First Impressions (Two Very Different Wines)

People often say first impressions are important. Many people are quite happy to make important decisions based on first impressions, and it pays to be aware of that in our own lives. The same is the case for wine. So much wine is “judged”, and most judgements are merely first impressions, those of a snapshot in time, a glance, sniff, swirl and spit on a tasting bench.

When we drink wine at home we at least have an opportunity to get to know a wine, to spend a little time together whilst it unfurls in the glass. Just as when we meet another person for the first time, we decide whether we want to spend the evening chatting (another glass or two), or to meet up again (an extra bottle, or do we order a case?).

But first impressions can be, and often are, deceptive. The first two bottles of red wine this year proved very different experiences and are a case in point. The disparity between these two wines when initially poured, sniffed and supped, was startling. One wine was love at first sight and the other was something approaching disgust. But this latter wine was not a complete unknown, at least as to origin, grape variety and winemaking technique. It was that degree of experience which frankly stopped it going down the sink. In both cases the wine was beautiful. It was merely the case that the second wine needed to be listened to.

So, what was wine number one? At the Real Wine Fair last year I reached the American wines on the far side of the room during the second half of the afternoon. I’d been given a number of strong recommendations to go and chat to a winemaker I’d neither met before, nor whose wines I had tasted, Martha Stoumen. As often happens with brilliant wines, word gets out at these big events and bottles get swiftly emptied, so by the time I got there her Post Flirtation Napa Red 2016 was all gone, like the rest of her samples.

It was only a month ago that I spotted some bottles on the shelf at that great source of hard to find wines, Solent Cellar in Lymington, Hampshire. I can sometimes rely on the people at Solent Cellar to tip me the wink when something interesting comes in, but in this case they didn’t. I think they had no idea how desperate I was to try this, but there it was, just a handful of bottles on the shelf when I visited. If Solent Cellar was in London I think they’d have lasted a day there at most, so I was lucky.

“Post Flirtation” 2016 is a blend of Carignan (65%) and Zinfandel (35%), very much a glugging wine of just 11.3% abv (labelled 11% on the overlain UK label). It is all concentrated red fruits like cranberry, redcurrant and pomegranate, maybe a touch of raspberry (like a red fruit sorbet) but with a slightly bitter rhubarb note as well. You serve it cool and knock it back, simple as that. It’s lighter in weight than the colour suggests.

But what charm, what charm indeed. I’m increasingly enjoying wine that tastes like alcoholic fruit juice rather than wine that tastes, in its chewy sweetness, rather more like a very big slice of Black Forest Gateau. Even in winter. If you are with me on this, then you’ll love Martha’s “Post Flirtation”.

There’s only one thing wrong with it, and that is the mere 330 cases she was able to make. If you believe not only in first impressions, but also in love at first sight, then this is what you need, if you can find some. Retail price is around £23, imported by Les Caves de Pyrene. Serve cool or lightly chilled.

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The second wine was decidedly not love at first sight. It looked fine but the first sniff showed a farmyard smell that probably is best left not described in detail. In fact a friend told me that he’d experienced the same farmyard bouquet but obviously not as badly as I had. Volatile aromas often affect different bottles in different ways.

I should introduce the wine in question, really, Overnoy-Crinquand Ploussard 2015. The Crinquand brothers are cousins of the much more famous Pierre Overnoy, and they are also, like Pierre, based in Pupillin, near Arbois in the Jura. What do we know about them that might assist us in deciding how to approach this wine?

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We know that although you will see a sign advertising their wines as you leave Pupillin in the direction of Poligny (their house is in the centre of the village), they are pretty low key and not all that well known, except for the Overnoy family name. In fact this domaine of around 6ha of vines is one of the most old fashioned still working in the region. We might think of Puffeney, Overnoy-Houillon, or perhaps Lucien Aviet in these terms, but the Crinquand brothers are very old school. Theirs is one of the only truly mixed farms I know of in the region, their dairy herd being as important as the vines.

In the cellar the wines are fermented in large old oak barrels and aged in a wide variety of barrel sizes. They no longer use the old wooden press, but most equipment is secondhand and decidedly low-tech. Sulphur is added at bottling, not a lot, and one suspects that this is merely because that is what was always added rather than any “natural wine” philosophy (though note that they do have agriculture biologique certification). As Wink Lorch says in her profile of the domaine in Jura Wine, this is “perhaps the closest one might find to how a typical Jura vigneron made wine 50 years ago”. Although her notes on the wines are positive, I’m still not sure to what extent that was a compliment?

To appreciate this wine for the potential in the glass required a two-stage process. The first involved action and the second, time and faith. It was in fact Wink Lorch who taught me how to deal with reductive wine, and gave me the confidence to pursue such a course of action.

Reduction appears in wines which have, for whatever reason, been protected from oxygen during winemaking and bottling. If wines are not racked (from one container to another) during ageing in barrel (or tank), then reductive notes can appear on opening.

These reductive (as opposed to oxidative) notes can take a number of forms and are most noticeable on the nose. Struck match or rubber are two common descriptions often attributed to reduction, but worse, such as “sewage” (to put it politely) is at the extreme. Of course the farmyard smells I experienced could have been caused by other things besides mere “lack of oxygen”, bacterial spoilage, for example. One never knows.

But if you find a wine like this, and indeed many natural wines are made reductively, the first thing to do is to treat it a little roughly. The wine lacks contact with oxygen and it needs to gulp some down. Swirl it in the glass. Some people might place a mat, or a hand over the glass and shake it vigorously. Splash decanting (into a decanter or carafe) helps no end, and will usually sort it out.

This is what Wink Lorch did to one of my favourite wines, Domaine de la Tournelle Uva Arbosiana. We were at Terroirs in London some years ago, a few months before she published her Jura book. She glugged the bottle of the Clairets’ gorgeous pink Ploussard into a carafe, stood up, placed her hand firmly over the top and shook it violently. And it worked (don’t risk this anywhere near new carpets, folks…outside the back door in our house, I can tell you, if I want to try this at home!).

The first glass of our Overnoy-Crinquand was fairly disapointing (after merely swirling), but that in itself was clue enough when the first sniffs had suggested it might be sinkward bound. After a while the ugly duckling blossomed into a swan. 2015 is a plush vintage in Jura, as with almost all of Eastern France. When the reductive nature of the wine had dissipated, the fruit here was smooth, and softer than many vintages. But soon there was a lovely haunting redcurrant flavour coming through, perhaps with a touch more raspberry on the nose.

It’s a warning. Knowing a little about how a wine might be made, how it might develop, and how to serve it is not a magic gift, nor intuitive really. It’s a matter of mixing experience with learning from someone who knows the wines better than you do (in my case, Wink). My first impression here was not positive at all. By the time we were half way through the bottle it was as if we were drinking a different wine, and a quite beautiful wine at that.

As far as I know, no one is currently importing Overnoy-Crinquand into the UK. Perhaps someone will tell me I’m wrong. There may be a little in the USA. Domaine visits are strictly by appointment.

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Happy New Year!

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Wines of the Year (2017)

I recently read the view of an esteemed wine editor that they are not keen on listing their “wines of the year” because they like to enjoy what is good about every wine they drink. I can agree with that sentiment, but at the same time it’s nice to sort of sum up the year’s drinking highs. It feels a nice way to begin 2018, to look back at 2017, which was certainly a great wine year for me, if not so great in some other respects.

Every year visitors to Tom Cannavan’s Wine Pages site are invited to participate in listing their wines of the year, which Tom publishes, and my list is loosely based around what I contributed there, using the same categories but with a little more freedom. Of course, it’s almost impossible to come up with a definitive list. For a start, my memory is far from perfect, and in at least one category the wine I chose could well have been superceded between Christmas (when I submitted my list) and the end of the year.

WINES OF THE YEAR 2017

Red Wine: a very difficult category to choose one wine for. Austria figured with quite a few possibilities, as did Catalonia and Piemonte. A wonderful 2004 Barbaresco Riserva Paje, Produttori Barbaresco taken by a friend to dinner at Brunswick House made a strong impression, greater than many bigger names, and this helps synthesise the reasons for selecting any particular wine. We are not necessarily looking for greatness. Personality comes into it, for me, and sometimes (as with my white choice), so does finally getting to taste a wine after a long time searching.

So the winner here in the “red” category is Meinklang Graupert Zweigelt 2013, Burgenland. This marvelous producer makes so many great wines it’s even difficult to choose among them, let alone all the reds I drank last year, but this “wild vine” red from the southern end of the Neusiedlersee in Eastern Austria deserves the accolade. Concentrated black fruits from tiny berries on tangled, unrestrained, vines, highly perfumed and concentrated, with a good lick of slightly abrasive acidity and mouthfeel. Personality! That’s what puts it here.

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White Wine: This choice was, by contrast, less difficult. Three white wines kind of stood out for me in 2017. The one which misses out, just, was the most astonishing wine I tasted at the Real Wine Fair last May, and then managed to drink a couple of glasses of at a Solent Cellar event in the summer (when I was also able to buy some for myself). That is COS Zibibbo in Pithos 2014, which was only bottled in magnums. I also cannot fail to mention a rather wonderful Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Blanco 1973.

But the winner is a wine I’ve been wanting to try for a couple of years and which had thus far eluded me until a friend brought one to a spectacular lunch at The Draper’s Arms in Barnsbury just one month ago. Domaine des Miroirs Chardonnay Mizuiro 2013, “Les Saugettes” is grown on Limestone and Marl near Grusse, in the southern part of the Jura Region. Kenjiro and Mayumi Kagami are, as I said in the article about that lunch, almost impossible to visit and their wines are tantalisingly difficult to track down. This one was ever so slightly cloudy, all saline citrus, which doesn’t suggest complexity. And yet it has such a unique personality. A very personal choice, perhaps, but I think it is an astoundingingly good wine if you are open to it. Arigato gozaimasu!

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Budget Red: The winner here established itself early and every subsequent bottle just delivered. A simple wine, but just fantastic in that simplicity. Claus Preisinger Puszta Libre 2015 is labelled as a mere Austrian Rotwein, and is a blend of Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and St-Laurent, which Claus suggests serving chilled. Simple raspberry and cherry fruit with a touch of spice, and just 12% abv. It goes down a treat.

Already this year I’ve drunk a similarly beguiling simple wine, Martha Stoumen’s Post Flirtation Napa red blend. Whether that wins out by the end of 2018, who knows, but this kind of gluggable juice never fails to thrill.

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Budget White: This wine stands up on its own, but I won’t deny there is another reason I chose it. The world of wine does have its dark corners, but generally wine people are incredibly supportive of each other. When the De Moors of Chablis suffered terribly from the appalling conditions of the 2016 growing season, friends in the South of France let them have some grapes with which to make at least something. The resulting wine, Le Vendangeur Masque “Melting Potes” 2016 is the first cuvée (of three, I think) which expresses their thanks.

Blended from Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Viognier, not varieties which I suppose Alice was all too familiar with, this is just lovely. “Budget” is stretching it a little, but it is a genuine tribute to their potes. And writing this has reminded me I still have one left!

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Rosé: I’m quite partial to wines of pinkish hue, I must admit. Olivier Horiot Rosé des Riceys “En Valingrain” 2006 came close to this slot, but despite its name I wonder whether “Riceys” is really a rosé, rather than a pale red? But for the second year running I’m giving this accolade to Clos Cibonne Tibouren 2014 , a “Cru Classé” of the Côtes de Provence. I think it helps that this is from magnum but who says pink wine cannot age? Well, obviously no one who knows Château Simone, Musar, and this (okay, and Rosé des Riceys, which absolutely needs to age). It has all the freshness of a pink plus complexity and (perhaps more so) character, which comes from this unusual and rare variety.

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Sparkling Wine: The toughest choice lay here. Somehow I have to fit in Champagne, other sparkling wines and the innumerable pét-nats I could have listed. After considering a very fine Piper Rare 2002, and from the same vintage, a stunning (if still not fully mature) Pierre Peters “Les Chetillons” 2002, I awarded the gong to a unique sparkler, Clos Lentiscus Sumoll Ferèstec Reserva Familia 2010, Bodega Can Ramon from Catalonia. 

I love Sumoll, both red and white. This rare wine usually manages to fill between 300 and a touch over 700 bottles, depending on vintage. This superb 2010 was disgorged in 2016, and local honey is used in the dosage. Pale bronze, quite rich and mature, we might be in the territory of Selosse or Prévost. Not your simple Cava (indeed, it’s not a Cava at all), it is richly complex, but with a direct, if elegant, acidity.

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In the days before New Year, Clos Lentiscus was, if I’m being objective, surpassed by Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1996. This is nicely mature and drinking wonderfully well right now. I won’t try to describe this legendary vintage for “Winston”. When I said on social media that this was my best wine of the holidays, someone replied “er, ever”, which did pretty well sum it up. Not my best wine ever, not quite, but they had the right idea. It was all the more appreciated, as it was after an impromptu visit to very good friends following a bracing dog walk when the cork was popped.

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I’ve not even mentioned any pétillant naturel wines, and I drank dozens in 2017, a style I find both attractive and at the same time so perfect once it’s warm enough to venture outdoors. I can’t list them all, but one I always adore is Domaine des Bodines Red Bulles. Arbois Ploussard which tastes to me of concentrated pomegranate, redcurrant and raspberry, all enveloped in a gentle fizz and froth. I managed a whole two bottles of this in 2017 (it’s not easy to procure, even were I not obsessed with drinking widely). I do try to have some at home if at all possible.

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Sweet Wine: We are moving decidedly upmarket here. We went to a wedding in Tokyo in the summer and the bride’s father had set aside a bottle from his daughter’s birth year specifically to open on this occasion. It was Château d’Yquem Sauternes 1988 served from a 5 litre format (followed by a number of ordinary bottles, just in case anyone hadn’t managed to get a third or fourth glass). Nothing else came close. I’ve never actually got drunk on Yquem before (though the beer, Champagne, gin and red Bordeaux throughout the dinner helped) and I was glad we were only staying a mere four very humid minutes’ walk from the wedding venue. I wasn’t so drunk as to be unable to remember it, and the experience will linger for many years.

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Fortified Wine: I don’t drink masses of Palo Cortado, though it’s a Sherry style I’m coming to appreciate more and more as I get older. It explains why I didn’t buy this wine on release, but that has been rectified to a degree – as I type I’m waiting for a single bottle to be delivered this afternoon.

Equipo Navazos Palo Cortado Bota 75 is possibly the most elegant Palo Cortado I’ve ever drunk. It was sourced from Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín in Sanlúcar, and in fact is the same liquid that went into the first bottling of the Equipo Navazos table wine, Florpower. It is smooth in the middle and prettily floral on the finish. It lacks that incredible intensity you often get with a EN Palo Cortado, yet makes up for it with such finesse. Mind blowing…to me, at least.

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On the Wine Pages  WOTY entry you get the chance to list a “Thing” (wine related or not). I chose Champagne by Peter Liem, which I have already written about  (30 November 2017). It was my wine book of the year, not least for its concentration on terroir wines, and for the unrivalled Larmat maps of the region (reproduced separately in a drawer, for the first time since their original and very limited release in 1944). Yet there were a couple more wine-related things which I’d like to mention, both vineyard visits.

After a few years of very much wanting to go, I managed a visit to Emilie Porteret and her Domaine des Bodines on the edge of Arbois in late October. It was in fact just days after wonderful visits to Jean-Pierre Rietsch in Mittelbergheim and to Fritz Becker Junior in Schweigen, and indeed it preceded a visit to my favourite Champagne producer, Bérêche, at Craon de Ludes, just three days later. I’ve been drinking Domaine des Bodines for several years and they have crept into my absolute top six Jura addresses. To actually visit and to feel the wonderful energy going into the vineyard and the wines here was a very special experience.

In 2017 I also visited my first ever Japanese vineyard, Domaine Sogga, outside Obuse in the Nagano Region (on Japan’s main island, Honshu). It doesn’t count as the most obscure vineyard/winery I’ve ever visited (that would go to what at the time was Nepal’s only real wine producer, Pataleban Vineyard, west of Kathmandu). But Domaine Sogga, which grows mainly vinifera varieties, from Chardonnay, Petit Manseng and Albariño to Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, makes surprisingly good wines. In fact I was so taken with some of these wines (within context) that I was quite relieved and gratified, on returning to the UK, to discover quite how in such high esteem their winemaker (Sogga fils) is held by those experts here who know Japanese wine. I do plan to return.

Individually protected bunches at Obuse (Nagano, Japan); Emilie Porteret in her tiny barrel cellar in Arbois; and Peter Liem’s Champagne masterpiece

In a world where more and more wines continue to astonish me with their personalities, all of the above provided inspirational moments, reminding me why I’m so passionate about wine, and why I want to continue to share that passion. I hope I can continue to do just that through 2018 and beyond. Happy New Year!

 

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Recent Wines (Winter 2017) #theglouthatbindsus

As we head for what in our case will be a welcome Christmas break (the usual pre-Christmas colds have reared their heads like the four horsemen this year), I thought I’d be totally predictable and forego a list of Christmas wines. What to drink with the turkey…there won’t be one… Instead it’s high time I gave you another batch of the best wines I’ve been drinking at home, especially as my last lot were two months ago.

Ivag 2015, Cascina degli Ulivi, Piemonte – This is one from Stefano Bellotti, and I think it was sadly the last of his bottles I have in the cellar. I’m sure you’ve spotted that it is cryptically named after that much maligned (often with reason) DOCG on the eastern edge of Piemonte. This is bottled as a mere table wine.

The grape is Cortese, and few do Cortese better than Stefano. Biodynamic, no additives, the nose is marvelously complex and the palate is so fresh, almost spritzy on the tongue yet there is no visible CO2. Citrus acidity and a herby dryness. It has a certain touch of weight and richness beneath the acidity, and we drank it with a risotto of butternut squash and mushrooms. Only the weather failed to transport us to Novi Ligure.

Stockist: Les Caves de Pyrene

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Sergentìn 2009, Fabrizio Battaglino, Roero – I mention this wine mainly to give a plug to the Roero region as an alternative source of Nebbiolo. Lord knows, we need one with prices going sky high in the two “B’s”. There were no real signs of age, either visibly or on the nose here. The palate showed it was young and as it was was drunk before going out I didn’t have time to splash it into a decanter.

Yet real Nebbiolo character is here in this wine. I’m so often unable to find that “tar and roses” thing in its pure form with Barolo, but I was getting that here, along with black pepper. It just needs time. Hopefully there’s time for us to explore Roero further before the Barolo boys catch on.

Stockist: Big Red Wine Company (current vintage 2011)

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7 Fuentes 2015, Valle de la Orotava, Suertes del Marqués, Tenerife – This gets a mention because as an entry level wine, and as an introduction to the wines of Tenerife, it is excellent. It is based on Listán Negro, an under appreciated variety, though its white form, Listan Blanco, is none other than Palomino Fino. The minor component is Tintilla, which most readers will know better as Trousseau.

Initially there is some reduction and a whiff of volatility, which some people have said has put them off (though I’d not suggest you get it with every bottle). But using a carafe soon sorts it out. The key to this wine is freshness, but with that sort of textured freshness you get from volcanic soils. Sappy, simple, but sensuous, it slips down easily.

Stockist: widely available via importer Indigo Wine

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Furmint Vogelsang 2014, Michael Wenzel, Rust – Sometimes you buy something and stick it away and somehow it almost gets forgotten. This happened here. Michael Wenzel’s family grow grapes around Rust on the western shore of the Neusiedlersee. This bit of the lake is historically known for Furmint, grown on gneiss/quartz and mica schist, and Vogelsang was the first vineyard the family purchased in the 1980s. But the grapes were virtually smuggled in from then Communist Hungary, because the variety had almost disappeared from Austria (the border is only a relatively short cycle ride south of Rust, and in fact you can ride the “Iron Curtain Trail” here).

We all buy wine with positive expectations, but sometimes even high expectations are exceeded, and this was the case with this Furmint. Elegance, minerality, character, finesse and presence are what I’d rather say about this bottle than a string of fruit etc related descriptors. This is brilliant, though very sadly all gone. I understand that just 800 bottles of the Vogelsang were made in 2014.

Stockist: all gone, but Newcomer Wines are the people to hassle for the next vintage

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Kalkundkiesel Rotweincuvée 2015, Claus Preisinger, Gols – Here we are just moving around the lake from Rust on the western shore, to Gols, more or less on the northerneastern shore. Claus is a regular in these lists of recent wines, but I have tended to drink more of his reds. This beautiful red is an experimental blend of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent with added white grapes.

There is around six weeks skin contact (other vintages have had longer) for most of the fruit, although some is direct pressed juice, all blended at the end, but the wine is quite smooth and not so textured. The bouquet is of rich darker fruits and spice, quite Christmassy. There’s plenty of acidity, keeping it fresh, and a bit of bite on the finish.

Stockist: another one from Newcomer Wines

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Corbières Blanc “La Bégou” 2015, Maxime Magnon, Languedoc – Magnon is a bit of an insider producer and as you are all insiders you might not need me to tell you that he makes exceptional white (and red, of course) Languedoc, which does not always bring to mind this southern region. More, on account of the finesse in this bottle, fine White Burgundy. Funny that, as Maxime is originally a Burgundian. He worked with Jean Foillard in Beaujolais, but his southern influences come via his friendship with Didier Barral.

Based at Villeneuve-des-Corbières, the blend of grapes in La Bégou is 90% Grenache Gris and 10% Grenache Blanc. The bouquet is floral, and this is reflected on the palate, along with pears and a dry stony mineral texture on the finish. The vines here are at least fifty years old, on limestone and schist. Maxime uses biodynamic practices, though I don’t think he’s certified. Very impressive indeed, and even at £30 we are in the territory of a bargain for the quality.

Stockist: Solent Cellar might still have the odd bottle of Magnon’s wines if you are swift

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Poliphonia 417 2016, Pheasant’s Tears, Kakheti, Georgia – Few recent wines have filled the mouth with such concentrated sappy deliciousness as this wine. It’s quite unusual, and may well be the most grapes I’ve had in a blend, ever – 417 of the estimated 525 autochthonous red and white varieties in Georgia. They come from a small vine library in Kakheti.

This isn’t complex but that dark fruit coats the mouth. Lip-smacking might be an apt choice of adjective. Not your typical qveri wine as it majors on the fruit more than texture. If you see a bottle then grab it. About £21 retail.

Stockist: also Solent Cellar via Les Caves de Pyrene

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Madiran 2004, Château d’Aydie – It has been a good while since I’ve drunk a Madiran. When I was younger I had a bit of a thing for the wines of Southwest France, especially Irouléguy, Cahors and Madiran. Of course all Madiran is not cut from the same cloth. The best is pretty much 100% Tannat and, although micro-oxygenation was more or less invented here to soften these brutes, a good Madiran is generally an old Madiran.

This wine, judging from the back label, is pure Tannat. It won a DWWA Trophy (Decanter) in 2007, but the tasters must have found it hard and difficult to judge if my experience of three year old Madiran is representative. This is still dark and only just showing a crimson rim. The nose is lovely though, broody plum, red fruits and spice/pepper. There are still tannins here, slightly dusty, and enough structure to suggest this is still not fully resolved (though as with Nebbiolo, you don’t always know). But it’s damned good. It really comes into its own with food, a rich sausage and vegetable roast with a little chilli posing no difficulties. With 14% abv it didn’t taste alcoholic, just rich.

Stockist: you may find this in Barcelona or the US Virgin Islands according to Wine-Searcher, but it’s basically long gone

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Blanco 2016, Bodega Cauzón, Andalucia – We finish here with a gem from one of the finest estates of Andalucia, though it is little known. The man behind these vibrant natural wines is Ramón Saavedra, who farms a few hectares high in the Sierra Nevada at Cortes-y-Graena. When I say “high” I mean it – between 1,100 and 1,200 metres altitude in this case. But this is not a blend of weird autochthonous Andalucian grape varieties, discovered by Ramón whilst walking the dog. It’s a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Torrontes.

The colour is a beautiful yellow. The bouquet is of fresh orchard fruits, plus peach and citrus zest. When you glug this it is ridiculously fruity, in fact it’s real fruit juice for adults. Somewhat worryingly, there is no indication whatsoever than this contains 13% alcohol when you knock it back. Ramón goes his own way but his wines are delicious.

It’s a rather nice way to end this roundup of recent wines because it’s just simple pleasure in a glass, and who cares that I’m drinking a Spanish white in December when three quarters of the country is blanketed in snow (though not my bit). You’ve probably seen the fine wine (sic) I’ve been drinking at lunches and dinners these past months, but this is no less pleasurable, and when the flavours are unexpected, such a wine is just as exciting too.

Stockist: Otros Vinos

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Have a great festive holiday break, if indeed you have one. I aim to be drinking moderately and sleeping as much as possible over the next week. I hope to be back in the New Year, but in the meantime, as they say, have a good one!

 

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Songs From The Wood (Lime Wood)

We were lucky to be part of a group of eight that had the chef’s table at Lime Wood the weekend before last. Lime Wood is a Regency-era country house hotel set in parkland in the New Forest, at Lyndhurst. The team behind Lime Wood’s restaurants is Angela Hartnett and Luke Holder, with an Italian influence to the cooking from Luke. It’s smart but relaxed, and actually a great location for a comfortable break. I wrote about a trip there for lunch in the summer, part of my New Forest Gastronomy series.

The restaurant itself is a reasonably formal affair, as befits the surroundings. The chef’s table, set in the large kitchen itself, not only gave us a taste of the excitement during a busy service, but allowed us to be a little louder than the restaurant would have permitted. If the wooden benches were slightly less comfortable, the atmosphere made up for it. Needless to say, the food was good. Service was also perfect. It was as if the waiters and sommelier were able to relax in the kitchen and didn’t feel the need to treat us with quite the degree of detached deference you would get out in the restaurant.

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The meal began with the Smokehouse Board, with culatello, leg soaked in red wine, cured loin and chorizo smoked on site. Fennel and black pepper salami, effectively a finocchiona, was delicate and fine. The salmon is cured ten days before smoking. I should say at this point, with all that dead pig on the table, that Lime Wood caters for vegetarians and vegans, and served up imaginative vegan dishes for the non-meat eaters.

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Smokehouse Board

The wines began spectacularly with a magnum of Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot‘s Chardonnay Gravières 2015. I’d assumed this might be a touch young, but 2015 was a richer vintage in Arbois. Les Gravières is a blend of six sites where the underlying rock and soils are limestone. Whilst Arbois is perhaps famous for its various marnes (marls, which are calcium/lime-rich mudstones with varying amounts of clay and silt), there are outcrops of pure limestone which produce excellent Chardonnays. The most famous must be Stéphane’s own Clos surrounding the Tour de Curon, a steep and stony limestone vineyard rapidly achieving a “Grand Cru” reputation.

The Gravières begins with peachy ripe fruit, more rounded and voluptuous than you expect, but it takes only a little time before other qualities become apparent, and I mean citrus acidity, salinity, and a very long, almost chalky, finish. I can’t say how this wine will age (even in mag), but I found it astonishingly beautiful, especially because I’ve erred more towards Tissot’s single vineyard “La Mailloche” as my favourite, the one off “Les Amants” aside. If I could drive to Arbois tomorrow I’d try to grab a few magnums of this to enjoy over the next two years or so.

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Mag-nificence

Someone called for a rosé, and so we grabbed a bottle from the Lime Wood list, Ca dei Frati Rosato “Rosa dei Frati” 2015. This is a sound wine from the famous Lugana producer. Pale salmon colour, quite muted to begin with (but cold), opening into a nice fruity wine, dry and fresh, not spectacular but enjoyable. At some point a ewe’s cheese salad with young vegetables appeared and it didn’t clash.

Ewe’s milk cheese with young baby vegetables

We soon polished that off and another magnum appeared, San Lorenzo Ciliegiolo 2009, Sassotondo. This is a Maremma wine and is 100% Ciliegiolo, all from vines over 50 years of age in Sassotondo’s home vineyard near Pitigliano. This is always a superb wine, but I’ve never tried a magnum before. This 2009 starts with dark blackcurrant fruit on the nose, and then some rich cherry comes through. The bouquet has great depth. So does the palate. There’s fruit, but also a slight bitterness which seems to resemble black pepper (some also say cloves). There are still tannins present but they just add the sort of structure you want for food matching. There is just a slight note of alcohol (14% abv) on the finish, but it is smooth and long.

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The dish we paired this with was a ravioli of rainbow trout and ricotta with walnuts and lemon zest. Like Lime Wood’s famous “double agnolotti”, this is the kind of pasta dish they do to perfection. It doesn’t look much on the plate but its richness suffices to satisfy the stomach until the next plate arrives.

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More than just ravioli

The main course was braised duck breast, and offal in a roasted artichoke shell (or a very inventive raw vegan pizza). The pairing was Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe 1999. This was drinking superbly, though not yet at its peak I think. Still dark in colour but with a lovely brick red-orange rim, it is rich and fruity with a pleasant bitter touch. The 13.5% alcohol feels restrained and I’d say this is the most elegant Châteauneuf I’ve had for a while. Of course there’s plump Grenache with rich complexity building in the glass, but there was no “leaking at the edges”. Counter-intuitively it was served in Riedel Bordeaux glasses, but they worked for me.

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Duck breast

Another red was called for and someone ordered Leah Pinot Noir 2014, Seresin. This Marlborough Pinot is a blend of the three Seresin vineyards (and named after Michael’s daughter), a wine which drinks well quite soon after release. It nevertheless also has the ability to age. The 2014, the result of a long ripening season, has lightish red fruits but also a herby note on the finish, a touch of early complexity. I think there’s about 15% oak used. Still a fresh young wine, its biodynamic origins showing, perhaps, though I’d say this is good to go now. If you want greater complexity, move up the range.

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At this point a pause in the proceedings was called for, and the wilder members of the party decided it was negroni time. It wasn’t the occasion for an interrogation as to the exact contents of this version (most of us had gone past that stage), but it was very good indeed. Always the sign of a good hotel. In my world there are many ways to make a negroni, no single right way, but there is a wrong way. This was not the wrong way.

Negroni time

Dessert came out soon after, a chocolate mousse with chantilly, ale soaked cherries, a white chocolate snowflake or two and mixed red berry sorbet. With this we were treated to Château Fayau Cadillac 2011. Cadillac is one of the old sweet wine regions of Bordeaux. It’s about 30 km upriver from the city, on the right bank of the Garonne, ie the opposite bank to Sauternes and Barsac.

The wine is not as complex as a top Sauternes, and there is little if any sign of the noble rot which adds complexity to the left bank sweet wines. Yet this is very pleasant with honey and stone fruits (peach and apricot). It doesn’t have exceptional concentration, nor length, but as an accompaniment to this type of dessert it works well, neither too rich and cloying, nor adding any jarring acidity. A nice complementary touch.

Mousse and sorbet with the Fayau

This chef’s table experience is to be recommended. I enjoyed the very relaxed atmosphere in the kitchen. I’m sure the fact that there were eight of us helped, and I think we were able to be far more noisy (in a good way) than in the formal restaurant. Eating outside in the summer was also very enjoyable for the lack of formality. The food at Lime Wood is good as well, the influence purportedly being Italian but not to the extent that this inhibits creativity. That creativity was especially evident in the vegan dishes.

In some restaurants, having vegan dietary requirements is sometimes a real nuisance for them, and any vegan dishes are grudgingly prepared. Here we got the opposite response, creativity being given its head. That was rather nice as one of our number was also a chef who goes an extra mile when asked to prepare vegan dishes.

Vegan treats, raw pizza and dessert platter

If there is a down side to Lime Wood dining it is only in the pocket. The meal came to £130-a-head, more than expected (which seems to be my theme for late 2017), but that was possibly in large part down to the wines we took (Tissot, Sassotondo and Beaucastel) at a guess. Corkage is £35/bottle and I’m not sure how they worked the magnums. But the evening, food, wine, service and entertainment, was very enjoyable. If you want to crawl up to bed rather than our taxi back to Lymington, expect relative luxury in (at this time of year) a warm and hospitable hotel.

Lime Wood is at Beaulieu Road, Lyndhurst, in the New Forest (nearest rail link is Brockenhurst, then 15 minutes in a taxi). See link here for restaurant and rooms.

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Our House (Taittinger)

Many of you will know that I have something of a thing for Grower Champagne. It comes from an interest in wines which express “place”, terroir wines, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean I ignore the so-called Grandes Marques. For almost as long as I can remember I’ve had a special relationship with Taittinger, perhaps ever since I visited their impressive chalk cellars in Reims (which, along with Ruinart, are probably the best in the city).

The whole philosophy behind a Grande Marque like Taittinger is that they claim to be able to reproduce wines in the same style every year. This is certainly true of their non-vintage cuvée. Their literature plays down vintage character, and yet Taittinger produces four very fine vintage wines. It’s just that two of them are not labelled as such.

This is because the whole of the marketing at Taittinger is to tell a story, one of ever decreasing elements in each wine which, logically, ends with a single vineyard at the Château de la Marquetterie, at Pierry, near Epernay, which Pierre Taittinger purchased after having been billeted there as a cavalry officer during WW1. I have no issue with this. It’s a good story to tell.

I was pleased to be able to go to this Taittinger Tasting at Solent Cellar in Lymington last Friday, and to taste through six wines from the range, tutored by Kevin McKee of  Taittinger’s UK agent, Hatch Mansfield, where his role is UK Director – Family Taittinger.

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Kevin McKee, UK Director – Family Taittinger

A little history first. As I mentioned above, the Taittinger family became involved in Champagne when Pierre Taittinger acquired the vineyard at the Château de la Marquetterie after WW1. In the 1930s Taittinger went on to purchase the old Champagne House, Forest-Fourneaux, changing its name to Taittinger.

Pierre went on to establish the name of Taittinger, basing operations in Reims at the Butte Saint-Niçaise. Below the ruins of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Niçaise are the deep UNESCO “World Heritage” chalk crayères dug in Gallo-Roman times, which provide perfect conditions for making and storing Champagne.

The part of the Taittinger story they don’t emphasise is the company’s recent history. It gets in the way of the astonishing fact that not only is Taittinger one of the only family run Champagne Houses today, but it is (probably) unique in being run by the family named on the label. In 2006 Taittinger fell prey to a takeover by an American consortium with support from the French banking group, Crédit Agricole. In 2008 Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger managed to regain control of the House and now runs it along with his children, Clovis (exports) and Vitalie (marketing). Loïc Dupont has been Chef de Caves for 30 years. Although nearing retirement, the succession has been well in hand for some time.

Taittinger has the advantage, rare among the Grande Marque Houses, of vineyard ownership. The company is the second biggest owner of vines in the region, and their own estate provides half of their required fruit. This, along with the great work done by Pierre-Emmanuel and his team, has had a dramatic impact on both quality and consistency.

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We began with the Prestige Rosé, a non-vintage rosé d’assemblage. Fifteen percent of still red Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims is added to control colour. This, like the wine which follows it, is in a lighter, fruity style. It offers consistent easy drinking as an apéritif, with refreshing red fruits. As a wine marketed in a clear glass bottle, further ageing might be risky except in dark conditions, but I’m not sure it needs it.

Brut Réserve is effectively cut from similar cloth. It’s light and fresh with just a hint of complexity, clean and easy going, always elegant. The blend is usually around 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Meunier, and the wine we were tasting was from a 2012 base. This is Taittinger’s most important wine, production being around 70% of their 6 million bottle total. A lot of work has gone into Brut Réserve over the past eight or so years to improve consistency, and in this style I think it offers good value.

Expect clean citrus fruit, with developing brioche if you keep it six months or so after release. It is released after three years on lees, but whilst they will tell you all these wines are ready on release, I think we know that a little post-disgorgement ageing can improve them further, so long as the conditions for ageing are pretty good.

The Brut Vintage we tasted was the interesting 2009. Interesting because I’ve bought some of the 2008 and this wine is in contrast quite rounded at this stage, though still young. It is comprised of equal proportions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with five to six years on lees. It will peak before the 2008. The next vintage to go on sale will be 2012 (which I’ve not seen but someone on the Wine Pages Forum mentioned they’d just bought some).

The story continues now with wines which are sourced from increasingly smaller selections of vineyards. Prélude, or more formally Prélude Grands Crus NV, is not in fact a non-vintage wine, or not according to Kevin McKee (my own assumption has always been that it is more or less fruit from one vintage).

I’ve always liked Prélude. It’s made up of fifty percent each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the former from the Montagne and the latter from the Côte des Blancs. The cuvée was created for the millennium, the first release (magnums only) being from the 1996 vintage, whilst the current vintage we tasted is 2012. There is depth of fruit here, and a lovely fresh bouquet. The balance is really very good, with rich Pinot fruit and delicate Chardonnay. As a personal preference I will say that I often prefer Prélude to all but the best “vintage” cuvées at Taittinger. Those who benefited from Solent Cellar’s offer on the night (reduced to £36) were smart.

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Of course, I’m not counting Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne there. This wine is one of my favourite prestige cuvées. Hand crafted finesse and, with age, considerable complexity. There is always a sense that this wine has had extended lees ageing, and in fact it sees nine or ten years on lees, but what drives it for me is always a pristine, almost crystalline, mineral acidity. This Blanc de Blancs is from Chardonnay fruit grown exclusively in some of the best sites on the Côte des Blancs. The 2006 tastes quite magnificent but do not be fooled. With decent ageing it will get very much more sophisticated and complex.

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Although Comtes is not shy of food pairing, it is usually drunk on its own. If you want to drink Taittinger with food, my recommendation would be Folies de la Marquetterie. I like everything about this single vineyard wine. It comes, as I’ve said before, from the rather unique chequerboard vineyard, planted with alternating plots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which surround the Taittinger family home, the Château de la Marquetterie near Pierry, in the valley of the Cubry, southwest of Epernay.

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Folies is the vineyard numbered 2 on the Larmat map (reproduced from Peter Liem’s essential Champagne (Mitchell Beazley 2017))

Folies is different from the other Taittinger wines, not only in that it is a single vineyard, single vintage, cuvée, but in that it departs from Taittinger’s easy to drink style. It is broader than the rest of the range with more body, but it does retain the elegance of the House.

The vineyard is steep, and all the work here is done by horse. Around 20-to-25% of the fruit goes into 4,000-litre oak for the first fermentation, which must add to the weight. But the fruit is often quite exotic, as expressed on the nose. There is a very slight weighting of Pinot Noir over Chardonnay (55:45 in this 2012), which it seems to me is enough to give a Pinot character to the overall blend. For me, this extra weight along with its unique type of complexity (increased with age) makes this a gastronomic Champagne matched by few others.

Of course, 30,000 bottles produced makes it relatively easy to find in the UK, and with retail offers around £50, it makes it something of a bargain too (you’ll be lucky to find Comtes under £100, sometimes more like £110, at best). Even if, like me, you have a bit of a thing for the growers, you should forget this is made by a Grande Marque and take it on its merits, as a brilliant single vineyard, terroir, Champagne.

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This is not the whole of the Taittinger range. Nocturne is a “sec” with double the dosage of the Brut Réserve. There is a pink version of Comtes, and Taittinger Collection is a limited edition, artist’s label, late disgorged vintage wine. The last release I saw was a 2002, released in 2011, but it is not the most recent (I understand a 2008 was released in time for the Rio Olympics in 2016).

Taittinger’s wines are all widely available and it is just a matter of finding the keenest prices, which are often found in the various supermarket “25% off six bottles” offers. I don’t see any significant discounting this Christmas, although it has happened in the past.

Taittinger’s Reims cellars are open to visitors at: 9, Place Saint-Niçaise, Reims (follow the rue du Barbatre east from the Cathedral and you are pretty much there). They are generally open seven days during the warmer months, with some weekend closing at other times.

Taittinger web site

Hosted tours (French or English) are charged, but they include a film and a tasting, for which different options are available. This is probably the best Champagne House tour which combines spectacular chalk cellars below the city with an accessible commentary for non-experts. There’s a little romance (when I went, albeit many years ago, they oddly kept the gyropalettes hidden), but I can recommend a visit here.

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The Plumpton Riots (Keep Calm and Carignan)

Do excuse my continued obsession with obscure musical puns in the title, and also excuse me writing about something a little different today. Last week I had the pleasure to visit Plumpton College in Sussex. It was only my second visit and my first since the brand new Wine Centre building opened. I was there for a lecture by Professor Barry Smith, going under the title “Why Wine Tasting is Hard“.

Some of you may know Barry Smith from his writing in World of Fine Wine. Others may have come across him as a guest judge on Masterchef, or from Saturday Kitchen, or indeed from his radio work. Professor Smith works at (and is co-director of) the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study within the Institute of Philosophy.

The lecture was both fascinating and entertaining, and Professor Smith (I’m pretty sure “Barry” would be okay) is very much at ease making a difficult topic both entertaining and easy to understand without dumbing it down. I’m not going to reproduce the whole lecture, though I’ll give you a flavour of it along with a few interesting conclusions, but after the lecture I was treated to a tour of the Wine Centre by the Head of Wine Studies, Chris Foss. I’m sure you will also be interested in hearing about that, with a few photos thrown in.

One of the key questions wine professionals, whether sommeliers, wine trade members or winemakers, ask themselves is why we find wine tasting easy and most other people don’t. In fact many people, including those in popular journalism, are so sceptical of wine tasting that they constantly run it into the ground, and even among the pros there is a certain negativity towards those who take the entertainment aspects of wine tasting a little too far. In many quarters it is certainly seen as an elitist hobby.

What is easy to forget is that wine tasting needs to be learnt. In fact only the other day I read that going on a one-day wine appreciation course can increase spend on wine by an average of 12% per bottle. I can believe that. If you begin to appreciate quality you soon realise that by spending a little more, wine quality can rocket.

Professor Smith gave an apposite analogy about how we can grow to appreciate classical music. First we hear the loud noise of the orchestra as one soundscape. Only with experience do we begin to single out individual instruments and to hear what they are contributing. That is indeed a lot like getting to grips with wine tasting.

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A good part of the lecture looked at the neuro-science aspects of wine tasting and appreciation. The Dijon Hypothesis suggests that everyone does taste more or less the same things in wine, but that some people just don’t know what they are tasting, the failure of reflective cognition.

A study of sommeliers and non-tasters under MRI showed, perhaps counter-intuitively you might think, that it is the non-tasters who show the greatest brain activity when sipping a wine. This is because the brains of the sommeliers are attuned as to what to look for, whereas the non-tasters’ brains are all over the place, trying lots of different pathways to identify something they don’t know.

What we generally more experienced tasters do all know is that wine tasting is based on recollection and building an easily accessible database of reference points, although this does not mean that we can order these in a way that enables us to nail a wine time and time again. This is probably why we get it so blatantly wrong, calling our Rioja a Chianti, or whatever.

The sensory task is to pick apart what the brain has built, and indeed to overcome external factors which impede our ability to do so. Apparently aircraft noise impedes our ability to taste sweet, sour and salt, yet our taste of umami is enhanced. This may well be why some people like to drink tomato juice on a plane but nowhere else, and why you always get tomatoes in airline meals. Apparently Lufthansa provide noise reducing headphones during meals! And apparently the food tastes better!

So when we taste we use all our senses (scientists have identified somewhere between 22 to 33 of them, not just five) in order to build a profile of the liquid, and also to build expectations based on thousands of sensory snapshots. It’s a complicated process. The novice doesn’t know where to begin, and when we start telling them we are getting Madagascan vanilla, cloves, kirsch and leaves rotting on the forest floor there’s no wonder they are confused. But it is clear that even with a little help and encouragement, people can learn to taste. Then it’s just a matter of time, experience and data processing. However, a little time spent teaching the basic skills (and why it is worth acquiring them) benefits not only the individuals, but very probably the wine trade too.

What I’ve reproduced here is a mere snapshot, perhaps even an incoherent one, of this fascinating lecture. If you get an opportunity to hear Barry Smith speaking, I can recommend him. This was the first of the Plumpton Lectures, initiated by Tony Milanowski. In the New Year they have Joe Fattorini, followed by John Atkinson MW of Billecart-Salmon (UK) Ltd, who will be talking about terroir in Burgundy and Champagne. Both look interesting. The lecture I attended cost £10, and included substantial nibbles and some Plumpton fizz.

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Plumpton College is the only place in the UK to offer degree level education in a variety of wine studies, from undergraduate Winemaking and Wine Business to an MSc in Viticulture and Oenology. There are also shorter courses as part of the Wine Skills Programme, ranging from an intensive week on viticulture or vinification, to a one day a month option. As I said, after the lecture I was able to take a tour of the facilities at Plumpton, and to find out a little more about what they do.

The Wine Centre has ten staff, including a resident winemaker, with up to a hundred students on the undergraduate programmes and a further twenty or so postgrads. They are thinking of adding brewing, distilling and cider making to the BSc in Drinks Business and Production curriculum.

Tony Milanowski, who I mentioned as the lecture series organiser, runs an outreach programme which delivers around 150 events each year to the UK wine industry, along with wine masterclasses. In addition, pure research is undertaken at Plumpton, for example work is currently ongoing on climate change, including the use of oils to delay bud burst.

Many of you will know that Plumpton is also a working English winery, with about 8 hectares of vines, some under replanting at the moment. Production usually sits around 30 to 40,000 bottles, except that frost and fruit fly (dropsophila melanogaster) dramatically reduced output this year. There are two sparklers and several still wines (red, pink and white blends, plus varietal Bacchus, Ortega and Pinot Noir).

Plumpton College Winery

Since 2015 there has been a project on skin contact, with First Contact, a Schönburger left on skins for around ten days (vintage depending), followed by ten months on lees in barrel with weekly stirring. I believe there is an exciting project under wraps to go the whole traditional Georgian hog in the future.

I’m very pleased to say that the English and Welsh wine industry has been supportive of Plumpton. The impressive little research winery was funded by Sussex newcomer, Rathfinny Estate (near Alfriston), where we saw some experimental microvinifications in progress.

Research Winery at Plumpton

So that was a great two-for-one or BOGOF offer, with the lecture and the tour. The nibbles included Plumpton beef and Plumpton pork, and most people managed a glass or two of The Dean sparkling blush. This is not only very good indeed but remarkable value (£23 from Waitrose Direct or from eight local branches).

Plumpton College has various sites in Sussex but the wine facility is on the main campus at Ditchling Road, Plumpton, a few miles northwest of Lewes.

Plumpton College Wine web site

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Zoo Time – Wide World of Wine Awards 2017

To be completely honest, I’ve never really been a great fan of Awards. Well, not since I used to fill in the NME’s Musicians of the Year Poll, which I can tell you was a very long time ago. The problems with the awards you get in the wine press are twofold. First, you gotta be in it to win it, and the number of wines that I like that enter competitions like the IWC or DWWA can usually be counted on the fingers of a one-armed, three-toed sloth. Anyway, if you’ve read this Blog all year you already know which wines I’ve loved. So we’ll skip the wines and stick with those selling the wine – the retailers and importers.

The second problem with wine awards is the subjectivity of the judges. So-called “Retail Awards” usually pick really good merchants, but rarely those at the cutting edge, those doing today what the established retailers will be doing tomorrow. Whatever they tell you, all our decisions are affected by unconscious bias if we are lucky, and sometimes conscious bias too. But sometimes we can make a virtue of bias. Bias is especially useful if both the tastes of the judge and the tastes of the reader are outside the mainstream, and they both coincide.

So these awards may just be a bit of pre-festive fun, and I’ll not pretend they have any clout out in the mainstream of the wider world of wine. But on the other hand, if I dish out a bit of praise, you not only get to find out who I like to go to for all the brilliant wines I drink, but maybe you’ll have time to check them out for some holiday drinking too. With a bit of nostalgia for those NME Awards of old, in the words of Dave Vanian and The Damned, here we go now…

The Frank Carter Award for Heaviest London Wine Shop 

London is awash with brilliant wine shops, whether you want the classics or the obscure, and this award was incredibly close to call, so much so that I’m going to give it to two shops, and the crazy thing, brilliant for wine lovers, is that they are within walking distance of each other.

Winemakers Club is a bar, a shop and a venue under the Holborn Viaduct on Farringdon Street, which in the past was the London Wine Mecca that was the original Oddbins Fine Wine store. The shop part is dark (actually, it’s all dark), and smaller than probably most of the wine shops we know and love. But John and his team win here because, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, they plough their own furrow. So you’ll find the kind of stuff here you might never expect to find. But you are also just as likely to be recommended a wine you’ve never heard of, only to find a month or two later that it’s on everyone’s lips.

Marnes Blanches, Vetter, Romeo del Castello, Sean Callaghan, Guccione, Hegyikaló, Vinochisti, Shobbrook, Vionnet, and especially Meinklang are all names whose UK profile has been raised immeasurably by Winemakers Club. But they seem to have new wines every time I visit. This is a solid team of good people, and if you get to know them, the bar is one of the most hospitable in London.

website: here

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Noble Fine Liquor has a couple of shops, and the bar/kitchen P. Franco, but it’s the shop at 88 Farringdon Road that I know. It shares a site with Quality Chop House about fifteen minutes or so north of Winemakers club, so if you remember a suitcase you can easily shop at both.

I didn’t actually discover NFL until this year, but there’s little doubt that no shop has a better selection of natural wines in London, which is a pretty bold statement. This is especially true of their Jura selection, and although wines sell out quickly when only available in tiny quantities, at least you have a small chance of finding L’Octavin, Domaines de la Tournelle and St-Pierre, Ganevat, Labet and Les Dolomies.

From elsewhere you might find Envinate, No Control, Julie Balagny, Partida Creus, De Moor and Schueller. They also have a fine selection of Grower Champagnes such as Bérêche, Agrapart, Suenen, Lassaigne and Prévost (to name all too few). Even those who prefer more classical wines will not be disappointed. If I’m wholly honest here, NFL is the one shop I feel uneasy about recommending to anyone who doesn’t know it…because I just know you are going to buy all the stuff I want for myself.

website: here

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The Rammstein Award for Downright Dirtiest Wine Country Specialist

This can only go to Austrian specialist Newcomer Wines out at Dalston Junction. Although we all miss the old Boxpark shop in Shoreditch, there’s a bit more space in Dalston, and so the range has expanded, and outside of Austria too. Austria as a tiny country now punches well above its weight in wine. We mustn’t forget the classics from the Wachau, but it’s the new wave natural wine revolution which has grabbed the world’s attention (well, the tiny bubble of a world I live in). Although Savoie will still benefit immeasurably when Wink Lorch’s book eventually comes out, I predict a riot for Austria in 2018.

Most of the stars of Dalston need little intro to regular readers, but if you haven’t tried Preisinger, Jutta Ambrositsch, Tschida, Jurtschitsch,Wenzel and company, joined now by the likes of Nesterec (Czech Moravia), Mythopia (Valais) and others, then you should get on a bus. The new producer of the year was the Rennersistas, Stefanie and Susanne, who farm around the northern edge of the Neusiedlersee. Wild wines which scream life, not yet perfect but somehow all the better for it. Like Newcomer.

website: here

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The Carte de Sejour Douce France Award for the Place to buy Wine in Paris

This must go to the the Cave Des Papilles on rue Daguerre in Paris’ 14th Arrondisement. People keep disagreeing with me, but I find it really inconveniently located, with the kind of opening hours that are slightly odd and best checked before you go (lunch closing is usually 1.30 to 3.30). But it’s worth the journey. Even with all the other wonderful wine shops in that city. It has to be natural wine heaven, but then so are Septime, Verre Volé, the Caves du Panthéon and others. What makes Papilles stand out is the kind of unicorn wines you may be lucky enough to find on the shelves.

Métras, Guillot, Schueller, Rietsch, Valérie Frison, or Bodines, Monnier and Menigoz from Jura, not to mention Catherine Hannoun’s pét-nat which I spotted online the other day. The house Champagne is from Emmanuelle Lassaigne of Montgueux, for goodness sake. This is why you take two suitcases on Eurostar, one empty. #glouglou

Anyone else remember Rachid Taha’s first band?

website: here

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Best shop in Paris, shhh!

The Robert Fripp Award for London Wine Shop Not Actually in London

This award is for a wine shop which would be up there with the best if it were in London, but it’s not. In the same way that Robert Fripp would receive his due acclaim if everyone just looked beyond the obvious. It feels slightly odd giving this award, first because I have two brilliant wine shops where I live (Butler’s Wine Cellar and Ten Green Bottles both of which I love dearly), and secondly because I seem to have bought around 50% of my UK wine purchases from Solent Cellar in 2017 (slight exaggeration, but still), and I’m probably not done with them yet. The shop in question is in Lymington, on the edge of the New Forest.

Solent do not pretend to be a “Papilles”. They do have to cater for the locals, though I must say that through the hard graft of regular tastings they are building a local clientele for the wines they like to drink, and there is always a large and eclectic offering of “real wine”. Visiting the shop is always better than looking at the web site, but you need to go further and cultivate a relationship with Simon and Heather.

Ganevat appears often, and I was swift enough to grab some La Zaune à Dédé this year, and an even greater coup was the COS Zibibbo en magnum in the summer, available almost nowhere. They always have a few Jura, including Vin Jaune, and a good Loire and Burgundy offering. Fine Wines here are usually well priced, and Champagne is also worth exploring (Bérêche Reflet D’Antan, Vilmart Coeur, Vve Fourny, Clouet to name a few). They often have a few nice magnums (Foillard and Equipo Navazos last time I was in, for example), and they also stock my favourite gin, Dorset’s Conker. But that’s just a small taste of what you will find in this pretty little shop. Great Saturday Market in Lymington too.

website: here

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The Goat Award for Young Guns Going For It Importer of the Year

They’d probably have been insulted if it was the Wham! Award. In a market near to being saturated with small and interesting wine importers it was really hard to choose a winner here. Red Squirrel get the gong because they are small but brave. They have really looked deep and asked searching questions as to whether they can actually sell some of the stuff they import, and then said what the hell!

Diwald and Holzer, Bellwether and Canada’s Okanagan Crushpad are all producers who have an established name among their customers now. But whoever decided to bring in wines from the Azores Wine Company, Bruna (Liguria) and Pasaeli (Turkey) must be some kind of crazy genius who deserves to succeed.

But not only does Red Squirrel push the boundaries every year, I think they are also being rightly seen as an inspiration to others. I can’t wait to see what they bring in for 2018…Icelandic Romorantin, Nick?

website: here

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The Iron Maiden Monsters of Rock Award for Established Superheroes

It has to be Les Caves de Pyrene. They have been around for a long time now, and every year they seem to grow. Some people now see them as more establishment than rebels, based purely on the fact that they can sometimes seem to have natural wine all sewn up. That totally ignores what Doug and the team do every year, both to promote natural wine as a whole (I can’t tell you how much I will miss the Real Wine Fair in 2018), and in being behind so many of the bottles of natural wine which are creeping into nearly every independent wine shop in the country. If anyone in UK wine deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award it is Doug Wregg, though he doesn’t do it alone.

The key, I think, to the success of Les Caves has been in spotting an up-and-coming region or country producing exciting natural or biodynamic wines before the competition. They clearly got onto the Jura bandwagon before the band was formed and the wagon was built. They are not far from where I’d like them to be with Savoie, but I think Austria is getting some attention behind the scenes. Doug, if anyone can sell Silcher-Sekt and the Blauer Wildbacher grape, you can (I saw you at Strohmeier the other day).

The CdP list is enormous, and covers everything you can imagine. A good place to begin is with a trip to their warehouse shop at Artington (next to the Park & Ride), near Guildford. And remember that there’s a lot more out back than is on the shelves. Make a morning of it.

website: here

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Real Shopping

Les Caves’ shop at the Real Wine Fair is always too tempting to ignore

The Manu Chao Clandestino Award for Tiny Importer of Wines from the Coolest Wine Country of the Moment

Where is all of a sudden making the coolest wines in Europe? Spain, of course.  That bastion of tradition took a very wrong turning indeed when it decided to pander to those who wanted new oak, high alcohol and modern wines. But that seems to have left a gap for people to buy vines in unproductive terroirs known in the past for high yields and dirty winemaking, where the old vines lay neglected and unappreciated.

Then along comes Otros Vinos, with a portfolio probably smaller than any other award winner here. Don’t worry, you can easily fill a mixed case of bottles to try just by reading the article I wrote on their portfolio tasting at Furanxo in Dalston Junction back in October (use the search function on the right). If you prefer, you can walk over to Furanxo next time you visit Newcomer (about five minutes), where a limited selection of Otros Vinos’ wines are on the shelves. You’ll find the full list of stockists on the Otros Vinos web site, which includes Burgess & Hall, Noble Fine Liquor and Theatre of Wine.

Don’t miss the wines of Ambiz, Purulio, Cauzón and Costador to name just four. Look out for Costador’s “La Metamorphika” flagons,  and I can’t help but mention Clot de les Soleres’ pet-nat too.

website: here

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Some of Otros Vinos’ wines at Furanxo, 85 Dalston Lane

There are just a few more Awards left to go as our glittering evening draws to a close.

The Algiers Award for Totally Out on the Edge Wine

This goes to Tutto Wines for some of the weirdest tasting but most exciting wines I’ve had this year. And they also import Balagny and L’Octavin, both absolute favourites. With the taste to grab those two, you feel in safe hands so long as you are prepared to put on the blindfold and go where Alex and Damiano take you.

Olek Bondonio, Skerlj, Marco Fon and Jean-Pierre Robinot may be more familair to some than others. Ar-Pe-Pe will be familiar to all. Like all small importers, they get a parcel and it goes in days, so worth keeping a careful eye on your emails once you establish contact.

Are Tutto, like Algiers, the guys who are inspirationally different but who not enough people have heard of?

website: here

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The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing…Doing it For The Whigs Award for Extreme Innovation in the Wine Trade goes to one man (who probably has a dog) called Rupert Taylor and his Uncharted Wines. Few wine lovers will have heard of Uncharted, but Rupert is the man who has probably done more than any other to bring wine on tap to the UK.

Wine on tap makes buying wine in a bar just like buying beer. It’s hard to imagine that the result could be very appealing, but in the same way that Andrew and Emma Nielsen revolutionised the wine in a bag concept with their Du Grappin brand (sitting right alongside their fine bottled Burgundy), Rupert has shown that the wine on sale in a bar can not only be decent, it can be downright consistently good (as it should be). And it’s easy to serve as well.

Rupert developed the idea at OW Loeb, and whilst Uncharted Wines are not yet well known, they will be. Because this way of serving wine fits in so well with the way in which young people are enjoying wine today, in a social environment, interchangeable with beer or gin.

Follow Uncharted Wines: on Twitter (@Uncharted_Wines) and Instagram (uncharted_wines)

The Sultans of Swing Award for Best Traditional Portfolio Daddio

I won’t pretend I never enjoy the classics, and those who purvey (let’s use a more sophisticated word than “sell” or “flog” here) such wines are numerous in England. There are the bastions of excellent tradition like Berry Bros, and the relative newcomers like Uncorked (who themselves have been much awarded in recent years, being favourites of some higher profile wine scribes). But I’m giving the gong to Howard Ripley Wines. My reason is simple. They specialise in Burgundy and Germany, and what two finer locations can we head for when we want a little classicism and tradition?

Although many of their customers pack out the Burgundy Tastings they lay on, zealots jumping on the Grand Crus like vultures for tiny allocations, the more sophisticated palates head for the German Tastings, usually held in the sedate surroundings of one of London’s Inns of Court. Here we sample in relative leisure the cream of German estates. Those of us with stranger tastes hardly require use of our elbows to get to the best of that country’s finest new names, and indeed some of her finest red wines too (a relative secret about which the Burgundy boys know nothing…yet).

Howard Ripley Wines are perhaps the best example here of how diligence and hard work can gather together a portfolio where every wine by every producer justifies its place. And whilst we are all chasing unicorn wines from Grusse, Sion, Vézelay or Illmitz we should not forget that there were always brilliant, if unfashionable, wines to be had in Germany too.

Julian Haart, Peter (Florian) Lauer, Julg, Schloss Lieser and Ziereisen are among my own favourites…if you can stop sipping the Prum and Keller.

website: here

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The Lonely Goat Herd Award for Merchant High on a Hill in the Wilderness

The last award here goes to an online merchant based up in Yorkshire which, because they don’t get down south very often, don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve. When a London merchant (albeit a very good one) implies they are doing something new importing Swiss wines, you wonder what an importer that began by importing those very wines long ago is doing wrong in their marketing.

Alpine Wines used to be known as Nick Dobson Wines, but Nick sold the business to Swiss National, Joelle Nebbe-Mornod a few years ago. The portfolio has grown and covers areas which are only alpine at a stretch, but the heart of the matter is still Switzerland, along with Austria (where they bring in a few nice alternatives to the wines offered by Newcomer).

One of the pleasures of the Swiss wines at Alpine Wines is trawling through and coming across some lovely obscurities, but I appreciate that Swiss wine is new to a lot of people. Alpine Wines do put together different taster cases, but from their Swiss producers look out for Marie-Thérèse Chappaz (Fully, Valais), Simon Maye & Fils (Valais Syrah and Humagne Rouge), Badoux Vins (Aigle, Vaud) and Domaine Grand’Cour (Geneva).

From Austria one very subjective personal favourite is Heidi Schröck (Rust), and then Rainer Christ (Vienna), Martin & Anna Arndorfer (Wagram) and Leo Alzinger (Wachau). But from both Switzerland and Austria, if the wine is made from a grape variety you don’t know, then do try it. Both countries have some wonderful autochthonous varieties. Alpine Wines’ web site is not the easiest to navigate but in its nooks and crannies you’ll find some fascinating liquid.

website: here

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These Awards are, of course, just a bit of fun. But the serious part is remembering that all of the above are trying to sell really interesting wine to a market which, at its heart, is still fairly conservative. We may see all our friends drinking wines like these, but we are still at the fringe, and the market for Real Wine is actually quite crowded, though the positive is that it undoubtedly seems to be growing.

Decanter Magazine has, in its latest issue, an article with the headline “The Most Exciting Wines of 2017”. They list seventy-five. With all due respect, I think we could probably come up with a far more exciting list if we went around all the retailers and importers mentioned here. This is why we need to spread the word.

 

Posted in Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Merchants, Wine Shops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Liem and Larmat – A Perfect Combination

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Like most people, I imagine, I came to appreciate Champagne first as a celebratory drink. Most often it was the non-vintage wine of a well known Grande Marque, or occasionally a vintage wine, consumed several years too soon. But in the days before autoroutes would take you right through France, Champagne (the region) became a convenient, and frequent overnight stop. As these journey breaks somehow came to encompass an extra day for exploring Reims, Epernay, or the Montagne, I began to appreciate Champagne, the region and her vineyards, and in particular, two things about it.

First, I realised that whilst the Grandes Marques usually blended their wines from multiple sources creating something which claimed the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, there were hundreds of small producers bottling wine from their own few hectares of vines. Not all were as good as each other, but some were certainly good enough to distinguish the attributes of their different parcels.

Secondly, I came to appreciate Champagne as a wine in its own right, and I came to this through following the lead of the locals and drinking it throughout a meal. When you drink it as an aperitif you fail to appreciate its versatility with food, because there is a Champagne somewhere that will go with the majority of dishes.

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I own several books on Champagne, but this year Peter Liem has published one which I think is different to all the others. Champagne (Mitchell Beazley, 2017)  is firmly focussed on terroir and so it is a book about those who grow grapes and make wine which expresses a particular vineyard, or perhaps a small number of sites where each plot contributes discernibly to the cuvée. This categorically does not limit us to “Grower Champagne”, because plenty of the Grandes Marques make site specific wines.

The book, in making terroir its focus, also celebrates Champagne as a wine, in all its diversity, and indeed takes this diversity as a mark of quality, rather than one over-arching single standard by which Champagne should be judged. To push the terroir point further, Liem has included in the package, published to the general public for the first time since they were produced in 1944, the maps of Champagne created by Louis Larmat for his Atlas de la France Vinicole: Les Vins de Champagne.

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These colour maps come as separate fold-out sheets housed in a pull-out drawer, a second drawer containing the book. For a map geek like me they provide a cartographical bounty beyond my dreams. I’ve seen some of these maps in one or two tasting rooms, though possibly in facsimile as only 150 original copies of the Champagne part of the Atlas Vinicole were produced at the time.

Other books on the subject tend to focus more on the process of making Champagne. That requires so much space as to make viticulture a bit of an unwanted intrusion. This despite the modern mantra that wine is made in the vineyard, one espoused by all of the finest producers the world over these days. As a consequence pretty much all I ever learnt from those books was that the Champagne Region is based on chalk. Whilst I’ve since been told a more nuanced story by producers, I had no idea of the sheer diversity of soil types in the wider region, not least the vastly different types of chalk alone, which affects the fruit produced above them. I learnt a lot about geology, yet you should not suppose that this is solely what the book is about, nor that its approach is in the slightest bit dry.

Champagne divides into three parts. Understanding Champagne does cover the usual history and winemaking, but also features chapters on “The primacy of place” and on farming methods, including organic farming and the increasing interest in biodynamics.

The Place comprises eight chapters , which among other things break down the region into more sub-regions than the casual Champagne drinker will be aware of. Aside from the usual distinction between the Barséquannais and the Bar-sur-Aubois in the Côte des Bar, we also have The Grande Vallée made distinct from the Valley of the Marne, and the introduction of the Coteaux du Morin as the distinct sub-region to the north of the Côte de Sézanne. You will also come to appreciate the growing importance of the Coteaux Sud d’Epernay and the once densely planted Vitryat.

In these chapters Liem talks us through individual wines made within the different terroirs of these sub-regions, and in doing so he is able to describe in real terms what the land contributes to each of these cuvées. This is how he brings the terroir alive. Each chapter ends with a list of recommended “Single-Cru and Single-Vineyard” Champagnes from each of the major villages in each sub-region, which are usually wines created by producers discussed within the chapter.

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I mentioned above that by no means all of the site specific wines in this book are created by small artisanal growers. My own introduction to single vineyard Champagne came via the oft ignored Champagne House of Philipponnat. Their Clos des Goisses is still my favourite Champagne, and a photograph of it features on both my business card, and as one of the changing header photos on this site. Taittinger’s “Les Folies de la Marquetterie” has always been another (more affordable) favourite, yet I had no idea that Roederer’s “Cristal Rosé” was such an exemplar of Cumières Pinot Noir (with added finesse from a proportion of Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs).

The final part of the book covers The People. Here, you don’t get the lengthy profiles you’ll find in some other books (Michael Edwards’ The Finest Wines of Champagne is a good source for these). Neither do you get any rankings of different wines and producers, as you get in the well known “Champagne Guides”. This section attempts to briefly introduce the individuals behind the exciting revolution which has been taking place in the region, and Liem has chosen both growers and négociant houses who he considers have “contributed to illuminating issues of terroir and advancing contemporary themes…”. Offhand, I cannot think of anyone he’s left out.

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I will say straight off that this is my Wine Book of the Year (up to this point I’d probably have chosen John Szabo’s Volcanic Wines, and of course I’m looking forward to Luis Gutierrez’s new book on the new generation of wine producers in Spain, the English Language edition of which is due to come out in December).

It is a beautifully put together book, with lovely photographs by Gentl and Hyers. Any criticisms would in reality be not only subjective, but irrelevant. It did sometimes frustrate me that the beautiful photos generally only have a caption when they are a portrait of a wine producer. Several times I thought “where’s that?”.

There are several “insert” sections to emphasise a point, and whereas they are a useful focus, they do occasionally split up the thread of the general narrative in annoying places, so that you have to find where the argument continues and go back to the insert when you can better draw breath. And I think Peter could have written a little more about the Côte des Bar, where perhaps more than any other sub-region, there has been a grower revolution in what was once Champagne’s backwater. But then again, on the Côte des Bar subject I’m thankful that I’m not the only person who adores well aged Rosé des Riceys, especially those of Olivier Horiot and his single vineyard bottlings, which gets a whole page.

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Nevertheless, minor points like these aside, I doubt that anyone who truly wants to get under the skin of Champagne, both the region and the wine, will find a better source, and a more readable and enjoyable source too. Peter Liem has lived in Champagne for many years, and his web site, ChampagneGuide.net, is one of the most renowned sources of information on the region’s wines and producers, but his experience goes back much further. He is, of course, also one of the organisers for La Fête du Champagne, an event which began life in New York and is probably unparalleled as an exclusive Champagne Tasting.

I only weep at the wines he describes and recommends. Many I know, of course, others I have heard of and long wanted to taste, whilst several are completely new to me. When I first became interested in (or possibly addicted to) site specific Champagnes I was probably seen as a little odd. But so what, I could afford to buy a good many of these wines back then! Prices have risen inexorably. £30 single-site wines now cost £50, and the £50 treats of old soon reached £100 (I’m thinking specifically of favourites like Clos des Goisses and Pierre Péters’ Chétillons).

Producers who a decade ago were relatively unknown names, occasionally spotted on the shelves of The Sampler in Islington, and those of a few similar pioneers selling Grower Champagnes, are now praised as the stars who, along with a select coterie of Chefs de Cave from several Grandes Marques, are moving the whole of Champagne forward, making the wine so much more relevant and meaningful for the twenty-first century wine lover. Champagne is no longer just bubbles to spray about frivolously at a big event, but a genuine wine, like any other, as versatile as any other, and like the best wines from any region, just as expressive of place as any other.

I know it’s expensive as wine books go (£60 rrp in the UK, though I did find a hefty discount at a well known online retailer), but if you love Champagne you need this book.

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Posted in Champagne, Sparkling Wine, Wine, Wine Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Red, White and Orange Friday at the Draper’s Arms

Bereft of the pleasures of intensive shopping on Black Friday I was forced to settle for a long lunch at the Draper’s Arms in Islington with seventeen wines (one was corked) among seven of us. We were all slightly wobbly when we left at around 5pm, but we’d had a fantastic time. Why did I ever think I’d have done better fighting for a new TV at Argos…not!

Before parading the very interesting wine selection, almost eclectic enough to resurrect the ghost of Oddities, I must talk about the pub. This has been one of the most talked about of that much-maligned genre of restaurant, the gastro pub (how I loathe that term) since it opened around eight years ago. One of its original owners is Nick Gibson, at that time with Ben Maschler, whose mother has been telling Londoners where to eat for as long as I can remember. I think it also got quite a lot of publicity for being in Islington, or rather Barnsbury, which is Islington’s most affluent part, and where eating out has become something of a profession, almost, for many local residents.

When you go to eat somewhere for the first time, and you’ve heard so much about it, your expectations are high, but there’s always that tiny fear of disappointment. In this case that was tempered by total trust in the man who booked it, and indeed disappointment was far from my mind. The meal surpassed expectations.

We began with three Lindisfarne rock oysters each and didn’t look back. The table shared several starters – bitter leaves with ricotta and clementine; lamb scrumpets with Roscoff onion puree (a must order dish); ox heart tartare with dripping toast; and smoked mackerel with potted prawns and an apple and celeriac remoulade. My main course was a whole grouse on a puree of beetroot with wild mushrooms, and a share of some forerib of beef, enormous plates of which others had ordered. We all took cheese, and shared in some delicious gingerbread pudding. All ingredients were very fresh and prep was well executed with a feel for flavour combinations.

We had arranged to make this a BYO lunch, for which we were charged corkage by negotiation, although how much that was down to the booker knowing Nick, I’m not sure. Without corkage you can probably eat to relative excess here for £50(ish) plus wine, and the pub’s own wine list is pretty decent (they had Andrew and Emma Nielsen’s Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau on by the glass, which plenty of people were ordering). Service was spot on, and decanters and larger glasses were supplied. The glasses might not satisfy the most picky out there, but they were adequate. I didn’t hear anyone complain. In fact the whole lunch was so good everyone was asking when we can do it again.

We began with one of Robbie’s classics, Chablis 1er Cru “Butteaux” 2012, Raveneau. This is always a real pleasure to drink, combining pristine minerality with almost buttery Chardonnay fruit at this stage. It will age but it was lovely and everyone kept coming back to it. Chablis doesn’t really get to exhibit longer length than this at Premier Cru level. We had a 2011 at The Sportsman in Seasalter last year, and a 2005 at Milford-on-Sea’s Verveine the year before (among other occasions), so it has become my own personal Raveneau soft spot.

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We had quite a few Jura wines on the table and the first was Céline and Steve Gormally’s Côtes du Jura Chardonnay “Les Combes” 2012. The Gormallys farm down in Passenans, between Poligny and Lons-le-Saunier. Les Combes is a barrel fermented, topped-up (ouillé) Chardonnay which was initially reductive, but over time it blossomed. This couple, whose production is less than 10,000 bottles per year, have become rising stars of the natural wine scene, perhaps not so well known as others, so if you see their wines (perhaps in Paris at Les Papilles), snap them up.

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Another white Jura, and a bit of a unicorn wine (and producer) came up next. Thanks for bringing it, Tony. My first taste of Kenjiro Kagami’s Chardonnay Mizuiro 2013 Les Saugettes, Domaine des Miroirs, and it was my own personal white wine of the day. Ever so slightly cloudy juice smelt of fresh citrus with a salty edge. The palate reinforces this, with incredible but focused salinity, and a real mineral core. Zero sulphur wine off marl and limestone near Grusse in the southern part of the Jura region, this is pretty unique.

Kenjiro and Mayumi are almost impossible to visit and their wines are almost as difficult to find, but for Jura insiders, this couple run one of the real cult domaines. Kenjiro worked first in Alsace with Bruno Schueller for several years, and then with Jean-François Ganevat, who helped him find a small vineyard. There is some kind of magic to the tiny quantity of wines they produce from just three hectares down there. Arigato to you too, Kenjiro-san.

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Old wine is always hit and miss, and with that old chestnut, the 1970s German wine made from obscure grape varieties, even more so. When the next wine tasted pretty decent, despite a colour that, whatever gloss you put on it, was brown, we only expected it to last a while before fading. In fact it didn’t fade. Krughof Bornheimer Schönberg Beerenauslese 1978 is one of those blends I remember well, Siegerrebe and Optima, from Bornheim in the heart of the Rheinhessen.

Siegerrebe is known for high must weights…in fact I read that the variety holds the record for the highest must weight recorded in Germany, in the 1971 harvest in the Pfalz (326 Oechsle, twice the lowest permitted sweetness for Trockenbeerenauslese). Optima is similar, and interestingly often likened to Ortega (Ben, who brought this along, is making English Ortega in qveri not too far from me…I cannot wait!). This is why you often find these grapes blended to Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese prädikat levels in Rheinhessen during this period. The resulting wines are sweet and without real complexity, and yet with age they take on a richness which is altogether rather appealing.

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Rosé des Riceys is an AOC which few people have come across, even real wine geeks. I did so by chance in the 1980s when friends honeymooned near Chablis and I visited them on the way south. I stocked up with bottles from Morel Père et Fils and even went back a couple of times in succeeding years. Once I even found some from the same producer in Wholefoods on Kensington High Street in London.

I always had a soft spot for this quite unique Pinot Noir made around three hamlets which, as Les Riceys, are much better known now as the southernmost village in the Côte des Bar, and thereby in the whole Champagne appellation. In fact, it is the largest producing village when it comes to Champagne in the whole appellation, but only 350 hectares are delineated for the rosé. My interest was always in how, as it aged, this rosé (more a pale red) showed notes of tea leaf and mild woodsmoke beside the strawberry fruit. Haunting, rather like Cédric Bouchard’s rosé Champagne, Le Creux d’Enfer. Then along came Olivier Horiot, and he has taken Rosé des Riceys to another level.

Rosé des Riceys “en Valingrain” 2006, Olivier Horiot is one of two site specific Riceys wines (the other is called “en Barmont”) Horiot makes alongside his better known Champagnes (remember that Olivier originally set out to make still wines, not sparklers, and he makes a very good red wine, as well as a Champagne from the almost extinct Arbanne grape). The key to Rosé des Riceys is age. Even in the hands of the master, in youth it can be one-dimensional, a simple pink Pinot.

Age (and biodynamic farming) bring forth a wine which is altogether much more sophisticated, and it must be said, subtle too. As I suggested above, the fruit is haunting, and the texture of cold tea tannins adds something nearly unique from this southern patch of Champagne terroir, which is nevertheless relatively far north for still Pinot (yes, I know we have Coteaux Champenois, but that’s another discussion).

Alongside a strawberry bouquet, with tinned strawberry acidity, there is rosehip too. You know me, I don’t usually go in for florid tasting notes, but you do want to know what this tastes like. The wine is long, tailing off gently like an extended fade on a recording of a haunting melody. In fact a perfect accompaniment might be Yann Tiersen’s island recording, Eusa, with its sounds of the sea and birdsong. But be warned, Horiot’s own description for this wine is “very discreet”. A wine best consumed in an environment conducive to contemplation. Fewer than 2,500 bottles/magnums. Serve cool, not cold, and not young!

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Polish Hill Riesling 2013, Jeffrey Grosset is almost without question Clare Valley’s, if not Australia’s finest Riesling. What of the 2013? It’s very intense. The lime citrus fruit is just like real fresh lime, or Rose’s Lime Cordial, and the tight mineral texture enhances its acidity. In my view this is in desperate need of a decade more in bottle, but then I wrote back in August about a lovely 2004 we took to a dinner and a ten-to-fifteen year old Polish Hill is my own benchmark for drinking this particular cuvée. It is quite hard to thoroughly enjoy in this youthful state, but one can admire it enough to know it is a vintage to buy, born out by the marks given by critics.

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It may not have gone unnoticed that my trip to Alsace last month has reinvigorated my love for the region, especially through the excitement of its natural wine producers. Domaine Gérard Schueller Pinot Noir “LNO12” 2008 is a superb example of what I’m talking about. Gérard’s son, Bruno, makes the wines now, from a vignoble just southwest of Colmar, in the village of Husseren-les-Châteaux, close to Eguisheim. They have been biodynamic, and have experimented with low sulphur, since the early 2000s.

This wine is best described as “wild”. If you like exploring the outer edges of wine, head here. It’s cloudy, but the nose punches ripe summer fruits like raspberry and strawberry, maybe a bit of cherry too. Whatever, the fruit is exuberant. It’s “glouglou” but at the same time, it has that subtle sophistication you get with the Riceys above. Vaughn said it reminded him of Binner, which triggered the same response for me, because after a much laughed at appreciation of Alsace Pinot Noir for years (Ostertag, Muré etc), the revelatory “natural wine” Pinot for me was Christian Binner’s. I’ll be tracking this down, and more of Bruno Schueller’s bottles.

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It would have been sad not to drink a bojo-noovo at such a fun lunch, and we got one. And not one of the ubiquitous producers we’ve been seeing in London either. Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2017 “Cuvée Fanchon”, Guy Breton epitomised all that has improved with Nouveau. First, it’s a “villages”, which speaks for itself in quality. Second, whilst you get that bright cherry fruit with a touch of cream on the nose (no bubblegum and no cherry cough sweets), you also get a touch of structure and even light tannins. In other words, a bit of grip. I’ve had far fewer this year than last, but this is one of the best, and there’s certainly no need whatsoever to drink this up by Christmas.

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We followed this with another Beaujolais from the other end of the spectrum, Jean Foillard Fleurie 2010. As everyone drools over photos of his Morgons on Instagram, the Foillard Fleurie all too often gets overlooked. But when I was extolling the virtues of the 2010 last year, they told me at the domaine that “this is exactly what we are drinking at home right now”.

My last couple of bottles of this had been truly majestic, so when this appeared pretty closed I was very disappointed. Into a decanter it went and still very little to make it stand out. The advantage of a long lunch (and what makes a tasting note from a single snatched sip almost offensive) is that with time this truly blossomed, to at least where I’d hoped it would arrive when I opened it. A genuine lesson in the need for patience sometimes when it comes to wine.

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I drink quite a bit of Ganevat and I love his wines, but let’s face it, if we see another Instagrammed bottle we might all scream. But whilst I’ve drunk lots of the crazy blends, the wonderful whites, and the Pinot Noirs over the past few years, a Ganevat Poulsard has been a rare sighting.

J-F Ganevat Poulsard Cuvée de L’Enfant Terrible 2014 is made from vines on local white and grey marls down in Jura’s Sud Revermont near Rotalier, planted in 1959. It starts out closed (like the Fleurie), but is fresh and concentrated. The fruit is more cherry-like than some Poulsard, but with cherry tart acidity and, like the “Miroirs” above, great salinity (maybe a mark of terroir?). It clearly needs quite a bit more age, but it will be magnificent. Very impressive.

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Kelley Fox Wines is a producer which seems to have had plenty of press coverage this year. The wine which I seem to read about most, the one getting the best accolades, is Kelley Fox Maresh Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Dundee Hills, Oregon. Whilst the past decade has seen New Zealand Pinot Noir trying to establish itself as the number two to Burgundy, Oregon’s wine regions have been quietly building a reputation for wines of subtlety and sophistication, often with biodynamics and natural wine methods to the fore.

Kelley has been a winemaker for nearly two decades, but she is also a meticulous viticulturist. I’ve read that the vines in the Maresh vineyard (one of three single sites she makes) are touched only by her during the growing season, from canopy management to spraying her biodynamic preps. The vines are old (40+ years), and the wine has a real majesty about it, not a swagger but a more demure way of holding itself. Certainly elegant. You get 13% abv, but also a wine of great silky fruit without any obtrusive weight. You are also left with a sense of vibrant freshness. It’s just as impressive as they are telling you in those glowing articles, really. It was my red of the day.

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Sammarco 2005, Castello dei Rampolla is a Panzano Cabernet Sauvignon Super Tuscan blended with Sangiovese and Merlot in smaller quantity, made in concrete before ageing in a variety of large wood, then in bottle for a year or two before release. This 2005 was delicious, dark in colour with smooth, rich and sophisticated, fruit overlain with leafy aromas. Tannins are by this stage still present but well integrated and fine. Much more classical in profile than the wines we’d been drinking, which actually made for a nice bit of variety. Its quality made it not out of place in such an eclectic lineup.

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The Rampola was probably a perfect introduction for another majestic red which appeared a little more weighty that its relatively demure 13% alcohol might have suggested. Ridge Monte Bello 2004 is no bruiser, of course, but age has mellowed and matured it into a wine which still has structure and real depth, but alongside that you get true complexity (though for Monte Bello it is probably still entering early manhood rather than middle age).

The grape mix here is 76% Cabernet Sauvignon with 13% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. The grapes all come from dry-farmed blocks in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where limestone forces the roots to seek out moisture deep in the fissures of the rock. Cabernet’s blackcurrant fruit is to the fore, but there’s also spice and cedar, with tannins sitting smoothly beneath, not assertive but reassuringly adding structure. It is quite like Bordeaux for a moment, and then it’s something very distinct. And delicious, especially with the magnificent forerib of beef they served up, which thankfully was too much to eat for those who had ordered it.

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Ooh, a signed copy!

The next bottle had been open a while, but it hadn’t passed me so I’d not tried it. Dario Princic Ribolla Gialla 2013 might in some ways not have been the best thing to drink after the Ridge. Its tannic and textured skin contact side was amplified at the expense of its more gentle side. It was quite tight, with acidity to the fore and only a little of the orange peel scents which add subtlety. In any case, I think that this is another wine which would benefit greatly from a bit more bottle age, but that said, it was still very good. One of Friuli’s finest, and on its own a star. But better with the cheese than the beef.

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We were then treated to a very rare wine indeed, one which you may heave read about on my Blog before. But whereas I only had one bottle, a man I know somehow managed to get two from the winery (it clearly says one per customer on the web site, but having the chance to drink it again, you’ll get no complaints from me, Brad). There were only 35 cases (420 bottles) made of Brash Higgins Bloom 2008. This is sous voile Chardonnay aged eight years under flor from South Australia’s McLaren Vale. It was inspired by Jura’s Vin Jaune, but being made from Chardonnay in a very different climate, is a very different wine. And yet it does nod towards Vin Jaune, just with a few more horsepower.

It’s an exciting wine and so so complex. You get nuts, orange citrus and an iodine salinity which gives it the whiff of an island malt, a fanciful suggestion but I know Brad Hickey, the winemaker, gets that too. It’s bottled in a squat 700ml format which also nods to Jura’s clavelin, and like Vin Jaune, the oxidative, or biological, ageing means it will last a good few days in the fridge, as a biologically aged Sherry would. It comes in at just under 15% abv.

Naturally this is sold out, but I know Brad a little and he tells me that the next vintage will be out in May 2018. He also told me the other day that Vagabond Wines in London will be taking some of the other Brash Higgins wines in the New Year if you are interested in trying any (some are more conventional, others less so but all those I’ve tried have been very good). For me, Bloom is off the scale.

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Last but not least we finally had a sweet wine to go with the gingerbread pudding, which it accompanied perfectly. Sweet Jurançon is one of France’s least appreciated dessert wines, but I’ve long believed it to be one of her best. Of course, I admit I’m swayed by the beautiful scenery of this vignoble, just beside Pau, as vine clad, gentle, slopes stretch towards the outlying foothills of the Pyrenees.

Clos Lapeyre “Magendia de Lapeyre” Jurançon 2002 is made from the small-berried Petit Manseng variety. The grapes see no botrytis, but are left to shrivel (raisin in French) on the vine. As they do so the water in the juice evaporates, thus concentrating sugars. Picking is in several tries through November for this “selection”. After ageing in wood, and then in stainless steel vats, it will benefit from long bottle age (as here), where flavours are concentrated.

A good Jurançon will have ripe stone fruit (apricot or occasionally peach) with the slight texture of the stone inside it. Sometimes these scents will be overlain with a hint of fresh cream, sweet lemon curd or, in others, marmalade. The Magendia has a touch of pineapple too. The palate is rich and exotic, but there’s also acidity to make it refreshing and stop any cloying. As I said, it went well with the gingerbread pudding, and with the cheese (Roquefort and Foie Gras are the most often cited pairings). If it lacks the weight and sweetness of Sauternes (and of course it lacks the botrytis element) it has that extra dimension of lift on the finish.

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It was the diversity of the wines which made this lunch, but what was perhaps a surprise was how, despite this diversity, pretty much all the wines found their match on the table. I must say that the company, a small group of extremely adventurous wine lovers with only one or two working in wine, made the lunch such a success. I don’t think anyone brought any prejudices to the table, or if they did they kept quiet. That’s why it all went so well. To those of you I’d not met before, it truly was a pleasure.

 

Posted in Dining, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine and Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Terre Magazine

In the digital age print media struggles with wine journalism. Whilst newspapers cull their wine columns, the old established Wine Press, or at least those magazines that remain, are forever trying to come up with new ideas to increase revenue, such as wine (and wine list) awards, premium subscription online services, branded tasting events etc. For generalist publications the field is smaller than it was. This is true for the specialist wine press too – I’m sure one or two readers might miss Tong Magazine for its often in depth coverage and sometimes more scientific slant.

But if you can find a niche, then you can fill it. One such success story is Noble Rot, founded by Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew back in 2013, now on its fifteenth quarterly edition. Its wine coverage may have moved steadily upmarket over the intervening years, but it retains its irreverence, humour, and great graphic design which make it worth spending £9 on four times a year.

Lovers of natural wines have had to make do with online sources, largely a range of very good Blogs, if they want to source information on this growing genre. It’s true that Francophones have been able to read Le Rouge et Le Blanc. Begun in 1983, this French Publication continues its focus on sustainable wine production, not only in France but elsewhere. A subscription outside France is €58, and the current Issue has articles on Marcillac, Champagne Leclerc Briant, and Nicolas Carmarans, as well as on domaines in the Val d’Aosta and Switzerland’s Valais (among others).

The founders of TERRE MAGAZINE, Editor Rachel Signer, illustrator Erika DaSilva and food and lifestyle photographer Katie June Burton had clearly been mulling over a gap in the English speaking market for print on “natural wine and heritage food for some time, before the magazine saw the light of day, and its first issue, this autumn (or should I say fall, it being published out of the USA), following a successful Kickstarter Campaign to source the funds to launch.

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The magazine promises to be “art driven”, and it is true that there is clearly an eye for design and for visual stimulation within the production values of Terre, but this would be to detract from the quality of the articles. Whereas, as friends keep telling me, Noble Rot is great fun and entertainment but not all of the articles are quite serious, the content here, on the whole, is aimed at informing and educating along with the entertaining.

My favourite articles in Issue 1 include Chad Stock (Omero Cellars, Oregon) on why he’s okay with Brett (brettanomyces) and VA (volatile acidity); Deirdre Heekin (La Garagista, Vermont) defending (more than adequately) hybrid vines; Rachel Signer writing about Julien Guillot’s Domaine des Vignes du Maynes; and Sam Basger writing about Analemma Wines, a name I’ve only recently discovered, founded by Steven Thompson and Kris Fade in the Mosier Valley, Oregon.

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Becca Turner’s beautiful artwork accompanies Deirdre Heekin’s article on hybrids in Vermont

There is more, of course. I now particularly want to find a bottle of “Horses”, the first pét-nat from America’s Long Island, made by Macari from their North Fork vineyard (some of the grapes come from Horsehead Bluff, but there’s an obvious nod to Patti Smith in there too). Yet there is just one negative thing I have to say about Terre Magazine, and that concerns its length, or rather lack of it.

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Horses, horses, commin’ in from all directions…

With Noble Rot you get over 100 pages for your £9. Le Rouge & Le Blanc is somewhat thinner at around 40 pages, though it approximates to A4 in size, and its plainer style with just a few black and white photos and a very occasional map means there’s more text. With Terre you get plenty of colour photos and illustrations which enliven and complement the text, but in a format a little larger than A5, you are kind of wishing for just more pages (I counted twelve articles in all, whereas the current Noble Rot boasts twenty three).

This in itself would not be an issue at all were it not for the price. I grabbed my copy from The Remedy in London’s Fitzrovia the day after its arrival, and I might therefore have been the magazine’s first UK customer. As such, there was a slight confusion over the price, the only information to hand being the price in Dollars. At £22 I felt that Terre is quite expensive for what it is.

That said, I hope this short article does come over as supportive of Terre and what these three ladies are trying to achieve. The whole concept is really exciting and this first issue is well executed. There is only one article I might have had second thoughts about including, but only because I’m not a female chef and have no call for polka-dot trousers. But then I certainly support writing that caters to a readership often ignored in the mainstream Wine Press.

I know that the magazine was born out of a real passion for both natural wine and so-called heritage foods, and I know that there is already a growing interest in the UK. I enjoyed reading it and the only thing which might (I only say “might”) put me off buying every single issue would be the price. The quality of both the design and the writing cannot be faulted. I do wish Rachel and the team every success.

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Everyone wants to read more about the Magician of Macon’s monastic vineyards

If you want to grab the first ever Terre Magazine in the UK you should head along to The Remedy in Cleveland Street, London W1. This, as far as I know, is the only place in England where you can currently find it. It is also available in Scotland via Raeburn in Edinburgh, as well as Bar Brutal in Barcelona, Paris, Copenhagen and Australia (though in Summertown, which is on the edge of the Basket Range, east of Adelaide). Distribution in North America can be viewed on their web site here. I know that the magazine is sold out at the publisher, and the web site doesn’t seem to have any details about subscriptions, although they can be contacted via terremag@gmail.com . In which case, if you want a copy, it might be worth being swift (and, indeed, checking availability before making a journey). I was very happy to get mine.

The next Issue of Terre Magazine is promised for late Spring 2018.

Posted in Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Books, Wine Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments