly responsible for the sizeable minority of UK consumers who nowadays claim to avoid and dislike all French wine. Continue reading

The Story of St Estèphe

One of the complaints I have of most wine books is that they are mainly for reference rather than reading. Of course I have a large library of wine books for when I need to look things up, but sometimes I think how nice it would be to just sit down and read a book about wine that rattles along at the pace of a novel.

David Copp in full wine writer regalia on our trip to New York’s Finger Lakes

There are not many such books, but my friend David Copp has recently added a splendid example to my meagre collection. David is no mean writer and he has three other excellent volumes to his name, Hungary: Its Fine wines and WinemakersTokaj: A Companion for the Bibulous Traveller and Australian Wine Walkabout: Notes From Visits To Australian Fine Wine Makers  they are all available on Amazon and I recommend them to you.

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Cru Bourgeois – great quality & value from Bordeaux

Cru Bourgeois Clarets – polished and renewed for 2009

Of all the world’s great wine regions it is Bordeaux that is dearest to my heart, for the simple reason that the first really good quality wines that I tasted were from there. Many of you are aware that I love Spanish wines and almost anything left of field, but wherever else I roam I am always drawn back to the red wines of Bordeaux. Sadly I have not been to Bordeaux often enough or, as prices have risen, drunk nearly enough of the stuff and I would very much like to put that right.

Well, recently I was in exactly the right place to start that process. Last year I reported in detail on the new Cru Bourgois classification for the Médoc district of Bordeaux. I attended the first unveiling of the new classification last year and the explanation of the new selection process as well as the principals behind it. If you need to catch up on the background my article from last year explains all – read it here.

That first vintage of the newly revamped Cru Bourgeois was the 2008, the new one is the much more exciting 2009. The tasting panels have now done their work and the results are in and 246 wines have achieved the coveted Cru Bourgeois status for the 2009 vintage – three more than last year’s tally. Having seen the unveiling of the new classification last year I was anxious to see how things were progressing. I had a favourable view of the wines last year, but was slightly concerned that as Cru Bourgeois is a guarantee of a minimum quality that it might lend itself to a sort of general sweeping up of otherwise unclassified wine. So I was pleased to  be able to taste a good representative range of these wines.

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St Estèphe – a love renewed

I well remember the first time I tried a half decent claret, one that did not have the word on the label that is. How sophisticated I felt and what a revelation it seemed. I shied away from the costly 1982 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose – £4.99 a bottle, how wish I had bought 20 cases or so – and kept to the more modest Château Meyney 1977 Cru Bourgeois St Estèphe at £3.99.

That experience, which was a good one, was pivotal in fixing my view of red Bordeaux wines. From that moment one I knew I liked them, respected them and desired them, sadly I could seldom ever afford them and it has remained that way ever since. Bear in mind too that was in the days when a bad vintage, like 1977, bore no relation to a good one at all – not like now. Continue reading

A pair of elegant red wines

The other day I was fortunate enough to taste two very different wines. They were like chalk and cheese in many ways and yet I think they would appeal to the same sort of drinker.

One was a really classic wine, I know this term is overused, but the wine in question is a Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux that I have tasted on and off throughout my career and one that is much loved by the UK wine trade – Château Caronne Ste Gemme.

The harvest at Château Caronne Ste Gemme

Located just to the south of the commune of St Julien in the Haut-Médoc (number 3 on the map), Caronne Ste Gemme often has some of that famous village’s cedary style, which to many Brits is the quintessence of claret. Unlike the mass of estates further north, this property is on its own, but it occupies some impressively deep, superbly drained, gravel soils which help it to produce concentrated wines from its 45 hectares of vines that are made up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot and 37% Merlot. Continue reading

Cru Bourgeois reborn

It is a sad fact of wine life that many consumers find French wine terms confusing. Often it is not the fact that they are in French, as much as they are confusing concepts to translate. Cru Classé, Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé, Premier Cru, Premier Grand Cru Classé all have a meaning that gets somewhat lost in translation. What is more, the same word or phrase can mean subtly different things in various regions of France.

I often tell my students not to go looking for logic in French wine terminology, as that way madness lies.

I really think it is best not to translate them and just to accept them as they are. Strangely I was taught that Cru means ‘growth’, which always struck me as odd and not an easy word to sell to the consumer. Happily, I have researched it myself and discovered that one of its meanings is ‘vineyard’, which is altogether more satisfying and simple to understand.

Replace Cru with vineyard, as well as translating classé and you have; Classified Vineyard, Great Vineyard, Classified Great Vineyard, Premier Vineyard and Premier Classified Vineyard. Which nearly make sense, anyone can tell that these words on a wine label imply that the bottle contains something that is highly regarded by someone. Continue reading

Affordable Claret: Chateau du Gazin

I really am in a claret phase and it is very interesting tasting some affordable wines from Bordeaux. I have always liked the idea of claret, but have become concerned that most consumers would never get a chance to taste the sort of wine that comes into my mind when I think claret.

This is my third claret in this series and I think the consumer is pretty well served by them so far, but of course they are far more expensive than the average spend – even these relatively moderate prices make them more likely to be wines enjoyed at a special occasion than every day.

So far I have stuck to the left-bank Médoc wines, so I felt that a change was in order and I turned my attentions to the Libournais area. This of course includes the famous St Emilion, and its satellite villages, as well as Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol and the rather more spread out Côtes de Castillon, Côtes des Francs as well as Bourg and Blaye. Today my eye fell on a wine from Canon-Fronsac. Continue reading