Several times each year a group of friends, who all share an avid interest in the wines of Equipo Navazos, get together for dinner at 28-50 Restaurant in Marylebone (London). Most of the time we don’t drink Sherry at all, instead sharing old bottles and other things of interest. Naturally we begin with a nice Champagne, but last month we decided to engage with a trio of wines from Bérêche. This producer has been my own favourite Grower Champagne for many years, but these days hardly a month goes by without someone telling me that it is their own personal favourite too. It also happens, by coincidence, that Raphaël Bérêche is a fan of Equipo Navazos, and our friend from EN likes Bérêche, although they’ve never met.
How is it that this small Champagne producer, founded in 1847 in the tiny hamlet of Craon de Ludes on the crest of the Montagne, has come to be so popular? After all, you don’t find them in many of the books on the region published in English, although they get a small mention in my 2008 copy of Juhlin‘s Guide. The company is now run by Raphaël and Vincent Bérêche, who have effectively taken over from their parents. The vignoble has grown to a little under ten hectares of vines, based on the Montagne de Reims and in the Vallée de la Marne. A good number are classified premier cru, but they have no grand cru sites, and few of their vines are situated in what one might call the most traditionally propitious locations.
I have come to know Raphaël a little over the years (I’ve only briefly met Vincent once, and Raphaël seems to be the face of Bérêche when it comes to publicity). He is one of the most impressive winemakers I know. He is on top of what he is doing, whether it comes to equipment in the chais, or techniques for ageing (he firmly believes that the second fermentation should take place under real cork to enable the wine to produce both finer bubbles, and texture). He is also constantly experimenting with things like dosage, trying to find the minimum amount of sweetness he can add without getting it wrong. But even more importantly, Raphaël is one of a newer breed of winemaker who understands that wine is made in the vineyard.
This cliché is oft repeated in the wine world, but it is worth noting how revolutionary such a philosophy would have appeared in Champagne even a decade ago. I recall so well on my first visits to the region how shocked I was to see rubbish strewn over the vineyards, the result of the dumping of Parisian garbage over the vines as some sort of fertilizer. Maybe not such a bad idea after the War, when it might have been made up largely of potato peelings and discarded lettuce leaves. Not so much in an age of Evian bottles and Intermarché bags.
Bérêche isn’t biodynamic, or even fully organic, but herbicides are eschewed and pesticides kept just for emergency use. The philosophy is to work with nature. The soil is worked by a team of nine full-time employees, that’s about one hectare per man (the team reaches around 40-strong at harvest). Fermentation is in wood, and ageing on lees is generally for “as long as it takes” without commercial consideration trumping quality (a shortage of Reflet d’Antan in recent years has been down to a decision to extend ageing). Malolactic is surpressed. The wines are generally both fine and complex, starting even on release. As well as the estate’s own vines, Bérêche also now produces a small negociant range (called Crus Sélectionnés), but these wines are of such quality to be pretty much indistinguishable from the estate wines.
At our February dinner we drank three Bérêche wines. Reflet d’Antan is generally considered the prestige cuvée from this producer. It’s relatively unusual in that it is made from a base year with significant additions from a Réserve Perpetuelle. Some might call it a kind of solera. Raphaël doesn’t like to use that description, but you get the idea. This reserve, kept in 500 and 600 litre barrels, was begun in 1985.
This edition of Reflet has a base of the 2008 vintage, disgorged in October 2012 and bottled with a dosage of 6g/l. It has been aged under cork, of course. It has the patina of age, four years and four months post-disgorgement, and the complexity to match. There is, first and foremost, a hint of an oxidative style here, but few would carp. You get a host of dried fruit, including fig and date, plus a refined nuttiness (hazelnuts…). But you also get a clean line of acidity, and (dare I say it) minerality. Let’s not forget that 2008 is a wonderful vintage. For me, this is one of the most impressive Champagnes you can buy, and also one of the most striking. It is not usually a difficult wine to identify blind once you know it, if you are on form that is, although there are a couple of other wines you might mistake it for. I came to Bérêche after Vilmart, and there are occasional similarities, which may derive from the use of oak, if perhaps not from the proximity of these two fine producers (Vilmart is just along the ridge, at Rilly).
In contrast to Reflet, we had the Beaux Regards Chardonnay next. The fruit all comes from two sites in Ludes (1er Cru). Les Beaux Regards was planted in 1964, Les Clos in 1970, so these are mature vines. Vinification is again in wood, and this wine, from a 2006 base, was disgorged in 2009. It has a real depth of colour as one might expect from its age, yet there is no loss of freshness at all alongside its undoubted complexity. Although our previous wine is great value, it is reasonably expensive. But this cuvée will give as much pleasure to most people, a marvelous wine with such length. Just over 3,000 bottles made.
We finished our flight of Bérêche with Raphaël’s rosé. Campania Remensis (meaning poor soil) is a wine composed mainly of fruit from Ormes – around 65% Pinot Noir with Chardonnay, and around 5% red wine, Coteaux Champenois, from Ormes as well (Ormes is way over west, almost on the edge of Reims and next door to Vrigny, where Egly-Ouriet has a famous old Meunier vineyard). This bottle was from a 2010 base, disgorged 2014, and dosed at just 3g/l. There’s a very fine and elegant line of acidity set off by lace-like fruit. A real note of pomegranate comes through beyond other red fruits. This pink does add a touch of richness with age, though my preference is to drink within five years of disgorgement. This was singing.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the other wines we drank. A Bourgogne Rouge 2005, Mugneret-Gibourg from Vosne-Romanée was yet more evidence that this is a very good year for red Bourgognes, and there’s no hurry to drink them.
Then a bit of a surprise, a wine from a producer we didn’t know. Châteaneuf-du-Pape “Domaine Condourcet” 1966, Les Caves St-Pierre came from a hot summer, yet it was a restrained 13.5% alcohol, which would be unusually low in this AOP today. Caves St-Pierre was founded in Châteauneuf in 1898, and it is fair to say that they have never been one of the most well known producers of this appellation. Yet the wine seemed remarkably youthful, and holding together well. Someone remarked that it was “more Rioja than Rhône”. A pleasant surprise indeed.
We often do the wines at these dinners blind and for the next wine we reverted to that formula. Most of us guessed the grape variety, and my more specific guess was Spanna, having Vallana’s old vintages in mind. It was in fact Barbaresco Bricco Asili 1982, Ceretto. Like all good old Nebbiolo it was the nose which shone most brightly, a lovely haunting scent which reminded me of why the old guys used to speak of tar and roses. The palate was partly affected by a swirling sludge of very fine sediment not unlike what came out of our pond last weekend when we dug it out. But it didn’t taste like pond water. Lovely wine.
Our oldest wine of the evening was, as if you didn’t guess (and some of you may guess who brought it), Rioja. In fact, Rioja 1958, Marques de Riscal. You’ll note I don’t say whether this is a Reserva or a GR? There is no visible designation on the label, but as it was probably released and marketed in the early 1970s, it will be one or the other. Its provider was worried about its condition, but such wines are always the height of fascination. The colour seemed good, at least in the relative dark of the restaurant. The nose was pure soy/umami, and a very specific Japanese funghi that I remember gorging on whilst very jet-lagged one evening in Nikko (very odd dreams, if I recall). For some reason, Nina Simone came into my head (“…My baby don’t care for high-toned places” – but in this case, I very much did!). A treat.
To finish off (for me, at least), another blind wine. Smooth and dark, very much younger. Very rich on the nose, pretty certain it’s Syrah. The wine tastes very concentrated, both youthful, but also there’s a softness and plush quality to the fruit. Certainly a warm vintage, but extremely well made, and fine. It turns out to be Saint-Joseph 2009, Domaine Chave. I’d forgotten that someone had promised to bring this. Gérard Chave always made a fantastic St-Jo, and it was almost an insider secret, which Yapp’s occasionally managed to bring in. Gérard’s son, Jean-Louis, has really concentrated on this wine, tweaking the vinification and working hard in the vineyard. It is now a wine to (at least partly) satisfy the pangs of one time lovers of Chave’s red Hermitage, who can no longer afford or justify its cost. It will easily age a decade from bottling in most vintages, although if I had any 09s I’d be tempted.
Altogether one of the most convivial evenings this group of friends has had. As one put it, it wouldn’t really matter what we drank. The fact that these occasional dinners often provide some of the year’s wine highlights is just a bonus. Much as I love Bérèche, it is often the case that it is me bringing them. I only brought the Reflet d’Antan this time, and I never get to drink three in one go, except when tasting at Craon (where I’m always driving). Thank you, guys.
28-50 Marylebone Lane looked after us really well, as usual. I was an acquaintance of one of the original founders of 28-50, and have been a customer since they opened in Fetter Lane (was it 2010?). Staff and management have come and gone, but somehow the attentive service, attention to detail, and willing wine service, seems to remain. Not every restaurant appreciates a group of wine obsessives, with the odd winemaker and wine writer, pontificating over alcoholic grape juice whilst using up a load of clean glasses. It’s a really friendly place, and has become my favourite of their three venues in London.
I also had a great lunch yet again at Noble Rot on Lamb’s Conduit Street just over a week ago. Their set lunch menu, £16 for two courses/£20 for three, must be one of the best value meals in London right now. The food is very good without being pretentious (brilliantly fresh Hake was the main course when we went), and their wine list is very good. We drank Domaine Guiberteau Saumur Blanc “Clos de Guichaux” 2014, very young of course (still some oak in evidence), but in that rare way that makes dry Chenin Blanc so tempting and refreshing. I will admit that our guests might not have liked it quite as much as I did, but I know a couple of people who have been hoovering this up off the list every time they go there.