Occasionally a group of wines come together where each and every one is of astonishing quality. Most people expect to assemble a great selection for a significant birthday, anniversary or other special event. Actually, birthdays in our house are more often than not pretty low-key. One might also quite rightly ask that if this lot wasn’t drunk to mark a special event, then what on earth were we doing celebrating anything in 2020. I might agree, but perhaps when there is absolutely nothing to celebrate that might actually be the time that a celebration of sorts is most welcome. Whatever you think of that nugget of non-wisdom, this is what four friends drank over two nights on the wettest weekend in memory.
If you are going to drown your sorrows, or perhaps shall we say raise a glass to a more optimistic future, you may as well do it well. I can say that the wines below were exceptional, each and every one of them.
“LES MAILLONS” BLANC DE NOIRS EXTRA BRUT, ULYSSE COLLIN (Champagne, France)
At one time I used to be able to stretch to Selosse, and then Prévost, and when they became rather expensive I took solace in an emerging talent, Olivier Collin. Olivier worked at Selosse before starting his own venture in 2004 at Congy, on the Côte de Sézanne. He began with just one parcel, adding more so that he is now able to harvest almost nine hectares. “Maillons” was I think his second wine, first vintage 2006. It comes from the vines of Barbonne-Fayel, whose soils are rich in iron and packed with fossilised coccoliths (clusters of single-cell algae), just off the main D951 south of Sézanne itself.
This cuvée, disgorged in March last year, is one of the finest Champagnes I’ve drunk for a few years. Even better than I ever remember this wine. It has taken on a little colour from the red grapes, giving it a hue that seems to match the burst of full-bodied red fruits on both nose and palate. This initial hit is followed by a stately tailing off of flavours with autolytic character. When you put the glass down it feels like the conductor has just lowered the baton at the end of a thrilling symphony. Almost perfect, except perhaps for its price. Expect to pay £105 to £115 for it today. The quality fully justifies it.
RIESLING CUVÉE THÉO 2007, DOMAINE WEINBACH (Alsace, France)
Although today I’m only buying the wines of the exciting new natural producers in the region, my cellar still holds some classics. “Théo” is named after the husband of Colette Faller and her daughters Catherine and Laurence, who brought the domaine to prominence after Théo died in 1979 (sadly Laurence died in 2014, aged only 47, and was followed in 2015 by her mother, Colette). The domaine goes back to the seventeenth century, based around the 5 hectare monastic Clos des Capuchins, but Théo’s father purchased it in 1898 and grew the estate to around 30 ha, all on fine sites. Domaine Weinbach is unquestionably one of the region’s very top estates.
The fruit for Théo comes both from the Clos des Capuchins itself, and also usually supplemented by the fruit of younger vines on the Grand Cru Schlossberg. I’d say that the 2007 is pretty much fully mature now, though not on a downward trajectory. In fact it would be hard to find a more majestic example of mature Alsace Riesling. It simply has great complexity, presence and weight (though that weight is not remotely overbearing, nor fat). The alcohol is in perfect balance at 13%. At this age you get truly magnificent length. It is the only bottle I had, purchased long ago at The Sampler in London. I have more nice, elderly, Alsace but it will be hard to beat this bottle.
DOMAINE GRANGES DES PÈRES 2006 (Languedoc, France)
The birth of this estate at Aniane in the Hérault (not far from Daumas Gassac) was the life’s ambition of Laurent Vaillé, who had prepared by training with Gérard Chave, Éloi Dürrbach (Trévallon) and Jean-François Coche-Dury. His first vintage was 1992, of which there were a meagre 250 cases. I bought this estate’s red wine regularly throughout the 1990s and into the next decade, which enabled me to take part in a GdP vertical dinner covering every vintage, at the original 28-50 restaurant (fondly remembered) in London’s Fetter Lane. I was a little shocked, though not remotely surprised, to notice that this wine will now, in a current vintage, set you back £100. I’m so glad I was there near the beginning, and I was so grateful to relive some memories on Friday night.
The blend of the red (there is a rare white wine) is classic Aniane, ie giving Mourvèdre, Syrah and (here) a dash of Counoise a large boost of Cabernet Sauvignon. This 2006 was described by “noble rotter” Mark Andrew (in an article on the Roberson Wine web site in 2010) as “…in an awkward stage…as though it is yet to fully integrate…” Well, GdP needs time and at four years old I’d have expected as much. At sixteen years it is rich and smooth, with chocolate and hints of coffee. It is also very long. Hard to say how long it will last but at least one can say that it is fully integrated now. A treat in several senses.
BAS-ARMAGNAC CHÂTEAU DE GAUBE “UNIQUE COLLECTION” 1971, DARROZE (Gers, France)
This is a perfect example of a beautiful estate Armagnac, a spirit which knocks on the head any ideas the old guys had that it was inferior to Cognac. Chàteau de Gaube is at Perquie, in the Bas Armagnac. This bottling was made there and aged until it was taken on and bottled by the Armagnac firm of Darroze in 2017, 46 years later.
Bottled at 42%, this is a gorgeous old Armagnac, amber gold and bright in the glass with complex notes of coffee and toffee, with deep orange citrus rising above. The palate is textured, earthy even, but smooth and it’s also refined, not heavy. The lightness it almost ethereal but the alcohol is adequate warning that one glass, albeit a large one, is enough.
CAMPANIA REMENSIS 2013, BÉRÊCHE (Champagne, France)
Champagne Bérêche is fronted by the rather sophisticated Raphaël, and his brother Vincent, having been founded at Craon de Ludes, right atop the Montagne, originally back in 1847. In that time they have gained more than 10 ha of vines, on the Montagne de Reims, and down in the Marne Valley. They have also developed a small negociant line from excellent sources all over the region. In their cuvée “Reflet D’Antan” thay have one of the finest Champagnes made from a réserve perpetuelle, and they also make some of the region’s very finest still red wine. They were one of the early uptakers of nature-friendly farming among the mainstream growers, and they have also come to be known for their insistence on using cork rather than crown caps for the time spent during second fermentation.
This latter method is well exemplified in this Rosé. It leads to finer bubbles, but also a little more ingress of oxygen. This makes the Bérêche style ever so slightly more oxidative than some, for which those wholly averse to oxygen find problematic (including one Champagne expert who I otherwise respect greatly). Making the rookie error I am always accused of, I cannot pretend that over the whole range I have a greater passion for any other Champagne producer. My heart is constantly broken by the choices I have to make now these wines have doubled in price since I first knew them.
This pink from vines on the Montagne on the slopes below “Le Craon” is bottled Extra Brut with just 3g/l dosage. It is a 2013 vintage wine disgorged in March 2017, so with more than three years further ageing. I think this was a single bottle of “Remensis” left over from a domaine visit rather than a more recent purchase from Vine Trail. It bursts with soft red fruits, which perfectly complement a beautiful peachy salmon pink hue. The finish tails off to a creamy sour note which brings alive the savoury aspect of an otherwise fruity wine, doubtless the product of age to a degree. A wine with which to celebrate either sunset or sunrise, full of magic.
ARBOIS CUVÉE SPÉCIALE 1988, DOMAINE ROLET (Jura, France)
Rolet, once the largest family domaine in the Jura, has recently moved out of family ownership, the children of none of the four siblings who ran the estate having wanted to take over (crazy people). Rolet quietly went about their business, which included a whopping 65 ha of vines (Arbois, Côtes du Jura and a parcel at Étoile, further south) and a shop in Arbois, on the Rue de l’Hotel de Ville, next to Jeunet, without exciting the followers of the town’s trendy new names. Rather like biodynamic Domaine de la Pinte, their efforts never quite received the accolades and respect they deserved overseas when the Jura fixation hit the world’s wine bars. Wink Lorch called their range “exemplary, if unadventurous” (Jura Wine, 2014). I know exactly what she meant, but in such a big range there are definitely gems as well as the merely exemplary.
This wine, served from magnum, was a real treat, a wine so much better than the followers of Ganevat and Overnoy could imagine. It is the colour of a skin contact orange wine, a blend of Savagnin under flor with Chardonnay. A fine spine holds together rich umami with a lemon and caramel apple (tatin) palate. It smells simply divine. Great length too. Inspiring, quite difficult to find I think, but one of those hidden gems a few people deeply into the region know about.
It was the first time I’d drunk this wine, and I don’t mean to damn Rolet with faint praise (I go back a long way with them), but this was by far and away the best of their wines I have ever tasted. The added excitement in this case was the vintage. 1988 was the year I first visited Arbois, a fortuitous day trip from the Côte de Beaune which led to a lifelong love affair with the town, the region and her wines.
CÔTES DU JURA CHARDONNAY 2014, DOMAINE MACLE (Jura, France)
As you can see, this is becoming a bit of a Jura night, and you may even have guessed that Coq au Vin Jaune aux Morilles was on the menu (unquestionably the finest version I’ve eaten outside of Arbois itself). For a contrast with the Rolet we moved further south for the first of two wines from the village of Château-Chalon. Macle was always the most famous producer of the yellow wine from this special village, but in recent years has become much better known for their table wines as well.
Jean Macle founded the estate in the 1960s, and they currently boast a moderate 12 ha around the village, now farmed by Laurent, his son. The AOC Côtes du Jura Chardonnay is often blended with 10-15% Savagnin, but this 2014 is 100% Chardonnay from argilo-calcaire soils, aged sous voile in 228-litre barriques. The vines are fifty years old and although it bears the 2014 vintage it wasn’t in fact bottled until April 2018 (according to Vine Trail). It’s an elegant wine. The flor effect is definitely apparent but not so pronounced as with a lot of flor-aged Savagnins. Chardonnay can sometimes trick you into thinking it’s Savagnin in the Jura, a result of the soils and the ageing. Not here. There’s an elegance, and a certain lightness. Citrus comes to the fore, but there is also a savoury note with a bit of earthy texture to go with the walnuts. The finish is a stud of glorious salinity, you can almost crunch a couple of sea salt crystals between your molars. It makes it super-refreshing.
CHÂTEAU-CHALON 1999, BERTHET-BONDET (Jura, France)
Jean and Chantal Berthet-Bondet have always seemed very much a team. Jean wasn’t from a wine family. He shares a passion with me, Nepal, in that he worked there, volunteering, before finding his métier back in France in the early 1980s at Domaine Macle. Jean and Chantal set up their own domaine with just 3 ha of vines in 1984, though they have since grown this to 11 ha. The old vaulted cellar for Château-Chalon ageing at their home on Rue de la Tour dates back to the sixteenth century.
Berthet-Bondet Château-Chalon has a reputation for being one of the most elegant around, no doubt assisted in great part by the dry and airy cellar conditions (damp cellaring or a warm loft often leads to a fuller style of “Vin Jaune”). The bouquet is lifted with scents of citrus, Indian spices and a hint of malt whisky cask (definitely not used). I’d not call it light (as some VJ wines can be), more “refined”. This current bottle has sufficient age to it that its complexity shows through, with honey, lemon linctus, walnut and hazelnut on the palate. Whilst it will certainly age further, its elegance makes it highly enjoyable now.
The caveat is that almost all of the Vin Jaune/Château-Chalon wines the likes of you and I are likely to drink should be opened preferably twelve hours or more before consumption, and drunk at room temperature (unless you are blasting out the central heating or have the wood burner on full).
CAPOVILLA SATURNO PEACH GRAPPA
The choice for ending the evening, and in fact the weekend, was either my old favourite, Monsieur Roulot’s “Abricot”, or this. It just seemed like the purity of a fine Grappa was the right way to go. Capovilla was only founded in the mid 1980s but their reputation for making very fine distillates completely knocks on the head the yawn-inducing notion that grappa is some sort of rough drink for the unsophisticated.
This Distillato di Pesche Saturno (those flat peaches) is twice distilled in a copper still, only the heart being used. For grappa the pure peach fruit here will almost shock you, and the 41% alcohol (brought down by cutting with spring water) won’t, it being very refined. There’s a sweetness, countered with a more bitter dried citrus peel edge. It’s a grappa that far from giving me a headache seemed to wake me up at the end of a satisfyingly big meal. I slept like a log. You could probably drink this until death ensued, not advisable, obviously, but it’s that good. I’ve seen it retail in London for £85/500 ml. Worth every penny for grappa fans. Imported by Astrum, I believe.